Central Division

Conn Smythe dark-horse candidates: Western Conference

Los Angeles forward Justin Williams helped his team earn a Stanley Cup ... and was rewarded with a Conn Smythe for his efforts. Who might be this year's dark-horse? (Photo: Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images)
Conn Smythe dark-horse candidates: Western Conference
Joe St. Germain

It’s an old cliche by now, but you can’t win a Stanley Cup without an unheralded player or two making his mark. Superstars will, by and large, cancel each other out over the course of a series — it’s the lesser-known guys, the depth scorers and the grinders, who usually make the difference. To opposing coaches, they’re match-up nightmares — which is why they make a perfect Conn Smythe dark horse.

(Get it? Nightmares? Dark horses? Ahh, equine humor — it never fails to stirrup the emotions!)

Sure, it’s still more than likely that a star forward or a hot goalie will take home playoff MVP honors, but it’s far from guaranteed. With that in mind, let’s take a look at each team’s darkest horse.

Dallas Stars – John Klingberg

The 2015-16 Stars offense was like a Hydra made of battleships. Although they didn’t reach the elusive 300 goal plateau (the last team to do so was the 2009-10 Capitals), their 265 goals easily led the league. No surprise; they’re loaded with plenty of big-name stars with top-end scoring talent. What’s more, they brought in a handful of veterans to help bolster the playoff roster, with guys like Patrick Sharp, Johnny Oduya and Antti Niemi all — wow, seriously? Did Jim Nill just watch a Blackhawks Stanley Cup championship DVD? That’s amazing.

Err … anyway, the Stars should expect contributions all across their lineup, but if they’re going to make a deep playoff run they’ll need to lean heavily on defenseman John Klingberg. Not only is he their best offensive blueliner (58 points) he’s their best puck possession player, with a 55.3 percent Corsi For rate. His 22:41 of ice time trailed only Alex Goligoski among regular starters, too. Klingberg is the kind of dual-threat talent teams crave in the playoffs, and if he plays at the level he’s capable he could find himself with some hardware come June.

Minnesota Wild – Jarret Stoll

Philosophical question: if a role player steps up during the playoffs but there aren’t any stars around to see it, can he really be considered a dark-horse? That’s what the Wild are up against. If Minnesota is going to stun the Stars, they’ll have to do so without the services of Zach Parise, Thomas Vanek and possibly Erik Haula. They’re going to need some stellar performances from … well, basically everyone else.

Journeyman center Jarret Stoll has been a key depth player for the Los Angeles Kings in recent years, but now he’s holding down the ice for about 11 minutes a night in Minnesota. With the equivalent of an entire LINE missing for Minny, it’s going to take some truly Herculean individual efforts to get past Dallas, let alone beyond. Stoll’s experience, underrated scoring touch and 57 percent face-off success rate — coupled with an increased role — could be the harbinger of a Conn Smythe run.

St. Louis Blues – Scottie Upshall

Virtually everyone on St. Louis has a chance to take home the Conn Smythe. I mean, unless you’re someone really random, like, I dunno, let’s say Scottie Upshall, odds are you have a chance. But definitely NOT Scottie Upshall.

Aw, man, it’s gonna be Scottie Upshall, isn’t it? He has Justin Williams written all over him.

This will be Upshall’s fourth postseason trip with as many teams but his first since 2011. He’s managed 10 points in 26 playoff games and he’s a five-time double-digit goal scorer in the regular season. Most importantly, he’s not one of the Blues’ standout forwards or defensemen, so it’s a perfect situation for a guy like Upshall to fly under the radar and strike while the Smythe iron’s hot. He has a nose for the net and he’s not afraid to do dirty work to get his goals. He plays the game the right way and really leaves everything out on the ice. I’d keep going, but I’m about out of cliches.

Chicago Blackhawks – Trevor van Riemsdyk

At this point, it’d almost be easier to list who DOESN’T have a Conn Smythe on this team and just pick one of them. We’re really gonna have to dig deep into the bag for this one. How about: Trevor van Riemsdyk?

Hey, where are you going?! I’m serious!

