Marc-Andre Fleury is making an early case for why he should be the winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy, given to the playoff MVP every year. Fleury is joined by other candidates like Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, Victor Hedman and Nikita Kucherov from the Tampa Bay Lightning and Nathan MacKinnon from the Colorado Avalanche.
There’s no arguing that Fleury has been the best player on the Vegas Golden Knights so far. He’s already made a litany of highlight-reel saves and kept the VGK in games or periods they had no business sticking around in. The stats say 3-1 record, 0.99 goals-against average and a .966 save percentage. The last two stats are tops in the league right now, with Hellebuyck ranking second in save percentage (.958) and third in GAA (1.55). Those numbers are all the more impressive against the Edmonton Oilers, who are struggling and find themselves down 3-0 to the Jets.
MacKinnon and Kucherov have been pure forces of nature in their respective series. Both players have nine points, and MacKinnon leads all playoff scorers with six goals. No other player has more than three (Kucherov is one of them). While the St. Louis Blues didn’t look like they were presenting a challenge to the Avs at any point in that series, MacKinnon has still looked like an absolute beast.
So really, there are three players I think have stood out in the first round so far as early finalists. Fleury, Hellebuyck and MacKinnon have been the most dominant players so far.
To argue Marc-Andre Fleury further, consider that a bounce or a break going the other way would see Minnesota already eliminated instead of winning Game One 1-0 in overtime. And even that shot had to deflect off his own defenseman to beat him. If you want some high degree of difficulty saves Fleury has those too. In fact, I don’t know if the quality of chances he’s faced in this series will be fully appreciated because there’s too much of a tendency to say “well, it’s Minnesota” based on outdated impressions of the Wild.
What will really advance the cases of either Fleury or MacKinnon will be the individual’s success in the pending second-round matchup between the Golden Knights and Avalanche. Colorado has already advanced, and it would appear that Vegas is poised to do the same. The interesting side effect of this pending matchup is that it completely eliminates one of the top two playoff players so far when the dust settles.
For me, the real argument for MVP boils down to which player his team could least have had success without. Who had the biggest impact? Not always an easy question to answer. For every clear-cut winner, there are two more that requires serious debate. Sometimes it can feel like an honorarium instead of a deserving award.
And remember, that player is going to come from the last two teams standing in the Stanley Cup Final.
At this point, I can see a Stanley Cup Finalist coming from the Honda West Division. In a way, the anticipated matchup between the Golden Knights and Avs is a Stanley Cup in miniature, a series that will be labeled a classic even before it reaches its climax.
Given what Marc-Andre Fleury has done in the first round not only with numbers but highlight-reel saves, I can’t help but feel he has put himself in a prime position to claim the Conn Smythe when the time comes. The Vegas Golden Knights aren’t there yet, but this team is looking better and better as the first round wears on.