The Conn Smythe Contenders

With the NHL down to its final four playoff teams, there are a handful of players who have emerged as front-runners for the Conn Smythe Trophy as postseason MVP. After having scored 25 points in 15 games, Nathan MacKinnon looked like he was going to run away with the award until his Colorado Avalanche lost in seven games to the Dallas Stars. His exit from the postseason has paved the way for other star players to receive attention for the award.

Some of the favorites listed below (in no particular order) are players who probably would not have started on a Conn Smythe prediction list prior to the playoffs. However, they are among the best players in the league who have shown enough production to support their candidacy and have favorable conditions going forward.

Brayden Point, C, Tampa Bay Lightning 

Brayden Point sits in second place with 18 points among active playoff scorers, but his real contribution to the Tampa Bay Lightning is in the form of clutch scoring. In 13 games played, Point scored 4 goals and chipped in 8 assists that either won or tied the game at that particular time. He’s peaking at the right time, too, having scored 11 points in his current six-game scoring streak.

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A major reason why he’s been so productive is that he’s an excellent stick handler. He’s among the league lead this postseason in three critical stick and puck control stats: takeaways, giveaways, and face-offs won. At even strength, Point is fourth in giveaways (four), fourth in takeaways (11), and first in face-offs won (97). His puck possession is highly trusted by the club, as evidenced by the fact that he’s been on the ice for more face-offs in the offensive zone than any forward remaining in the playoffs.

Tampa Bay Lightning Brayden Point
Tampa Bay Lightning center Brayden Point (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara, File)

The Lightning play the New York Islanders in the Eastern Conference Final (ECF). Using Fenwick for percentage (FF%) to measure how well the Lightning keep possession in their opponents’ third, it’s clear that they are vastly superior than the Islanders. Looking at FF% leaders on Natural Stat Trick, Point is one of eight Lightning skaters ranked ahead of the Isles’ best performer (Anders Lee, 57.26%). I think Point will continue to play the hero in the ECF and lead the Lightning to the Stanley Cup Final (SCF).

The Vegas Golden Knights are the favorites to win the Western Conference Final (WCF). They’re a seriously deep team, holding 12 of the top 15 FF% places, but they’re not unbeatable. They seriously lack effectiveness in front of the net, which is in Point’s wheelhouse. During the regular and postseasons, the Knights ranked in the bottom third of all teams in high-danger save percentage, and Point’s best shooting zone is 10 feet out from the net. Point has a great opportunity to set the scoring pace for the Lightning over the next two rounds, especially if he keeps coming through in close games.

Shea Theodore, D, Vegas Golden Knights 

Shea Theodore has been the most consistent scorer on the ice for the Knights thus far in the postseason. He’s scored 11 points in the past 12 games with 16 in 15 games overall, pacing the club. He’s leading all postseason defensemen with 100 minutes played in FF%, expected goals for % (xGF%), scoring chances for %, and is second in high-danger chances for % (HDCF%). Also, he’s leading the Cup-favorite Knights in several statistics. He plays on the top defender pairing and top power-play unit, leading his team in power-play points and is in second in even-strength points.

Shea Theodore #27, Vegas Golden Knights
Shea Theodore, Vegas Golden Knights (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

While these offensive highlights may capture headlines, it’s his ability to control possession that’s been his most outstanding work all season. Vegas flat out dominated the top two Vancouver Canucks lines with Theodore on the ice, averaging a 67.2 FF% at even strength against them. Without good puck possession performances from its top-six forwards, the Canucks finished the playoffs ranked 22nd in xGF% and 22nd in FF%.

Theodore’s opponent in the WCF, the Dallas Stars, is fresh off allowing eight points in seven games to another standout defenseman, Avalanche rookie sensation Cale Makar. During that series, the Avs put up better possession metrics than the Stars but lost the series due to inconsistency. Stars goalie Anton Khudobin showed flashes of greatness, and could stymie the Knights if they don’t play up to expectations.

I think Vegas’ 3-0 shutout victory in Game 7 against the Canucks was a huge bounce back for the club and should propel them out of the WCF. With the Lightning and Knights favored to advance to the SCF, Theodore will face the best competition yet. But the Knights have the speed and abundance of physicality to slow down the Lightning. Theodore might be the best two-way player left in the playoffs, and I fully expect him to keep shining regardless of the opponent.

