The Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP has been given out every postseason since 1965, and for the most part it reads like the invite list for a Hockey Hall of Fame mixer: Bobby Orr, Patrick Roy, Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Mario Lemieux and so on.
But occasionally, players with less star wattage can win MVP. Think Claude Lemieux's clutch scoring in 1995 or Jean-Sebastien Giguere's stellar goaltending in a losing effort for the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim or, perhaps the greatest example, Butch Goring's 1981 Conn for the Islanders.
Which players in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs might have Conn Smythe potential, if not the hyp,e entering the postseason?
(FYI: The focus here is on higher-seeded teams. Why? Because as Yahoo! Sports NHL writer Nick Cotsonika notes, only one bottom four seed has won the Cup since the League started seeding the conferences one through eight in 1993-94 — the 1995 Devils, in the shortened season. Plus, only three eighth seeds and only two seventh seeds have won a first-round series since the lockout. Good luck, California.)
Kevin Bieksa, Vancouver Canucks
The Canucks defenseman is coming off his best offensive season in the NHL and plays in every situation. In the playoffs last year, he was in beast mode: Playing 25:40 per game to lead Vancouver, and rightfully earning Conn talk entering the Final. If neither Sedin nor Luongo/Schneider offer a clear MVP during a Canucks' Cup run, Bieksa could be the guy.
Ryan Callahan, New York Rangers
One assumes that if the Rangers win the Cup, it'll be on the back of Henrik Lundqvist or on the stick of Marian Gaborik or Brad Richards, who won the Conn in 2004. But when Callahan scores, he scores significantly: 9 game winners, seven first-goals, two OT winners and 29 goals on the season. Factor in what the captain does defensively, and he could he a heart-and-soul choice for the Conn.
Scott Hartnell, Philadelphia Flyers
How else to cap what's been a dream season for the hirsute Flyers forward? He's scored 6 first goals and 7 game-winners in a 37-goal season, and plays a style that can correctly be termed "playoff hockey." He had 17 points in 23 games during the Flyers' run to the Final in 2010. And if he disturbs the feces in the Penguins series to help the Flyers to a win, he could be this season's Claude Lemieux '95.
Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins
He's under the radar only because the Bruins are stacked with other candidates that seem Conn-worthy: Tim Thomas, who owns one; Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron. But Marchand had 19 points in 25 playoff games as a rookie and saw his offensive numbers improve this season. Could he step up and score the big goals left on the table without Nathan Horton in the lineup?
James Neal, Pittsburgh Penguins
How many points did James Neal score this season? That'd be 81. How many points did Neal score without Evgeni Malkin on the ice? That'd be 11. Which is to say that when Geno generates points, Neal usually has a piece of the action. To win the Conn Smythe, he'll need some big moments -- OT game winners, for example -- to break through the Malkin and Crosby hype.
David Perron, St. Louis Blues
If the Blues push for a Stanley Cup, it could be argued that goal-scoring will be more vital than stout defense. The latter is a given, with Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott backstopping a defense that was one of the best in recent NHL history. The offense is not, which means players like Perron will need to bring it. He has 21 goals in 57 games, and was hot down the stretch with 12 points in his last 15 games. He'll need to be a catalyst, despite just four games of playoff experience.
Alex Radulov, Nashville Predators
He tallied seven points in nine games with the Preds, and has eight points in his 10 Stanley Cup Playoff games. While in the KHL, he tallied 39 points in 41 playoff games. He's clutch … and wouldn't the other 14 GMs in the West just love to see David Poile's last-season coup power them to the Cup?
Mike Smith, Phoenix Coyotes
Of all the goalies in the NHL playoffs that may have that Halak'ian gene for playoff dominance, Smith is the most intriguing. He was outstanding for the Coyotes down the stretch: Winning 6 of 7 games, pitching three shutouts, giving up more than two goals just once. He's found himself in Dave Tippett's system; much like Halak became impenetrable behind Kirk Muller's defense in Montreal, Smith could do the same with the Coyotes against the Blackhawks.