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Conn Smythe Rankings: Heiskanen doing heavy lifting

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Now that we're in the conference final round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the race for playoff MVP has started to come into focus.

A stellar two-way defenseman leads the way this time, while more than one goaltender has been instrumental in their teams' respective runs.

Here are our top five Conn Smythe contenders as we enter the penultimate stage of the postseason:

xGF% = Expected goals for percentage at five-on-five
GSAx = Goals saved above expected
GSAA = Goals saved above average

5. Jake Oettinger

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13 8-5 .918 3.05 4.35

Oettinger's bounced back from an uncharacteristically poor regular season with a strong playoff for the Dallas Stars. His 2.09 goals-against average is the lowest of any netminder to advance past the first round. Oettinger also ranks in the top five in save percentage, GSAA, and GSAx among those who've made at least five starts between the pipes this spring. Making matters more impressive, Oettinger delivered his stellar numbers against the Vegas Golden Knights and Colorado Avalanche.

For as good as Oettinger's been, he faces a tough path to hardware as he's perhaps not even the most valuable player on his team - more on that guy later. Oettinger certainly has what it takes to move up our rankings if he keeps it up against the Edmonton Oilers, but our top four are in a different class.

4. Aleksander Barkov

Steve Babineau / National Hockey League / Getty
11 5 8 21:26 58.8

Matthew Tkachuk called Barkov "the best player in the world right now" following the Florida Panthers' series-clinching win in Game 6 against the Boston Bruins. It's not shocking that Tkachuk would be so complimentary of his teammate considering Barkov - who claimed his second career Selke Trophy on Saturday - has a legitimate case as the most complete forward thus far in the postseason.

Barkov's 13 points trail Tkachuk by one for the Panthers lead. And his five goals trail Carter Verhaeghe by one for the team high. He's also made his goals count, potting three game-winners.

The 28-year-old has produced stellar underlying numbers despite facing top competition every night. Nikita Kucherov didn't score in Round 1, and David Pastrnak found twine once in Round 2. Barkov also notably made a heroic game-saving block on Pastrnak late in Game 6. When a captain makes those types of Conn Smythe-caliber plays, it galvanizes an entire team.

3. Igor Shesterkin

Josh Lavallee / National Hockey League / Getty
10 8-2 .923 9.09 6.04

Shesterkin has been the best goaltender in the playoffs by several metrics. For one, nobody still playing in the postseason has a better save percentage than the New York Rangers netminder, and he's earned his eight wins in fewer games than the others with whom he's tied for the league lead.

The Russian trails only vanquished Boston Bruins puck-stopper Jeremy Swayman in GSAx and GSAA in all situations this postseason, and he accumulated those numbers in two fewer contests. Shesterkin hasn't faced as many shots as his Stars counterpart, but he's been more effective.

Shesterkin has allowed more than three goals only once in these playoffs, giving up four in a Game 4 defeat to the Carolina Hurricanes. He also authored a .919 save percentage in the six contests against the Canes, who boast one of the better offenses in the NHL. Shesterkin's been a model of consistency for the Blueshirts this spring and the biggest reason they're in the conference final.

2. Leon Draisaitl

Christian Petersen / Getty Images Sport / Getty
12 8 16 21:08 49.32

Draisaitl leads all playoff skaters in points and even-strength points (12) as the high-flying Edmonton Oilers march into the Western Conference Final for the second time in three years. Edmonton has a plethora of players playing their way into the playoff MVP conversation - Connor McDavid, Zach Hyman, and Evan Bouchard among them - but Draisaitl has been driving the bus for the Oilers night in and night out. Just ask the captain.

Draisaitl is amid his third consecutive dominant postseason. If Edmonton goes all the way, he'll undoubtedly cement himself as one of the all-time playoff greats. Only Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux reached 100 postseason points in fewer games than Draisaitl, who joined the century club in a Game 6 win over the Canucks.

1. Miro Heiskanen

Icon Sportswire / Icon Sportswire / Getty
13 5 8 28:01 54.51

Heiskanen was arguably the NHL's best two-way defenseman during the regular season, and he carried that over to the playoffs. The Stars blue-liner leads all skaters still active in the postseason in average ice time by a wide margin. But it's not just his hefty workload that puts him ahead of the pack for this award.

The Finnish rearguard is driving possession for the Stars this spring. That's an impressive feat considering they've faced and dispatched stiff competition in the defending champion Golden Knights and the Avalanche, who won it all in 2022.

Throw in the fact that Heiskanen has raised his offensive game by producing a point per contest in these playoffs (after notching 54 in 71 during the regular season), and it's clear he deserves to lead the way in the chase for the Conn Smythe.

Honorable mentions: Wyatt Johnston, Matthew Tkachuk, Chris Kreider, Trocheck

(Analytics sources: Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Hockey)

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