Andrei Vasilevskiy, G, Tampa Bay Lightning

The defending Vezina Trophy winner, Vasilevskiy is leading active NHL postseason netminders with a sparkling 1.91 goals against average (GAA), 0.931 save percentage (SV%), and an era-adjusted goals saved against average (6.03). In other words, he’s the best goalie still playing. The Lightning have played two stingy defenses in the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Boston Bruins, so they’ve relied on their star keeper to keep them in the game since their high octane offense has only scored the seventh-most goals per game (2.31).

Andrei Vasilevskiy Tampa Bay Lightning
Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Vasilevskiy faced the third-most shots against of all 24 teams in the playoffs while playing in the highest percentage of games decided by two goals or less (84.6%). Incredibly, Vasilevskiy has allowed the third-fewest goals against per game (2.31). In an Aug. 29, 2020 article for the Tampa Bay Times, John Romano quoted Victor Hedman about the team’s defensive performance and provided his own critique of the club’s playoff run:

Obviously, it helps having the best goalie in the league back there making big saves for us. But as a group we’ve really come together and really focused in on the details on the defensive part of the game. We’re still going to score goals, we know that. We have all the skill in the world, so we’re super happy in the way we’ve come together in the defensive part of the game.

From ‘Who knew the Lightning could play defense like this?,’ Tampa Bay Lightning, 08/29/2020

The Lightning face the Islanders in the ECF and Vasilevskiy should expect another onslaught of shots fired in his direction. He hasn’t been strong against high-danger shots and the Islanders are third best out of all 24 playoff teams in HDCF%. But as mentioned previously, Tampa’s depth has better possession numbers than the top of the Islanders’ roster. If the Lightning win the East, then they’ll most likely face the Knights in the SCF.

There’s no question that the Knights are a juggernaut, but they’re not immune to struggling against other premier teams. One major thing going for Vasilevskiy is that even though he hasn’t been great at stopping shots close to the net, the Knights have been equally bad at scoring them. He will still get peppered with shots, but probably not from locations much different than from where he’s already seen them. Also in his favor is that the Lightning may get Steven Stamkos back for the the SCF, and an improved offense will keep shots down against Vasilevskiy.

Miro Heiskanen, D, Dallas Stars

After his Stars knocked out the Avalanche in Game 7 overtime, Heiskanen became the active leading scorer in the 2020 NHL Playoffs. He has scored 5 goals and added 16 assists for 21 points in 16 games. The Stars’ leading even-strength minutes-eater was tasked with skating with the Stars’ top opposing skaters. It was against MacKinnon (69:49) and Cale Makar (69:43) where Heiskanen saw the most ice-time in 5-on-5 situations in the Avalanche series. Heiskanen is probably the Stars’ best skater and was the only player who could stick with MacKinnon as he drove to the net.

Miro Heiskanen Dallas Stars
Miro Heiskanen, Dallas Stars (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Including the 2020 Playoffs, there have been 8 seasons in the past 25 that featured a defenseman finishing in the top 5 of scoring. However, none of those blueliners were in their sophomore NHL season like Heiskanen is, and he’s already outscored most of them. He is tied for the team-lead in scoring against the Avalanche with Stars captain Jamie Benn with nine points in seven games, and he scored at least one point in each of the series’ seven games.

However, Heiskanen might face an uphill battle to win the Conn Smythe Trophy. The Stars are facing the Knights in the WCF, and the Lightning are the favorites to represent the Eastern Conference in the SCF. Both teams are stacked with quality two-way forwards: Mark Stone, Reilly Smith, and Max Pacioretty on the Knights and Ondrej Palat, Anthony Cirelli, and Brayden Point on the Lightning. The Avalanches’ top line is not known for its two-way ability, so Heiskanen may have trouble repeating the same success going forward.

Miro Heiskanen Dallas Stars
Miro Heiskanen, Dallas Stars (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

If the Stars want to win the Stanley Cup, then they’ll need major offensive output from Heiskanen. He is the Stars’ most complete player and has played at peak form in the playoffs. With just a three-point advantage over Point, the next highest playoff scorer, Heiskanen has a target on his back and will see a lot of pressure from his opponents. Fortunately for the Stars, pressure has driven their young blueliner into the playoff scoring lead.

