The NHL playoffs are perhaps the most grueling postseason in professional sports, normally lasting from April to June. This year, though the NHL playoff format will differ from typical seasons, it will maintain the same difficult length. Commissioner Gary Bettman stated, “Obviously, we anticipate playing over the summer and into the early fall.” Should playoffs commence, rest assured that we will have months of hockey to devour.
The nature of the postseason demands a lot for a team to win. They must peak at the right time and stay healthy. Stars have to produce and depth players have to make an impact. These factors often set the stage for a quieter, perhaps unproven player to demonstrate his talent and worth to a team. Think of Zach Sanford of the St. Louis Blues who had four points in the Stanley Cup Final last year. Guys like Sanford are crucial to a team’s playoff success.
In this piece, let’s take a look at eight players who could fill this role. For the sake of simplicity, I have selected one player from each of the eight teams that automatically will play in the first round.
Sean Kuraly – Boston Bruins
First, I must admit that I am originally from St. Louis and a Blues fan. Last year, watching the Stanley Cup Final, I could not stand Sean Kuraly. He wreaked havoc on the Blues. But, as an objective hockey fan (is that possible?), I have to recognize how good he was and is for the Bruins. During the Final, he netted 5 points (2 goals, 3 assists) and 18 hits in the 7-game series. Even more impressive, his performance came after missing four weeks with a fractured wrist.
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Kuraly epitomizes the player who delivers during the postseason, and I expect him to do so again. He may not produce at the same rate as the 2019 playoffs (10 points in 20 games), but he will have an impact. He forechecks like a monster. Watch the way he flies into the zone, hammers the defender, and either causes a turnover or plants a seed of panic in the mind of the opponent. It is exhilarating to watch and is an intangible component of hockey that has immense value.
Kuraly’s grit will shine even brighter in an empty arena. Without a crowd to generate the playoff atmosphere, players like him will be crucial to creating the energy that drives a team. He had 145 hits this season, second on the Bruins, and he will carry that mentality into the playoffs, certainly after months without hockey. Oh, and don’t forget he has the skill to dangle the defense and pick the corner.
The Bruins are one of the best teams in the NHL because they have a complete roster, full of superstars like David Pastrnak and depth players like Kuraly. His work ethic and talent make him an invaluable teammate and an exciting player to watch. He has a knack to perform in the games that matter most, and, after losing in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, the Bruins will have a hunger to win that should propel Kuraly to an excellent postseason performance.
Anthony Cirelli – Tampa Bay Lightning
Since entering the league in 2017, Anthony Cirelli has proven his worth to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Heading into the 2019-20 season, he emphasized his focus on improving his game, stating, “Obviously when you have a little bit of a longer summer, you get to work on a little bit more things and try to come to camp a little bit better than you did last year. So, I took some time, tried to get better at a little bit of everything.”
Cirelli’s attitude and hard work paid off. He set a new career high in points (44) and assists (28), and he did so in 14 fewer games played than last season. The completeness of his game showed as well. He had 53 takeaways, only 24 giveaways and logged a plus-28 rating. He averaged two minutes and 49 seconds on the penalty kill per game, leading all Lightning forwards.
Obviously, last postseason did not go as planned for the Lightning. The team’s superstars struggled against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Cirelli, though, tallied a respectable one goal and one assist in the four-game, first-round loss. This production indicates that he can handle playoff hockey. The momentum he has generated during the regular season, along with a healthy amount of rest, positions Cirelli to pick up where he left off before the pause.
On a team stacked with talent, Cirelli has carved out a role that only he can fill. He can score, defend, and play up and down the lineup. Head coach John Cooper does not have to worry about him when he is on the ice, a luxury that cannot be overstated. The Lightning will lean on his defensive reliability and offensive ability, and Cirelli’s career to date proves he will thrive under that pressure.
Jakub Vrana – Washington Capitals
Jakub Vrana, like Cirelli, had himself a career year before the abrupt end of the regular season. He set new highs in goals (25), assists (27), and points (52) in 69 games. He also earned an increase in total and power-play ice time per game of about one minute each. Clearly, head coach Todd Reirden feels confident in Vrana as an offensive linchpin for the Washington Capitals.
Vrana’s success should not come as a surprise. Drafted 13th overall in 2014, he did not debut until 2016 when he played 21 games and notched 6 points. But, he has progressed every season since, bettering his totals each year. He scored 27 points in 2017-18 and 47 in 2018-19. During the Capital’s 2018 Stanley Cup run, he netted 8 points in 23 games, including one goal in the cup-clinching win in Game 5.
