As fans and pundits alike continue to debate the merits of each candidate for end of season awards, another individual honor is far from decided. But the battle for the Conn Smythe Trophy — as well as some other shiny silver thing called the Stanley Cup — will begin on Wednesday when the first round of the post-season begins.
With that in mind, which player from each post-season bound team has what it takes to take home playoff MVP honors?
ANAHEIM DUCKS: There are concerns about his health, but if John Gibson is ready to rock come Game 1 of the post-season, no one should put it past the Ducks netminder to go on the kind of run that steals a series or two for Anaheim. Of the 31 goaltenders to suit up in at least 41 games this past season, Gibson’s .926 save percentage was the fourth-best in the NHL and he only got better as the campaign went on. If that was him starting his trajectory and he peaks in the playoffs, he could backstop the Ducks to success.
BOSTON BRUINS: Patrice Bergeron is an obvious choice and David Pastrnak could put a stamp on his career year with a big playoff, but there would be something so delightfully evil about Brad Marchand grinning as he holds the Conn Smythe. Outside of Boston, there may be no love lost for Marchand, but his skill level is absolutely undeniable. He scored 34 goals and 85 points this season, matching last season’s career-best in 12 fewer games played. He’s not going to shy away from anything in the playoffs and he could be the MVP not just for his offense, but for getting under the skin of the opposition.
COLORADO AVALANCHE: Taylor Hall’s late charge in the scoring race might knock Nathan MacKinnon out of top spot in the Hart Trophy race, but if the Avalanche pull off a miraculous run and win the Stanley Cup, you can rest assured that such a run will have been authored by Colorado’s star center. MacKinnon has elevated his game to another level this season, and his pure scoring ability is going to make him a nightmare for even the best defenders. Fail to contain MacKinnon and you fail to contain the Avalanche, and that’s exactly why MacKinnon is the most likely to win the Conn Smythe out of an unlikely bunch.
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS:Artemi Panarin might be the easy choice, but he’s also the right one. Seth Jones, Zach Werenski and Sergei Bobrovsky will all play important roles if the Blue Jackets make any noise during the post-season, but it’s Panarin who is the biggest threat to any opposing team. His 27 goals and 82 points during the regular season and second half dominance were one thing, but he’s also proven he can perform during crunch time. It’s a small sample, but he was a point per game player in seven games during the 2015-16 post-season and has eight points in 11 post-season outings.
LOS ANGELES KINGS: Anze Kopitar is a strong Hart Trophy candidate, but Jeff Carter could be the difference between a deep playoff run and an early playoff exit for the Kings. He was injured for much of the campaign, but Carter fired home 13 goals and 22 points in 27 games this season. Los Angeles had a 17-6-4 record, equal to a .704 points percentage, with Carter in the lineup and a 28-23-4 record when Carter was out, which is good for a .545 points percentage. That isn’t by accident. Carter can be as impactful as any player in the league when he’s on his game.
MINNESOTA WILD: The way Jason Zucker has played this season gives the impression that he could be due for a breakout on a big stage, and what better time is there to make a name for yourself league-wide than the playoffs? Zucker had a career-best 33 goals and 64 points during the regular season, and it’s his speed combined with his scoring ability that can give defenders fits. Pair him up with the red hot Eric Staal, who’s another surefire Conn Smythe candidate if Minnesota makes a run, and Zucker could nab some headlines as the post-season wears on.
NASHVILLE PREDATORS: It’s difficult for defenders to win the Conn Smythe, but P.K. Subban is going to be in the conversation if the Predators make good on a promising regular season with a return trip to the Stanley Cup final. Subban has done everything well for Nashville this season, from playing on the penalty kill, blasting pucks on the power play and dominating the possession game at five-a-side. He’s going to get big minutes, and with how spread out the Predators attack is, would anyone bet against Subban, who finished third in scoring during the regular season, compiling the most points during the post-season?
NEW JERSEY DEVILS: It’s Taylor Hall. There’s no reason to get cute and pick anyone else. Hall scored 41 more points (!) than any other Devils skater during the regular season and he’s almost singlehandedly taken over games during the regular season. Against a so-so Capitals defense, Hall could make some serious noise and it might take a true team effort to shut him down if he gets hot. Few are going to be so bold as to pick New Jersey to win the Cup, but if they somehow make a run to the final, they will do so on the ever-broadening shoulders of Hall.
