TAMPA — At some point this week, the NHL will crown its next Stanley Cup champion.
But before the winning team receives the trophy, the NHL will award the Conn Smythe Trophy to the playoff MVP as determined by select reporters in the Professional Hockey Writers Association the night of the Cup-clinching win.
Should the Lightning win, there are three obvious candidates. All three have more-than-adequate resumes, but not one is a complete shoo-in.
Here are the cases for and against this year’s frontrunners, in alphabetical order:
Nikita Kucherov, right wing
Case for: Kucherov has swept the hockey world off its feet in his return after missing the entire regular season following offseason hip surgery. Well, the part of it that wasn’t accusing the Lightning of circumventing the salary-cap rules, anyway.
Kucherov leads the league in postseason scoring with 32 points (eight goals and 24 assists). His nine-point lead over Brayden Point (23 points) ties Wayne Gretzky (in 1988) for the third-biggest margin in NHL history. Gretzky and Mario Lemieux had 10-point leads in 1985 and 1991, respectively.
Kucherov has three goals and five points in the Cup final, including two goals in the Lightning’s Game 1 win. He has had nine multi-point games, including six with three or more, including a four-point game in the opening round against the Panthers. He has been held without a point in just five of 21 postseason games.
Kucherov’s remarkable run leaves you shaking your head, wondering how he can be skating circles around opponents just seven months after lying on an operating table.
Case against: One could argue Kucherov had a bit of an edge because no team played against him during the regular season and had little to go on for preparation.
He also was more rested entering the playoffs than players who competed during the 56-game regular season, giving him an advantage at a time when players are battling injuries and fatigue more often than not.
But those are more excuses than anything, and neither would diminish Kucherov’s candidacy in any way.
Brayden Point, center
Case for: Point’s 14 goals lead the league this postseason, six more than the five players — including Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and Alex Killorn — who come next on the list. Point has scored in all but eight of the 21 games he has played.
Incredibly, he scored in nine straight playoff games, one short of the all-time record of 10 set by the Flyers’ Reggie Leach in 1976.
Point’s 36 goals over the past four postseasons are more than any player in the league. He has the third-highest goals-per-game average (.55) among those who have played in at least 50 career postseason games in the past 30 years, behind only Mario Lemieux (.67) and Nathan MacKinnon (.56).
Case against: While Point’s postseason numbers are impressive, they’re nowhere close to last season’s Stanley Cup run, when he had 33 points in 23 games.
More importantly, he has just three assists in the final against the Canadiens and no points in the past two games.
Andrei Vasilevskiy, goaltender
Case for: Vasilevskiy, 26, and a Vezina finalist for the fourth straight season, leads the league in postseason wins (15), shutouts (four) and save percentage (.938) and has the second-lowest goals-against average (1.94).
He might have been at his best in a Game 2 win over the Canadiens, stopping 42 of the 43 shots he faced to steal a game in which the Lightning was badly outplayed, tilting the series heavily in their favor.
Maybe most impressive, Vasilevskiy has not lost back-to-back games at any point over the past two postseasons and closed out four straight playoff series, including three this season, with shutouts.
Case against: While no player may have been more valuable to his team this postseason, history is against Vasilevskiy. Well, his position, anyway.
Only 16 goaltenders in NHL history have won the Conn Smythe, most recently the Kings’ Jonathan Quick in 2012. While Quick’s numbers (1.41 GAA, .946 save percentage) are better than Vasilevskiy’s, it’s worth pointing out that the leading scorers that postseason, Los Angeles’ Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar (eight goals, 20 points) didn’t come anywhere close to those put up by Kucherov and Point.
There’s also the recency effect. Though Vasilevskiy has been a stalwart throughout the postseason, he allowed three goals — at least one of which he should have stopped — in the most recent game, and that’s likely to be in the minds of voters.
Disclaimer: Times sports writers Eduardo A. Encina and Mari Faiello vote on the Conn Smythe Trophy as members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association.
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