Conn Smythe Watch: Vasilevskiy, MacKinnon early contenders

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Now that the Second Round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs is underway it is time to check in with our first Conn Smythe Trophy watch.

Leading the way early on is Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy as he continues to show why he is a Vezina Trophy favorite. He is just narrowly ahead of Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon.

Following close behind are a couple of the NHL’s top scorers and most electrifying players, and a couple of goalies from the surprise Canadian teams in the North Division.

1. Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning. The defending Stanley Cup champions have not played great so far this postseason. The Panthers gave them everything they could handle in the First Round, while the Hurricanes are right there with them step-for-step through the first two games of the Second Round. The difference so far has been Vasilevskiy. He has faced more shots and made more saves than any other goalie in the playoffs so far, and enters Game 3 with a .939 save percentage through his first eight games with a shutout. He is the reason they are 6-2 right now.

2. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche. Really, at this point, it might as well be a coin flip between Vasilevskiy and MacKinnon. The Presidents’ Trophy winning Avalanche are 6-0 so far in the playoffs and have jumped out to a 2-0 series lead on the team they finished the regular season tied with at the top of the standings. MacKinnon is leading the way with eight goals and 13 points in those six games, having been one of the few superstars that has not been hampered by the tight checking and obstruction of the playoffs. MacKinnon and the Avs are playing at a different level than every other team in the league right now.

[NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2021 Second Round schedule, TV info]

3. David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins. When that Bruins top line gets rolling there is nobody that is going to stop them, and Pastrnak is the guy that is going to put the puck in the net. He has at least one point in six of the Bruins’ first seven playoff games, including three multi-point games, and already has a league-leading 40 shots on goal this postseason.

4. Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets. He did not have a great Game 1 against Montreal, but he was sensational in the First Round against Edmonton and played a critical role in shutting down Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and the Oilers. Without Hellebuyck playing at the level he played at there is no way that series ends in a sweep. It may have even gone in the other direction.

5. Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche. Honestly, there are probably four or five member of the Avalanche that could be on the top-five of this list. Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog, Brandon Saad, Philipp Grubauer. They are all sensational and having incredible postseasons. But out of that group MacKinnon and Makar seem to stand out above the rest as the two players really driving this thing. Makar might already be the best defensemen in hockey, and the way he skates with the puck is unmatched in today’s game.

6. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning. After missing the entire regular season he showed up at playoff time and already has 12 points in his first eight games and is pacing the Lightning offense. Again one of the top scorers in the postseason.

7. Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens. He may not be as consistently dominant as he once was at his peak, but he can still put everything together and put the Canadiens on his back and carry them. He did that starting with Game 5 in the First Round and helped send the Maple Leafs home early with another First Round exit. Going back to the 2019-20 playoffs he has a .932 all situations save percentage in his 18 playoff games during that stretch. You still do not want to see this guy in the opposing net at playoff time.

[NBC STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

8. Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights. His redemption season marches on. After losing his starting job in the playoffs a year ago, and seemingly out of time with the Golden Knights, Fleury came back this season and reclaimed his starting job, earned his first career top-three finish in the Vezina Trophy voting, and is now having a great postseason. He has been the Vegas’ best player so far.

9. Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes. Carolina’s best player already has five goals, including two game-winners. Among those two game-winning goals is an overtime series-clincher, in a game where he helped start a two-goal comeback to avoid a seventh game in the series.

10. Jean-Gabriel Pageau, New York Islanders. Ilya Sorokin deserves some attention for the way he played against the Penguins, helping carry the Islanders through that series. But at this point I have a difficult time placing a goalie on this list that has only played in half of the games. Maybe that is unfair, because Sorokin has been great. But so has Pageau at both ends of the ice, helping to lead the team’s offense and also playing his usual brand of fantastic defense. His acquisition and contract has been Lou Lamoriello’s best roster move with the Islanders.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.