Robin Lehner, G, Vegas Golden Knights

Acquired by the Knights at the trade deadline this season, Lehner was brought in to shore up the backup goalie situation before entering the offseason as an unrestricted free agent. In his Feb. 25, 2020 article in the Las Vegas Sun, Justin Emerson quoted general manager Kelly McCrimmon at the press conference following the trade:

We weren’t sure with the work that we’ve done to position our team, with the work that we’ve done to build our team, we didn’t have confidence that we were as strong at that position as we needed to be. If anything ever happened to Marc-Andre Fleury, we weren’t strong enough to win playoff games if we get to that point. Those are hard decisions, but we felt that way.

From ‘Robin Lehner deal helps Golden Knights’ present, complicates future,’ Las Vegas Sun, 02/25/2020

Lehner played sparingly over the final 18 games with the Knights despite excelling with a 1.67 GAA and 0.940 SV% in three starts. But come playoff time, Fleury was given a short leash with which he hanged himself and opened the door for Lehner to grab the reins.

Robin Lehner Vegas Golden Knights
Robin Lehner, Vegas Golden Knights (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

After the St. Louis Blues scored 4 goals on 17 shots against the incumbent netminder Fleury in the first round-robin contest, Lehner proved his staying power by stopping 62 of 68 shots against the two remaining round-robin opponents, the Avalanche and the Stars. As a result, he backstopped the Knights to the top seed in the West and relegated Fleury to a permanent vacation on the bench.

Ironically, it’s Fleury who has only seen three games in this phase of the season. Since replacing Fleury on Aug. 3, Lehner has recorded a league-leading three shutouts and is second with a 1.99 GAA. A Vezina Trophy finalist last season, it’s unsurprising to see Lehner atop the leader boards. But to win the Conn Smythe, he needs to do a better job of stopping high-danger shots, and the Knights need to prevent shots up close.

The Knights play the Stars in the WCF, a team featuring feisty power forwards like Alexander Radulov and Jamie Benn who love camping out in front of the net. The Knights would do itself a favor by preventing even-strength high-danger scoring opportunities if it wants to maximize its chances to win the SCF. The Knights’ average shot distance against it is the lowest (i.e. the closest to the net) among the conference finalists (35.46 feet). This has translated into the team giving up goals at the shortest distance (13.41 ft).

To provide context, Lehner’s WCF opponent keeper, Khudobin, faces shots on average from near where Lehner does (35.76 ft), but he’s averaging goals from 25.68 feet away. Out of all 24 playoff teams, the Knights rank 19th in high-danger save percentage (0.781), and the Stars rank eighth (0.846). Fortunately for Lehner, the Knights lead the league in HDCF% (61.09%) and the Stars rank 12th (50.19%).

Anton Khudobin Dallas Stars
Anton Khudobin, Dallas Stars (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The Knights have been a much stronger team in the playoffs than the Stars, ranking first in FF% (62.19 versus 49.05%), first in xGF% (64.11% versus 49.34%), and fifth in overall scoring chances for percentage (57.14% versus 45.10%), which explains why they’re the favorites to win the Cup this season. If they win the West, then they’ll likely face-off against the Lightning in the SCF, who are still dominated by the Knights in the stats above. The difference in FF% between Vegas in first and the Lightning in fourth (7.86%) is the same as between the Lightning and the Philadelphia Flyers in 17th (7.80%).

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If the Knights can continue to reign supreme and not disappear like they did at times during the Canucks series, then they’ll provide ample opportunity for Lehner to backstop them to their second SCF in the past three seasons. A Conn Smythe Trophy will be a pretty good pickup for a backup rental goalie.

Stanley Cup Final Prediction

The Knights are too deep a team to not win the Stanley Cup this season. Their power forwards Stone and Alex Tuch are more toolsy than any other forwards still remaining. Its top line of Reilly Smith-William Karlsson-Jonathan Marchessault are completely in-sync with each other, and their deep scoring lines contain several-plus two-way forwards. However, their best player right now is Theodore because he’s a shutdown defender and the team’s leading scorer. Therefore, he’s my pick for Conn Smythe Trophy winner.


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