- The stars always come out to play but the playoffs are a time for surprise players to turn into heroes, driving their teams deep into the postseason. Who will step up for each team this year?
There are the playoff’s usual suspects—Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jonathan Toews and Filip Forsberg—who always find ways to contribute come playoff time. Then there are the dark horses, guys like Nick Bonino, Tyler Toffoli and Reilly Smith, who aren’t household names but inevitably drive their teams on deep postseason runs. Here’s a look at players who could find themselves in larger-than-usual roles once the postseason kicks off:
Tampa Bay Lightning: Eric Cernak
There’s Nikita Kucherov’s scorching 128-point season, Brayden Point’s first 40-goal season, Andrei Vasilevskiy’s Vezina campaign, and then there’s Erik Cernak. The 6’4”, 225-pound rookie has emerged as one of the league’s best defensive defensemen—forming the Lightning’s shutdown pairing with Ryan McDonagh—and has keyed Tampa Bay’s transformation from offensive juggernaut to a league-wrecking behemoth. Cernak ranks second only to Ben Lovejoy among defensemen in terms of limiting goals against on the penalty kill, according to Evolving Hockey, and he will be counted on to blunt either Boston or Toronto’s dynamic group of forwards in the second round. That’s a lot to ask of the brutish 21-year-old blueliner, but Cernak has fulfilled that role and has become the Lightning’s long-sought-after piece on the backend.
Washington Capitals: Jakub Vrana
After Cedric Pacquette took Michael Kempny to the ground and delivered a season-ending injury to the Capitals blueliner, Jakub Vrana picked his first NHL fight and got into a bloody scrap with Yanni Gourde. Vrana’s move to back up his teammate drew praise from his locker room, adding another notch to a career year. The third-year Czech winger ranks third on the team with 24 goals—the first 20-goal season of his career—and has played well no matter where he is in the lineup, whether he’s alongside Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov or Lars Eller.
Boston Bruins: Jake DeBrusk
There’s no better first line in hockey than Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak. But that wasn’t the problem for the Bruins last postseason: the trio recorded 25 points over five games while all other forwards provided six points in a second-round defeat to the Lightning. That can’t happen again this year. Jake DeBrusk, playing alongside a healthy David Krejci, parlayed last year’s postseason breakout into his first 25-goal season. The Bruins need secondary scoring while Bruce Cassidy tinkers with trade-deadline acquisitions Marcus Johansson and Charlie Coyle, and DeBrusk has boom potential while playing away from teams’ shutdown lines.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Calle Rosen
The latest Maple Leafs plug-and-play solution on a porous blue line is Calle Rosen, who helped Toronto clinch a playoff spot after he was called up from the Toronto Marlies and scored his first NHL goal on April 1. Rosen represents something the Maple Leafs lack: a sturdy, two-way defenseman that is as responsible with the puck on the defensive end as he is the offensive end. The 25-year-old Swedish blueliner spent three years with the Växjö Lakers before earning an NHL contract, and last year he tallied 11 points in 16 Calder Cup playoff games en route to the championship. Jake Gardiner’s return could squash Rosen’s opportunity, but the Leafs need some answer to their defensive woes (only 6% of playoff teams since the lockout have won a first-round series while allowing at least three goals per game). Rosen could be that answer.
New York Islanders: Ryan Pulock
Aided by Robin Lehner’s breakout season, Barry Trotz has transformed the Islanders into the league’s best defensive team with a cobbled-together blue line. Expect 24-year-old defenseman Ryan Pulock to be front and center as the Islanders wade their way through the postseason. Pulock leads all Islanders in average time on ice, plays in a shutdown role against other teams’ top lines and contributes on the power play as well. Trotz has helped develop him into the team’s top blueliner and he’ll count on him against Crosby and Malkin to open the playoffs, and potentially Alex Ovechkin in the second round.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Brian Dumoulin
Defense has never been the Penguins’ calling card, but their defensive issues have only been exacerbated with injuries to Kris Letang, Olli Maatta and Brian Dumoulin. While Justin Schultz and Jack Johnson muck it up on the blue line, the Penguins attempted to solve their problems at the deadline by adding Erik Gudbranson (despite being one of the league’s worst defenseman, he has played fine in Pittsburgh). Pittsburgh has slowly gotten healthy and Dumoulin, after he returns, will be the last piece on defense to fall into place. The six-year veteran has been one of the team’s steadiest defensive defenseman in recent years and he’ll fall right back into the first pairing with Letang.
Carolina Hurricanes: Jordan Staal
The Hurricanes left the cellar and streaked into the playoffs from late January to March and they did that despite losing Jordan Staal to injury. The big-bodied center returned to the Canes’ second line around the trade deadline and has solidified Carolina’s defensive backbone down the middle (his 2.89 takeaways per 60 minutes ranks 25th in the NHL and third on the team). He generates rebounds for his teammates and drives possession, and the Hurricanes need his presence and postseason experience to trounce the Capitals in the first round.