Most likely, if the NHL returns, the gameplay will be more open and looser as players and teams readjust. Vrana will thrive in this environment. His natural speed will allow him to create distance from opponents, while he will take advantage of the open ice with his quick release. Furthermore, since he has taken a huge step forward this season, he will have more opportunities proportionate to his increased ice time. These factors position Vrana to be a difference-maker for the Capitals.
The Capitals, as a whole, should benefit from the NHL pause. The average age on the roster is 27.9 years old — 22nd oldest in the NHL. Players like Alex Ovechkin (34), T.J. Oshie (33), and Nicklas Backstrom (32) will be well-rested. Younger guns like Vrana will be healthy, energized, and eager to return. This combination will make the Capitals a serious contender, and Vrana has the ability not only to contribute but also to lead the Capitals to their second Stanley Cup.
Travis Konecny – Philadelphia Flyers
Somehow, in his four-year NHL career, Travis Konecny has flown under the radar. Flyers fans, of course, know his worth, but he has not received the recognition proportional to his offensive production. He has had three-straight 24-goal seasons. This year, he cemented new highs in assists (37) and points (61) in 67 games. At 23 years old, he led the Flyers in points and goals (24).
Konecny potted two goals during the 2019-20 season opener and has not slowed down. He averages 16 minutes and 48 seconds of ice time per game, an increase of over one and a half minutes compared to last season. His shooting percentage skyrocketed from 13.7% to 17% this year. Averaging .92 points per game, he was on pace for 73 points before the halt. Konecny’s best NHL season even earned him a bid to the NHL All-Star Game for the first time in his young career.
Before last season, Konecny signed a six-year, $33 million contract, meaning the Flyers are paying him an average of $5.5 million per year. He has more than delivered, and if he continues at this regular-season pace or improves, the Flyers might boast one of the best contracts in the NHL. Nevertheless, his playoff performance will significantly affect how Flyers fans evaluate the budding star. Luckily, all signs point to Konecny flourishing in the 2020 playoffs.
Like other players on this list, Konecny’s speed, skill, and playmaking ability will allow him to pick apart the opposition. He also often plays alongside 6-foot-5, 215-pound centerman Kevin Hayes, who also had arguably his best NHL season. Hayes creates space and relieves pressure for the smaller Konecny on the right side. Players like Konecny, Hayes, Carter Hart, and Ivan Provorov helped forge the Flyers’ successful season. Now, it is time for these players to contribute in the postseason. Konecny certainly seems more than capable.
Robert Thomas – St. Louis Blues
Earlier, when evaluating Kuraly, I outed myself as a Blues fan. Now, I will out myself as a Robert Thomas fan. The shifty center debuted during the 2018-19 season and played an important role in the Blues’ first Stanley Cup victory, notching 6 points in 21 games, including the primary assist on Pat Maroon’s Game 7 overtime winner against the Dallas Stars. The 20th pick in the 2017 draft, Thomas can flat-out play, and, though it has taken him some time, he has proven why the Blues took him so early.
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Thomas netted 10 goals and 32 assists in 66 games this season. He logged a plus-9 rating and maintained a positive difference in his takeaway/giveaway ratio (46/30). Head coach Craig Berube entrusted Thomas with an additional minute and a half of average ice time per game and an average of 1 minute and 26 seconds of ice time with the man advantage. With career highs in almost every category, Thomas has met the demands placed upon him this season.
Can Thomas continue his success this postseason? Absolutely. Every time I watch the clip above, his edge work and hockey IQ scream that he can deliver under the spotlight. When he wasn’t getting absolutely crunched by Torey Krug (I admit this was a clean hit), Thomas usually generated opportunities and offense for the Blues last postseason. His improved play throughout this season indicates that we can expect the same and more from him when the playoffs start.
At the beginning of the 2019-20 season, Berube noted that Thomas’ “puck play [was] getting better and better” and “[he’s] making plays.” This quick remark from Berube foreshadowed what would be Thomas’ most productive NHL season. Not only will he be a key player for the Blues as they try to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions, but also his raw talent makes him an exciting player to watch regardless of which team you root for. (Can you at least grant me that Bruins fans?)
Andre Burakovsky – Colorado Avalanche
The Colorado Avalanche made multiple offseason additions last summer, among them the acquisition of 25-year-old Andre Burakovsky. The Washington Capitals drafted him 23rd overall in 2013, and he’s tallied 145 points in 328 games over 5 seasons. Those numbers are disappointing for a first-round pick, but he proved himself somewhat in the postseason, especially when he scored 6 points in 13 games during the 2018 playoffs.
