The Hart Trophy debate is over. So is the Norris Trophy conversation, the Vezina Trophy discussion and the annual Selke Trophy argument. Reason being is that once the regular season ends, there’s really not much left to discuss. These votes are decided now, and what happens beyond Game 82 of the campaign will have no bearing on who wins the NHL’s pieces of individual hardware.
That is, of course, except for the Conn Smythe Trophy, the lone individual award that players will still do battle for in the coming weeks. But with the post-season set to begin Wednesday night – and not a minute too soon – who are the likeliest contenders from each playoff-bound club? Is it a top-scoring center? How about a playmaking winger? Or what about a game-stealing goaltender or a steady defenseman? Over the next several weeks, the field will be narrowed as the post-season competition is pared down to its final two teams, and at that time, the real frontrunners will emerge.
Looking into our crystal ball, though, who could hoist the Conn Smythe this season? Here’s one pick from each Cup contender:
Boston Bruins: Doesn’t it just feel as though Patrice Bergeron was built to become a post-season MVP? Everything about his game screams Conn Smythe winner, and it helps that he centers one of the best lines in hockey and a unit that will have to be dominant if the Bruins are to win their way to a second Stanley Cup in the post-lockout era. Bergeron will draw all the tough minutes and he’s proven he can excel under those circumstances. He was in the conversation when the Bruins won the Cup in 2011, but that honor went to goaltender Tim Thomas.
Calgary Flames: Johnny Gaudreau would be a great pick. As would Sean Monahan or Elias Lindholm. Matthew Tkachuk has been great this season, and Mike Smith, though not likely to be the Game 1 starter, has a history of single-handedly guiding a team through the post-season. The pick here, though? Mark Giordano, who has been dynamite offensively and a defensive stalwart all season. The Norris Trophy frontrunner has what it takes to be the first defenseman since Duncan Keith and the second in the post-lockout era to be named playoff MVP if Calgary wins the Cup.
Carolina Hurricanes: He’s not an off-the-board pick, necessarily, but while Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen are likely considered the odds-on favorites if Carolina stuns the hockey world with a trip to the Stanley Cup final, Justin Williams has some history with the award and a long history with performing in the post-season. After all, you don’t get the ‘Mr. Game 7’ moniker because you shrink in the spotlight. Williams has had himself a great offensive year, his 23 goals and 53 points both more than he scored during the 2013-14 season, when he won the Conn Smythe as a member of the Cup-winning Los Angeles Kings.
Colorado Avalanche: It has to be Nathan MacKinnon. So close to becoming the Hart Trophy winner last season and with oodles of offensive ability, as goes MacKinnon in the post-season, so, too, will go the Avalanche. And MacKinnon has a history of showing up when the games matter most. Though none of his Colorado clubs have advanced beyond the first round, MacKinnon has five goals and 16 points in 13 playoff games, including an overtime winner during the 2014 first-round battle against the Minnesota Wild.
Columbus Blue Jackets:Sergei Bobrovsky has playoff demons. Big, scary, ugly ones. The only way to get past those, though, is by showing up in the post-season, and few netminders have had a better run up to the post-season than Bobrovsky, who went 10-5-0 with a .933 save percentage and four shutouts across the final five weeks of the campaign. The Blue Jackets’ playoff success will be built upon Bobrovsky’s play, particularly with Columbus drawing the Tampa Bay Lightning in the opening round. If the netminders stands on his head, the Blue Jackets can live to see the second round for the first time in franchise history.
Dallas Stars: In 36 career playoff games, Ben Bishop has a career .927 SP, five shutouts and a 21-13-0 record. Yes, all of that came behind an uber-talented Lightning team. No, that doesn’t mean he can’t do it again. Bishop, a surefire Vezina Trophy finalist, has flourished behind this iteration of the Dallas defense. Though he’s just returning to action after missing the stretch run with a lower-body ailment, Bishop has the game-stealing qualities that can guide the Stars to the promised land.
Nashville Predators: No one would argue with a Filip Forsberg or Roman Josi pick, but Viktor Arvidsson had arguably the best season of any Predator this campaign. The only issue is that Arvidsson, who finished the season with 34 goals and 48 points, missed a quarter of the campaign. Even still, he set the franchise’s single-season goals record and boasted the best points per game of all Nashville players. He’s a sneaky and effective scorer who can get hurt the opposition at any strength, and he might just be the Predators’ secret weapon.
