With the second round of the 2011 NHL playoffs nearing completion I thought it was time to start speculating on which of the players left in this spring’s tournament has the best chance of taking home the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.

Most players who win the Conn Smythe downplay the accolade, claiming it is no more than a nice bonus to go along with their Stanley Cup victory. Or, on the flip side, those rare Conn Smythe winners while playing on a losing team claim it is no consolation for not winning the Cup. While it seems to get snubbed by those who win it, the Conn Smythe is probably the greatest measure of individual performance in the game of hockey. Sure, winning any of the Hart, Vezina, Norris or Art Ross trophies is a very impressive achievement, but those are regular season awards. In order to capture a Conn Smythe a player has to come up huge for his team at the biggest time of year. It measures clutch performance under pressure and the ability to elevate one’s game while playing under immense pressure. Those who win it join NHL legends like Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Jean Beliveau, Patrick Roy and Ken Dryden, all of whom have earned the award at least once in their respective Hall of Fame careers.

Jonathan Toews was the most recent player to claim the accolade, but his exit in the first round of this year’s playoffs ensures that we will have a new winner this year. So which players are making the most compelling argument as playoff MVP in this year’s playoffs so far? Let’s take a look at the leading candidates:

Ryan Kesler

Though in past years the Conn Smythe Trophy winner and the playoff scoring leader are often one in the same person, the criteria for determining a winner extends far beyond mere statistics. True, Ryan Kesler has the stats – he is currently tied for the playoff lead in scoring with 13 points – but those points are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how valuable Kesler has been to the Canucks during their playoff run to date.

Kesler has been Mr. Everything for his team. He’s been their emotional leader, and whenever the team has needed a lift it has been Kesler, not captain Henrik Sedin, who has lit a fire and got the team going in the right direction. He has played huge minutes and has been on the ice in every crucial situation, whether on the powerplay, penalty kill, or late in the game to take a huge faceoff with his team up or down a goal. If he continues playing the way he is and Vancouver can finally hoist the Stanley Cup for the first time in their history it is hard to imagine any scenario in which Ryan Kesler will not capture the Conn Smythe.

Pavel Datsyuk

Though his team is currently on the brink of elimination, down 3-2 in their second round series against the San Jose Sharks, Pavel Datsyuk is in no way responsible for that situation. The slick Russian forward has been at his crafty best throughout the first month of the playoffs. Like Kesler, he is tied for the league lead in scoring with 13 points, despite the fact that he has played three fewer games than the Vancouver star.

Datsyuk has not been getting those points quietly either. He has been on the highlight reel in nearly every game, electrifying fans and confounding opponents with his jaw-dropping stick-handling ability. Despite battling an apparent injury Datsyuk was again magnificent in game 5 against the Sharks, notching three assists and helping keep the Detroit Red Wings alive in a must win game in the unfriendly confines of the Shark tank.

As usual, the three time defending Selke Trophy winner has also been a beast on the defensive side of the puck, and his almost wizardly ability to steal pucks from opponents has been giving the opposition fits. If the Wings can do the miraculous, and come back to beat the Sharks after digging themselves into a 3-0 hole it will be in large part to the efforts of Pavel Datsyuk.

Vincent Lecavalier

Some readers might raise an eyebrow at this pick. In reaching the semi-finals for the first time since their Stanley Cup victory in 2004 the Tampa Bay Lightning have had no shortage of key contributors. Martin St. Louis is tied for the league lead in points with 13, Steve Downie has chipped in with 12 points while playing a third line role. Even more surprisingly, grinder Sean Bergenheim has chipped in with 7 goals. And let’s not forget the stellar play of 41 year old goaltender Dwayne Roloson who continues to defy Father Time and currently leads the post-season in save percentage (.941) and goals against average (2.01).

Yes, the Lightning are certainly getting no shortage of great performances during their Cup drive, but in my opinion it is the contribution of their captain that has been the biggest key to date. Lecavalier, after a subpar regular season that saw him score only 54 points, currently sits second in team playoff scoring with 12 points. However, it isn’t just the points he is producing at this crucial time of year, but when he is scoring them. Vinny currently leads the NHL with 3 game winning goals and is playing some of his most inspired hockey since the 2004 cup run.

For the Lightning to capture their second Stanley Cup in less than a decade they need guys like Roloson, St. Louis, Bergenheim and Downie to continue to shine, but it is their captain and their emotional leader that will ultimately tip the balance in their favor.

Pekka Rinne

One of the finalists for the Vezina Trophy this season, Pekka Rinne’s stellar play against the Vancouver Canucks should come as a surprise to no one. Perhaps more surprising was the fact that he was pretty average in the first round against the Anaheim Ducks. Despite that his Nashville Predators found a way to win that series for their goalie, and he is paying them back – with interest – in the second round against the Canucks.

Yes, the Predators currently trail the Vancouver Canucks 3-2 in the series, but you have to remember that the Canucks were the best team in the NHL this year, and also enjoyed the league’s most potent offense. Rinne has stymied that lethal attack through five games so far, making one brilliant save after another and keeping Nashville in each and every game, despite the fact that they’ve been badly outplayed for long stretches during each of those games.

The odds of the Predators coming back and beating the Canucks are long, to be sure, but with the way Rinne has played so far, it is certainly not an inconceivable scenario. If they can manage it Rinne would likely surge to the top of the list among Conn Smythe Trophy candidates.

The Verdict: Ryan Kesler

Kesler gets the nod by a narrow margin, with Pavel Datsyuk coming in just behind. He has been the straw stirring the drink all playoffs long for the Canucks and his point production has been especially crucial considering Henrik and Daniel Sedin have been all but silent in the Nashville series.

Honorable Mention:

Martin St. Louis – Tampa’s diminutive star has continued to shine brightly in the post-season, following up his Hart Trophy nominated regular season in spectacular fashion. With 13 points and inspirational play he is a big reason why Tampa came back against the Penguins and rolled to victory over the Capitals.

Tim Thomas

The favorite to win the Vezina this year, Tim Thomas was not quite at that level in the Bruins’ first round series against the Montreal Canadiens, but he really rediscovered his game in the team’s second round match-up against the Philadelphia Flyers. Thomas was incredibly stingy as the team swept the Flyers out of the playoffs, erasing demons of last year’s monumental collapse against the same club. Thomas currently sits second behind Dwayne Roloson in both save percentage and GAA.

Dwayne Roloson

Speaking of the playoff save percentage and GAA leader it would be a crime not to give Roloson an honorable mention on this list of Conn Smythe Trophy favorites. He has been everything that Lightning GM Steve Yzerman could have hoped for when he acquired the veteran late in the regular season. If Roloson can keep up his stellar play he and the Lightning will certainly give the big, bad Bruins all they can handle in the Eastern Conference finals.

Ryan Clowe

Though most of the hype in San Jose centers around superstars like Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dany Heatley and to a lesser extent, Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture, it has been hulking winger Ryan Clowe that has arguably been the team’s best player so far this spring. Clowe is currently tied for the lead in points with 13 and has been a physical force throughout the playoffs.

Joel Ward

Undoubtedly the most unlikely name on this list, Joel Ward is nonetheless deserving of an honorable mention. No, he hasn’t been as important as Pekka Rinne so far, but he’s close. Great goaltending is one thing, but you need to score goals to win games and Ward’s got seven of them so far. That total ties him for the playoff lead and is only three shy of the ten he notched during the regular season.