It wasn’t a wild finish to the end of the NHL regular season, save for the nail-biting in Toronto until they locked up a playoff spot with a win over Pittsburgh Saturday night.
Otherwise, the Western Conference picture was pretty much set over a week ago and in the Eastern Conference it was just Toronto’s final push to keep Tampa Bay and the Islanders at bay that provided any drama.
In the scoring department, Connor McDavid reached 100 points to secure the Art Ross Trophy and Sidney Crosby won an improbable second Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy with a league leading 44 goals. Auston Matthews topped the rookie scoring ledger with 69 points (including a league high 40 goals for freshmen).
Defensively, Columbus Blue Jackets’ netminder Sergei Bobrovsky posted the best goals against average at 2.06 and Brent Burns was the top scorer on the blue line, recording 76 points. The Minnesota Wild had the top three plus-minus players in the league, with Jason Zucker and Ryan Suter tying at +34 for the best in that category.
Extra special attention will be given to those in the limelight, thus, we’ve come up with a list of players to watch who may have extra ice to play with or have the white hot spotlight on them to lead their team to the promised land. Here are 16 players, one from each playoff team, who may be key to their team’s fortunes.
16. Washington Capitals – Braden Holtby
The Caps were the NHL’s best defensive team this season, for very good reason. They allowed just 182 goals against, 18 better than challengers Montreal and Anaheim. The man directly responsible for a good portion of the defensive effort is perennial Vezina candidate Braden Holtby. In 63 games, he allowed just 127 goals against, finishing second in goals against average at 2.07, third in save percentage (.925), first in wins (42) and first in shutouts with nine. Therefore, the league’s third-highest scoring team (263 goals for) can rest easy knowing that if they score an average three goals a game like they did during the regular schedule, Holtby will have their back. Also, if the Capitals are to shake the King Kong sized playoff monkey off their back, Holtby has to be the the marsupial killer. Sure, his playoff record is a pedestrian 22-24, but his overall save percentage is .937 and his goals against just 1.87.
15. Pittsburgh Penguins – Justin Schultz
The loss of playoff warrior and puck-moving wizard Kris Letang to season-ending neck surgery was a big setback, in more ways than one. In 41 games this season, he had 34 points, 14 on the powerplay. He was their key blueliner in two Stanley Cup victories and will be missed this time around. That puts just a little downward pressure on Justin Schultz, who really came into his own this season after being acquired from Edmonton at last year’s trade deadline. His play immediately improved with the Pens and he won his first Stanley Cup, adding four assists in 15 games. This season, he led all Pens’ defencemen in scoring with 51 points and was a team high +27. Three of his 12 goals came via the powerplay, as did 17 of his 39 assists. Schultz quarterbacks the first powerplay unit and he’ll be asked to play significant minutes for the NHL’s highest scoring team in the playoffs — even more so now with Letang out.
14. Columbus Blue Jackets – Alexander Wennberg
As much as the Blue Jackets will lean on goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky to make a deep run this year, the team will need secondary scoring, which puts the spotlight on second line center Wennberg. The Jackets have played all of 10 games in the post-season since entering the league in 2000, so we could have picked any number of players here. Wennberg, picked 14th overall in the 2013 draft, quietly set about having his best season in three, scoring 59 points (13 goals, 46 assists) in 80 games. Where he is ultimately valuable is as the set-up man on the powerplay, which could decide a few games in the playoffs for the NHL’s 12th ranked PP (19.9 percent efficient). Fully 21 of his 46 apples came during man advantage situations, setting up half the team’s 42 PP markers. He is also a bonus baby 5-on-5, since he popped 11 of his 13 goals in those situations. The Blue Jackets have drawn the defending champion Penguins in the first round and Wennberg was pretty good in four games against them (2-1-1 record), scoring a goal and two assists with a +2 rating.
13. Montreal Canadiens – Carey Price
The refrain in Montreal, this time around, is the same it’s been in every year but two since Carey Price took over full-time duties in net during the 2007-08 season. That is, as Price goes in the playoffs, so go the Canadiens. After missing the playoffs in 2015-16, mostly due to Price’s absence for much of the season, the Habs enter this year’s Big Dance as the no. 1 seed in the Atlantic Division. However, due to the absurd playoff set up, they draw the wild card New York Rangers in the first round, who finished just one point back of them (103 to 102). It will be a stern test right off the hop for Montreal, since the Rangers were the third highest scoring team in the East and had the ninth best powerplay among playoff-bound squads. Price, though, bounced back well this season, winning 37 of 62 contests (including 3-for-3 against the Rangers), along with a 2.23 GAA, .923 save percentage and three shutouts. He’ll have much to prove in this year’s post-season, too, if he wants to shut up the doubters. At 23-27 lifetime (2.62 GAA, .912 save percentage), Price will be counted on to elevate his game.
