Ranking the Top Conn Smythe Candidates After Round 1 of 2014 NHL Playoffs

Jonathan Willis@jonathanwillisNHL National ColumnistMay 1, 2014

Ranking the Top Conn Smythe Candidates After Round 1 of 2014 NHL Playoffs

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    There is no better way to establish a reputation as a clutch playoff performer than to come away with the Conn Smythe Trophy as the postseason MVP when all is said and done. Four of the last five winners—Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews in Chicago, Jonathan Quick in L.A. and Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh—are still alive in the postseason, and countless others have put in creditable performances through the first round.

    Who would win the award if voting were held right now? To answer that question, we assembled our panel: Adrian Dater, Dave Lozo, Steve Macfarlane, Allan Mitchell, Lyle Richardson, Rob Vollman and myself. The experts each produced a top-15 list, and from those individual ballots we have compiled an ordered list of candidates.

    Read on to see who, based on their first-round performance, looks deserving of the title of playoff MVP. 

15. P.K. Subban, Montreal Canadiens

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    By the numbers: Four games played, zero goals, five points, plus-two

    Performance to date: Subban averaged better than 26 minutes per game on the Montreal blue line in the Habs' first-round sweep of Tampa Bay, and the ice was tilted in the Canadiens' favour when he was out there, with Montreal taking better than 55 percent of the shots at even strength. 

    Beyond the first round: Subban, who won the Norris Trophy last season as the NHL's best defenceman, is certainly a viable candidate to be his team's MVP. The question is whether Montreal will survive a very tough second-round matchup against the Boston Bruins. 

14. Martin St. Louis, New York Rangers

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    By the numbers: Seven games played, two goals, six points, even

    Performance to date: For it was an awfully grim final month of the regular season for St. Louis, who came over to New York from Tampa Bay with high expectations. Stuck at 29 goals seemingly forever, St. Louis scored only once in 19 games for the Rangers, finally hitting the 30-goal mark. He's already doubled his New York goal totals in this postseason and is presently tied for the team scoring lead. 

    Beyond the first round: St. Louis didn't win the Conn Smythe with Tampa Bay in 2004 but he did score at better than a point-per-game pace for that team and has always had remarkable playoff statistics. He's getting an offensive push from Alain Vigneault and New York's second-round opponent is a beatable Penguins team. 

13. Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins

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    By the numbers: Five games played, one goal, five points, even

    Performance to date: Bergeron's scoring totals are fine (if power-play dependent) but his underlying numbers are truly exceptional. The Bruins took more than 55 percent of the shots when Bergeron was on the ice, despite the fact that he took on tough opponents and that two thirds of his non-neutral zone shifts started at his own end of the rink.

    Incredibly, Boston went 0-for-22 on shot conversion when Bergeron was on the ice, but that will turn around and when it does his even-strength scoring will come on. 

    Beyond the first round: Bergeron's a brilliant and complete player on an excellent team, but even assuming the Bruins push their way through to the finals there's a very real risk of him being overshadowed by other players on the club. 

12. Brendan Gallagher, Montreal Canadiens

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    By the numbers: Four games played, three goals, five points, plus-one

    Performance to date: It's easy to overlook Montreal players in these rankings because they only got to play four games, but they shouldn't be punished for their team's dominance. Gallagher was particularly effective, leading the team in scoring and posting robust underlying numbers

    Beyond the first round: Gallagher is going to have trouble scoring enough to earn consideration as the playoffs press on. He's on the second power-play unit and gets less ice time than established stars like Max Pacioretty and Thomas Vanek on his own team. 

11. Paul Martin, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    By the numbers: Six games played, zero goals, eight points, plus-seven

    Performance to date: Martin's numbers are incredible. He's tied for the team scoring lead with eight points (two of them shorthanded), and he has a marvelous plus-seven rating (tied for first in the NHL). He's played more than 27 minutes per game for the Pens, carrying the load in all situations.  

    Beyond the first round: Martin's an exceptional player, but some of those totals are just too good to be true. For example, at five-on-five the Pens have a 0.974 save percentage when he's on the ice; during the regular season that figure sat at 0.891. 

10. Corey Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks

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    By the numbers: Four wins, two losses, 0.935 save percentage, one shutout


    Performance to date: Crawford has had mixed reviews for his playoff performances in the past, but he looked fantastic in the first round. There were times when the St. Louis Blues were throwing everything but the kitchen sink at an overwhelmed Blackhawks team, and he held them in those games. Moreover, he clearly outdueled the Blues' Ryan Miller, who cracked under the onslaught when the situation shifted. 

    Beyond the first round: It's easy to underrate Crawford. Last year in the Stanley Cup Final, his glove hand was a major story—the Toronto Star described it as "AWOL", NESN said that Boston "absolutely abused" it and NHL.com ran a long piece of analysis explaining why the Bruins were targeting his weak point.

    Crawford, meanwhile, posted a 0.920-or-better save percentage in five of Chicago's six games against Boston and finished the postseason with a 0.932 save percentage and a Stanley Cup ring. 

9. Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings

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    By the numbers: Seven games played, one goal, seven points, plus-two

    Performance to date: There's a secret that people who didn't closely watch the series between Los Angeles and San Jose are likely to miss: The Kings' suddenly potent offence was primarily generated off the rush. Sharks coach Todd McLellan alluded to that fact in his post-series press availability, and a simple review of the goals scored makes it obvious to any observer.

    Doughty, with his incredible ability to turn an opponent's rush into a jailbreak the other way, was arguably the most important piece to the puzzle for the Kings. 

    Beyond the first round: The Kings are by no means assured of a long playoff run. The team took seven games to beat San Jose, faces Anaheim in the second round and then will probably see Chicago in the conference final if all goes well. Even if they do advance, Doughty will have to contend for attention with star centre Anze Kopitar and 2012 Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Quick. 

