Conn Smythe Trophy watch: Leading candidates after Game 2

In some ways, the Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks’ most prominent Conn Smythe Trophy candidates probably haven’t changed much since we last took a look in mid-May. Yet with the field of teams down to two and Vancouver’s first two home games in the books, we can take a deeper look at which Canucks and Bruins players have the best chance to win the playoff MVP award.

We’ll start with the Canucks since they’re up 2-0 in the series.

Vancouver Canucks

Frontrunner: Ryan Kesler – One thing I think many potential voters overlook is the benefits Kesler receives from a matchup standpoint. He often draws easier opportunities to score since the Shea Weber and Zdeno Chara-type defensemen are usually sent at the Sedin twins. Let’s not forget that the Sedins took over the third period of Game 2 and weren’t much less dominant against the San Jose Sharks than Kesler was versus the Nashville Predators.

Of course, the converse side of getting better chances to score is that he also often faces much more difficult defensive assignments than the Sedin twins. Kesler does a little of everything from scoring (19 points in 20 games), winning faceoffs (54.6 to Henrik Sedin’s weak 45.6 percent) and killing penalties (he’s averaging 3:04 minutes of shorthanded per game, first among Vancouver forwards and second overall). He’s the do-everything forward for the Canucks and while many knew he was an impact player already, the 2011 playoffs have been a star-making experience for the American two-way forward.

His big goals and assists late in many games make him a no-brainer No. 1 candidate … for now.

Strong candidate 1: Roberto Luongo – For all the abuse he took in the first round, he’s been a huge difference maker in the playoffs. Despite a great performance by Tim Thomas in Game 1, Luongo stopped all 36 shots for a 1-0 shutout. He made 28 out of 30 saves to turn Boston away in Game 2 and really hasn’t had many low moments since struggling against the Chicago Blackhawks. Whether it’s skin-tight games against the Predators/Bruins or more wide-open affairs versus the Sharks and Blackhawks, he’s been the better goalie more often than not. Overall, his numbers are fantastic, with 14-6 record, .928 save percentage and 2.16 GAA.

Strong candidate(s) 2 and 3: The Sedin twins – Henrik Sedin has a league-leading 21 points and Daniel Sedin has 18 himself. Kesler is the obvious frontrunner right now, but if Henrik or Daniel put together a couple more multiple point explosions like they did at times in the Sharks series, you just never know.

Dark horse: Alex Burrows – The noted vegetarian might not be as steady of a threat as the other three forwards, but he’s made some huge plays in the postseason. Obviously, those two big OT goals would be the video clips of note, but he has 17 points in 20 games overall.

Boston Bruins

Frontrunner: Tim Thomas – The gulf between Thomas and any other Bruins contributor – even Zdeno Chara – seems pretty huge if you ask me. Thomas hasn’t always been pretty (and allowed a few bad goals, most notably that Game 2 OT tally), but the sum of his work has been astounding. If the Bruins get back into this series, it’ll probably take an astounding set of performances by Thomas, which would make his chances that much stronger. It’s been a great run either way, considering that fact that he has a .93 save percentage in the postseason, with a nice 2.27 GAA.

Strong candidate: Zdeno Chara – It’s been an up-and-down playoffs at times for the Bruins big defenseman, but he’s done everything for Boston. He plays huge minutes (28:17 per game), shows a willingness to comply with wacky power play experiments and has more better days than bad ones amid a very suspect Bruins defense.

Dark horse: David Krejci – The most underrated part of the Bruins’ team is their impressive top line, powered most by Krejci. He has 18 points in 20 games, including 10 goals (four game-winners). If Dan Hamhuis can’t play again, his line could create enough opportunities to turn this series around. An explosive finals round could give Krejci a solid chance to win the Smythe.

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With 2-5 games remaining, there’s still plenty of time for these (and other) players to improve their argument for one of the best trophies in hockey. Who’s your frontrunner so far?

