Conn Smythe Watch: Goalies lead the pack in playoff MVP race

NHL

The 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs are down to their final four teams, which means the conversation about Conn Smythe Trophy candidates is about to heat up.

Members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association vote to elect the most valuable player of the playoffs at the end of the Stanley Cup Final. Since 2000, there have been five goalies, seven centers, three wingers and five defensemen to win the award, including Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman, who won it last season.

The goalie to win it most recently was Jonathan Quick with Los Angeles in 2012. That could change this year, as all four NHL semifinalists have candidates for playoff MVP in goal.

Here’s a look at the field. Odds are via Caesars Sportsbook, and players are ordered alphabetically within each tier.

More: Playoff schedule | Playoff Central

The favorites

Marc-Andre Fleury, G, Vegas Golden Knights (+175)

Everything you could want in a Conn Smythe candidate. He has the numbers, with a .927 save percentage and a 1.84 goals-against average, including a shutout. He has the impact — as a heart-and-soul player for Vegas. And he certainly has enormous popularity among the voters; he’s one of the most likeable players in the NHL. If the Knights win and he continues these performances, the MVP could be his.

Nikita Kucherov, RW, Tampa Bay Lightning (+1100)

The Lightning forward has 19 points in 12 games in the playoffs, scoring points in 10 games for Tampa. The only wrinkle: Will voters for the Conn Smythe hold the Lightning’s salary-cap gambit this regular season — in which they put Kucherov on long-term injured reserve and didn’t have to blow up their supporting cast after winning the Cup — against the star winger? Or is all fair in love and the cap ceiling?

Carey Price, G, Montreal Canadiens (+1000)

Price has had an incredible postseason, going 8-4 with a .929 save percentage and a 2.15 goals-against average. He’s the catalyst for this Montreal underdog run, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else getting the MVP nod over him if the Canadiens pull this out. However, what makes Price interesting is if the Canadiens make the Stanley Cup Final but just fall short: It’s not unrealistic to think that he could still win the Conn Smythe in a losing effort in the Cup Final. Four of the five times a member of the losing team in the Final won the Conn Smythe, it was a goaltender; the last time was Jean-Sebastien Giguere of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in 2003.

Mark Stone, RW, Vegas Golden Knights (+850)

It’s a tribute to the respect Stone warrants that he’s not the leading goal (5) or point (8) scorer on his team, yet is the skater with the best odds to win the Conn Smythe for Vegas. He’s considered one of the best two-way forwards in hockey, and his defensive prowess in helping to shut down Nathan MacKinnon and the Colorado Avalanche certainly helped his MVP case.

Semyon Varlamov, G, New York Islanders (+400)

The Islanders goalie has a .930 save percentage and a 2.43 goals-against average in going 5-3 in eight games. Rookie Ilya Sorokin is 4-1 in five starts, which may work against Varlamov, and there’s always a chance Sorokin takes the crease back at some point. But Varly has won four straight games, including Game 1 against the Lightning.

Andrei Vasilevskiy, G, Tampa Bay Lightning (+300)

The Lightning goalie has a .934 save percentage and a 2.23 goals-against average, including two shutouts, both of them in elimination games against the Florida Panthers (29 saves) and Carolina Hurricanes (29 saves). The only issue for Vasilevskiy — outside of his team closing the deal for a second straight season — is whether one of the Lightning skaters ends up with an undeniable number of goals or points to move ahead.


On the cusp

Mathew Barzal, C, New York Islanders (+2500)

The Islanders star has four goals and six assists in 13 games, but it’s when he has scored them that matters: All four have come in his past five games, including the key first goal in Game 1 against the Lightning. An intriguing candidate, and one the voters can get behind.

William Karlsson, C, Vegas Golden Knights (+2200)

The Knights center leads the team with 12 points in 14 games, skating to a plus-7. He has the numbers but not the big moments or name recognition of some of his teammates.

