The playoff MVP debate starts now

When Cam Ward was announced as the winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy a season ago, a noted Canadian hockey writer exploded in the press room, suggesting voters had made a mistake -- Edmonton defenseman Chris Pronger was a more worthy recipient.

The writer happened to be wrong, but the debate illustrates the competing thought processes in selecting the playoff MVP.

Often a player's performances later in the playoffs resonate more with voters; and given that the games become increasingly more important as the playoffs progress, that mind-set is completely defensible. But there is a tendency to forget what a player did in helping his team reach the Stanley Cup finals that sometimes isn't fair, a tendency to ignore the full body of work of the playoffs.

Regardless, there will always be some debate about what constitutes the most valuable postseason player. Here is a look at our early Conn Smythe Trophy favorites heading into the conference finals.

Pronger Chris Pronger, Anaheim Ducks
Hey, we know that guy. Although he is wearing a different jersey this time around. Before the tears had dried after last season's seven-game Cup finals series loss against Carolina, Pronger fled Edmonton for California. Once again, the 6-foot-6 Pronger is asserting himself as the game's finest all-around defenseman and one of the finest clutch performers in the game. As the conference finals begin, he leads the Ducks in scoring with 11 points in 10 games and leads all NHL players in average ice time a night with a mind-bending 31:13 a pop. Hey, maybe we'll get it right this time.

Giguere Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Anaheim Ducks
The winner of the 2003 Conn Smythe Trophy (a losing cause when the then-Mighty Ducks fell to New Jersey in a seven-game Cup final), Giguere didn't start the first four games of the playoffs, which may put some voters off. Giguere was attending to his infant son's serious eye issue and came on in relief of Ilya Bryzgalov in Game 4 of the opening round against Minnesota. But Giguere has been stunning since. Guiding the Ducks to the Western Conference finals for the second straight season, he's allowed just nine goals on 186 shots for a .952 save percentage. Giguere will get a much sterner test against Detroit, but he's as cool as they come and might well be headed for his second date with Conn if he maintains his current level of play.

Lidstrom Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit Red Wings
In the final four games against San Jose, Lidstrom averaged 29:05, 29:04, 36:09 and 28:34 a night, respectively, in ice time. With Mathieu Schneider out for the season (broken wrist) and the Ducks likely to try to punish the Red Wings defenders, watch for the perennial Norris Trophy candidate (and more often than not Norris Trophy winner) to raise his game to an even higher level. As team captain, Lidstrom's quiet presence and unflappable nature set the tone for a Red Wings team that, if they win it all, will do so with patience and hard work. Just don't expect any post-award comedy sketches from the low-key Lidstrom.

Zetterberg Henrik Zetterberg, Detroit Red Wings
The slick Swede would fall into the "late-bloomer" category as he has been slow to light it up in these playoffs (he took some time to recover from a back injury that caused him to miss the final 19 games of the regular season). Still, his eight points in 12 games aren't chopped galvanized rubber. The key for the Wings, and Zetterberg's possible Conn Smythe bid, is that he is getting better every game. In the pivotal fifth game against San Jose in the second round, Zetterberg was dominant, scoring once and adding two assists. He is the engine that drives the Red Wings' top line, which also includes fellow Swede Tomas Holmstrom and Pavel Datsyuk.

Hasek Dominik Hasek, Detroit Red Wings
Well, why not a 42-year-old playoff MVP? In his second tour with the Red Wings, all Hasek's done is turn in a 1.51 goals-against average, .930 save percentage and allow just three goals on 79 shots in three straight wins to close out their second-round series versus the Sharks. He, too, will be more severely tested by the Ducks. Given the zone he's in, however, it simply might not matter.

Heatley Dany Heatley, Ottawa Senators
A season ago, Heatley and the rest of the Senators disappeared in the second round of the playoffs. This postseason, he and linemates Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson combined for 23 points in a five-game series win over the masters of stifle, the New Jersey Devils. Heatley is tied for the playoff scoring lead with the now idle Scott Gomez with 14 points and his seven power-play points are also tied for the playoff lead. Coach Bryan Murray has praised Heatley's two-way play, something that should attract MVP voters next month.

Alfredsson Daniel Alfredsson, Ottawa Senators
If the Senators manage to get by Buffalo and win their first Stanley Cup, Alfredsson should get the Conn Smythe Trophy by default given the grief he's taken during the years in which Ottawa has flamed out in the postseason. Not that he hasn't earned an MVP nod this spring with his physical, passionate play. A man on a mission, you'd be hard pressed to find a finer on-ice leader.

Drury Chris Drury, Buffalo Sabres
In the same vein, we present Buffalo co-captain Chris Drury. The Sabres' other co-captain, Daniel Briere, may be more flashy and put up more points in the end. But Drury is the guy who goes over the boards when the game is on the line, when the Sabres need to protect a one-goal lead or erase a one-goal deficit. Witness Drury's tally with 7.7 seconds left in Game 5 against the New York Rangers that turned a 3-2 series deficit into a 3-2 series lead in the blink of an eye. He is, quite simply, a winner.

Briere Daniel Briere, Buffalo Sabres
Fearless in spite of his diminutive stature (he's generously listed on the NHL Web site as being 5-foot-10, which is a bigger whopper than most team's attendance reports), Briere has the rare ability to find both the net and open teammates in heavy traffic. If there's a big goal that needs to be scored, Briere will be there.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com