It’s the idea no Florida Panthers fan wants to contemplate: Could we see the first non-Stanley Cup-winning Conn Smythe Trophy recipient in 20 years?
On five occasions from when the award was first handed out in 1965 through 2003, a player from the team that did not end up with a storybook ending was named playoff MVP. The most recent was Jean-Sebastien Giguere, whose .945 save percentage in the 2003 post-season pushed the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim to within a single victory of the Stanley Cup.
Since Giguere’s Ducks lost to the New Jersey Devils, we’ve had 18 straight Conn Smythe winners who also hoisted the Cup that night.
Could that change this year?
The reason it feels worth asking is because, while numerous Vegas Golden Knights are obviously having great springs, Panthers Matthew Tkachuk and Sergei Bobrovsky have been tap dancing on the sun through three rounds. If that continues, maybe there’s no way Florida loses the final anyway. But should both Tkachuk and Bobrovsky continue to perform at their current level, yet still drop a nail-biter of a seven-game series to the Knights, might one of them still be deemed the playoff MVP?
Good as Jack Eichel has been, it’s hard to imagine him being deemed the player of the playoffs if Vegas drops the final. Tkachuk, meanwhile, feels like he’s become the face of not only his own team, but the entire 2023 post-season. What other takeaway can you have when a guy is joining the celebrated TNT crew before Miami Heat playoff games and chopping it up with Shaquille O’Neil and Charles Barkley?
Yes, this is an on-ice award, but Tkachuk more than has that part covered, too, and it seems in play — should the final not go Florida’s way — that he could join Reggie Leach of the 1976 Philadelphia Flyers as the only forward or defenceman from the non-Cup-winning side to win the Conn Smythe.
Of course, we still have a ways to go yet. And in a sense, we’re only halfway to determining a post-season MVP because the unofficial rule of thumb has always been that voting is based 50 percent on the first three rounds and 50 percent on what you do in the final. That opens the door to any number of guys either severely strengthening their case or making a somewhat out-of-the-blue bid for the Conn Smythe in the coming weeks.
With that in mind, here’s where the pursuit of the Smythe stands heading into the final series of the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
1. Matthew Tkachuk, Florida Panthers Tkachuk’s 21 points are the most of anybody on the two teams still playing. After failing to find the net in Florida’s second-round series versus the Toronto Maple Leafs, the right winger netted three game-winners during the Cats’ four-game sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Final.
2. Sergei Bobrovsky, Florida Panthers The ‘Bob-a-ssance’ continues. Bobrovsky, who has notoriously failed to live up to the $70-million deal he inked with Florida in 2019, had a .966 save percentage versus the Canes. Overall, he has a .935 save percentage in the playoffs. The only goalie who played at least a dozen games in any of the past seven post-seasons and had a better mark than that was Conn Smythe winner Andrei Vasilevskiy with a .937 save percentage in 2021.
3. Jack Eichel, Vegas Golden Knights Vegas’ leading scorer (18 points in 17 contests) has shown an ability to contribute all over the ice. These playoffs have been, by far, the finest hour of Eichel’s eight-year career. The Conn Smythe is within reach if he has a strong final.
4. Alex Pietrangelo Vegas Golden Knights The veteran defenceman is playing 23:46 a night during these playoffs, nearly four minutes more per game than any of his teammates. His nine points are also tied with Florida’s Brandon Montour for the most by any blue-liner still playing.
5. Adin Hill, Vegas Golden Knights Hill’s .937 save percentage actually outstrips Bobrovsky’s, but the Vegas puck stopper has only started nine games. Still, he’s been so good since entering the fray in the second round that he could easily be named MVP if he outduels Bobrovsky over the next couple of weeks.
(Strange sidebar: Hill was one of three goalies in the conference finals — along with Dallas’s Scott Wedgewood and Carolina’s Antti Raanta — who were part of the 2017-18 Arizona Coyotes roster. A fourth goalie from that same Coyotes team, Darcy Kuemper, won the Cup last year in Colorado).
6. Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers Perpetually overlooked since he entered the league a decade ago, Barkov — like every Panthers player — is living in Tkachuk’s shadow right now. The Cup final could be the perfect showcase for his coming out party. His 200-foot game is beyond reproach, so if he has a bit of an offensive surge versus the Knights, he may yet slide in and snag the Smythe.
7. Name a Top 9 Vegas Forward First-line right winger Jonathan Marchessault led the squad with seven points in the Western Conference final; third-line centre William Karlsson paced Vegas in goals in the WCF with five and is tied with Marchessault for the team playoff lead in even-strength goals with nine; second-line pivot Chandler Stephenson is third on the team in goals with eight and tied for the game-winners lead with Marchessault with three; second-line right winger and captain Mark Stone has been waiting 10 years to shine in a Stanley Cup Final and trade deadline acquisition Ivan Barbashev is third in team scoring playing beside Eichel on the top unit.
8. Carter Verhaeghe, Florida Panthers Verhaeghe has three game-winners so far, just one behind Tkachuk. It would take a monster effort in the final, but a couple more OT winners to go with the three he already has in his career might drum up enough recency bias for him to claim MVP honours.
9. Brandon Montour, Florida Panthers The D-man has cooled offensively since opening the playoffs with a scorching six goals in eight games. Still, nobody still skating has seen more total ice in these playoffs than Montour and his 441:22.