When Wayne Gretzky retired in 1999, the Ontario Hockey League took the opportunity to create the Wayne Gretzky 99 Award to present to its playoff MVP. There is quite a roll call of honourees who were bound for bigger and brighter things — Derek Roy, Corey Perry, Brad Boyes, Taylor Hall and Marc Staal, who in 2007 became the only player from the losing team (the Sudbury Wolves) to win.
Others who delivered crucial veteran performances — think Robby Mignardi scoring 15 goals in 22 games during the Owen Sound Attack's run in 2011, or Austin Watson blocking a bajillion shots for the London Knights last spring — have gone on to win. With the Barrie Colts-London Knights championship series beginning Friday, here's a look at five frontrunners for the honour.
Max Domi, London Knights — Scoring is supposed to become more difficult in the post-season, particularly for a player in only his second season. Yet Domi has tallied torridly with 10 goals and 25 points in the Knights' first 14 playoff games, which one can call a prime-time performance without worrying about hyperbole. The 18-year-old forward has also made London's power play greater than the sum of its parts, with a 22.2 per cent conversion rate in the playoffs.
Hall, in 2009, was the last to be playoff MVP in his 17-year-old season.
Bo Horvat, London Knights — Domi's fellow sophomore is the other part of the proof that substance and style are not in conflict. The 18-year-old centre does it all for London. He's helmed the shutdown line which contained Plymouth Whalers 109-point scorer Vince Trocheck in the Western Conference final and has been vital on both specialty units. Horvat's nine-goal, 12-point post-season includes a last-second game-tying goal in a double-OT win, along with two short-handed goals in one game during the Plymouth series.
Mathias Niederberger, Barrie Colts — Should the Colts pull the upset, it will be by virtue of their overage goalie. Niederberger, a native of Dusseldorf who has played brilliantly for Barrie across the last two seasons while searching for a pro shot in North America, has a 2.08 average and .940 save percentage in 15 games. The stats probably fall shy of doing justice to why Niederbelievers love watching him play; the 5-foot-11 'tender makes many bailout saves he makes and allows the high-tempo Colts to take risks offensively. No import player has ever won the honour, though.
Mark Schiefele, Barrie Colts — The Scheifele-Anthony Camara-Zach Hall line will do Barrie's heavy lifting in the final, as it's done all spring. Should the Colts pull off the win, a lot of MVP consideration would conceivably go to Scheifele, their No. 1 centre who's probably been as good as advertised. The 19-year-old pivot's eight goals and playoff-leading 19 assists and 27 points are probably in line with what can reasonably be asked from someone who has shown enough potential to play 11 NHL games as a teenager. Scheifele's also more than held his own against some very heralded centres in the playoffs: Minnesota Wild prospect Tyler Graovac of Belleville, along with Philadelphia Flyers first-rounder Scott Laughton and Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Boone Jenner on the Oshawa Generals.
Chris Tierney, London Knights — Domi's linemate is in the top 10 in playoff scoring with five goals and 18 points, including two overtime winners during the first two rounds of the playoffs. The San Jose Sharks signed pick isn't as high-profile as either Domi or Horvat, but his all-around play has helped London's cause. Tierney can also be viewed as 'the responsible one' who helps Domi and their right wing, Alex Broadhurst, kick it into gear offensively.
All three of the London candidates are likely back next season. Chilling thought, that is.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org.