Analyzing Lightning’s top candidates for Conn Smythe Trophy

Tampa Bay Lightning centre Brayden Point (21) celebrates his goal against the Dallas Stars with teammate right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) during first period NHL Stanley Cup finals action. (Jason Franson/CP)

Capitalizing on a power play in overtime, Kevin Shattenkirk gave the Tampa Bay Lightning a commanding 3-1 series lead in the Stanley Cup Final on Friday night. Nothing is over until it’s over, and the Dallas Stars have continually impressed when most considered them down and out in this post-season, but the Lightning have a chance to win the second Stanley Cup in their franchise history on Saturday night.

If the Lightning close the deal in the second half of a back-to-back, who gets the Conn Smythe Trophy? Let’s go over the top three candidates in no particular order.

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Nikita Kucherov

With 32 points, Kucherov leads the playoffs in scoring, and he’s done that despite scoring on only 8.2 per cent of his shots on goal, compared to his career average that’s closer to 15 per cent. Has Kucherov actually been unlucky despite leading the playoffs in scoring?

All data is at 5-vs-5 unless otherwise stated.

To put it simply, the level at which the Lightning dominate the puck when Kucherov is on the ice is… complete.

The absurdity of his team being 18 per cent better in inner slot shots and over 16 per cent better in slot passes when his skates hit the ice is difficult to really put into words. The Lightning’s top line has been filthy all playoffs long, and it can be tough to separate the impacts of Kucherov and point on on-ice differentials, but let’s look at the specific areas where Kucherov has been excellent to make his case for the Conn Smythe.

In these playoffs, Kucherov has put the 11th-most inner slot shots on net of all players, the 47th-most per 20 minutes of ice time at 5-vs-5. That’s not too impressive, but Kucherov is a middle-distance shooter who thrives on one-timers, so that’s not his area of dominance.

From the slot, his 3.01 slot shot attempts per 20 minutes ranks seventh among players with at least 150 minutes played, and in total only his linemate Ondrej Palat has put fired more shots at the net from the slot than Kucherov’s 60, with 61.

Arguably Kucherov’s greatest scoring strength is his one-timer, and he leads all forwards in the playoffs with 24 of those at 5-vs-5, and is second behind only David Pastrnak in one-timers per 20 minutes.

Adding more elements of danger to his shots, Kucherov has the third-most scoring chances off the rush in the playoffs, the second most off the cycle, and is tied for third-most off the forecheck. Clearly, he is the furthest thing from a one-trick pony, attacking the net in a variety of ways.

Kucherov also leads the league in assists this post-season, built on his versatile playmaking ability. Kucherov ranks fourth in the playoffs in completed slot passes, fifth in completed passes off the rush, second in east-west passes, and second in passes that create one-timers.

The ability to shoot and make plays with equal effectiveness makes Kucherov among the toughest players in the league to defend, and his play driving during these playoffs has been unimpeachable. Even without his powerplay dominance, he’s a clear candidate to be the Lightning’s MVP.

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Brayden Point

Only two points behind Kucherov despite missing a couple of games, and leading the playoffs in goals with a whopping 13, Brayden Point also has multiple overtime winners on his resumé, continually scoring important goals for his team. Contrary to Kucherov, Point has had great finishing luck with 21.3 per cent of his shots beating goalies.

Like his linemate in Kucherov, Point’s relative possession metrics are absurdly excellent. His team is just incredibly successful while he’s on the ice, controlling 64 per cent of the inner slot shots and 65 per cent of the slot passes, along with 60 per cent of the shots and shot attempts.

However, if you look closely, his differentials aren’t quite as strong as Kucherov’s are, so in order to make up for Kucherov being the bigger impact player at even strength overall, Point has to make some noise by the individual metrics.

Having missed a couple of games, in the raw totals Point is a bit behind Kucherov in a few areas, but he’s second behind Ondrej Palat in shots on net from the inner slot in the post-season, fourth in shot attempts from the slot, and fourth in shots on net from the slot. Per 20 minutes played, Point ranks fifth, 15th, and ninth in those measures.

Point isn’t at the same level as Kucherov for one-timers, ranking 68th in the playoffs in totals, but no one has managed more chances off the rush than Point’s 20, though he ranks behind Nathan MacKinnon and Brock Nelson in rush chances per 20 minutes.

While overall Point has connected on three fewer slot passes than Kucherov, he actually ranks ahead of him in completed slot passes per 20 minutes, and is ahead in rush passes as well.

If there’s an argument to be made for Point over Kucherov in these playoffs, it comes down to precision vs volume. Kucherov has been brilliant, but a lot of the plays he’s made haven’t worked out for him at 5-vs-5. For example, Point has completed 50 per cent of his attempted slot passes to Kucherov’s 39.7. Off the rush, Point has completed 81.8 per cent of his attempted

passes to Kucherov’s 65.4 per cent. On East-West passes, Kucherov has completed just 71.4 per cent of his attempts compared to Point’s 90.9.

The same thing is happening with shooting, where Point has put 66.7 per cent of his attempted shots from the slot on net, Kucherov is at 41.7 per cent. Over time, the higher volume in these metrics is likely worth more, but we’re not talking about a full regular season, just the playoffs. When the playoffs end, the results are more relevant than the process, especially when the process is relatively similar overall anyway.

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Victor Hedman

It’s always a little difficult to compare a defenceman’s value to a forward’s, the roles they play are so different. Hedman is the second-highest scoring defenceman in the playoffs after Miro Heiskanen, and the hulking defenceman somehow has a whopping 10 goals to his name, only three of which were on the powerplay.

While recognizing that they’re playing very different roles on the Lightning, the differentials for Hedman aren’t nearly as strong as they are for Point and Kucherov.

Hedman is hurt a little by the excellence of the Lightning’s pairing of Kevin Shattenkirk and Mikhail Sergachev, who have brilliant numbers while playing softer minutes than he does, but make no mistake that Hedman remains Tampa’s top defenceman.

Playing just over 26 minutes per night, Hedman leads all defencemen in offensive contributions at 5-vs-5, and is third in offence generating plays per 20 minutes behind Nate Schmidt and Shea Theodore.

Hedman leads all defencemen in the playoffs in controlled exits, and is sixth in controlled exits per 20 minutes played. Hedman has just edged out Heiskanen in transition plays as well, moving the puck up the ice successfully 497 times in these playoffs, leading all defencemen. Heiskanen has managed to stay ahead of Hedman in controlled entries though, by just two.

While the goals are great, Hedman also leads all defencemen in completed slot passes, with 50 per cent more than the next closest defenceman in Quinn Hughes. Passing, in general, has been a strength for Hedman, as he’s distributed the puck to his teammates successful 596 times at 5-vs-5 in these playoffs, more than any other defenceman.

Where Hedman hasn’t been as solid is his play without the puck, where he’s fifth in loose puck recoveries on his own team, fourth in puck battle wins, and fourth in controlled entry denial rate.

Where Hedman has been truly great though, is in puck management. He has struggled at times to get the puck when his team doesn’t have possession, but once he has it, he hasn’t been making many mistakes. Only Jeff Petry and Rasmus Andersson commit defensive zone turnovers less often than Hedman, and he has the eighth-lowest turnover rate in the offensive zone as well.

Hedman is a brilliant player who eats big minutes, but overall I think he lags behind Point and Kucherov in the competition for the playoff MVP. If I had a vote, barring incredible performances in the remaining three possible games, Point would be the player I’d vote to get the Conn Smythe.


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