Updated Conn Smythe Rankings After Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs

Steve Macfarlane@@MacfarlaneHKYFeatured ColumnistMay 13, 2016

Updated Conn Smythe Rankings After Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs

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    Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

    With four teams remaining in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Conn Smythe Trophy picture is becoming clearer.

    The St. Louis Blues, Pittsburgh Penguins, Tampa Bay Lightning and San Jose Sharks have all made it to the conference finals, and a player on one of those teams will ultimately take home playoff MVP honors.

    It might be a goaltender who made key saves when the pressure was on or a top offensive player with stellar performances. Maybe it's a shutdown defenseman who smothered a former Conn Smythe candidate.

    Whatever the case, here is a look at the top names remaining in the race for the 2016 Conn Smythe Trophy.

    Of course, with two rounds to play, these rankings are bound to change.

    For now, though, this is our shortlist based on my personal observations of their play, determination, statistics and value to their team.

Honorable Mentions

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Tyler Johnson, Tampa Bay Lightning: Part of the team's best trio and leading the Bolts in total points with 13. Tied for the NHL's best plus/minus rating lead at plus-11. 

    Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues: Scored seven goals so far to pace the Blues. Tied for third in the NHL in the category and has made the most of his minutes. 

    Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins: Can't count out the Penguins' best all-around player, who is one big round away from climbing these rankings. 

    Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues: Offensive numbers aren't as sexy as other minute munchers on this list, but he was dominant against the Dallas Stars and Chicago Blackhawks' best forwards. 

    Martin Jones, San Jose Sharks: Save percentage of .918 isn't in the same class as the other final four goalies, but a Game 7 shutout against the Nashville Predators is impressive for a young netminder in his first playoffs as a starter.

11. Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    It might be tough to argue Kris Letang's case against those of goaltender Matt Murray and Phil Kessel, but the team's top blueliner is tied for sixth in scoring among defensemen in these playoffs and averages nearly 30 minutes of ice time a game—good for fourth this spring but second when you count only those who made it to the second round.

    He's an important piece of the puzzle in Pittsburgh not only because of his ability to produce offense (a goal and eight points in 10 games so far) but also because of the minutes he gobbles up.

    He averages more than 23 at even strength against top competition but also plays a key role on both special teams units, averaging more than two minutes on the penalty kill and a whopping four on the power play. After two rounds, he is tied for first among all blueliners with a plus-seven rating.

    Letang can be a game-changing defenseman. If he increases his output in the goal department in the next round and the Penguins advance, he could boost his ranking.

10. Brian Elliott, St. Louis Blues

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    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

    There was a blip early in Game 6 of the second round against the Dallas Stars. Goaltender Brian Elliott was pulled after allowing three goals in roughly 17 minutes, and the Stars forced Game 7 with a 3-2 win.

    But his numbers on the whole over these two rounds are solid.

    Elliott has a .929 save percentage and 2.29 goals-against average—good for sixth and seventh, respectively, in these playoffs.

    The Blues had arguably the toughest competition through the first two rounds in the Chicago Blackhawks and Stars, who finished the regular season with 109 and 103 points, respectively. And the Stars were the best team in the league offensively by a wide margin.

    Elliott displayed his value against the Stars, showing the Western Conference's top seed exactly what it was missing to advance: a reliable goaltender.

    Coach Ken Hitchcock suggested that the decision to start Elliott for Game 7 after the rough start to Game 6 was easy.

    "He's given us a chance to get to the Game 7 again and I couldn't think of a better opportunity for him or for us," he said, per Jeremy Rutherford and Tom Timmermann of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "Really, a no-brainer to be honest with you, but I wanted to talk to him and be sure he was feeling good about himself."

9. Phil Kessel, PIttsburgh Penguins

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    The Pittsburgh Penguins have found a great balance in the lineup with winger Phil Kessel playing on the so-called third line with Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin.

    As a result, Kessel leads the Pens in scoring with five goals and 12 points in 11 games.

