The Conn Smythe Trophy won't be voted upon until minutes before the Stanley Cup is clinched in June, but it's never too early to make a good impression.
The conference finals are just underway, but already seven players have emerged as top contenders to be named as the MVP of the 2016 playoffs:
Victor Hedman, D, Lightning
After a solid but unspectacular first round, Hedman was dominant in Tampa Bay's second-round win over the Islanders. He ragdolled John Tavares, holding the Islanders superstar scoreless during the final four games while posting a series-high eight points (four goals, four assists) to pace the Lightning attack.
Hedman got off on the right foot in the Eastern finals, sending a splendiferous stretch pass to Alex Killorn for the Lightning's first goal in Game 1, while turning Tampa's defensive end into a no-fly zone with his massive wing span and flawless positioning. He's the ultimate shutdown weapon in these playoffs.
Alex Pietrangelo, D, Blues
He doesn't have the dazzling numbers that make the candidacy of some players so obvious except for one. Pietrangelo has skated a ton in the postseason, averaging 29:24 per game, tops among all active players. He's out there in all situations, but has primarily been tasked with slowing down the opposition's top forward line. So far, he's come out on top against Chicago's Jonathan Toews and Dallas's Jamie Benn, a result which doesn't bode well for another player on this list.
At this point, is there any doubt he's earned one of the final three spots on Team Canada's blueline for the World Cup?
Nikita Kucherov, RW, Lightning
With Steven Stamkos out of the lineup, Kucherov has stepped up as Tampa's go-to offensive weapon. His speed and heavy shot make him dangerous off the rush, and his knack for gaining space and getting the puck off his stick in a hurry makes him lethal down low. Almost Stamkos-esque ...
Kucherov has scored nine goals in just 11 games, accounting for more than a quarter of his team's offense so far. And he's not lighting it up in garbage time. Six of those goals have either tied the game or given the Bolts the lead.
Joe Pavelski, RW, Sharks
The Sharks have won eight games in the playoffs. Pavelski has gotten on the board in each on of them. You do the math.
The captain has been San Jose's most consistent, and most effective postseason weapon. His nine goals are tied with Kucherov for the league lead. He's scored the game-winner in three of his team's eight victories. He creates chances at will, picking apart lanes and using his ability to find dead space to make himself available for a quick shot. And after watching his hands in these playoffs, is there any doubt he's the premier puck-tipper in the game?
Brian Elliott, G, Blues
If there's still some reluctance to recognize Elliott as a world-class netminder, these playoffs should put that to bed. The veteran has been superb this spring, turning in 14 starts so glaringly brilliant that you can forget the two that weren't.
He's stolen a few along the way, including the opener of the Western Conference Finals, a game during which his teammates seemed content to rope-a-dope their way through 60 minutes and count on Elliott to pull them through. Fortunately for the Blues, that's exactly what he did.
Elliott's already won a pair of Game 7s this spring, knocking off the defending Stanley Cup champion and the West's regular season champ, and he stopped 62 of the 65 shots he faced in the process for a .954 save percentage. He's bringing his best when his team needs him most. That's the definition of a playoff MVP.
Brent Burns, D, Sharks
Burns is like a cartoon character in that everything he does is exaggerated. There are no little plays when he's involved. It's always something big. And that flair for the dramatic, well, it's bound to catch the eyes of voters.
It hasn't been a perfect playoffs—he was a bit careless with the puck in San Jose's Game 1 loss in the WCF—but pretty close. He's registered 16 points so far, second only to teammate Logan Couture, and leads the league in helpers with 12. He also powers the league's top-rated power play, chipping in seven points while making it hum from the blue line.
Kris Letang, D, Penguins
After being overlooked in the battle for the Norris Trophy, Letang is making a strong case for the Smythe. He's the engine that makes the Penguins' offense hum, sparking their transition game with his speed and precision passing. And under the guidance of coach Mike Sullivan, his two-way game has evolved to the point that he's capable of shutting down top players. He was brilliant in that capacity against Washington, and a key reason for Alex Ovechkin's limited success. If he can do the same to Kucherov in this series, he becomes a top contender for the award.