PHILADELPHIA FLYERS: Claude Giroux is going to be integral to the Flyers’ Cup hopes and Jakub Voracek is going to need to be excellent if Philadelphia wants to make a run of it, but Sean Couturier has all the attributes necessary to be a sneaky Conn Smythe contender. His two-way play is among the very best in the league and he’s an all situations player who make opponents pay at a moment’s notice. Couturier is also in the midst of the best pro season of his career and can play triggerman for Giroux and Voracek.
PITTSBURGH PENGUINS:Phil Kessel has to get his due at some point, and it could very well be this coming post-season. The stunning second half performance from Evgeni Malkin overshadowed arguably the most spectacular season of Kessel’s career, as he set a career high with 92 points and hit the 30-goal plateau for the sixth time in his 12 NHL campaigns. There are also few players that have been as good in the post-season as Kessel since he made his debut. Only nine players who have played at least 50 playoff games in the post-lockout have a higher points per game than Kessel, who has scored .93 points per game in the post-season.
SAN JOSE SHARKS: There’s something about Evander Kane’s game — maybe it’s his speed, shot or his unwillingness to back down — that makes him seem like a player built for the post-season. It’s not an entirely out-of-left-field choice for a Conn Smythe winner, either. Sure, he’ll be appearing in the playoffs for the first time in his nearly 600-game career, but Kane joined the Sharks at the deadline and proceeded to score nine goals and 14 points in 17 games. With more minutes and a style of hockey that may be more suited to his power-forward play style, Kane could be a big-time difference maker for San Jose.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING: If the Lightning would have defeated the Blackhawks in 2014-15, Tyler Johnson likely would have won the Conn Smythe. So, as Tampa Bay gets set to being what should be another deep run, it makes sense to lean towards another young, secondary scorer who can steal the spotlight from a star-studded cast. For that, we look to Brayden Point. Outside of Tampa Bay, Point hasn’t gotten the credit he’s deserved for a standout season. He scored 32 goals — more than all of his teammates save Nikita Kucherov — and 66 points during the campaign and fired home a dozen game-winning goals.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS: It’s not too soon to suggest that a Maple Leafs Stanley Cup would come complete with an Auston Matthews Conn Smythe victory, right? The award’s history suggests that a team’s top scorer or top-line center is a safe bet. Matthews stands to be both, particularly if Toronto is going to make a push for their first Stanley Cup in more than 50 years. He needed just 62 games to score 34 goals and 63 points, and coach Mike Babcock leaning on Matthews harder than any other forward gives reason to believe the young pivot could see an easy 20-plus minutes per night in the post-season.
VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS: Eventually, William Karlsson’s luck has to run out. Thing is, eventually doesn’t have to mean in the immediate future. Karlsson has had a stunning campaign that came complete with 43 goals and a league-leading 23.4 shooting percentage. It was the most literal version of shooting out the lights the league has seen in some time. And given Karlsson, even when it seemed he was set to slow down, continued to score at a torrid pace, there seems to be a good chance he can keep it going through the playoffs. The post-lockout playoff goal record is 15, but if Vegas goes deep, you get the sense Karlsson is going to flirt with that mark.
WASHINGTON CAPITALS: He’s tied for 10th in points per game and no player has more goals per game with at least 50 post-season games played in the post-lockout era than Alex Ovechkin, and there would be no better way for arguably the greatest goal scorer in NHL history to finally quiet his ‘No Cup’ critics than by blasting Washington to post-season glory and capturing the Conn Smythe in the process. The Capitals aren’t favorites this time around and underdog status, if you can call it that, might be a good look on Washington.
WINNIPEG JETS: Blake Wheeler will stop at nothing to win, Patrik Laine is likely to wire home a few must-see goals and the overall defensive depth of the Jets could be an all-important facet to Winnipeg’s playoff success. If we had to bet on a Conn Smythe winner, though, we’re going to bet on Mark Scheifele. A point per game player during the regular season, Scheifele has seemingly gotten better with each successive game he’s played in the NHL, and an appearance on the post-season stage could see him take his game to another level. He has the smarts and skill to make magic all over the ice.
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.