Max Pacioretty, LW, Vegas Golden Knights (+2000)

With four goals and four assists in eight games, Pacioretty is well on his way to having one of the most statistically impressive postseasons among Golden Knights skaters. If he’s able to have a big series in a win over the Canadiens — who jettisoned him to Vegas while he was their captain in 2018 — this could be the kind of narrative that voters love.

Brayden Point, C, Tampa Bay Lightning (+1400)

There are two reasons why Point is an interesting option, even if he trails Kucherov by six points heading into Game 2. First, his nine goals lead the Lightning, and two of them ended up as game winners. But he also has residual goodwill built up from their run last season, when he was a neck-and-neck with Hedman for MVP among Lightning skaters.


Needs the narrative

Josh Bailey, RW, New York Islanders (off the board)

The Islanders winger is having a strong point-production playoff (12) and has five goals so far. He also has an overtime game winner to his credit and has made some big plays, such as setting up Barzal’s Game 1 goal against Tampa. There would be something special about rewarding a player who has been with the Islanders since 2008.

Victor Hedman, D, Tampa Bay Lightning (+3500)

Hedman has 11 points in 12 games for the Lightning, skating a team-high 24 minutes, 48 seconds per game on average. There have been only seven players in NHL history to win more than one Conn Smythe Trophy, and only three players have done so in back-to-back years: Bernie Parent of the Flyers (1974-75), Mario Lemieux of the Penguins (1991-92) and Sidney Crosby of the Penguins (2016-17).

Jonathan Marchessault, C, Vegas Golden Knights (+2500)

The “Misfits Line” spark plug has eight points in 14 games, including five goals in a three-game span to help lead the rally against the Avalanche. An interesting option if he continues to rack up points as he has in five of the past six games.

Jean-Gabriel Pageau, C, New York Islanders (+2500)

Pageau leads the Islanders with 13 points in 13 games, with 10 of them coming as assists. It’s a pretty wide-open field for Islanders playoff MVP, and if he continues as this rate — with a gaudy plus-11 rating — he could be in the running.

Kyle Palmieri, C, New York Islanders (off the board)

The trade-deadline coup has seven goals in 13 games to lead the Islanders, although Brock Nelson (6) is right on his tail. He does have something Nelson doesn’t have: an overtime game winner in Pittsburgh way back in Game 1 of the first round.

Steven Stamkos, C, Tampa Bay Lightning (+4000)

Like Point, he trails Kucherov by six points in the scoring column. But if he makes an impact in the last two rounds, the fact that Stamkos made it through a postseason healthy — plus his intangible leadership to the team — could entice voters. But he needs to have some big moments to his credit.

Tyler Toffoli, RW, Montreal Canadiens (+3500)

There’s a real “Carey Price or bust” feel to the Habs’ MVP race right now, and rightfully so. But if there’s a skater who could have a chance at breaking through, it would be Toffoli, who leads them in points (11) and is tied with three others for the most goals. But again, it would take some real heroics for any Montreal player to leap over Price in the Conn Smythe standings.


The long shots

Alex Killorn, RW, Tampa Bay Lightning (off the board)

The Lightning winger has six goals, second to Point on the team, and is tied with three other players with 13 points. Unlike Point and Stamkos, he doesn’t have a game-winning goal yet. But his reputation as a “glue guy” on the team is worth remembering if he does find an offensive groove.

Brock Nelson, C, New York Islanders (+3000)

He has one monster game to his credit, with two goals in New York’s elimination of Boston, and has six goals and four assists in 13 games.

Ilya Sorokin G, New York Islanders (+8000)

Hey, there’s always the chance the rookie retakes the crease and saves the day for the Islanders en route to the Stanley Cup. It’s not likely to happen. But that’s why they’re called “long shots.”

Nick Suzuki, C, Montreal Canadiens (+3000)

He would need to hop over Toffoli and Price, but what a story it would be if he leads Montreal over the Golden Knights, who traded him for Pacioretty.

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