The NHL's playoffs reach the beginning of the end on Wednesday night when the Colorado Avalanche play host to the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. The Avalanche have been the betting favorite to win the Stanley Cup since the preseason, but the two-time defending champion Lightning stand in their way. Currently, Colorado is a -190 favorite to win the series and a -160 favorite in Game 1 on their home ice. The Lightning are +155 underdogs to win their third straight Stanley Cup.
These two teams produce one of the more anticipated Stanley Cup Final in recent memory. The storylines are certainly there, and both teams are littered with elite talent. That talent shows itself in the Conn Smythe market, where four players are +400 or better to win the playoff MVP. Four other players are below 20-to-1. Let's take a deeper look at the Conn Smythe market and the odds.
What you need to know about the Conn Smythe Trophy
All four of the major sports have an award for the MVP of their championship series or game. However, the NHL is the only league that awards the trophy based on the body of work from the whole playoffs rather than just the final series or game.
Cale Makar leads all remaining players in points-per-game in these playoffs. Nikita Kucherov leads all forwards in that regard. Nathan MacKinnon has the most goals of any player remaining. Andrei Vasilevskiy has been spectacular again, posting a 2.27 goals against average and .928 save percentage. All four of these players are elite talents, and all four have had strong postseasons so far. That combination makes them the top-4 favorites in the Conn Smythe market.
It works in the opposite direction as well. From all accounts, Brayden Point will return early in this series for Tampa Bay. If not Game 1 on Wednesday, Game 2 looks like a near certainty. Point has led the playoffs in goal scoring each of the last two playoffs. At his current odds of 100-to-1, he might look like an appealing bet. However, the fact Point has missed two-plus series will be held against him, which wouldn't be the case if it was an award based strictly on performance in the Final. Obviously, recency bias is human nature, but it's hard to imagine a world where Point would be awarded playoff MVP when he's missed over half the postseason.
The award has been handed out 56 times since 1965, and 51 of those winners played on the team that won the Stanley Cup. The most recent winner of the award to fall short of winning the Cup was Jean-Sebastien Giguere of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in 2003. Before that, it was Ron Hextall in 1987. In total, of the five times where a player on the losing team won the award, four of those winners were goaltenders.
There's also no real positional bias to the award. The Conn Smythe has been won by a center 19 times, a goaltender 17 times, a defenseman 11 times and a winger nine times. The two most recent winners of the Conn Smythe are in this series as members of the Lightning. Victor Hedman won the award in 2020, while Vasilevskiy won it last season.
Analyzing the Avalanche
As mentioned above, the Stanley Cup winner produces the Conn Smythe winner over 91% of the time (51 of 56). The Colorado Avalanche are -190 favorites to win the Stanley Cup, which implies just under a 66% probability of them winning it. If we combine those two probabilities, it suggests there's over a 60% chance the winner of the Conn Smythe will come from the Avalanche.
When analyzing the Avalanche, I'd start by removing Darcy Kuemper and Pavel Francouz from the picture. A goalie wins this award over 30% of the time, but it's hard to envision that being the case with Colorado this year. It looks like Kuemper will start Game 1, which makes sense considering he's Colorado's No. 1 goalie and is fully healthy. However, Kuemper has an .897 save percentage in these playoffs and a -4.4 goals saved above expectation. He's struggled mightily. It's hard to envision this series playing out in a way where the Avalanche win because Kuemper stood on his head, as Colorado hasn't relied on their goaltending in that way all season long.
Cale Makar is the favorite to win the award at +175, and while playing the chalk might be boring, he's the way I'd go. He's averaging 1.57 points per game in these playoffs as a defenseman, fourth behind Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Sidney Crosby. Speaking of McDavid, Makar played a lot against him last round and did a good enough job in slowing him down. He eats tough minutes on the backend, and the Avalanche control the puck when he's on the ice. He also produces points at a superb rate.
If we're looking for a value play, I'd lean towards Mikko Rantanen at 16-to-1. He's got just one less point than Nathan MacKinnon in these playoffs, who's +200 to win the award. There's a good chance the MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog (20-to-1 to win the award) line sees a lot of Anthony Cirelli in this series. Cirelli has done a tremendous job shutting down the likes of Auston Matthews, Aleksander Barkov and Mika Zibanejad in these playoffs. If he does the same to MacKinnon's line, Rantanen might be asked to pick up a lot of the offensive slack on the second line.
Analyzing the Lightning
While we started our Avalanche handicap by eliminating their goaltending from the picture, you need to start with the goaltending in Tampa Bay.
Andrei Vasilevskiy is the most recent winner of the Conn Smythe due to his playoff brilliance in 2021. He's repeating those heroics this year. So far in these playoffs, Vasilevskiy has a 2.27 goals against average and a .928 save percentage. He's also saved 12.7 goals over expectation, second best in these playoffs behind the now eliminated Igor Shesterkin.
In these playoffs, Colorado is scoring an average of 4.64 goals per game and firing 40.7 shots at the opposing goaltender per night. This is an offensive juggernaut that finished fourth in goals during the regular season. However, Vasilevskiy and the Lightning have already eliminated the top-two scoring teams from the regular season in these playoffs in Florida and Toronto.
If Tampa Bay is going to win the Stanley Cup, it'll probably be in large part due to Vasilevskiy, once again. Goaltending is the Lightning's biggest advantage in this series, and that's a good advantage to have. Vasilevskiy is +400 to win the Conn Smythe, and if you like Tampa to pull off the upset and secure the three-peat, you should probably add that Vasilevskiy ticket to your betting card as well.
If you're looking for longer odds, Steven Stamkos sticks out. The Lightning captain scored both of Tampa Bay's goals in their Game 6 victory over the Rangers to punch their ticket to the Stanley Cup Final. As mentioned above, that matters in the Conn Smythe picture. He's got nine playoff goals, second in this series behind MacKinnon. Stamkos finished top-10 in the league in goals during the regular season, so he's certainly capable of having a big series offensively. Stamkos is 14-to-1 to win the Conn Smythe.
Stamkos' linemate, Nikita Kucherov, is +400 to win the award. 2020 Conn Smythe winner and 2022 Norris Trophy finalist Victor Hedman is 20-to-1 to win the playoff MVP this year.