- Craig Custance
CHICAGO -- It was suggested to Patrick Sharp on Friday that this year's Conn Smythe race has been a challenging one to handicap because of how team-oriented the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins are. On both teams, players up and down the lineup have shared in the success.
Perhaps to plant a seed, Sharp moved out of the way of the nameplate in front of his dressing room stall as a subtle suggestion that he'd be a good vote. He got a laugh but then followed it up with an honest assessment: The success of these two teams hasn't been about any one star.
"We're here because we've got a great goalie, great defense and forwards who can score," Sharp said. "That's an award that is definitely icing on the cake. Both teams, every player in the locker room will tell you that they want the Stanley Cup. That's the case with ours, for sure. We're a deep team. We're not here because of one player."
It makes it a challenging vote. To get some outside opinions involved, I asked a panel of 10 people around hockey -- a mix of players from the East and the West, GMs, coaches and one pro scout -- to submit their top three Conn Smythe candidates if they had to decide today. They were given anonymity to encourage honesty.
Sure, it's an unfair exercise because we don't know the Stanley Cup winner, which will go a long way in determining the choice, but it's interesting to see the wide range of opinions.
The votes were tallied using the same system the NHL employs for determining Conn Smythe winners -- five points for a first-place vote, three points for second and one for third. An extra ballot had to be removed from consideration because it included six names -- three from each team based on who won. But the comments from that general manager will still be used for additional insight.
Here's the breakdown:
1. Patrice Bergeron -- 37 points (five first-place votes): Bergeron was the overwhelming winner, and it's hard to argue against him as the Conn Smythe favorite. His game has mirrored Jonathan Toews', with their focus on both ends of the ice and effectiveness winning faceoffs, but Bergeron has been more productive offensively. His nine goals trail only Sharp for the most in the playoffs. "Bergeron deserves it and has earned it," said an Eastern Conference coach. "[For] his all-around play -- faceoffs, defensive zone play and his scoring." Teammate Chris Kelly put it this way -- Bergeron has been perfect. It's tough to argue against perfect.
2. Tuukka Rask -- 29 points (four first-place votes): Allowing six goals in Game 4 hasn't soured the hockey world on Rask in the least. He's still leading the playoffs with a .941 save percentage, which is just off the pace set by last year's Conn Smythe winner, Jonathan Quick (who finished at .946). "Tuukka has been incredible and a big difference-maker," one coach said. "Stats have been beyond belief, and he's been a workhorse. Bruins have shown great belief [in Rask] and play really hard in front of him."
3. Zdeno Chara -- 13 points (two first-place votes): The panel either loved Chara or kept him off the ballot completely, which is interesting. The NHL scout joked that his Conn Smythe ballot would read like this: "1. Chara 2. Chara 3. Chara." Aside from a few rough moments in Game 4, Chara has been an absolute force in these playoffs and is a big reason the Penguins' stars were shut down in the Eastern Conference finals. "Rask will get a lot of credit (and he has been good), but Chara and Bergeron can shut down top players as well as anyone," a GM said. "Hardest defenseman to play against in the NHL. Plus, he is second in scoring among D-men. Playing nearly 30 minutes per game. Remarkable."
4. David Krejci -- 6 points (two second-place votes): Krejci's goal scoring has cooled off since the Penguins series. He's still looking for his first goal of the Stanley Cup finals, and, in two of the four games against the Blackhawks, he was held off the score sheet. But this is an award for best playoffs performer, not just someone who excelled in the finals, and Krejci certainly qualifies. His 24 points lead the postseason, and his nine goals are one off the leader. A strong finish would catapult him back up the list.
5. Brent Seabrook -- 4 points (one second-place vote): That he earned more points than any other Blackhawk is a huge credit to the improvement he has made in his game from earlier in the playoffs. He had a rough go against the Red Wings and was minus-6 in the conference semifinals. But his game-winning goal in Game 7 of that series has sent him surging. He has three goals in the postseason, and two of them are game winners. "Big goals, great leadership," said one Western Conference forward.
6. Patrick Sharp (3.5 points): If the Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup, Sharp might end up emerging as the Conn Smythe favorite. He's been the most consistent forward for Chicago, starting the playoffs hot with five goals in the opening round and playing just as well in the finals. He has two goals in his past three games and was on more ballots than any other Chicago player, earning half a point by splitting a third-place vote with Corey Crawford.
7. Marian Hossa (3 points): It's no coincidence that Chicago's worst game in this series was the one he sat out. And the penalty kill struggled when he wasn't able to play his usual role. Like many players still going, he's playing hurt but remains a force on the ice. His 16 points are tied for the fifth most in the playoffs.
8. Corey Crawford (1.5 points): If this poll had been conducted before a shaky outing in Game 4, his point total likely would have been higher. The image of Crawford getting beat glove side consistently is hard to shake off, but he has matured into a goalie capable of bouncing back quickly. "You always have the next shot to be prepared for and not dwell on what just went in," Crawford said Friday. His numbers are still so strong that a return to form could be enough to win the Conn Smythe. He has a 1.86 goals-against average and a .931 save percentage. Sixteen wins to go with those numbers might be enough to sway voters.
T-9. Duncan Keith and Patrick Kane (1 point each): It's somewhat surprising that Keith wasn't on more ballots. "[He's a] huge-minute D-man who takes on all the tough assignments," the GM said. "He is the engine that runs this team." Said one coach: "Keith is Joel [Quenneville]'s go-to guy in every situation. Plays a ton on both special teams, and he wants him out there against the top units, as well, to produce on offense." Kane is third in postseason points with 17 and has seven goals in the playoffs.
Craig Custance polls GMs, players, coaches and a scout from around the NHL to determine which player should win the Conn Smythe award. Patrice Bergeron of the Bruins comes out on top.