Report: ‘We … are not dealing with this issue as of now,’ says Iginla’s agent of Olympics

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National Hockey League players will not be going to the 2018 Olympics. However, it appears Team Canada has taken another step in expressing interest in a pair of unrestricted free agents — Shane Doan and Jarome Iginla.

That’s according to the Canadian Press on Tuesday, as it reported Team Canada general manager Sean Burke contacted representatives for both Doan and Iginla, inquiring about possible availability.

Both players are 40 years old and have represented Canada at previous Olympics when NHL players participated. Iginla set up Sidney Crosby‘s famous overtime winning goal during the 2010 Games in Vancouver.

From the Canadian Press:

Burke, who’s building the first Canadian Olympic roster without NHL players since 1994, suggested that both former Olympians would have to be playing somewhere if they were to be considered. He reached out to their representatives on Tuesday morning.

“We want to look at all possibilities, but there has to be a long-term plan because it’s going to very intense (at the Olympics) and it’s going to be great hockey and guys are going to have to have a plan for the year,” Burke said on a conference call, which also included the team’s head coach Willie Desjardins.

Whether or not the two veterans would be interested is another question.

“We really are not dealing with this issue as of now,” Don Meehan, Iginla’s agent, said in an email to The Canadian Press.

The report also indicated that Team Canada’s roster should become more clear by November.

Doan played his entire career with one franchise until this June, when Coyotes management informed the veteran forward that they would not be bringing him back for another season. He’s appeared in 1,540 NHL games throughout his career, but scored only six goals and 27 points in 74 games this past season.

Iginla, a two-time Olympic champion for Canada, split this season between Colorado and L.A. He had only eight goals and 18 points in 61 games with the Avalanche before getting dealt to the Kings. He then posted six goals and nine points in 19 games with L.A., although that club missed the playoffs.

Blue Jackets need Bobrovsky at his best to take the next step

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This post is part of Blue Jackets Day on PHT…

When it came time for the annual NHL Awards, Sergei Bobrovsky‘s rebound season was, deservedly so, recognized with a Vezina Trophy.

(He was also a finalist for the Hart Trophy but that went to phenom forward Connor McDavid.)

At the heart of the Columbus Blue Jackets’ franchise record-setting season, which saw them win 50 games and post 108 points while competing for the Metropolitan Division, was the performance of Bobrovsky. He was brilliant, particularly after his previous season didn’t go according to plan, in large part because of injuries.

He posted 41 wins over 63 starts, the most in a single season for him, and a .931 save percentage. That last stat technically isn’t an individual career best for Bobrovsky, although the one time he achieved a better save percentage was over 38 games during the lockout-shortened season.

Critical to his play was the fact he was able to remain healthy — a priority for Columbus heading into last season, and something that will need to continue once again in 2017-18. He was able to gain confidence in his own game and help propel his teammates to a different level, as the Blue Jackets competed with Pittsburgh and Washington through a good portion of the season for the division lead.

“When Bob’s at his game and feeling good, it brings a whole different kind of confidence into that room,” team captain Nick Foligno told the Associated Press last season.

Where Bobrovsky has struggled is in the playoffs. That continued again this past spring. In five games against a talented Penguins roster in the opening round, he allowed 20 goals against with an .882 save percentage, and is reportedly open to the idea of seeing a sports psychologist to help get over that hurdle.

With a good young roster, the Blue Jackets took quite a step forward last season. There was another productive year from Cam Atkinson. Zach Werenski impressed as a rookie defenseman. The biggest difference, however, was the goaltending Bobrovsky provided.

It’s difficult to believe April’s playoff struggles will have much, if any, impact on Bobrovsky heading into the new season. After all, he was able to prove in the weeks before that he can bounce back from disappointing times.

And he was able to prove that, when at his best, the Blue Jackets could be a dangerous team.

After another productive season, Cam Atkinson enters contract year with Blue Jackets

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This post is part of Blue Jackets Day on PHT…

Cam Atkinson had already proven himself to be a 20-goal scorer in the NHL. It was a mark he hit three consecutive times prior to last season.

