Over the past few years, Scott Burnside and I have had the occasional chance to be among the handful of scribes who vote for the Conn Smythe Trophy, a task we take with serious responsibility. As such, here's how I'm handicapping the field before the puck is dropped for the 2010 Stanley Cup finals, a series that will obviously have a sizeable impact on our final ballot, should we be granted one this year.
As of now, here's how I see it:
1. Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks: Captain Serious is a serious odds-on favorite right now. His 26 points (7 goals-19 assists) lead all playoff scorers, but that's just one part of his game. He's been dynamic at both ends of the ice, he's been clutch, he leads all Hawks forwards in ice time per game (20:48) and he's been the leader of a youthful powerhouse team that at times needed its role model to show the way. The bigger the game, the better he plays. Really, should we be surprised after what he did at the Olympics?
2. Chris Pronger, Philadelphia Flyers: Rob Blake pointed this out to me during an informal chat early in the Western Conference finals: wherever Pronger goes the past few seasons, that team wins in the playoffs. From underdog Edmonton in 2006 (Cup finalist) to Anaheim in 2007 (Cup champion) to leading the seventh-seeded Flyers to the Cup finals, the veteran blueliner seems to will his teams to success. It might help that he's on the ice all the time. Pronger leads all NHLers in the playoffs with a whopping 28:48 per game and is tied among defensemen in scoring with 14 points (4-10). Most importantly, he's on the ice whenever the other team's most dangerous offensive threat is out there. No wonder Flyers GM Paul Holmgren gave up so much to acquire Pronger last June.
3. Mike Richards, Flyers: The Philadelphia captain, like Toews, has been an inspirational leader for his club. He leads the team among forwards in ice time (21:45 per game), is second only behind Toews in scoring with 21 points (6-15) and is a key fixture on the penalty kill and power play. And like Toews, when the pressure is at its greatest, Richards will deliver a key play.
4. Dustin Byfuglien, Blackhawks: If only the award could be based on his past eight games -- "Big Poppa" would then win hands-down. Byfuglien has eight goals in that span, including four game winners, three of them in the Western Conference finals. Playing on a line with Toews and Patrick Kane has certainly helped, but he's been more than clutch for the Hawks. And to think he began the playoffs playing defense!
5. Michael Leighton, Flyers: He'd need another superb performance in the Cup finals on the heels of a fantastic, three-shutout performance in the East finals to win the playoff MVP award given he wasn't in net for the first round and a half of the postseason. Still, what an impact the longtime journeyman has had, leading all playoff goalies with a ridiculous .945 save percentage and 1.45 goals-against average and winning the goalie dual against Montreal ace-in-the-hole Jaroslav Halak in the last round.
6. Dave Bolland, Blackhawks: This might be my own dark horse, but Bolland has been a big-time contributor to the Hawks' success, centering a checking line that not only frustrated the Sedin twins in the second round and Joe Thornton's top line in the Western finals, but also chipped in with some key goals. His 10 points (5-5) in 16 playoff games are pretty impressive for a third-line player.
7. Antti Niemi, Blackhawks: The fact the Finnish rookie netminder is even on this list shows you how far he's come since September, when the Hawks nearly demoted him in favor of Corey Crawford. He's won the confidence of his teammates and the hearts of Hawks fans with a stellar postseason. There is certainly no four-game sweep of the powerful Sharks in the last round without his pair of 44-save performances. The Hawks are still playing that series right now if not for those two gems.
8. Patrick Kane, Blackhawks: All he's done is put up 20 points (7-13) in 16 playoff games and yet his name isn't garnering much attention for the Conn Smythe Trophy. Something about his two linemates overshadowing him, perhaps? But make no mistake, without Kane's blazing speed and offensive wizardry, Toews and Byfuglien would not be enjoying the success they're having right now.
9. Brent Seabrook, Blackhawks: I've spent parts of three rounds around the Hawks, and the more I watch them play in person, the more I realize just how key this guy is. His influence isn't as obvious on TV, but watch in person and you see how well he reads the play, how physical he can be behind the play. He's a gutsy performer on the back end and makes the opposition pay for every inch of the ice.
10. Claude Giroux, Flyers: Well, I can't leave out a fellow native of Hearst, Ontario, right? Us Northern boys have to stick together! Giroux doesn't need my help to get on this list. His 17 points (8-9) in 17 games and plus-10 rating speak for themselves. He really broke through in the East finals against his boyhood team, the Canadiens, scoring back-breaking goals and playing solid, two-way hockey.