Which Bruins and Blackhawks look like strong bets to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP? ESPN.com writers Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun ponder the possibilities in today's Daily Debate.
BURNSIDE: Greetings, my friend, and welcome to Chicago. Oh, wait a minute, you own the Western Conference. Well, welcome to your home away from home and the start of the Stanley Cup finals. There's always a nice buzz around the final series on media day, and you know the players are starting to get amped up as they see all the reporters and cameras and extracurricular stuff that separates the Cup finals from what has gone on before. But as we get ready for what should be a terrific series, let's talk a little Conn Smythe Trophy. I must admit, just as these are two seemingly well-balanced, deep teams with no obvious favorite, there is, in my mind at least, also no discernible front-runner as playoff MVP. A year ago Jonathan Quick and the Los Angeles Kings were dominant, and it would have taken an otherworldly performance by anyone in the final series to unseat Quick as MVP favorite, but this year's field is wide open. Why don't we start in the Western Conference, your domain, and who you like as an early Blackhawks favorite? Corey Crawford's been terrific, but what about Bryan Bickell, who's come of age this spring, or a resurgent Patrick Kane?
LEBRUN: No question it's a wide-open ballgame from the Blackhawks' point of view when I handicap their Conn Smythe possibilities. I'd argue that Duncan Keith and Crawford are probably in the top group right now, followed closely by Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa and the revelation that is Bickell, aka The Human Cash Register. Then, to me, the wild-card following those names is Kane. But more on him later. First let's examine Keith and Crawford, arguably the top two right now in this mix. I'd go with Keith as the front-runner by a hair. His team-leading minutes, his execution in spearheading the transition game and his impact both on the power play and penalty kill mean he touches all parts of Chicago's game. Crawford is a solid choice, because all he's done is win under pressure while showing tremendous poise and composure. I’m not sure he's stolen a game, per se, in these playoffs, but he's been terrific 99 percent of the time and that's all you can ask for.
BURNSIDE: It’s interesting that Keith figures so prominently in your consideration of potential playoff MVPs. I spoke to an NHL general manager before I cast my Norris Trophy ballot, and that GM figured that even though Chicago's depth along the blue line meant Keith was playing fewer minutes than when he won the Norris, Keith might have been more effective this season. Well, he's been a dynamo this spring. I want to hear your thoughts on Bickell, who has come out of nowhere to become a pivotal part of the Hawks advancing to their second final series since 2010. But while you prepare for that, let me tell you my initial thoughts on the Bruins, whom I watched dismantle a powerful Pittsburgh team in four games. While it’s easy to point to playoff points leader David Krejci as the team's obvious MVP choice, 21 points (nine goals, two game-winners) in 16 games will do that for you. Still, I don’t think it’s that cut-and-dried for the B's. Goalie Tuukka Rask has been sensational, Zdeno Chara leads all remaining players in average ice time at 29:21 per game, and I think guys like Patrice Bergeron, Nathan Horton and Milan Lucic have to be considered.
LEBRUN: Bickell is truly a great story, a slow-developing player who finally has seen the light. And it's more than his eight playoff goals. His impact on the team's forecheck and his presence in front of the net is an element the Hawks had been missing since losing Andrew Ladd and Troy Brouwer. Sharp, as always, isn't getting nearly as much credit as he should be. He's been clutch again in these playoffs, a player whose game rises when the pressure builds. Hossa has been a horse, and I'm not sure any player in the league protects the puck better than him. As for Toews? I was speaking with an NHL coach today who laughed at the media making a big deal about his lack of offense in these playoffs. "He's the best player on that team, bar none. Look what happens when you put any winger with him on that team. That winger scores. Hossa goes with him and he scores. Then they put Kane, who was slumping, with Toews and Kane starts scoring again. Toews is their guy," said the coach. Kane is a long shot as this point because he's only come on lately, but as you saw with his Game 4 and Game 5 performances in the Western finals versus the Kings, he has the capacity to single-handedly change a game. A big Cup finals could push him up the Conn Smythe ranks.
BURNSIDE: As you know, there's always a balancing act when it comes to picking a playoff MVP. Because it's not strictly a Stanley Cup finals MVP, it's important to consider contributions throughout the playoffs. That was the issue in 2010 when Toews perhaps wasn't as strong in the finals as he was earlier in the postseason, but was crucial to the Hawks' title run with his overall play. That being said, I think Tuukka Rask would have to take a step back not to be the Bruins' guy if they win the Cup. He's entering the finals with a .943 save percentage and having shut out the Penguins twice in Boston's sweep of the Eastern Conference finals. Still, one of the great things about the final series is that a dark horse could emerge and change the voting tide. As for the Blackhawks, I'll go with Crawford. If Chicago is going to win this series Crawford's going to have to deal with a lot of traffic around his net, and if he comes up with a ring he'll have be given full credit for it. What are your thoughts on the B's and how this will shake down?
LEBRUN: You can see why people like Rask or Krejci as the top two, and that's hard to argue against. But to me, Bergeron is the guy who drives the Bruins. He scored the double-OT winner in Game 3 against Pittsburgh and the Game 7 OT winner against Toronto; and he does it all from end to end. Bergeron should be viewed around the league as being on the same level as Toews, in my opinion. With another strong series in a Bruins win in the Cup finals, Bergeron could be my pick.