Conn Smythe Watch: Counting down the MVP leaders as Stanley Cup Final begins

Sports

Either the Vegas Golden Knights or the Florida Panthers will win the Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history to end this remarkable NHL postseason. But which one of their players will be crowned as the most valuable player?

Welcome to the final Conn Smythe Watch of the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Keep in mind that in the NHL, the playoff MVP is based on a player’s performance during the entire postseason, not just the championship round. The award is voted on by an 18-person panel of Professional Hockey Writers Association members.

We polled a dozen writers, including many who will cover the Stanley Cup Final, to get a sense of which players are leading the way for the Panthers and Knights. Needless to say, it’s a razor-thin margin at the top.

Based on the writers’ rankings, here are the top 10 candidates for MVP honors:

The narrative: “Heavy lifting early plus a critical conference final OT winner.”

The case: The Conn Smythe is an award for the totality of a player’s postseason performance. While the Knights haven’t had to rely on Stephenson much in the last nine games, it’s hard to forget the impact he had in the first eight games of the playoffs for Vegas.

The center had four straight multi-point games in their five-game series win over Winnipeg. He had the game-winner in Game 1 against the Edmonton Oilers. But let’s not overlook his biggest contribution lately: Scoring the OT winner in Game 2 over the Dallas Stars to give Vegas a 2-0 series lead, despite the Stars playing one of their best games of the series.

The narrative: “Captain who battled back from in-season back surgery to be a playoff difference-maker.”

The case: The Vegas captain has 15 points in 17 games, but has only scored in three of their last 10 games.

But Stone’s candidacy for the Conn Smythe is a bit like his annual candidacy for the Selke Trophy: The offense gets your attention, but it’s all about the defense. Stone leads all playoff skaters in takeaway (22). He’s a heart and soul player for the Knights.

The narrative: “Clutch playoff goal-scorer, including the series-ender in their epic upset over Boston.”

The case: Verhaeghe is second on the Panthers with 15 points in 16 playoff games. He’s had some pivotal moments in their Stanley Cup push: a critical third-period goal in their Game 2 upset over Boston; a second-period goal to snuff out a Toronto Maple Leafs‘ Game 1 rally; and his Game 7 overtime series-clincher to silence TD Garden, the biggest of them all.

Unfortunately for the Panthers winger, there are a few teammates at forward that are ahead of him for MVP.

The narrative: “The career Florida Panther who does a little bit of everything to lead them to the Cup.”

The case: Not many players can say they scored a goal that awed Wayne Gretzky. But that’s what Barkov did in Game 2 against the Carolina Hurricanes, faking a shot between his legs before beating goalie Antti Raanta.

“That’s one of the greatest moves I’ve seen in the Stanley Cup Playoffs,” Gretzky said on TNT.

That goal might be the calling card for the Panthers captain, but he’s done so much more for Florida. He has 14 points in 16 games, playing his usual brand of stellar two-way hockey. Barkov is second in takeaways for the playoffs. The Panthers have a .957 save percentage at 5-on-5 when he’s on the ice.

The narrative: “Original Golden Knight who scored big goals, prevented those of his opponents and welcomed a baby boy named Beckham during the playoffs.”

The case: There’s a disconnect between our voters and what I heard around the Golden Knights after Game 6 of the conference final. There’s bigger buzz outside the team for other Vegas MVP candidates; internally, it’s “Wild Bill” that has the most juice.

He leads the team with 10 goals in 16 games, including a three-point night to knock out the Stars. But what his team loves to talk about are his defensive exploits, including some outstanding work against Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in the second round that helped tip the series to the Knights at 5-on-5.

The narrative: “An injury handed him the starting job, and he fixed what might have been the Knights’ fatal flaw in the playoffs.”

The case: It’s OK to admit that you thought Vegas was going to bust when Hill replaced an injured Laurent Brossoit around 12 minutes into Game 3 against the Oilers. After all, he’s Adin Hill: a career backup goalie and one of five netminders the Knights used this season.

Then he stopped all 24 shots in that game.

In 11 games this postseason, he has a .937 save percentage, a 2.07 goals-against average, two shutouts in the conference final and is third in goals saved above expected (6.4) in the playoffs. One more stellar round and this unsung hero could end up as MVP — only centers (19) have won more Conn Smythe trophies than goalies (17).

