When the playoffs start, all the attention will be focused on the top players to be at their best, push their team forward and be a key factor in winning the Stanley Cup. Ryan O’Reilly did that last season for the St. Louis Blues; Alex Ovechkin dominated the postseason the year before for the Washington Capitals.
However, in every playoffs, you find players in a supporting role who break out and become the key to their team’s success en route to a Cup. Oskar Sundqvist was crucial in a depth role and scored some key goals for the Blues during their Cup run in 2019; Devante Smith- Pelly was a physical force and scored seven times in 2018, including the game-tying goal in Game 5 against the Vegas Golden Knights.
While most of the attention will be on John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and Frederik Andersen, the Toronto Maple Leafs have several players who could become unsung heroes during these playoffs. Some players, particularly those in a depth role, have already made a significant impact this season and could be the reason why the team is successful. Who will be the unsung heroes for the Maple Leafs in the playoffs this year? Andrew Forbes and I make our picks.
Forbes – Kyle Clifford
Even as a fourth-line player, the Maple Leafs could have a game-breaker in Kyle Clifford. Not by the popular definition of the word, rather he could be the one that changes things for a team that hasn’t climbed out of the first round of the NHL Playoffs in years.
For two consecutive seasons, the Maple Leafs haven’t been able to out-battle the pesky Boston Bruins – a team built on toughness and hard-nosed hockey. A small, fast and skilled team, the Maple Leafs made a move on Feb. 6 to acquire the tough forward from the Los Angeles Kings.
While he might not be your prototypical offensive threat, Clifford had 129 points in 660 regular-season games with the Kings before the trade. But it’s his toughness and lack of vulnerability that makes him a possible unsung hero for the Maple Leafs as they ready themselves for the modified 2020 playoffs.
The Maple Leafs could have all the talent in the world up front, but if they run into a Bruins-like team – or the Bruins themselves again – this time around, they’ll need some stability and toughness in their lineup. That will come in the form of Clifford, who loves to throw his body around and make statement plays when he gets on the ice.
Over his career, he has 1,492 hits. That’s an average of 2.2 hits per game in 676 regular-season games. On top of that, he doesn’t shy away from the other physical aspects of the game with 842 career penalty minutes. In 16 games with the Maple Leafs before the stoppage, he was averaging 2.7 hits per game and made some big plays, including knocking Petr Mrazek out of a game against the Carolina Hurricanes.
Say what you will about who will have the biggest impact on the Maple Leafs and their playoff run – short-lived or not – but Clifford’s impact for the team will go far behind putting the puck in the net. In fact, it could be a game-changer if the Maple Leafs hope to make some noise in this year’s playoffs.
Baracchini- Zach Hyman
The start of the season didn’t go according to plan for Hyman. He was recovering from surgery to repair a torn ACL, suffered in the 2019 Playoffs against the Bruins. The timetable was a minimum of six months. He spent the summer recovering and missed training camp as well as 19 games of the season before making a return in November.
We knew that it was going to be a long and lengthy rehab for one of the Maple Leafs’ key depth forwards. What many didn’t expect was a rejuvenated and more determined Hyman. It takes a while for players to get back to form after recovering from major surgery, but it took Hyman hardly any time to return to normal. In fact, he went above and beyond.
Related: NHL Owners – Who Are They?
As an underrated player, Hyman was having a career year. He tied his career-best in goals (21) and was five points shy of passing his career-best in points with 41, and would have surpassed had the league not shut down.
Hyman’s stats adjusted to reflect an 82-game schedule, suggest career-highs in goals (25) and points (44). We also saw his highest points-per-game average with 0.73 along with his highest goals (0.41) and assists-per-game rate with 0.31 in his five-year career. It’s encouraging that he has an impact on the penalty kill, not just defensively, but offensively. Since 2016-17, he’s scored seven short-handed goals, tied with Patrice Bergeron (Bruins) and Evander Kane (San Jose Sharks).
Hyman’s unique blend of power-forward and grinder has helped the Maple Leafs in the past. He’s known as a defensive player, but the fact that his offense is emerging is a bonus to his overall game to make him a complete player. Player’s with Hyman’s skillset thrive and can be game-changers who elevate and bring their best during the most important time of the season. His intensity and drive to do anything to win are what will make him an important factor during the postseason.
Imagine him scoring another goal like this at a crucial point in a game?
Hyman has always been a fierce competitor. This season, he was able to do what he does best, but it seemed like did so at a higher level. The level of play and consistency he had during the regular season should carry over to the postseason. He can provide a steady defensive presence in his own end while also using his speed to get in on the forecheck and provide a great net-front presence. While most of the attention will be on the star players, Hyman can easily be an unsung hero for the Maple Leafs.
Who do you think will be an unsung hero for the Maple Leafs during the playoffs? Have your say and let us know in the comment section.
Peter is in his third year with The Hockey Writers, covering the Toronto Maple Leafs and heading the Draft and Prospects section. He has previously interned at The Hockey News and worked on Toronto Marlies broadcasts for Rogers TV. He currently is the co-host of the podcast Sticks in the 6ix and a frequent guest on Maple Leafs Lounge. Aside from hockey, he also enjoys drumming, animation and impressions/ voices.