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Conn Smythe Power Rankings: Makar, Vasilevskiy chasing history

It’s not impossible that the top two scorers of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs won’t even be in the running for the post-season MVP award.

Had the Edmonton Oilers reached the final, you could easily see a path where either Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl could win the award even if they didn’t wind up as champions. But if you only make it to Round 3 — and then get swept there — it’ll be hard to build a case.

Sure, both of them finished with points per game averages of two or above, the first time anyone had done that beyond Round 1 in the salary cap era and, sure, they still have an eight and nine-point lead in the post-season scoring race.

But there are a few good candidates in Colorado and Tampa Bay that will keep building their cases over the next two weeks, with a chance to really shine as all eyes watch this series.

There is something historical about this mix of MVP candidates. We have one player on track to finish with one of the best post-season performances by a defenseman ever, and another with an opportunity to join a very short list of players that includes Wayne Gretzky in terms of year after year playoff dominance.

And of course there’s the goalie — you know who I’m talking about — who could be the first back-to-back Conn Smythe winner at his position in four decades.

The Colorado-Tampa Bay Stanley Cup Final is everything we could have hoped for this season, as one team chases a dynasty while the other attempts to start its own pursuit of one. Which star player from either will come out as the Conn Smythe winner?

Here are our pre-series rankings.

1. Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche

When your name is being mentioned in the same breath as Bobby Orr’s, you’re something special. And yes, Colorado’s defenseman is different. It’s not that he is Bobby Orr — c’mon now, he’s a 23-year-old in just his third season — but he’s unique to today’s game in how dynamic and impactful he is in every facet, at every place on the ice. Justin Bourne dug into what exactly it is within Makar’s game that separates him from other top defenders.

The numbers back up the idea that Makar stands alone. With 22 points in 14 games, he is the second-highest scorer left standing in these playoffs, but first by points per game. The Avs have reached the final quickly, losing just twice and earning two sweeps, but Makar has been kept off the score sheet just four times.

From a historical perspective Makar’s first three rounds have been outstanding. Since the salary cap era arrived in 2005-06, the highest-scoring playoff defender was Miro Heiskanen, who recorded 26 points in 27 games when the Dallas Stars reached the 2020 Cup Final and lost to Tampa Bay. With 13 fewer games playedMakar is still just five away from eclipsing Heiskanen and is in good shape to do it.

Go further back and Makar still stands out.

Since the 1967 expansion, only 11 defensemen have scored more than Makar’s 22 points in a single post-season, the record being Paul Coffey’s 37 in 1984-85. Makar likely won’t catch Coffey. What he does have a shot to do is to become just the fourth defenseman in playoff history to finish a playoff run with at least 30 points, which would join Coffey, Brian Leetch (1993-94) and Al MacInnis (1988-89).

Again, though, we have to consider games played and view this through a per game lens. Makar is averaging 1.57 points per game, which is the third-best mark of any blueliner to play more than one round in a single playoff season since 1967. First on that list was Coffey’s 1984-85 season again (an unreachable 2.06 per game) , and second is…Bobby Orr’s 1.60 from 1971-72.

Ya, it’s that kind of playoff for Makar, and with a strong finish he could earn playoff MVP honors. Heck, with a good enough final, we wonder if Makar could wind up with the Conn Smythe even if the Avs lost a long series at Tampa Bay.

However, the next player may have something to say about that…

2. Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning

The start of the playoffs weren’t the best for Vasilevskiy. In Round 1 against the Maple Leafs, Tampa Bay looked its most vulnerable, mostly because Vasilevskiy wasn’t at the level we’ve come to expect. He allowed at least three goals against in each of the first six games and had an .885 save percentage through that time, which was slightly behind what Jack Campbell was doing at the other end.

Then Game 7 happened.

We know Vasilevskiy’s history as a big-game goalie and he again came through against Toronto, stopping 30 of 31 shots to lead Tampa to a 2-1 win and advancement to the second round.

There, against Florida’s regular season-best offense, Vasilevskiy allowed just three goals against all series on the way to a sweep. He had another slow start in the New York series, allowing six goals in Game 1, but stopped 94.2 per cent of every shot he faced the rest of that series. He allowed three goals against in the last three games of the East Final, winning his faceoff with up and coming challenger Igor Shesterkin.

Vasilevskiy arrives in the final with a .928 save percentage and 2.27 GAA, which is slightly off the pace of what he did the past two playoffs, but not by much. If Tampa Bay wins this series and Vasilevskiy continues to shine brightest when the pressure is at its highest in elimination games, it will be difficult for even Makar to keep the Conn Smythe from him.

The last time a goalie won back-to-back Conn Smythes was Bernie Parent for the Flyers in 1974 and 1975.

3. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche

The leading goal scorer among players still alive in these playoffs, MacKinnon has at least a point in all but two games so far and hasn’t been kept off the score sheet in back to back games yet. His best game was, ironically a loss, in which he recorded a hat trick and added an assist before Colorado dropped Game 5 to St. Louis in overtime.

But MacKinnon has been a steady force throughout Colorado’s run and enters the final hot, with six goals in his past six games. A bull of a center, MacKinnon has imposed his offensive game on the competition all playoffs long, and leads the league with 82 shots — 15 more than the next-highest (Zach Hyman).

When he’s been on the ice at 5-on-5, Colorado has outshot its opponents 188-108 and outscored them 20-8, which will be an important area to continue in the final against a Lightning team that has been stellar defensively at evens .

4. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning

With just two more points, Kucherov will join Wayne Gretzky, Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy as the only players in league history to finish the playoffs with at least 25 points three years in a row.

Tampa’s leading scorer has seven more points than Ondrej Palat, the next highest-scoring Lightning player, and he also leads his team with 60 shots. Kucherov is the catalyst of Tampa’s power play because he’s a threat to shoot, pass, or fake either one to open up lanes for his teammates. The Lightning’s power play (22.6 per cent) hasn’t been as strong as Colorado’s (31.1 per cent), but Kucherov has factored in on 10 of the 14 goals Tampa has got on the man advantage.

The “problem” for Kucherov’s Conn Smythe candidacy is that it appears he has a far heavier lift ahead of him to move past his teammate on this list than MacKinnon does. If the Lightning win the Cup it’s going to be hard for Kucherov to score enough points to earn more attention than Vasilevskiy, unless this turns into a Battle of Alberta type of high-flying circus where defense and goaltending is optional. We wouldn’t count on that.

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