    Kessel has continued his positive playoff presence—which is in stark contrast to his more recent regular-season reputation—and now has 18 goals and 33 points in 33 appearances with the Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs and Penguins.

    Stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were silent in the second-round series, combining for just a single goal and four points in the six games. But Kessel, who had six points, came through in the clutch moments.

    In the deciding game against the Caps, Kessel scored a pair of goals and had three points, including an assist on Bonino's game-winner early in overtime. He had a goal and a helper in the clincher against the Rangers in the first round as well.

    As of right now, he's the team's most reliable point producer. That makes him very valuable, and if he can keep it up against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the next round, he could climb up these rankings.

8. Logan Couture, San Jose Sharks

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    Logan Couture was barely on the radar after Round 1. But his outburst against the Nashville Predators in the second round puts him right in the mix for the coveted hardware. 

    With 11 points, he set a franchise record for a single-round point total. He scored a goal and added two assists in Game 7 against the Preds and jumped into the top spot among NHL postseason scorers with 17 points through 12 games. 

    He didn't do it as loudly as teammates Brent Burns and Joe Pavelski, but Couture is proving to be a valuable commodity as a luxurious depth player on a very skilled team. 

    If the rankings were based on raw point totals, he'd obviously be much higher on the list. We'll see how he does in Round 3. 

7. Ben Bishop, Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    The way Ben Bishop plays even bigger than his massive 6'7" frame in deciding games gives him a clear shot at the Conn Smythe. A fantastic regular season saw him garner enough sway among voters to be named a Vezina finalist this year as well.

    In his past five series-clinching wins, Bishop has allowed just one goal against. That's not a typo. One goal. His save percentage in those contests is .993.

    But his resumeincluding a 28-save shutout in Game 5 to eliminate the New York Islandersisn't limited to those clutch performances.

    Bishop has the third-best save percentage at .938 through two rounds among goaltenders who have played at least five games. He leaps to first if you include only the goaltenders who have advanced to the conference finals.

    How goalies respond to the occasional poor start is an indicator of their mental strength, and Bishop bounced back from being pulled in Game 1 against the Isles by allowing six total goals over the final four games—all wins.

    Teammate Brian Boyle talked to Tampa Bay Times correspondent Roger Mooney about the merits of their backstop after moving on.

    "He's got some pretty remarkable numbers right now. This whole season … he's been phenomenal for us," he said. "We've relied on him maybe too much, but it's a good situation for us to have him playing at his best."

6. Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Victor Hedman absolutely dominated New York Islanders captain John Tavares in the second round, and that alone is an incredible accomplishment. He limited the Isles sniper to two points in five games—and zero in the last four.

    The Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman also led his team in scoring in that round, earning at least a point in eight of the team's 18 scoring plays in the series and outscoring Tavares by six points with four goals and four assists.

    The 25-year-old is a legitimate two-way threat who plays plenty of minutes as the team's top defender, averaging nearly 28 minutes a night.

    Hedman is tied for fourth among all defensemen with nine points through two rounds. But his four goals rank second among the group. He seems to be getting better with every game and led the way with a pair of goals in the deciding game of Round 2.

5. Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    With 15 points in 12 games, San Jose Sharks defenseman Brent Burns has been a difference-maker for his team. He leads the way among all NHL defenders in the points race and is producing at the highest pace of 1.25 points per game—which ranks fourth among all players in the postseason regardless of position. 

    He's the team's ice-time leader, a driving force on the power play (which ranks second at a success rate of 30.9 after two rounds) and takes a ton of shots on goal. His 43 is good for sixth in the playoffs, regardless of position. If you only include those in the final four, he ranks second behind Vladimir Tarasenko.  

    Burns doesn't get credit for his defensive skills but sits seventh among defensemen with 28 blocked shots. 

    Oh, and he has the league's best beard, edging that of teammate Joe Thornton by a whisker. 

4. Matt Murray, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Rookie Matt Murray initially occupied the Pittsburgh Penguins' net because Marc-Andre Fleury suffered a concussion late in the regular season. The reason he's still in there is his spectacular play.