Heading into the 2019-20 season, the Avalanche needed to reinforce their offense with depth, and Burakovsky seemed a perfect fit. He has the skill and experience the Avalanche needed to push for a deep playoff run. Well, it’s safe to say he exceeded expectations by netting 20 goals, 25 assists, and 45 points (each career highs) in 58 games. Burakovsky also provided flexibility for the Avalanche, since he could play up and down the lineup, filling in holes when superstars or depth players were injured.
Unfortunately, Burakovsky missed 12 games this past season due to injury, and the momentum he had generated came to a halt. Fortunately, he was practicing in a no-contact jersey right before the pause, so it is safe to assume that he will be healthy for the first round. Put yourself in Burakovsky’s shoes. You are having a career year, you get injured, you’re close to returning, and then the NHL halts play. How eager would you be to play? Probably pretty excited.
Burakovsky’s previous playoff success and breakout performance this season position him to thrive when the team takes the ice. The Avalanche are legitimate contenders for the Cup, which creates further motivation for him to contribute. Finally, he will be playing for a new contract since his one-year, $3.25 million deal expires after this season. The Avalanche are perhaps the most exciting team to watch in the NHL. If you can take your eyes off of Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar, Burakovsky deserves your attention.
Alex Tuch – Vegas Golden Knights
Alex Tuch is a rare combination of size, strength, skill, and speed. An 18th-overall pick in 2014, he has used these characteristics to carve out a relatively successful NHL career. He has 43 goals and 63 assists in 200 games. Luckily, the Vegas Golden Knights snagged him from the Minnesota Wild in a trade during the 2017 expansion draft. Ever since, he has been a key player for the NHL’s newest franchise.
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Tuch made a name for himself during the Golden Knights’ historic run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2018. The then-22-year-old scored six goals and four assists in 20 postseason appearances. He followed this up with a 20-goal, 52-point outing in the 2018-19 season — a performance indicating his worthiness as a first-round pick. Needless to say, expectations were high for Tuch this year.
Injury, unfortunately, plagued Tuch, limiting him to 42 games, 8 goals, and 9 assists. He missed games three separate times and could never settle into a rhythm. Of course, his season disappointed Golden Knights fans, but the pause not only has given him time to heal but also to reset mentally. Regardless of the first-round opponent, the playoffs will be a fresh start.
Tuch was not on the ice when a small group of Golden Knights skated on Monday. That should not be a cause for concern though, as he has been reported healthy and ready to play. Another reason for optimism: he registered two goals and two assists in his previous seven games before the injury. He has the skill to bounce back. Fully healthy and with a talented team, Tuch can again establish himself as a major contributor for the Golden Knights.
Roope Hintz – Dallas Stars
Roope Hintz is the least experienced player on this list — he has only suited up for 118 regular-season NHL games. This inexperience though does not make him any less of a threat during the regular season or playoffs. The Dallas Stars selected him in the second round of the 2015 draft, but he did not debut until the 2018-19 season. He had a decently successful rookie campaign, logging 9 goals and 13 assists in 58 games. But, Hintz really ignited during the playoffs.
During the Stars’ run to the Western Conference Final, Hintz notched 5 goals and 3 assists in 13 games. His performance generated attention, and while some predicted his success, few could have predicted his explosive start to the 2019-20 season. He scored 6 goals in the first 10 games. He did slow down, ending the season with 19 goals in 60 games. Nonetheless, he established himself as a crucial piece in the Stars’ often-criticized, top-heavy offense.
Hintz’s speed defines his game. He often leads the rush and drives back defenders to create space for his teammates. He’s a shifty player that can make something out of nothing. And, when an opportunity presents itself, he takes advantage, often benefitting from the skilled play of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Miro Heiskanen, or John Klingberg (pick your poison). After months without hockey, Hintz will look like a rocket on the ice, reminding us how fast NHLers are.
The Stars will be a formidable opponent, and Hintz will have opportunities to contribute like he did last year. Though he has barely cracked the 100-game mark in his career, he has demonstrated he thrives under pressure. Now, he has more experience, and that will complement his natural ability to make him a threat on the ice and a thrilling player to watch. Keep your eyes on Hintz because his success could drive the Stars.
Skill, Grit, and Speed
These eight players have many similar abilities. They are fast, hard-working, team-first forwards who can score while playing the game right. For these reasons, these players should flourish when the playoffs start. With team facilities opening and small groups returning to the ice, hopefully, we will have the opportunity to watch our favorite NHLers soon.
P.S. I realized that this list does not contain any defensemen. That’s because defensemen are not fun to watch. I’m kidding, I’m kidding! Truthfully, there are plenty of incredible and fun defensemen to watch. Let me know which defensemen we should keep an eye on and any other forwards you think will step up.