Each year, the Conn Smythe Trophy is handed out to the player judged most valuable to his team during the playoffs. It a trophy given to clutch players who find an extra edge and step up to push their team to victory.
The current holder of the trophy is Duncan Keith, who had a spectacular postseason in 2015 to drive the Chicago Blackhawks to their third Stanley Cup in just six years.
This year has seen many of the usual superstar suspects step up and propel their team to the Conference Finals, while one rookie goaltender had also begun to make a name for himself.
Through two rounds of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs, here is each team’s Conn Smythe Trophy candidate.
Pittsburgh Penguins – Matt Murray
Matt Murray was rewarded with a tremendous opportunity when he returned from injury in the first round. After showcasing his talents in 13 spectacular regular season games, Murray had established himself as a close competitor to Marc-Andre Fleury. Due to Fleury’s injury, Murray became the clear number one choice to take the reigns for a playoff run. And boy, has he taken advantage of the opportunity.
Through two rounds and nine starts, Murray has a 7-2-1 record with a sparkling 2.05 GAA and .935 SV%. Even with Fleury cleared to play, Murray has held the crease, offering no reason to switch in their former first overall selection.
With the Penguins featuring a depleted blue line due to injuries and suspensions, Murray has been there every game to hold the fort. The 21-year-old has played a calm and poised game, looking like a 10-year veteran between the pipes. Already selected to represent Team North America at the 2016 World Cup, Murray is now making a case to take over Fleury’s spot as the team’s permanent starter.
Murray has been far and away the best Penguin each night, providing a calming presence when the game gets tough. The team in front of him can focus on playing their game without having to worry about a mistake ending up in the back of their net. Without Murray, the Penguins may not find themselves in the Conference Finals.
Tampa Bay Lightning – Nikita Kucherov
With Steven Stamkos out of the Lightning lineup, the team desperately needed someone to step up and lead the offence. Nikita Kucherov has taken on that role with great pride and maturity. The 22-year-old has developed into the most reliable forward for the Lightning, leading the team in points during the regular season with 66.
Transition into the playoffs and he has continued to be their most important player. Through two rounds, he is tied for the league lead in goals with nine and is tied for 10th in points with 12. While Tyler Johnson and Jonathan Drouin have also stepped up in larger roles, Kucherov has been the go-to-guy for clutch goals to push his team to victory.
His outstanding play has started conversations to let Stamkos walk in free agency in order to re-sign Kucherov to a long-term deal. He has already been selected to represent a loaded forward corps with Russia at the World Cup, and could be the highest paid player on the Lightning very soon.
Ben Bishop would be a runner-up for this award, with a ridiculous 1.89 GAA and .938 SV% through 10 games. And while goaltending is always looked upon as a superior role in a team, Kucherov has put the Lightning on his shoulders, carrying the offence in the absence of Stamkos. Had Kucherov not been performing, Tampa Bay would be struggling to find consistent goal scoring and likely would not be where they are today.
St. Louis Blues – Vladimir Tarasenko
The Blues offence has been spread throughout the lineup, with each line chipping in. However, it’s once again Tarasenko who leads the team in goals with seven and is tied for the lead in points with Fabbri with 13. Goaltender, Brian Elliot has also been superb, sporting a 2.29 GAA and a .929 SV%. But it’s been Tarasenko who has been the Blues’ most dangerous player each night. He’s also leads the team in puck possession, holding a 52.9 CF%.
Tarasenko has quickly become the heart of the Blues since coming over from Russia just four years ago. The 24-year-old is now one of the elite goal scorers in the NHL and is a significant reason for St. Louis’ recent success. Tarasenko will join fellow Conn Smythe candidate, Kucherov, with Russia at the 2016 World Cup, certain to be one of the leaders of the star-studded squad.
Before Tarasenko was shot into stardom, the Blues annually struggled to find consistent goal scoring, and it was a large reason for their playoff failures. However, now loaded with a star sniper, the Blues have become a serious contender each year.
Sturdy defence always seems to be the key to a Stanley Cup championship, and the Blues have that, led by Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk. But it’s hard to see the Blues taking down two powerhouses in Chicago and Dallas without the presence of Tarasenko in their lineup.
San Jose Sharks – Brent Burns
The Sharks finally found their franchise defenceman. Turns out he was on their team all along, just not playing the right position. Since joining San Jose in 2011-12 via a trade from the Minnesota Wild, Brent Burns has provided a significant edge to a once depleted blue line. Not only is he relied upon to hold the defensive zone tight, but he has also become a key component of San Jose’s offence as well.
Through two rounds, Burns sits tied in second in the league in points with 15 and also logs the most minutes for his squad per game, at 26:06. The 31-year-old is often the heart and soul of the game, playing in all important situations. He knows how to create offence for his team and does it with ease. Although he has yet to be named to Canada’s World Cup team, he should be a lock after a Norris Trophy calibre season.
While Joe Pavelski leads the league in goals and Logan Couture leads the league in points, it has been Burns who has stepped up in key moments of the games. Aside from the offensive aspect, Burns has developed a stronger defensive game too. The 6’5, 229 pound man is a force on the blue line and his presence is irreplaceable.
Without Burns on the blue line, it would be hard to bet on the Sharks reaching the Conference Finals. Since moving back to defence, he has quickly turned into one of the elite pivots in the NHL, a key to any team hoping to make a long playoff run.
Contributor for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Prospects. Scout with the Oakville Blades of the OJHL. For questions, concerns, or comments, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter @SlawsonTHW.