We have two rounds of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs in the books and are officially on to the Conference Finals. With that, we also get a little more clarity in the Conn Smythe Trophy race for the playoffs most valuable player.
There are a couple of names already starting to stand out and distance themselves from the rest of the pack. Here, we take a look at the leading contenders, including a couple of superstars in Edmonton and two of the best goalies in the NHL.
Where things stand going into the Conference Finals
1. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers. It has been years, probably decades, since we have seen a playoff performance like the one we are currently seeing from McDavid in Edmonton. He has been an absolute monster and having his moment in the spotlight. The only thing his career has been lacking to this point is team success, and he is helping to drag his team to that success by accounting for almost all of their offense. Truly a monster performance.
2. Igor Shesterkin, New York Rangers. Speaking of dragging a team to success. Shesterkin has been the best goalie in the league this season and outside of that random two-game stumble early in the First Round he has continued it in the playoffs. He now has a .928 save percentage in his 14 playoff games and has been the biggest difference-maker for the Rangers. New York has an expected goals share of just 41 percent in all situations this postseason, which is by far the lowest mark through two rounds of any Conference Finalist over the past 10 years. Goaltending and special teams is the name of the game for them in the playoffs, with goaltending being the biggest driver. Shesterkin is their MVP and should probably be the league MVP from the regular season.
[Related: Avalanche vs. Oilers 2022 Western Conference Finals Preview]
3. Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning. Vasilevskiy is quickly going from best goalie of his era, to all-time great with his playoff performances over the years. He is one of the giants of the position and after a slow start in the First Round is back to his usual dominant self. He helped hold the highest scoring team in 30 years (the Florida Panthers) to just three goals in four games in the Second Round, capping it off with yet another series-clinching shutout. Nobody is more automatic than him in a potential knockout game. He has still played every minute of every Lightning playoff game over the past three years.
4. Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche. He was not quite as dominant against St. Louis as he was in the First Round against Nashville, but he has still been Colorado’s best player from the start of these playoffs. In 200 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey this postseason the Avalanche have a 65 percent expected goals share with him on the ice, a 15-8 goals edge, while Makar himself has 13 points in 11 games.
5. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche. MacKinnon is one of the most dominant and dynamic players in the league, and we saw at times against St. Louis how he can absolutely take over a game. Edmonton might have the weakest overall defense (at least on paper) of any opponent the Avalanche have faced so far this postseason so it might be a big opportunity for him to breakout even more in this series.
[Related: 2022 Conference Finals Predictions]
6. Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers. He is matching McDavid point-for-point in the playoffs and is doing so while clearly being something less than 100 percent physically. Most of his success has come on a line with McDavid, and McDavid is clearly driving the bus for that group. But you still can not ignore what Draisaitl has done. He and McDavid are the two best offensive players in the world right now and they are dominating.
7. Adam Fox, New York Rangers. Overall, the Rangers’ defensive performance has not been great in the playoffs. They have relied on Shesterkin a ton and are just getting by defensively. For all of their flaws as a team, Fox has been a standout impact player offensively with already 18 points in the Rangers’ first 14 games. He has factored into the scoring in 12 of the Rangers’ first 14 games and already has four multi-point games.
8. Mike Smith, Edmonton Oilers. Probably the most stunning and surprising individual performance of the Stanley Cup Playoffs so far. Goaltending was one of the Oilers’s major Achilles Heels this season until Smith started to go on a roll during the stretch run. That roll has continued in the playoffs with a .927 save percentage in 12 games, including two shutouts. He has had his moments of Mike Smith chaos, but he has also been really good and a significant factor in the Oilers’ first Western Conference Finals appearance since the 2005-06 season.
[NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2022 schedule, TV info]
9. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning. Kucherov is still a game-breaker for the Lightning and has had some signature moments already this postseason, including that last-second assist to help the Lightning take a commanding lead against Florida in the Second Round. He already has 15 points in 11 games, including five multi-point games. He is one of the best playoff performers in league history.
10. Mika Zibanejad, New York Rangers. After a slow start through the first few games, Zibanejad has gone off this postseason for the Rangers, especially on the power play. At one point he had a four-game goal-scoring streak and was a huge difference-maker in Games 6 and 7 in the First Round against Pittsburgh. He has been the Rangers best, most productive forward in the playoffs.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.