TVR logged the fourth-most PK minutes on Chicago, a unit that ranked … OK, well, 22nd in the league as a whole. But still, van Riemsdyk played all 82 games, led the team in blocked shots (despite playing fewer minutes than Patrick Kane!) and brings stability to a defensive unit the ‘Hawks unsuccessfully tried to bolster with Trevor Daley and Rob Scuderi. TVR is young and can play in any situation, and Chicago could easily make another deep playoff run. The opportunity is there if he wants it.

Anaheim Ducks – David Perron

Remember that crazy $16 million deal the Ducks gave Carl Hagelin last year? Well the failure seeds Bob Murray sowed eventually bloomed into one David Perron, and now Anaheim is reaping the rewards. The Ducks shipped the struggling Hagelin to Pittsburgh for the struggling Perron, and the change of scenery has done wonders for both. Consider Perron’s season splits:

  • With PIT: 43 games, 16 points, 51.2 CF%
  • With ANA: 28 games, 20 points, 55.3 CF%

Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry are going to draw all of the offensive attention and Ryan Kesler is likely to draw top defensive duties. Perron’s scoring touch is the kind of depth that playoff contenders crave, and at age 27 he’s just now entering his prime. Given how quickly he’s acclimated to Anaheim, this could be the start of a new and improved David Perron. Wait — I have something for this: the Perronaissance. Eh? Eh??

Nashville Predators – Calle Jarnkrok

A couple years ago, the joke would have been that Nashville was so full of no-name talent that their whole TEAM was a darkhorse. I mean, Mike Fisher isn’t even the most famous person in his own relationship. That’s not the case anymore, with names like Forsberg and Neal and Johansen taking the ice in Music City.

Calle Jarnkrok is also the kind of name you don’t forget, mostly because it’s a crazy name, but the dude put up 30 points in the regular season and logged the third-most minutes on the penalty kill. On a team that still flies under the radar, Jarnkrok is the stealth bomber.

After getting his feet wet last year, Jarnkrok will need to dive in to the deep end if the Preds intend to sink Anaheim. If he can keep their playoff dreams afloat, Jarnkrok is a great darkhorse for your Conn Smythe pool.

Water.

Los Angeles Kings – Rob Scuderi

At this point, it’d almost be easier to list who DOESN’T have a Conn Smythe on this team and just pick one of them. We’re really gonna have to dig deep into the bag for this one. How about: Rob Scuderi?

Hey, where are you going?! I’m serious!

He has two Stanley Cups to his name, so he knows how to win. He’s played in 117 playoff games (tied for 20th among active NHLers) and averages just over 20 minutes of ice time, which is more than enough time for any player to make an impact.

Plus I mean, dude has been a straight up pylon for a while. No coach in their right mind is gonna look at a roster with Jeff Carter, Marian Gaborik and Anze Kopitar and build their gameplan around stopping Rob Scuderi … which is exactly what Scuderi wants. Don’t forget, he once called himself “the piece” of the Penguins’ championship puzzle, and don’t we all want a guy with confidence come playoff time?

San Jose Sharks – Joel Ward

The Sharks are kind of a weird team. I know that’s a little light on analysis, but it’s kind of true. They have plenty of great players, but only three of them topped the 50-point mark and five of their top six scorers are north of 30 years old. Their plus-30 goal differential was the sixth-best mark in the league and their power play unit ranked third; Hockey-Reference’s SRS rating calls the Sharks the fifth-best team in hockey and the second-best in the west … yet their 98 points look somewhat pedestrian compared to the league’s elite. It’s a bit hard to figure out.

Not much of this has to do with Joel Ward, mind you, but if anything it illustrates that the Sharks got production from just about everyone. Ward, you may recall, had a dominant 2010-11 playoff performance that earned him a series of lucrative deals with Washington and then San Jose. It’s clear that both of these perennial powers were paying for said experience, hoping lightning would strike twice, so to speak.

Although he never quite got started with the Caps, Ward’s 7-6-13 line in 12 games with Nashville had him on a pretty clear Conn Smythe track back then … if the Sharks want to go deep this year, Ward’s already proven he’s up to the task of taking them.

Central Division
Joe St. Germain
@joesaintgermain

Joe St. Germain is a writer for Along the Boards and man of simple tastes: sports, scotch and silly puns. I also have a pretty outstanding golden retriever that I’m prone to calling “Barkko Ruutu” or “Sidney Pawsby” from time to time.

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