New York Islanders: It’s all about the goaltenders in New York, and while Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss have near identical numbers, we’re going to give the nod to Lehner. Why? Well, Lehner has carried the load as a starter previously and there’s value in that. Additionally, his regular season numbers were ever-so-slightly better than Greiss’ already impressive marks. Despite the success other Islanders might have – Mat Barzal, Jordan Eberle and even Nick Leddy could be candidates here – it’s the goaltending, led by Lehner, that will be the backbone of any post-season success.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Sometimes, the easy choice is the right one, hence why we’ll go ahead and list Sidney Crosby as the Penguins’ best bet to win the Conn Smythe. There are few players in the league who can take over a game quite like Crosby, and this season he has further proven that that means more than just the offensive side of the game. If Crosby wins another MVP, he will tie Patrick Roy and become the second player in NHL history to win the award three times.
San Jose Sharks: Let’s pretend for a minute that the Sharks got the job done against the Penguins back in 2015-16, a series which San Jose actually lost in six games. And let’s pretend for a minute that it was one of the Sharks, not a Penguin, that won the Conn Smythe. Would anyone have deserved it more than Logan Couture, who scored 10 goals and 30 points in 24 games? He is one of only 18 players to score 30 or more points in a single playoff in the past 30 years. There’s no reason to believe he can’t repeat that feat, particularly if he’s part of the winning side this time.
St. Louis Blues: Jordan Binnington comes in riding a wave of success, but Vladimir Tarasenko is built for the post-season. He’s strong, he’s fast and leave him alone for the blink of an eye and he’ll hurt you. Though defense has been the cornerstone of the Blues resurgence, he posted 27 goals and 52 points in 57 games once Craig Berube took over behind the bench and was an offensive force. Tarasenko can power this attack and when St. Louis needs offense, they’ll turn to their star.
Tampa Bay Lightning: If the Lightning are the prohibitive favorites to win the Stanley Cup, Nikita Kucherov should then be the prohibitive favorite to win the Conn Smythe. He won the scoring race by eight points, finished tied for sixth in goals, had a dozen more assists than the next-closest player and he did all of this while making every player he played with better. When you have to use the old “can’t stop him, hope to contain him” chestnut, it’s telling about how effective a player is, and for most defenders, that will be the approach with Kucherov. Just hope he doesn’t score and do your best to slow him down.
Toronto Maple Leafs:John Tavares craved post-season play, and that was part of the reason he bolted from New York and signed on with Toronto. Now it’s time for Tavares to really earn his keep. Historically, Tavares has been excellent in the post-season, a near point per game player across 24 contests in the playoffs. His best output came in 2015-16 when he scored six goals and 11 points in 11 games in the Islanders’ run into the second round. If Tavares can get lost in the playoff matchup game, he could start piling up the points.
Vegas Golden Knights:Paul Stastny centers what might just be the best second line – if you can call it that – in hockey, and Vegas saw first hand what he can do in the post-season one year ago when he was skating with the Winnipeg Jets. During those playoffs, he put up 15 points in 17 games for the Jets, and his Golden Knights-leading .84 points per game suggest that he’s found an offensive fit that gives him every opportunity to better last season’s playoff production this time around. He’s a solid, sound player, and if Vegas can capture more of last season’s magic, Stastny could be the piece that pushes the Golden Knights over the top.
Washington Capitals: To say he was robbed isn’t quite accurate, and it’s possible he doesn’t care on iota about the Conn Smythe, but Evgeny Kuznetsov should have flapped his way to the post-season MVP award last season. For as excellent as Alex Ovechkin was, it was Kuznetsov who paced the Capitals through the entire post-season and led the team with 32 points in 24 games. For context, that would be a 109-point pace during the regular season. That was proof positive that he’s a playoff performer. Now he has to go out and do it again.
Winnipeg Jets:Mark Scheifele was brilliant last spring for the Jets. His 14 goals were more than double any other Winnipeg skater and his 20 points only one fewer than the 21 accumulated by Blake Wheeler during the post-season run. The expectations are higher – much, much higher – for the Jets this time around, and if Winnipeg is going to come even close to reaching them, it will be up Scheifele to replicate last season’s performance.