And that’s when the former sixth-round pick from 2008 really broke out.

Atkinson, now 28 years old, led the Blue Jackets in scoring with 62 points. What highlighted his point totals was the fact he scored 35 goals — leading the team in that category, as well — in a year when only seven other players in the entire league were able to best his total, Sidney Crosby leading the way with 44.

Despite his output at the time, Atkinson was originally a snub from the 2017 All-Star Game before getting added to the event when Evgeni Malkin couldn’t participate because of injury.

Another area where Atkinson has been so valuable for the Blue Jackets has been on the power play. Of the 62 points he recorded last season, 21 of those were with the man advantage. He finished in a three-way tie for second on the team in that category.

It is worth pointing out that with the addition of Artemi Panarin, the Columbus coaching staff may have an adjustment in mind for Atkinson, according to assistant coach Brad Larsen.

From The Columbus Dispatch:

Larsen said plans can change – prospects are still a month away from leaving for Traverse City – but his first thought is to play Panarin at his familiar spot and slide Atkinson to the middle slot, one open with the free-agent defection of Sam Gagner.

“Panarin has had a ton of success on that off side with his one-timer,” Larsen said. “If I was going to say right now, I would say he’s going to start there. Cam has done an outstanding job there and we might shift him into the middle. Again, there are going to be discussions and we haven’t really gotten into it.”

While the Blue Jackets enter the season looking to build on a franchise record-setting 2016-17 campaign, Atkinson enters the final year of his current contract, which has a cap hit of $3.5 million and a total salary of $4.5 million, according to CapFriendly.

Aaron Portzline of The Athletic recently suggested market value on a long-term contract for Atkinson — who turns 29 years old next June, only a few weeks before free agency opens — may be between $5 million to “maybe” $6 million annually.

That’s a nice raise. Not bad for a player taken 157th overall in 2008. He now sits fourth among players from that draft class in career goals, behind only Steven Stamkos, Jordan Eberle and Derek Stepan.

Atkinson is now eligible to sign an extension, but for right now, the Blue Jackets still need to get restricted free agents Josh Anderson and Alexander Wennberg under contract for the upcoming season.

Looking to make the leap: Pierre-Luc Dubois

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This post is part of Blue Jackets Day on PHT…

Columbus surprised people when they took Pierre-Luc Dubois over Jesse Puljujarvi with the third overall pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft. Now Dubois is tasked with showing that they made the right call.

While Puljujarvi did get his first taste of the NHL last season with Edmonton, Dubois spent the full campaign in the QMJHL. However, Dubois is entering training camp with a real shot of landing a job with Columbus.

His versatility should work in his favor throughout his battle for a roster spot. Dubois is capable of serving as a winger or center and while he’s offensively gifted, he’s also a physical force.

It doesn’t hurt that he took his additional season at the junior level as a learning experience. He was able to play a full campaign at center and work on his positioning. He was also dealt from the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles to the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada during the season, which gave him the benefit of experiencing a different system.

“It was a little more of a defensive (style),” Dubois said of Blainville-Boisbriand’s system, per NHL.com. “That’s how we won our games, by scores of 2-1. It was a more pro-style game. I learned a lot from that.”

All that being said, he still has an uphill battle ahead of him. There’s a potential opening for him, but it’s not a given that he’ll secure that job and even if he does get a chance with Columbus, he’ll have to work hard to make his stint with them be more than just a nine-game trial.

The 19-year-old can’t play in the AHL yet either, so if he doesn’t find a role with the Blue Jackets then he’ll have to play in the QMJHL again. By contrast, Puljujarvi was able to be sent to the AHL last season and if he doesn’t play for Edmonton in 207-18 then he’ll at least be able to get ice time against men in the minors.

When PHT asked the question last year if the Blue Jackets were right in selecting Dubois over Puljujarvi roughly two-thirds of voters said no. Perhaps Dubois will be able to change some minds this season.

Related: Getting sent to junior made Blue Jackets prospect Dubois a ‘more mature’ player