Columbus Blue Jackets: Oliver Bjorkstrand
The team’s secondary scoring kicked into high gear when the Blue Jackets’ season teetered on disaster and propelled Columbus to a 7-1-0 record to close the season. While Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene and Cam Atkinson get the spotlight, Oliver Bjorkstrand racked up nine goals in his last 11 games. The 23-year-old streaky scorer, who received a three-year contract extension in the offseason, became the Blue Jackets’ fifth 20-goal scorer despite sitting on the team’s fourth line. He’s scoring in bunches at the right time.
Calgary Flames: James Neal
The Flames roll four lines with ease, and that fact becomes scarier when their torrid offensive production has largely excluded James Neal. Neal, who signed a five-year contract with Calgary in July, finished the season without at least 20 goals for the first time in his career. The 11-year veteran carries 100 games of playoff experience, including a run with the Golden Knights last year, which is something the Flames’ young core doesn’t have a ton of. He returned from a lower-body injury on March 23 and has played well with Mark Jankowski (another potential dark-horse candidate), tallying four points in his last five games.
Winnipeg Jets: Kevin Hayes
Before beating the Coyotes to end the season, the Jets’ top line of Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler sputtered out, only scoring one even-strength goal in their previous eight games together. If that continues, Kevin Hayes will be responsible for piloting the second line and picking up the offensive load alongside Patrik Laine. Paul Maurice has experimented with moving Little back to the second line with Laine, but that’s not why the Jets went out and spent a first-round pick on Hayes at the deadline. Hayes is having a career year in terms of production, and the rudderless Jets desperately need that in the playoffs.
San Jose Sharks: Kevin Labanc
The Sharks’ defense, highlighted by a league-worst .888 team save percentage and the most goals allowed of any playoff team, won’t magically get better in the postseason. Their offense will need to carry the slack. Enter Kevin Labanc. Since the All-Star break, the 23-year-old winger’s shooting percentage has jumped 18 points and he has the team’s second-most points after Pete DeBoer paired him with Joe Thornton. Labanc operates along the right boards on the Sharks’ first power-play unit and drives puck movement with patience, often acting as a feeder to Brent Burns. He’ll have the space and opportunities to open up San Jose’s offense in the playoffs, and some added secondary production would help to offset their defensive woes.
Nashville Predators: Craig Smith
The Predators have scored the same number of shorthanded goals (two) as power-play goals in their last 11 games. At 12.9%, the Predators anemic power-play unit ranks sixth worst since the lockout. Craig Smith has been one of Nashville’s most efficient scorers on the power play and now he’s seeing time on the top power-play unit. With P.K. Subban playing like P.K. Subban and the Predators’ top line starting to come alive, secondary scoring is still a question entering the postseason. Smith can fix that problem.
St. Louis Blues: David Perron
Since David Perron was activated from IR on March 16, the Blues are 9-1-2 and are averaging four goals per game and the 12-year veteran has recorded 11 points during that span. Perron has a career-best shooting percentage (20.5%) and trails only Leon Draisaitl and Brayden Point in that regard. The Blues are streaking, and Perron scoring punch on even-strength and the power play is a dangerous weapon for St. Louis.
Vegas Golden Knights: Cody Eakin
The spotlight has been on Vegas and its $76-million man, Mark Stone, but Cody Eakin has quietly recorded the team’s second-most goals (seven) since the trade deadline. The 27-year-old center leads all Golden Knights forwards in +/- and is having a career year, setting a personal season-high in goals and points. Eakin pitches in on the penalty kill and anchors Vegas’s third line, where he should be flanked by Alex Tuch in the playoffs. The duo carries a +16 goal differential when paired together. That’s a third line that will give opponents problems throughout all three zones, and a player like Eakin unlocks Vegas’s postseason potential once legs get tired and players wear down.
Dallas Stars: Mats Zuccarello
Immediately after the Stars acquired Mats Zuccarello from the Rangers, Zuccarello broke his arm in his first game with his new team. He made a surprise return against the Flyers on April 2 before Jim Montgomery pulled him early as a precautionary measure. With the second-ranked defense in the league, the Stars brought in the crafty 5’8” playmaker at the deadline to infuse their struggling offense. Zuccarello will slot in on the second line and look to boost Jamie Benn, and expect Zuccarello to see plenty of opportunities on Dallas’s first power-play unit with Alexander Radulov, Tyler Seguin and Benn.
Colorado Avalanche: Alexander Kerfoot
The Avalanche lost one of their three 30-goal scorers when Mikko Rantanen went down with a undisclosed midsection injury on March 22. In the middle of a fight for the West’s last playoff spot, the Avalanche haven’t missed a beat and Alexander Kerfoot is a big reason why. The 24 year old has notched eight points in eight games filling in for Rantanen and the Avs lost only once in regulation during that span. Beyond the first line, Kerfoot is one of Colorado’s best possession players and, while he’ll get bumped down when Rantanen returns, he’ll figure into a high-scoring first-round matchup against the Flames.