8. Ryan Getzlaf, Anaheim Ducks

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    By the numbers: Five games played, three goals, seven points, plus-three

    Performance to date: Ryan Getzlaf wasn't slowed at all by an "upper-body injury" after being hit in the face by a slap shot; instead he was the dominant force for the Ducks as they eliminated Dallas in six games. Getzlaf played in all situations, picked up points in all three disciplines and led his club in scoring. 

    Beyond the first round: If the Ducks do go on a lengthy postseason run, it will likely be on the backs of the duo of Getzlaf and Corey Perry. Getzlaf, as a centre, impacts more of the game and he's coming off a year in which he was the best forward in the Western Conference. 

7. Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings

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    By the numbers: Seven games played, four goals, 10 points, plus-three

    Performance to date: Kopitar recorded points in every single game of his team's first round series against San Jose, including during the 0-3 start. His two points in Game 7 moved him into a tie for the overall NHL scoring lead in the postseason. He did all this while playing an intense two-way game. 

    Beyond the first round: The Kings, despite a difficult regular season, are a legitimate Cup contender and Kopitar is the clear leader of their forward corps. Los Angeles is marvelously deep and blessed with all kinds of supporting talents, but Kopitar is the No. 1 centre who carries the heaviest burden. 

6. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche

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    By the numbers: Seven games played, two goals, 10 points, plus-two

    Performance to date: MacKinnon, who doesn't turn 19 until September, capped off a stellar rookie campaign with a brilliant performance in the playoffs, one that has him in a four-way tie for the NHL scoring lead. 

    If there is a critique, it was streakiness. In three games, MacKinnon posted 10 points, 10 shots and a plus-seven rating; in the other four (all Colorado losses) he was held pointless, went minus-five and had just eight shots.

    Beyond the first round: MacKinnon and the rest of the Avs have a long summer ahead of them now, albeit one softened somewhat by the strides the team made this year in the NHL standings. MacKinnon himself has nothing to be ashamed of; at an incredibly young age the 2013 first overall pick made his mark in the majors and established himself as a star in the making. 

5. Zach Parise, Minnesota Wild

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    By the numbers: Seven games played, three goals, 10 points, even

    Performance to date: A vital part of Minnesota's upset win over Colorado, Parise shares a part of the NHL scoring lead with Anze Kopitar (discussed in the previous slide) and two eliminated Avs. His 27 shots on net in the first round is good for fourth in the NHL, and he averaged a (frankly ridiculous) 21:01 per game. 

    Beyond the first round: Parise is unquestionably the Wild's offensive leader. But Minnesota is a decided long shot to go deep into the postseason. The Wild have to wade through a very tough Western Conference, starting with the defending champions in the second round, and unless they can engineer a major upset, Parise won't be around long enough to get serious consideration for the Conn Smythe. 

4. Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    By the numbers: Six games played, three goals, seven points, plus-one

    Performance to date: Five games into the postseason, Malkin probably would not have cracked this list. But that was before Monday's Game 6, where Malkin scored three times in the 4-3 victory that knocked Columbus out of the postseason. 

    Even when he wasn't scoring, Malkin was playing well though. Over the course of the first round, the Pens had a three-to-two edge in shots with him on the ice (among Penguins, only Crosby was better). 

    Beyond the first round: The 2009 Conn Smythe winner is certainly a good-enough player to be named playoff MVP. The two questions for him are whether the Pens' defence and goaltending will be strong enough to allow the team to advance, and whether he's outshined by teammate Sidney Crosby over a lengthy postseason run.

3. Duncan Keith, Chicago Blackhawks

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    By the numbers: Six games played, two goals, seven points, plus-five

    Performance to date: Keith, as he has for years, played the most important minutes on Chicago's back end in the first round, averaging just nine seconds short of 30:00 per game and tilting the ice in his team's favour whenever he was out there. He even did it while lugging around Sheldon Brookbank as his partner during Brent Seabrook's suspension. 

    Beyond the first round: This year's probable Norris Trophy winner will be a key figure at both ends of the ice for the Blackhawks, who should probably be considered either the favourite to win the Stanley Cup or close to it. The trouble comes from playing on the same team as people like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane; it's hard to get noticed amid all the all-world talent Chicago possesses. 

2. Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks

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    By the numbers: Six games played, three goals, seven points, plus-four

    Performance to date: Toews hasn't hurt his reputation as a clutch performer in these playoffs. Not only does he lead the Blackhawks with seven points (tied with Duncan Keith) but he scored the game-winner in three of the team's four first-round victories. 

    Beyond the first round: The Blackhawks, who have won the Cup twice in the last four years, are legitimate contenders. Toews, who won the Conn Smythe in 2010, might well add a second to his collection if his team goes all the way. 

1. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins

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    By the numbers: Four wins, one loss, 0.961 save percentage, one shutout

    Performance to date: Detroit never managed more than two goals in a game, and while Boston's strong play was part of that, Rask was brilliant throughout the series. His worst performance statistically was his 0.939 save-percentage night in the decisive Game 5; for the sake of comparison that total would tie him for first among NHL starters if it was his average number.   

    Beyond the first round: Winning the Conn Smythe requires a brilliant run of play from an exceptional athlete on a superb team. 

    As we've seen, Rask's first-round performance was exemplary. The Boston Bruins are probably the best team in the Eastern Conference, and their defence has supported him well. Rask himself has a long and brilliant track record and is coming off a regular season that will probably win him the Vezina.

    He could well have some staying power in this race. 

    Statistics courtesy of ExtraSkater.com and NHL.com.