This season’s NHL Playoffs have been arguably the most unpredictable and exciting in a while, with an upset-filled first round that set the table for furious and hotly-contested final rounds. Several of the league’s top preseason contenders were bounced early. The Presidents’ Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning lost in a shocking sweep to the upstart Columbus Blue Jackets and joined the Pittsburgh Penguins, Calgary Flames, and Toronto Maple Leafs as another contending team to bow out early.
Several teams with little recent playoff success have advanced on the backs of impressive performances by veteran players and meaningful contributions from young stars who are making a name for themselves on the NHL’s biggest stage.
Roope Hintz, LW, Dallas Stars
The Dallas Stars have been struggling to find reliable secondary scoring for a while and general manager Jim Nill made some aggressive moves at the trade deadline to try and solidify their depth at forward. Mats Zuccarello, the former New York Ranger, was acquired to provide a scoring punch behind the Stars’ top duo of Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn. However, it was two of Dallas’ most promising young players that secured full-time spots and helped bolster Dallas’ offensive attack.
Jason Dickinson, the Stars’ first-round draft choice from 2013, finally broke into a full-time spot, solidifying himself in a key middle-six position by excelling on special teams and in the defensive zone down the stretch. It was another touted young player, however, who stole the spotlight in the Stars’ playoff run after being paired with Dickinson and Zuccarello late in the season.
Roope Hintz, a 2015 second-round pick who was in his second pro season in North America, dominated the AHL this season before being called up to the NHL for good in late January.
Hintz had experience in big games, winning a gold medal with Finland at the 2016 World Junior Championships. However, his performance in this season’s playoffs was one of the key factors that helped Dallas push the St. Louis Blues to the brink of the second round.
Hintz broke out in the Stars’ playoff run, tallying five goals and finishing fourth among Stars forwards with eight points. In addition, Hintz averaged over two minutes more of ice time (14:03 vs. 16:06) than he had received during the regular season, demonstrating head coach Jim Montgomery’s trust in the young Finn. Not only did Hintz provide the secondary scoring the Stars had been desperate for, but he provided several timely performances that helped save Dallas from the brink of elimination.
The playmaking ability and defensive awareness Hintz showed while filling the Stars’ second-line centre duties could be essential to the Stars’ championship aspirations in the next few years as the aging Jason Spezza continues to receive a diminished role. While the Stars ultimately dropped an ultra-competitive Game 7 to the Blues, the breakout performances by Hintz and Dickinson bode well for the Stars’ forward depth moving forward.
Warren Foegele, LW, Carolina Hurricanes
The Eastern Conference Final is a matchup between unlikely adversaries, as the perennial contender Boston Bruins take on the upstart Carolina Hurricanes, who are appearing in their first postseason since 2009.
While it has been stars like Sebastian Aho and Jaccob Slavin carrying the heavy load for the Hurricanes, the outstanding play of their depth players has been a key factor in their hard-fought win over the defending champion Washington Capitals and dominating performance to sweep away the New York Islanders.
Carolina’s biggest strength is their balanced lineup, as they have 11 players with five or more points. However, perhaps the biggest surprise is rookie forward Warren Foegele, the team’s third-round pick in 2014 who spent almost all of last season with the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers.
Playing in a limited role for most of the season, Foegele averaged the 11th-most minutes among Hurricanes forwards, leading to just 10 goals and 15 points over 77 games. However, he has elevated his game in a big way during the playoffs, notching five goals through the first two rounds and bringing a physical element that helped the Hurricanes keep pace with the bigger and stronger Capitals and Islanders.
While he received some criticism for a questionable hit that knocked Washington forward T.J. Oshie out of the playoffs, Foegele’s abrasive style is a perfect fit for the Hurricanes’ desire to be more physical in the postseason. Scoring timely goals and wearing down opposing defenders on the forecheck, Foegele has earned head coach Rob Brind’Amour’s trust and should be a player to watch against the notoriously physical Bruins.
Kevin Labanc, RW, San Jose Sharks
The San Jose Sharks, led by veterans Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, and Brent Burns, are one of the most seasoned and experienced teams left standing. Despite an infusion of youth in the past several seasons, the Sharks’ Stanley Cup hopes are still tied to the fortunes of a few aging stars and the expiring contract of Erik Karlsson, giving this year’s team extra motivation to win one for the veterans on the team.
Highly touted youngsters such as Tomas Hertl and Timo Meier finally emerged as offensive leaders this season, both setting career highs across the board and carrying their red-hot play into the playoffs. Led by San Jose’s lethal combo of Burns and Karlsson on the back end, the Sharks have had no trouble receiving contributions from the blue line.
One player who has emerged from relative anonymity to become a key member of the Sharks’ forward group is Kevin Labanc. A mere sixth-round draft pick from 2015, Labanc has been inconsistent over his first two NHL campaigns but has thrived in the spotlight of the NHL Playoffs thanks to his high skill level.
Labanc’s contributions as a middle-six winger and power play specialist have been on full display throughout the Sharks’ playoff run, particularly in San Jose’s controversial comeback in Game 7 of the first round that was spearheaded by a couple of huge plays by Labanc. He grabbed an assist on San Jose’s first goal and later potted the game-winning tally, proving his mettle in a do-or-die game.
Despite only receiving about 15 minutes of ice time in the playoffs, it’s Labanc’s ability to make an impact that has played a big role in San Jose’s victories over two tough opponents in Vegas and Colorado. In a postseason that might be linemate Joe Thornton’s last, Labanc is providing key plays in huge situations and should be an X-factor against the red-hot Blues in the Western Conference Final.
Every year, players have the opportunity to make a name for themselves on hockey’s biggest stage, where every big goal or play can create memorable moments or change the outcome of a series. While many of the league’s biggest stars were eliminated in a flurry of early-round upsets, there have been quite a few strong young players who are cementing themselves as future cornerstones of their team with strong performances in the biggest games of the season.
Joseph Aleong is an At-Large writer for THW from Toronto, Ontario. He is a graduate of Brock University in St. Catharines, ON. Follow him on Twitter @josephaleong11