    There has been chatter that Fleury is healthy enough to return to the crease, but coach Mike Sullivan made a statement by putting his 21-year-old freshman back in for the clinching contest against the Caps, his ninth straight playoff start.

    There's really no choice to be made here. Murray has been the Penguins' most valuable postseason player, and he proved it again in Game 6 against Washington with a 36-save performance to help the Pens advance to the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since 2013.

    Since taking over for Jeff Zatkoff in Game 3 of the first round, Murray has lost only two games. He won three straight to eliminate the New York Rangers and then four of six against the Caps.

    Despite injuries, suspension and a lack of depth on the Pens blue line, Murray is first among all goaltenders who have appeared in at least four games this spring with a .951 even-strength save percentage. He is fourth with a 2.05 GAA but second among goalies still alive in these playoffs.

3. Joe Pavelski, San Jose Sharks

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    Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

    How heavily do the San Jose Sharks rely on their current captain? The team is 8-0 in these playoffs when he earns a point. They've lost all four contests in which he's been held off the scoreboard. Fortunately for the Sharks, Joe Pavelski got on the board early in Game 7 against the Nashville Predators to escape the second round.

    Little Joe is tied for the league lead in goals this spring with nine, and he has 13 points in a dozen games. He doesn't lead the team in overall production—he's behind Brent Burns and Logan Couture in points—but Pavelski is the engine of the offense.

    Only seven forwards who played in the second round are averaging more ice time than Pavelski, and the only member of that group still playing is the St. Louis Blues' Alex Steen—who will battle Pavelski head to head in the conference final.

    Much of the core of this team hasn't changed from the one deemed fragile in recent years thanks to multiple playoff disappointments. Pavelski, though, seems to have the skills as a leader on and off the ice to help pull the team together to play its best in his first year as captain.

2. David Backes, St. Louis Blues

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    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

    David Backes' goal in Game 7 against the Dallas Stars didn't rank too high on the excitement meter as his St. Louis Blues advanced to the Western Conference Final with a 6-1 win on Wednesday night. His sixth goal of these playoffs gave St. Louis a four-goal lead.

    But he's had plenty of big goals for the Blues this spring with a league-high three game-winners (two in overtime).

    Backes looks like a man possessed at times in trying to will the Blues to win. The center and team captain is as gritty as they come these days. He takes on the top competition and did a great job of helping limit Stars captain Jamie Benn to a single goal and five points in the series.

    Backes is physical, determined and a massive net-front presence (6'3", 221 lbs). He sets a great example for young players like rookie defenseman Colton Parayko, who sung his captain's praises to columnist Mark Spector of Sportsnet in early May.

    "He’s a guy that, every game he pushes it. He wants to win, is the biggest thing, and every game he’s doing whatever he can—whether that’s scoring, making hits or sacrificing his body. When a guy like me sees that, it goes a long way," Parayko said.

    Spector himself noted via Twitter how determined the 32-year-old appears this spring.

1. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Nikita Kucherov is one of the most consistent offensive producers in these playoffs and is tied for the lead with Joe Pavelski among all NHL scorers with nine goals (six at even strength) in 10 playoff games. He's a big reason the Bolts have so easily dispatched the Detroit Red Wings and New York Islanders in the first two rounds.

    The 22-year-old winger had three multipoint games against the Red Wings and a point in four of the five games against the Isles.

    There will be debate over who is the most valuable member of the Lightning so far thanks to defenseman Victor Hedman's dominance in Round 2, Ben Bishop's personal statistics in goal and the fact that linemate Tyler Johnson has one more point, but Kucherov has been key in driving the Bolts offense with Steven Stamkos out (blood clot issues).

    The extra attention from other teams' top defenders hasn’t slowed Kucherov. According to Natural Stat Trick, his Corsi percentage of 57.23 ranks fifth among players who have appeared in both rounds and played at least five games. It's tops among players who have advanced to the conference finals.

    Unless otherwise noted, statistics courtesy of NHL.com.