Three Players to Watch on Every Canadian Playoff Team

Beyond the obvious quartet, which players will be pillars for the Canadian NHL teams this spring, should they hope to make a deep run?
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Everyone knows the old saying: patience is a virtue.

Going off that – and that alone – fans of the Canadian NHL teams are about as virtuous as can be. After all, no Canadian team has summited the hockey world since late spring of 1993. Basically, unless you’re old enough to remember the very first episodes of Beavis and Butt-Head premiering on TV, you probably don’t have any memory of watching a Canadian team raise Lord Stanley’s grail.

It’s fitting, then, fans of the Canadian teams are going to have to wait just that little bit longer to see their teams get the post-season underway this year. While American teams start the journey this weekend, the playoffs don’t get going north of the 49th parallel until Wednesday night.

Who will emerge from the North to mount Canada’s Cup challenge? It’s still really anybody’s game. This list examines three players on each Canadian team who could spur their teams’ success in the coming weeks.

Just a note: for this list, we’ll be looking – however slightly – beyond the absolute most obvious answers. So don’t expect to see the likes of Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner or Leon Draisaitl on this list. You already know to look out for them. Almost anyone else is fair game, though.

Good thing fans north of the border got all that virtue in during the past 28 years because based on the first-round matchups (and the potential matchups beyond), there’s not going to be a whole lot of righteousness in Canadian households this spring. 

Edmonton Oilers

After stumbling out of the gate with a 3-6 record, Edmonton – buoyed by Connor McDavid’s sublime season – has played great hockey. Since Jan. 30, the Oilers, 32-13-2 in that time, have the league’s fifth-best points percentage at .702.

Mike Smith: Anyone who’s watched the Oilers knows how much heart and soul the 39-year-old netminder has poured into this season. It’s paid off. Smith’s .923 save percentage this season set a new single-season Oilers record. He’s ornery. And honest. This is one of his last chances at Lord Stanley. He’ll be ready.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins: Edmonton’s longest-tenured player and first overall pick in the 2011 draft could be playing out his final days in Oilers’ silks this spring; his seven-year, $42-million pact with the club expires at season’s end. He struggled to produce secondary offense during the team’s 2016-17 run, with just four points in 13 games. If the Oilers are to make it deep this time, ‘Nuge’ will have to be huge.

Dmitry Kulikov: An under-the-radar deadline acquisition, Kulikov provided stability on Edmonton’s back end. The Russian defender had a couple egregious giveaways when he arrived but has since found his rhythm on the Oilers’ second pair; D-partner Adam Larsson’s possession numbers have risen dramatically with Kulikov. They’ll be tasked with stifling the North Division’s high-powered offenses.

Montreal Canadiens

The Canadiens are the lowest-ranked team to qualify for the big dance, but that didn’t stop them from stunning Pittsburgh last year. The Habs will be a tough out and should see several regulars return to the lineup in time for Game 1.

Carey Price: Price is the longest-serving Canadiens player and has little left to accomplish in Bleu, Blanc et Rouge outside of a Cup. Even though he hasn’t had the numbers to match his reputation for a while, he can still get in shooters’ heads; his peers have voted Price the best goalie in the NHL three consecutive years.

Corey Perry: Affectionately known to teammates as ‘Worm,’ Perry is the exact type of player you despise facing in the playoffs. He’ll needle opponents all series. Perry ranks 10th among active NHLers in playoff games played and 14th in playoff points. He had 15 points in 21 playoff games during the Ducks’ 2006-07 Cup run.

Brendan Gallagher: The straw that stirs the drink in Montreal. The Canadiens have missed his presence dearly since he fractured his right thumb April 5 against Edmonton; they’re 7-12-2 since. His 61.71% on-ice expected goals-for percentage at 5-on-5 this season is best of any Canadiens player. Gallagher had 11 points in 17 games when the Habs went to the Conference final in 2013-14.

Toronto Maple Leafs

The regular season’s Kings of the North boast Canada’s best chance at reaching hockey supremacy this season. The new additions could help eradicate the reputation as playoff chokers. So… Canada’s team, huh?

Joe Thornton: The league’s second-oldest player has gotten so close. He was within two wins of the Cup in 2016. He has one of the league’s most revered names. And its most revered beard. Only two active players – Zdeno Chara and Patrick Marleau – have played more playoff games than Thornton (179). Only Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have more playoff points among active players than Thornton’s 133.

Wayne Simmonds: Simmonds started out commendably for his hometown team, putting up five goals in 12 games through early February before breaking his wrist and missing the next 18 contests. Since returning, the offense has dried up, but Simmonds is still capable of thriving when the going gets tough. The 2019 recipient of the Mark Messier Leadership Award gives the Leafs a strong voice in the room and a power-play net-front presence on the ice.

William Nylander: The top line is going to score, that’s all but a guarantee. Matthews has paced the Leafs in scoring the past two post-seasons and won’t wilt under pressure. If the Buds are to make it deep, though, they’ll need the dynamic duo of Nylander and John Tavares to be clicking. They were wonderful together this season, rocking an xGF% of 57.38 at 5-on-5. If that continues in the post-season, watch out. Nylander gets the highlight here because Tavares’ possession numbers fall away from No. 88.

Winnipeg Jets

The Jets enter the playoffs reeling, losers of nine of their past 12 games. They’ll hope Nikolaj Ehlers, who is an Oilers killer with 18 points in 21 career games against Edmonton, can make it back for Game 1. If not, these three will be even more important.

Kyle Connor: The former University of Michigan star led the Big Ten – and the rest of the NCAA – in points in his only collegiate season. Back then, he was a legend in Ann Arbor. Now, he’s a leader in Winnipeg. Connor paced Jets goal-scorers this year with 26.

Connor Hellebuyck: The reigning Vezina Trophy winner is the best goalie in the North. By far. We’ve seen numerous teams parlay scalding-hot goaltending into deep playoff runs, and Hellebuyck is unquestionably capable. He’ll first have to overcome his struggles against Edmonton, though. Hellebuyck was 2-5 with a .877 SP and 3.96 goals-against average against Edmonton this year.

Adam Lowry: The Jets’ third-line center is there to stay, re-upping for five more seasons on April 16. Lowry managed a 54.55% Corsi-for in 30:30 of 5-on-5 time against Connor McDavid this year, best of any Jet. He’ll also be vital against Edmonton’s vaunted power play; of Jets forwards, only Andrew Copp played more minutes shorthanded in 2020-21. 

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