12. Ottawa Senators – Erik Karlsson
Once two-time Norris Trophy winner Karlsson got rolling this season, there was no stopping him. He scored an admirable 32 points in his first 39 games, or about half his season (he played 77 games). He absolutely crushed it in the last half of his campaign, recording 39 points in 38 contests as the Senators pushed themselves to second place in the Atlantic Division and a playoff berth for just the second time in four seasons. The workhorse will draw all kinds of ice time and get special attention from other teams, but he has proven he can withstand the punishment. He’s as gifted a powerplay QB as any blueliner in the league and chewed through nearly 27 minutes of ice time per night this year. Four of his 17 goals came via the powerplay, as did 23 of his 54 assists. He also stepped up his game defensively, blocking a career high 201 shots and posting a +10 after a -2 in 2015-16.
11. Boston Bruins – David Pastrnak
There are still a few old warriors kicking around from Boston’s 2001 Stanley Cup winning team, including Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Zdeno Chara, Tuukka Rask, Adam McQuaid and Brad Marchand. The latter, Marchand, will have all kinds of heat on him come the first puck drop, especially after the breakout offensive year and his dirty play late in the season that earned him a two-game ban. The rest, like Bergeron and Krejci, will also be singled out for special checking assignments. It will be incumbent, then, on playoff greenhorns like 20-year-old Pastrnak to prove their worth. The young Czech put it all together this season, finishing second on the team in goals (34) and points (70), while skating on the right side of the second line with Krejci and fellow youngster Frank Vatrano. Pastrnak was invaluable to the Bruins’ fifth ranked (among playoff teams) powerplay unit, firing 10 of his 34 goals in man advantage situations and adding 14 of his 36 assists too. If the B’s are to go deep, fuzzy-faced guys like Pastrnak will have to shoulder a significant load.
10. New York Rangers – Rick Nash
The Rangers were scary good offensively this season, scoring over three goals per game and getting double digit goals from 10 different players. Of those, four scored 20 or better, including Rick Nash, who finished third in that department with 23 markers. Better yet, he scored them in just 67 games, including five in his last eight games after a nine-game goal-less stretch. Of all Rangers players heading into the post-season, the expensive Nash has much to prove. When the Rangers went deep two years in a row (2013-14 and 2014-15), Nash, a three-time 40-goal scorer, fired just eight goals in 44 games, on a league high 152 shots combined. Those numbers don’t cut it, but he did show fair form in five playoff games in 2016, scoring twice and adding two assists. He will be most valuable to the team scoring “ugly” this post-season. He is a big body who, now that he is healthy again, should be hard to handle down low.
9. Toronto Maple Leafs – William Nylander
The kids took the Leafs, nearly all by themselves, to the playoffs. And it will be there contributions, or lack thereof, that will determine the fate of the Buds, particularly in a first round match-up with Washington that should see them firm underdogs. The obvious choice here would be to prattle on about Auston Matthews, who will see plenty of hard-checking forwards in his grill. A player the Caps really need to fear, however, is Matthews linemate and dangler extraordinaire William Nylander. And where they need to be afraid most is when the Leafs get powerplay opportunities. The young Swede led the league’s second best powerplay (first among playoff teams) with 26 points (nine goals), putting him in on nearly half the Leafs’ 58 PP strikes. The puck looks like it is on a string when he’s out in man advantage situations. Washington beware.
8. Chicago Blackhawks – Artem Anisimov
There is a taste the Blackhawks want to rid their mouths of, and it was that seven-game defeat at the hands of the St. Louis Blues in the first round of the 2016 playoffs. They won 50 games this season and are the no. 1 seed in the Western Conference heading into a first-round match-up with wild card Nashville. One key returnee will be Anisimov, who has sat out since March 14 with a lower body injury. As of this week, the eighth year center will be practicing with talented linemates Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin, as feared a troika as there is in the NHL. Anisimov scored 22 goals and 23 assists this season in just 64 games, surpassing his entire total from the 2015-16 campaign, 42 points in 77 games. It also represented his most prolific output of 44 points in 82 games with the New York Rangers in 2010-11. Even strength is where the lanky Russian will do his most damage, since just eight of his 45 points came with the man advantage. Should be fun to watch.
7. Minnesota Wild – Devan Dubnyk
One of the Western Conference’s stingiest — and highest scoring — clubs will rely heavily on goaltender Devan Dubnyk to get the job done. The Wild scored a league second best 266 goals this year, while allowing just 208, third fewest among post-season bound Western Conference teams (for a conference high +58 differential). Coach Bruce Boudreau has a veteran laden club firing on all cylinders heading into a first round set with St. Louis, having won the last four games of the season. Dubnyk, who suffered through a personal slump of 2-8-2 starting a month ago, won his last three starts, stopping 87 of 95 shots. The unheralded puckstopper started 65 games this season, winning a career high 45 games, as well as recording a career best five shutouts. At age 30, the 6’6″ goalie still has much to prove in the playoffs, where he is 6-10 with a 2.84 goals against average and .896 save percentage. In Boudreau’s system, though, he may be on the verge of a breakthrough.
