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Conn Smythe Trophy power rankings: Why isn't Vasilevskiy the favourite?

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It's here, and it's perfect.

The 2022 Stanley Cup Final is set with the Colorado Avalanche and the Tampa Bay Lightning meeting in a championship series that seems seasons in the making. These are two of the highest-scoring, most transcendent, and successful teams over the past five seasons, who many fans and pundits have had earmarked for a dream Stanley Cup Final.

Tampa Bay has obviously held up its end of the bargain as two-time defending champions, and has held on long enough for the Avalanche to have finally broken through after several seasons of postseason disappointment.

It's talent on talent on talent in the Stanley Cup Final in 2022, which means there's no shortage of candidates for the third and final edition of the Conn Smythe Trophy power rankings.

Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy already has a strong case for the Conn Smythe. (Photo by Andrew Bershaw /Icon_Sportswire)
Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy already has a strong case for the Conn Smythe. (Photo by Andrew Bershaw /Icon_Sportswire)

1) Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning (Previous: 2)

As much as the Lightning have been the face of the evolution of hockey — and an improved game that's best defined by speed and skill — they turn into something a little different in the playoffs. Something far more time-honoured. In fact, when push comes to shove, it's more 1995 New Jersey Devils than anything else, with the Lightning committing five men behind the puck to best position and let their single-most dominant force, best player, and reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner, netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy, be the difference.

It isn't as automatic as it seemed last season when Vasilevskiy had five shutouts and a .937 save percentage in 23 postseason games. But with the margins thinner than they have been for the Lightning, who have survived several tenuous moments on the path back to the Stanley Cup Final, they have leaned on Vasilevskiy just as much as ever with seven of their 12 victories decided by one goal or sealed into an empty net. That he's managed to carry a .928 save percentage through the single-most difficult path in the postseason is as impressive as anything in his postseason portfolio.

Vasilevskiy also out-duelled the presumptive Vezina Trophy winner, Igor Shesterkin, in the most anticipated goaltending matchup in recent memory in the Eastern Conference Final triumph over the New York Rangers, backstopping four consecutive victories. He's also remained virtually unbeatable in opportunities for the Lightning to advance, allowing just two goals in three series-clinching victories to build on his extraordinary numbers in elimination scenarios.

But what might best position Vasilevskiy is what he'll have to do for the Lightning if they are to go back-to-back-to-back. Vasilevskiy will have to continue to be the Lightning's best player, perhaps more profoundly, in order to survive the stiffest challenge the team will have encountered so far in the Avalanche. And the advantage he should have over either Darcy Kuemper or Pavel Francouz may exist as the starkest contrast in the series.

Furthermore, this is the legacy play. Vasilevskiy is in the process of cementing himself on the shortlist of the greatest goaltenders and postseason performers in history. The opportunity to throw more hardware onto the pile could be the tiebreaker in a Lightning victory.

Current odds: +425

2) Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche (Previous: 5)

It seems likely that Cale Makar took back a slight advantage over Nathan MacKinnon in their internal tug-o-war over the Conn Smythe Trophy in Colorado's series sweep over the Edmonton Oilers. After Makar dominated the opening-round victory over Nashville and MacKinnon provided the best moments in the series versus St. Louis, Makar's value to the Avalanche was once again underscored in a head-to-head matchup with the game's most electrifying talent, Connor McDavid.

Makar was a two-way beast versus the Oilers, shouldering considerable defensive responsibilities with partner Devon Toews while also filling up the stat sheet with two goals and nine points in four games, including five in the series-clinching thriller.

Colorado's leading scorer, Makar ranks sixth in postseason scoring with five goals and 22 points but is tops in points per game among remaining skaters with an average of 1.57 points spaced over 14 games. He's also pacing all skaters with an average of more than 27 minutes, helping fill the gaps created by the absence of Sam Girard.

He should be the choice for the Avalanche right now.

Current odds: +200

3) Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche (Previous: 4)

Despite a smaller footprint compared to Makar, MacKinnon still has the opportunity to snatch up some individual accolades. He is capable of breathtaking, series-shifting and potentially career-defining moments, as evidenced by his brilliant solo effort and goal versus the St. Louis Blues in Round 2.

He also outperformed McDavid in the head-to-head superstar matchup in the third round, scoring three times and finishing with five points to continue to lead all Avalanche forwards in these playoffs. His 11 goals across three rounds are just two shy of Evander Kane's postseason lead. He also has a ridiculous 34-10 individual on-ice goal differential in 14 games.

Current odds: +220

4) Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning (Previous: unranked)

I must admit, I was shocked to see Kucherov's name with the shortest odds on the Lightning to win the Conn Smythe. Kucherov has been brilliant at times, and has likely been just as, or more, important than any other Bolts skater with a team-leading 23 points.

But I just don't see the argument for him right now as more valuable than Vasilevskiy.

That said, he is emblematic of Tampa's postseason style. He's been in on 10 of the Lightning's 14 goals scored with the man advantage, counting five power-play goals himself. He's also been the best offensive weapon within the Lightning's counterattack offence, picking up 13 points at even strength despite largely splitting shot and shot-attempt shares with the opposition. He has played a significant role in creating the advantages from the slim margins the Lightning have played under with his offensive brilliance.

There could be a "lifetime achievement" aspect to this, with Kucherov being so unflappably brilliant and falling just short of Victor Hedman and Vasilevskiy for individual hardware in the last two Stanley Cup triumphs. He has racked up a remarkable 89 points in 65 games, and counting, over these last three runs, which is far and away the most. But based on this season, and merit, Kucherov should require a massive Stanley Cup Final to pull ahead on Vasilevskiy, despite what the odds might indicate.

Current odds: +350

5) Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning (Previous: unranked)

In a perfect world the Steven Stamkos redemption arc is complete with a Conn Smythe Trophy. After missing nearly the entire bubble run and seeing a championship through for himself last summer, Stamkos is probably having his best postseason in Tampa Bay as we speak.

The Lightning captain entered himself into the Conn Smythe discussion with both goals in the Lightning's Eastern Conference-clinching victory over the New York Rangers. His best and biggest moment of the postseason came 21 seconds after the Lightning coughed up the lead they were clinging to.

Stamkos could conceivably win the postseason scoring race with nine goals, and is four points from setting a personal best in the playoffs. It's likely that would need to be the bare minimum in order to outshine either Vasilevskiy or Kucherov.

Current odds: +1400

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