The Conn Smythe race sure lends credibility to the cliché that the NHL season is defined by highs and lows.
Among the best players in the NHL through two rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, you’ll find an overpaid goalie who was essentially considered an albatross to his team; an elite talent whose potential to be a real game-changer for a new club was being questioned; a universally respected veteran whose year looked like it might have ended in the first game of the post-season; and, of course, a guy who had to sweat out a 24-hour period on waivers before finding out if he’d remain a beloved member of his current club.
And while the final word is far from written on these stories, Sergei Bobrovsky, Jack Eichel, Joe Pavelski and Jordan Martinook are all huge contributors for final-four squads, something that would have seemed — at the very least — highly improbable at any number of other points in the year.
With half the 2023 derby now in the books, here’s a look at the leading contenders to claim the Conn Smythe in about one month’s time.
1. Roope Hintz, Dallas Stars Of the guys still skating, Hintz has the most points (19) and goals (nine). He padded both totals with the opening goal in Dallas’ 2-1 Game 7 victory over the Seattle Kraken on Monday night.
2. Matthew Tkachuk, Florida Panthers There’s just no doubt he’s the beating heart of this club. Tkachuk might not have scored a goal in the five-game win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, but he’s still tied with Carter Verhaeghe, Max Domi, Yanni Gourde and Morgan Rielly for the league lead in even-strength points (11) through two rounds. Any time the team you just helped eliminate is referencing trying to find a guy like you, it’s safe to say you’re playing a key role.
3. Miro Heiskanen, Dallas Stars Nobody has seen more ice time in these playoffs than the Stars’ big Finn. After a breakout season offensively, Heiskanen — who has nine points, all assists, in 13 games — is showing he’s a true, do-it-all No. 1 stud blue-liner.
4. Jack Eichel, Vegas Golden Knights Round 2 of the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs was likely the best days of Jack Eichel’s NHL career and felt like a coming-out party. He had two three-point games during Vegas’ six-game win over Edmonton, including the critical fifth game when the Golden Knights grabbed a 3-2 series advantage. Any questions about whether Vegas was getting a legit No. 1 pivot when it acquired him from Buffalo 18 months ago are being answered.
5. Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes There’s nothing eye-popping about Aho’s spring, but he brings it every single night. His 5-5-10 stat line includes just one multi-point game, but he recorded at least a point in eight of the Canes’ first nine post-season games.
6. Sergei Bobrovsky, Florida Panthers Dating back to the Game 7, Round 1 win over the Boston Bruins, Bobrovsky has a 5-1-0 record with a .938 save percentage. He had the best Round 2 save percentage (.943) of any puckstopper to start at least three games.
7. Alex Pietrangelo, Vegas Golden Knights The veteran defenceman is playing 24:15 per night, four minutes per game more than any of his teammates. Let’s face it, Pietrangelo should have been suspended for more than one game after his Game 4 slash on Leon Draisaitl, but that doesn’t diminish how important he’s been for Vegas.
8. Brandon Montour, Florida Panthers He was never going to match the five goals he scored in Round 1, but Montour did find the net again in Florida’s crucial series-opening win in Toronto and continued to log huge minutes on the Cats blue line. All told, he’s a defenceman with six goals in 12 post-season games.
9. Brent Burns, Carolina Hurricanes He’s 38, playing more than any Canes player and has eight points through 11 games. Burns’ two goals in these playoffs came in Carolina’s most recent two outings, including the Game 5 equalizer that teed up Jesper Fast’s overtime series-clincher.
10. Mark Stone, Vegas Golden Knights His production dropped a bit from Round 1, but the Knights captain is an all-situations winger who continues to play a vital role on the second line beside centre Chandler Stephenson.
11. Joe Pavelski, Dallas Stars If Burns isn’t the top Old Guy Without A Cup — a phrase coined by The Athletic’s Sean McIndoe — candidate left, then surely it’s Burns’ old Sharks pal Pavelski, who heads up this sentimental category. When Matt Dumba dropped Pavelski in Game 1 of Dallas’ first-round series with Minnesota, it felt fully in play that we would not see him again this spring. Now his squad is in the conference final for the sixth time in his wonderful career, thanks in large part to Pavelski scoring a franchise-record eight goals in a single series.
12. Jordan Martinook, Carolina Hurricanes Look, you average two points per game in your second-round series and you’re getting at least fringe MVP consideration. Martinook’s production — and the play of his entire line, with centre Jesperi Kotkaniemi and right winger Jesper Fast — has been huge for a Carolina team that lost sniper Andrei Svechnikov down the stretch.