6. St. Louis Blues – Ivan Barbashev
Ivan who? While much can be said about the hole on the blue line created by Kevin Shattenkirk’s trade to Washington, it’s the inclusion of 21-year-old 2014 second round pick (33rd overall) that will make things interesting this post-season. Summoned from the Chicago Wolves mid-way through the season, Barbashev started slowly playing spare minutes. But, fate has a funny way of changing a player’s fortunes and in the last weeks of the season, the Moscow native was playing on a top line that features scoring wiz Vladimir Tarasenko (39 goals) and talented playmaker Jaden Schwartz (team high 36 assists). He finished the season a point in four straight games, pushing his totals to five goals and seven assists. With the Tarasenk-show blazing down his wing, look for Barbashev to continue his streak into the post-season.
5. Anaheim Ducks – Patrick Eaves
At no point in his career would Patrick Eaves ever have been mistaken for an elite scoring machine. But, in his 12th season and on his sixth NHL team, something clicked. He fired 21 goals in 59 games with Dallas to start the year, his highest total ever. Then, in 20 games with Anaheim after a deal at the deadline, Eaves pumped in another 11 to push his total to 32. Only the Ducks Rickard Rakell had more goals with 33. As an added bonus, he has been slotted in as the right winger on a robust first line featuring Ryan Getzlaf and Nick Ritchie. Eaves ended the season on a hot streak, firing nine goals and adding an assist in 11 games, all while getting very modest playing time. Of note, he notched two markers in back-to-back victories over first round opponent Calgary on April 2 (4-3) and April 4 (3-1). He was great even strength for the Ducks, scoring nine of his 11 goals 5-on-5 and with a spot on the top powerplay unit, could be even more deadly in the playoffs.
4. Edmonton Oilers – Cam Talbot
Is goaltender Cam Talbot burned out after playing in a league high 73 games? We’re about to find out. Much ink will be spilled about Connor McDavid’s first foray into the post-season, however, we believe the Oilers hopes rest on the slender shoulders of fourth-year netminder Talbot. He won a NHL best 42 games this season and saw more rubber than roadkill at a thunderous 2,117 shots against. Talbot stopped 1,946 of those rockets (also a NHL high) for a .919 save percentage and 2.39 goals against average. Down the stretch, Talbot sparkled for the energized Oilers, winning seven of 10, including two of his personal best seven shutouts. His lone blemishes were getting yanked after allowing four goals on 15 shots during a 7-4 Oilers win on March 23 and then surrendering five goals on 26 shots in a 6-4 loss to L.A. on April 4. He’s the key to any Oilers march through the Western Conference, starting Wednesday against the visiting San Jose Sharks.
3. San Jose Sharks – Tomas Hertl
With centers Logan Couture (facial injury) and Joe Thornton (knee) on the DL and their returns to the line-up in the air, the slack down the middle will have to be picked up — at least initially this post-season. Having to go into a revved up Edmonton Oilers den on Wednesday, the Sharks will be in tough. A pivot that Pete DeBoer will have to give big minutes to is sublimely talented Tomas Hertl, who missed a slew of games himself, seeing action in 49 games and scoring 22 points. He drew into the Sharks’ second unit with Mikkel Boedker and Jannik Hansen late in the season and was given the unenviable task of shadowing Edmonton’s McD in a 4-2 loss late in the regular slate. He fared all right, recording an assists and an even rating as McDavid scored a goal after getting a good bounce. The Sharks, should they be down to premier centerman, will need Hertl to step up and put in the performance he did on the way to the Stanley Cup finals last year (six goals and five assists, +8 in 20 games).
2. Calgary Flames – Johnny Gaudreau
The Flames, back in the post-season for the first time since 2015 and just second time in eight years, will have to find a way to stifle the NHL’s hottest team down the stretch, the Anaheim Ducks (8-0-2 in their last 10). Should Calgary prevail against the Ducks, Johnny Hockey will have to be a catalyst. The wiry playmaker was pretty good in his only appearance in the playoffs in 2015, scoring four goals and adding five assists in 11 games. In the regular season, the Flames top winger wasn’t as dominant as he was in 2015-16, when he scored 78 points in 79 games, but that team missed the playoffs. This year, he registered modest totals of 18 goals and 43 assists in 72 games, again leading his team in points. His line, which includes Sean Monahan and Michael Ferland, will be called upon to score key goals, but will have more help with a fairly spread out offence. Before being held pointless in his last three games, Gaudreau had three goals and nine assists in the previous eight.
1. Nashville Predators – P.K. Subban
It is probably a good thing that former Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban doesn’t have to be “the man”on the Predators’ blue line. Too often criticized for not being Superman in Montreal, the eighth-year rearguard settled in nicely after a slow start in Nashville, while the stout Roman Josi played top dog on the blue line. Yet, with the Predators staring down a tough first round opponent in Chicago, Subban is going to have to complement Josi a lot more, given that the Hawks will pound him down low. Subban, who had 16 points (of his 40 in 66 games) on the powerplay, will be relied upon to make things happen on the Preds’ first unit. And that powerful quintet has some scorers, including Viktor Arvidsson (team high 31 goals), Ryan Johansen (14), James Neal (23) and Filip Forsberg (also 31). This is Subban’s year to put to put his name among the post-season elite, if he is up to the challenge.