The NHL playoffs. It’s where superstars turn into legends. Look at the prices of Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews Young Guns cards. Now imagine if they lead their team to a rarely-seen and much-coveted Canadian Stanley Cup. That’s right, straight to the moon.
But McDavid and Matthews will be just fine even if the Oilers and Leafs fizzle out. However, the NHL playoffs are a prime opportunity for under-the-radar guys to break out. We see it every year. Someone goes on a hot streak and injects their team with a shot of energy that seems to carry the whole squad. Welcome to a new two-part series where we pinpoint a good candidate from every team who might fill that role.
This team is packed with guys who get headlines. Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Cale Makar. But, the Avalanche have a deep roster of skill guys who can change the game at a moment’s notice. Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky, Brandon Saad.
Quite possibly the most underrated Avalanche player all year has been defenseman Samuel Girard. He’s one of those new-age blueliners — small, fast, offensive-minded, and incredibly good with the puck. Makar gets the minutes with the first powerplay group, and that’s why his point total is considerably better. In five-on-five situations, their numbers are pretty similar. Girard got some Norris Trophy buzz this year, and don’t be surprised if the playoffs are his coming out party.
Vegas Golden Knights
Vegas has a nearly identical situation to Colorado. They’ve both got more than their fair share of stars, and they both have plenty of players who can make a difference in any given game. Shockingly, they’re also two of the best teams in the league.
Winger-maybe-converted-to-centerman Alex Tuch is one of those guys. He’s the sort of player who just always seems to come up clutch when it matters most. You can easily see him netting a couple of overtime winners and suddenly becoming the darling of hockey.
Minnesota finally has their most exciting player in franchise history. The 24-year-old Russian rookie Kirill Kaprizov is practically a shoo-in for the Calder Trophy. He’s already a breakout star though. The whole NHL has been fascinated by his first-year campaign.
The problem with the Wild is that they’re perennially considered the most boring team in the league for a reason. If anyone shines in the playoffs who isn’t named Kaprizov, it’ll probably be someone Kaprizov plays with. It’s not tough to picture longtime Ranger Mats Zuccarello looking good because everyone’s trained on Kaprizov. Zuccarello has been a beneficiary of it all year, as his point pace is the best it’s been in his 12-year career. But make no mistake: The Wild will go as Kaprizov goes.
St. Louis Blues
The Blues are a confounding team. St. Louis has a lot of guys you’d want on your team, but they go long stretches where they look completely lost. They’ve had losing streaks of five and seven games this year. That won’t cut it during a shortened season. However, they’re also capable of going to war with the best teams in the West.
One player who has made tremendous strides this year is second-line winger Jordan Kyrou. His first two years in the NHL were relatively disappointing and he wasn’t featured much. Now he’s a mainstay in the Blues lineup and he’s producing. People will take notice of Kyrou in the playoffs.
Toronto Maple Leafs
How do you find an underrated breakout player for the most popular team in the league? Everyone knows all the names of most every Leaf. You’re not catching anyone off-guard by saying Mitch Marner and John Tavares and William Nylander are good.
You go to a position that’s overlooked when it comes to playoff heroics. Every year, there’s a goaltender who gets hot and carries his team to some undeserved wins. Toronto has a full-blown goalie controversy on its hands, and it’s time the torch is passed from Freddie Andersen to Jack Campbell. There’s a great chance that Campbell takes the Leafs further in the NHL playoffs than they’ve gone in a long time.
Edmonton is a particularly tough team for this exercise because the Oilers like to mix and match lines so much. Even though they’re both centermen, sometimes Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl play together. Sometimes Ryan Nugent-Hopkins gets thrown in there. There’s no telling what Oilers coach Dave Tippett will do, and that means it’s tough to gauge who has the most to gain.
Right now, my bet is on Finnish winger Jesse Puljujarvi. He’ll probably be part of the top line with McDavid, and that’s a very good position to be in. Much like the Wild and Kaprizov, this pick is all about riding a superstar’s coattails.
We’re taking a slightly different approach when it comes to Winnipeg. Rather than a traditional breakout, we’re going to pick someone who’s already a top player but doesn’t receive the recognition he deserves.
Kyle Connor may be the most underrated player in the entire NHL. He’s a consistent 30+ goal scorer, but he never seems to be in the conversation about the league’s best players. Maybe it’s because other Canadian teams have bona fide superstars, maybe it’s because Winnipeg is such an unsexy pick. Whatever it is, Kyle Connor is undervalued and people will take notice if Winnipeg makes waves in the first round against Edmonton.
Let’s get this out of the way upfront: Jeff Petry is having a fantastic year and he’s on a points-per-game pace that easily eclipses anything he’s done previously in his career. But, I have reservations about designating a 34-year-old defenseman as a “breakout star.” Still, hats off to Petry.
I also have reservations about naming Nick Suzuki here. He’s in the midst of a very successful second-year campaign, and he’s almost singlehandedly the reason the price of 2019-20 Upper Deck Series 2 shot up over the past few months. However, if the Canadiens have any chance of knocking off the Leafs in the first round, Suzuki will have to play a prominent role. If that happens, his stock will go through the roof. Everyone’s already aware of Suzuki’s potential, but the playoffs could make him a legit superstar.