Conn Smythe Watch: Hedman, Khudobin lead the race for playoff MVP

The Tampa Bay Lightning and Dallas Stars are the final teams standing in the NHL’s postseason bubble, ready to battle for the second Stanley Cups in their franchises’ respective histories.

But before they lift the Cup, one player will be handed the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the most unusual postseason in league history.

Members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association vote on the NHL’s playoff MVP award. Of the past 20 Conn Smythe Awards, five were goaltenders, four were defensemen and the rest were forwards, including St. Louis Blues center Ryan O’Reilly last season.

Based on conversations with prospective voters and our own tracking, here is where the MVP candidates currently rank entering the Stanley Cup Final, as well as their ranking in our previous edition:

10. John Klingberg, D, Stars (Last: Unranked)

The Dallas defenseman is averaging 22 minutes, 39 seconds in ice time per game and has 16 points in 20 games. As you’ll see a bit later on this list, there’s another Stars defensemen blocking his path to playoff MVP, but a couple of potential voters shouted out his play for Dallas.

9. Joe Pavelski, C, Stars (Last: Eighth)

He’s tied for the team lead in goals with nine, to go along with five assists to tie him with Alexander Radulov for fifth-most points on the team (14). He fits the classic “veteran star seeks first Stanley Cup” trope, and has certainly had an impact on the Stars on and off the ice. One to watch if he has a breakout game in the Final.

8. Denis Gurianov, LW, Stars (Last: Unranked)

Dallas has been blessed with two rookie forwards stepping up in the playoffs: Joel Kiviranta, whose Game 7 hat trick eliminated the Colorado Avalanche; and Gurianov, who has nine goals (tied for the team lead) and eight assists in 21 games, including the overtime winner to eliminate the Vegas Golden Knights in the Western Conference finals.

7. Andrei Vasilevskiy, G, Lightning (Last: fifth)

The Lightning goalie has consistently led the postseason in save percentage (.931, unchanged from before the Islanders series) and goals-against average (1.82, lower than before the Eastern Conference finals). His 12.28 goals saved above expectation has him first overall in the bubble. Don’t let Joonas Korpisalo‘s superhuman performance in that five-overtime classic obscure the fact that Vasilevskiy made 61 saves in that game. I’d have him higher than seventh, but some potential voters credit his performance to that of the team in front of him.

6. Nikita Kucherov, RW, Lightning (Last: Unranked)

The best playmaker in the postseason, leading the playoffs with 20 assists to go along with six goals. One of those goals was an absolutely crucial one for the Bolts: in Game 2 against the Islanders, with less than 9 seconds left in regulation, to take a 2-0 series lead. A candidate on the rise to be sure, as the 2018-19 Hart Trophy winner has 17 points in his past 10 playoff games.

5. Jamie Benn, LW, Stars (Last: Unranked)

It’s entirely possible Benn is leading some scratch ballots right now. The Stars’ captain has the benefit of a “performance vs. expectation” boost; after posting his lowest regular-season points-per-game average since his rookie season (0.57), Benn has 18 points in 21 playoff games, including six in his past six games. He’s had the reputation for flipping the switch to Beast Mode in the playoffs, and this run is unquestionably his most beastly.

4. Miro Heiskanen, D, Stars (Last: First)

The highest-scoring defenseman in the playoffs with 22 points in 21 games (five goals, 17 assists), the 21-year-old Finn is also leading the Stars in offense. His 25:43 average ice time is second most for players still in the tournament. There’s been a collective appreciation that Heiskanen could be the best of the next wave of great NHL defensemen, and the Conn Smythe would be a proper coronation.

3. Brayden Point, C, Lightning (Last: second)

The center is the odds-on favorite to win the Conn Smythe at +150, and rightfully so, with 25 points in 17 games. His incredible 1.47 points-per-game average is the highest since Evgeni Malkin‘s 1.50 in 2008-09 (for players with at least 17 postseason games). Point plays exceptionally well at both ends of the ice. He’s also going to be credited with having successfully bolstered the offense as the Lightning were without Steven Stamkos in the lineup for three rounds.

2. Anton Khudobin, G, Stars (Last: Unranked)

Two of the potential voters we spoke with had Khudobin atop their ballots if the Stars win the Cup. The strength of his case was the Western Conference finals, which was his best round of the playoffs: a .950 save percentage and a 1.69 goals-against average against Vegas. His teammates are putting him over, to the point where Tyler Seguin is making Tim Thomas comparisons. The clip of the Russian goalie bellowing, “We’re not going home!” is the kind of thing you see during Stanley Cup parade celebrations.

1. Victor Hedman, D, Lightning (Last: seventh)

Hedman is the No. 2 betting choice in the sportsbooks (+200), but every indication is that he’s the top guy for most potential voters. He’s been a force of nature in every facet of the game, playing 26:31 per game on average to a plus-19. He has 15 points in 19 games, including a double-overtime, series-clinching goal against the Bruins. His nine goals is tied by the fourth most for a defenseman in a single postseason. Brian Leetch and Dustin Byfuglien are ahead of him with 11 goals, and Paul Coffey‘s 12-goal postseason in 1984-85 is tops. Kucherov and Point are both vital players for the Lightning, but Hedman is their heart and spine; and, as we’ve noted with his four consecutive Norris Trophy nominations, Hedman is also a darling of the press box.

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