TAMPA, Fla. - When Jonathan Quick was a brick wall for the Los Angeles Kings in 2012, the Conn Smythe Trophy was undoubtedly his. The same went for the Boston Bruins' Tim Thomas in 2011.
"Thomas was outstanding," said Rick Bowness, an assistant coach for the 2011 Vancouver Canucks. "It was an automatic."
Now Bowness is an associate coach with the Tampa Bay Lightning and there's no automatic Conn Smythe winner in this Stanley Cup final against the Chicago Blackhawks. Goaltenders aren't among the front-runners, and each team's top scorers have been held down in the series.
Victor Hedman and Duncan Keith have been the most dominant players, and this will likely be the first year a defenceman wins the Conn Smythe since Scott Niedermayer in 2007. Only four have won it in the past 20 seasons.
"A lot of it has to do if you're scoring goals or if you're contributing offensively or you're a goaltender and you're preventing goals, I think people see you in a different way," 2002 Conn Smythe winner Nicklas Lidstrom said in a phone interview from Sweden. "When you're defending, you might end up preventing a goal by making a good defensive play.
"But goal-scorers or setting up goals, I think you get more recognition than what defence does."
Like Hedman and Keith, Niedermayer, Lidstrom, Scott Stevens and Brian Leetch had to be disproportionate difference-makers to win it. Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings probably had the best case since Niedermayer a year ago, but "Mr. Game 7" Justin Williams got the Conn Smythe.
With the Cup final tied at two going into Game 5 Saturday night, Jonathan Toews is still a strong candidate if the Blackhawks win and Tyler Johnson if the Lightning win. But Keith and Hedman have been so good it would almost be an upset if neither won.
"You don't get to this stage without having elite goaltending, elite defencemen and elite forwards," Bowness said Thursday. "Duncan Keith, I love watching him play. ...
"Victor Hedman, I've never seen a guy six-foot-six, 230, skate like he does. He's dominant because of his size, his skating ability. He's definitely a No. 1."
As one of almost 30 players to skate 600-plus minutes in a post-season, former Dallas Stars defenceman Sergei Zubov has an appreciation for Keith's performance this spring.
"He is not going to be flashy," Zubov said in a phone interview. "You've got to have instincts, you've got to do everything right. He makes the right plays at certain times. That's the way I would describe great defencemen in the playoffs."
Bruins defenceman Dennis Seidenberg said Keith or even Blackhawks teammate Brent Seabrook should be considered for the Conn Smythe. Seabrook made a game-saving play tipping a Steven Stamkos shot in the final minutes Wednesday night but doesn't have quite the offensive firepower as Keith.
And that's just one element of Keith's game.
"The way he skates he looks so lightning-fast," Seidenberg said. "His first couple steps are really quick and sharp and he's very alert. He doesn't really get hit hard. It's just a testament to how hard he works off the ice and how fit he keeps himself throughout the whole season going into the playoffs."
Hedman doesn't play 30 minutes a night like Keith, but the Lightning lean more on him and partner Anton Stralman than anyone else. Just like Keith, who's almost a point-a-game player in the playoffs, Hedman is a two-way force worthy of the Conn Smythe.
"He's really elevated his game throughout the course of the playoffs," teammate Matt Carle said. "He's such a big guy with a long reach, skates so well. The way we want to play defence, he's the epitome of that."
Follow @SWhyno on Twitter