Jim Neveau, NHL Correspondent
If you were to peruse articles on the history of the Conn Smythe Trophy, you would see the list of winners and see that it’s a veritable “Who’s Who” of hockey history. Hall of Fame players like Bobby Orr, Guy Lafleur, Wayne Gretzky, and Mario Lemieux have all hoisted the award, which is unique in that it is given to the player who is the MVP of his team for the playoffs, as opposed to just the final series as is the case in the other three major sports. The Smythe is the ultimate validation for a player’s playoff performance, and it is certainly a tremendous honor to be chosen for the award.
The two teams in this season’s Stanley Cup Final have a slew of players that could emerge as the winner should their team hoist the Cup. They play all manner of positions, and each has made a unique contribution to their team’s ability to win the 12 games required to get to this point.
Without further adieu, here are the top contenders from each team that could take home the hardware as playoff MVP when the NHL season concludes within the next few weeks.
Patrice Bergeron, Center
Arguably the Bruin that has shown the most perseverance in this playoff run, Bergeron has scored four goals and dished out 11 assists in 16 games so far. Even while missing the first two games of the conference finals with a concussion, Bergeron has still had a huge impact for the Bruins, winning 62.3% of his face-offs and eating up nearly 20 minutes per game of ice time. When you add in his solid defense, you have a recipe for a surefire contender for the Smythe.
Nathan Horton, Right Wing
After a seven year absence from the playoffs, Horton has had a real good run this season for the Bruins. He has 17 points (8 G, 9A) in 18 games, and he has stepped up in clutch moments as well, scoring the game-winning goal in the team’s two Game 7’s. While he also gained some notoriety for squirting a fan with a water bottle after Game 6 in Tampa Bay, his play on the ice has definitely spoken for itself. The B’s will need a huge series from him to beat the Canucks.
David Krejci, Center
With 10 goals in the playoffs, Krejci is the team’s leading scorer, but his inconsistency makes him a bit of an outsider for the Smythe. He only had one point in the seven-game series against Montreal to open the playoffs, and aside from his three goal outburst in a losing effort against the Lightning in Game 6, he looked largely ineffective in that series as well. Nonetheless, Krejci is capable of carrying this team, as evidenced by his nine point outburst in the team’s sweep of the Flyers. It would take a very good Cup Final for him to win.
Tim Thomas, Goalie
Long-considered the favorite for the Vezina, Thomas has maintained his solid play into this postseason. He is allowing 2.29 goals per contest, and his save percentage of .929% is impressive as well. His lack of consistency in the conference finals could come into play in the voting (he allowed four or more goals four times, and allowed one goal total in the other three games), but he still will get plenty of consideration for the Smythe.
And the Favorite Is….
Hockey Prospectus considers Thomas to be the favorite to win the Smythe by a mile over Ryan Kesler, and even if the Canucks win the series there’s still the possibility that Thomas could become the first player since Jean-Sebastien Giguere in 2003 to win the Smythe for a losing team. That being said, Bergeron has gotten a lot of well-deserved praise for his play and toughness, and Horton’s story is intriguing as well. Even with those factors, Thomas still should be considered the favorite, but not by a lot.
Kevin Bieksa, Defenseman
In these playoffs, the play that Bieksa is best known for is certainly his knuckle-puck game winner against the San Jose Sharks that sent the Canucks to their first Final since 1994, but his play outside of that has been outstanding. He has scored five goals on only 21 shots in these playoffs, and he is leading the team with an ATOI of 25:57. He is also a +10, which is remarkable considering how much time he’s spent on the ice. His inability to stay out of the penalty box is a concern, but his play outside of that has certainly made him worthy of consideration.
Ryan Kesler, Center
Given that he had a breakthrough season, it isn’t surprising that Kesler is one of the Canucks’ best offensive performers in these playoffs. He has 18 points (7 G, 11 A) in the team’s 18 games, and while 12 of those came in the six games against Nashville, he has done all the little things to help Vancouver get to this point. He will need to bring his A-game on both sides of the puck if the Canucks are to win the Cup.
Roberto Luongo, Goalie
Throughout the NHL (with the possible exception of Joe Thornton), no player has gotten more grief over his supposed inability to step up during the playoffs than Roberto Luongo. This postseason, Luongo has gone from being benched in the Chicago series to a crucial component of his team’s victory against the Sharks in the conference finals. Luongo stopped 54 shots in his team’s double-OT win to clinch a berth in the Cup Finals, and it looks as though he might finally be able to shed the choker label for good.
Henrik Sedin, Center
Sedin had a quiet first two rounds of the playoffs, only picking up nine points in 13 games, but he absolutely exploded against the Sharks in the conference finals, scoring a goal and dishing out 11 assists in only five games. He got the Canucks’ offense clicking against a San Jose defense that had looked pretty solid in its own right, and if he can bedevil the Bruins’ defense in that same fashion, Vancouver could be celebrating their first ever Stanley Cup victory.
And the Favorite Is…
Kesler should be considered the favorite among the Canucks’ main contenders, but it’s hard to pick against Luongo’s rise from the ashes in these playoffs. Bieksa and Sedin both have legitimate cases as well, but with his penchant for playing well on both sides of the puck, Kesler is the guy going into this series with the best chance to bring the Smythe home for Vancouver.