The narrative: “An original Golden Misfit leads Vegas to the Stanley Cup against the team that jettisoned him at the expansion draft.”

The case: The Vegas forward is second on the team in goals (nine) and points (17) in 17 games. The Knights have a .961 save percentage when he’s on the ice. They feed off his energy and tenacity, just like they did when Marchessault and the original misfits went to the Stanley Cup Final in 2018, when he had 21 points in 20 games.

Marchessault told me he’s still surprised that the Panthers traded him in 2017 so that Vegas would select teammate Reilly Smith in the expansion draft. While he claims he doesn’t still have a chip on his shoulder from that, one assumes he’d relish the irony of defeating Florida for his first Cup.

The narrative: “Jack Eichel has never played in a postseason in which his team didn’t win the Stanley Cup.”

The case: After eight seasons, 476 regular-season games and career-altering surgery, Eichel finally reached the Stanley Cup Playoffs and is playing some of the most impactful hockey of his life.

Eichel has 18 points to lead the Knights. He’s been consistent, with points in 11 of 17 games. He had two three-point games against McDavid — drafted ahead of him in 2015 — and the Oilers. He had points in four of six games in the conference final. He’s played with a stark velocity in the playoffs: His puck-hounding defense has been revelatory for those who had already made up their minds about the player Eichel was.

The player Eichel is, according to our voters: The Golden Knights’ front-runner for the Conn Smythe, should they win the Cup.

The narrative: “Playoff Bob leads the Panthers to their first Stanley Cup, wins MVP and solidifies a Hockey Hall of Fame case.”

The case: Bobrovsky wasn’t the reason the Panthers beat the Boston Bruins. He played well enough and won two games on the road, but he was still finding his groove after last playing on March 27.

He was the reason they beat the Maple Leafs, stopping 69 of 73 shots in Games 1 and 2, and not allowing more than two goals in any of the five games. He made 50 saves in Game 5 to eliminate the Leafs.

He made 63 saves to win Game 1 against the Hurricanes in quadruple overtime. By the end of the Eastern Conference final, he posted a .966 save percentage and daggered the Canes with a Game 3 shutout. Bobrovsky was one of only two players that received first-place votes on our writers’ ballots. It’s just that the other guy was listed first on one more ballot than Bobrovsky was.

The narrative: “A star is born.”

The case: In any other postseason, a goaltender with a .935 save percentage and an 11-2 record wins the Conn Smythe if his team wins the Cup. That Tkachuk has a slim lead in our poll underscores what a force of nature he’s been in the Panthers’ run through the Eastern Conference.

He leads the Panthers with nine goals, four of them game-winners. He leads the team with 21 points, six more than any other player. He had 11 points against the Bruins in their first-round shocker, including the goal that started it all: Overtime in Game 5, facing elimination. He assisted on Verhaeghe’s series-clincher, too. He was quieter against the Maple Leafs with five points, but three of them came in their statement Game 1 win. But in the Eastern Conference final, it was the Tkachuk show: Ending the sixth-longest NHL game of all-time with a quadruple overtime goal in Game 1; following that up with an overtime winner in Game 2; and then following that up with the power-play goal that ended the series with five seconds left in regulation in Game 4.

His swagger has defined the upstart Cats. Those 11 points against Boston came after he said it would be a miracle if they even won a game in the series. “I don’t even know if ‘underdog’ is a right phrase for us right now, going against that talent and everything they’ve done this year,” he said. Talk about motivation. Factor in those goal celebrations and those Tkachukian moments of agitation, and he’s been the engine for the Panthers’ race to the Final.

Again, it’s razor thin between Tkachuk and Bobrovsky for the Conn Smythe — basically a toss-up. But it’s an award the writers help determine. And right now, there’s no better story in the NHL than Matthew Tkachuk being traded to Florida last summer, becoming the face of the franchise this season, and ascending to another level of sports celebrity this postseason in leading them to their first championship.


Gone but not forgotten

Sebastian Aho, C, Hurricanes
Brent Burns, D, Hurricanes
Miro Heiskanen, D, Stars
Roope Hintz, C, Stars
Jake Oettinger, G, Stars
Joe Pavelski, C, Stars
Jason Robertson, RW, Stars
Jaccob Slavin, D, Hurricanes

Thanks for the memories, dear runners-up.

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