Five Players to Watch in the New NHL Playoffs
By Zach Irwin (@ZachIrwin3196)
Excitement is in the air knowing that we are a month and a half away, so from playoff hockey returning to and rebuilding somewhat of normalcy in the world of sports. It seems like every year before or during playoffs; we talk about what players will step up for their team and who might falter under the bright lights of the playoffs. Out of the four major sports in North America, this might be a bias opinion, but also some people might agree when I say that NHL playoffs are the most grueling in all of the professional sports. But with a new play-in round this upcoming playoff, now more than ever will team genuinely feel like they have to climb the mountain to achieve their dreams of hoisting the Stanley Cup.
Guys like Zach Sanford, who came in for the St. Louis Blues came into the Finals because of suspension and injuries produced 4 points on the grandest stage of the playoffs. Or Jussi Markkanen in 2006 came in relief of Dwayne Rolston due to injury and almost single-handedly won the Stanley Cup for the Oilers with his final stats being in 6 games having (3 Wins, 3 Losses, .905 Save%, and a 2.17 GAA).
The playoffs demand many teams to stay healthy and get hot at the right time. It’s so crucial for all those things to come together to have any shot of winning the Stanley Cup. So here are the five players to watch out for these playoffs.
Taylor Hall (Arizona Coyotes): What a crazy year Taylor Hall had. Looking to put the 2019 season in the rearview mirror, Hall was hoping to regain his 2018 MVP into the 2020 season as he enters the final year of his contract and due to be a free agent at seasons end. Though he was playing a little better for the first part of October into November, the problem was that the Devils just weren’t a good team. So on December 16th, he was traded to the Coyotes who were hoping to end a long playoff drought which hadn’t seen them in the playoffs since 2012 by bringing him in. The marriage was off to a good start, were in the first ten games with the Coyotes produced 8 points (3 goals, five assists).
But injuries to their core players Niklas Hjalmarsson and Darcy Kuemper slowed the yotes momentum, and their possible playoff hopes seemed to be slipping away. Though Hall finished the 2020 season with a decent 52 points (16 goals, 36 assists) in 65 games, that’s not the Taylor Hall hockey fans have come to know. The Coyotes face an uphill battle going into the playoffs as they face the Nashville Predators, another underachieving team in the play-in round. But I believe the Coyotes are a dark horse to the team make a possible Cinderella run in the postseason because the game-breaking skill and speed that Hall possesses can be the difference for the Coyotes to achieve that deep playoff run.
Alex Tuch (Vegas Golden Knights): When he was drafted with the 18th overall pick in the 2014 draft by the Minnesota Wild, he had the size, speed, strength, and the high-end skill that teams only hope and dream of having the chance to pick a player that caliber that in the middle of the draft. In his short career thus far his put up 106 points (43 goals, 63 assists) in his 200 career NHL games. When the Golden Knights got him in a trade during the expansion draft, it showed that Vegas viewed him very highly and thought he was a future building block for the new team on the block. Tuch already had the spotlight on him and made a great first impression to the national audience when he and the Golden Knights made a historic run to the Stanley Cup finals as a first-year expansion team. Though they lost in 5 games to the Capitals, the Knights had to feel great seeing their young building block flourishing during the playoff run. In those 20 games, he had 10 points (six goals, four assists), but then followed it up with a 52 point (20 goals, 32 assists) breakout campaign in the 2019 season. So going into this season, the expectations were sky-high for the 24-year-old.
Unfortunately, injuries plagued his season, only putting up 15 points (eight goals, nine assists) in 42 games and seemed like he couldn’t get into any type of groove. But I think the break will have done justice for him since he will be coming back 100%. And since Vegas is one of the top 4 teams in the Western Conference, he will be able to get back into the swing of things when they play the other top 3 teams for positioning. He indeed could be the x-factor that could make or break whether the Golden Knights win it all these playoffs.
Andrei Svechnikov (Carolina Hurricanes): The second overall pick of the 2018 draft broke out in a significant way this season before the stoppage. In 68 games, he produced 61 points (24 goals, 37 assists) and very much looked like a superstar on the rise. At only 20 years old, he’s shown that the lights aren’t too bright for him to perform at the highest stage. What makes Svechikov such a great player is that he has some of the same qualities as another great Russian forward, future Hall of Famer Alex Ovechkin. Svechnkov, like Ovi, has the size, speed, and shot to terrorize defenses and goalies for years to come in Andrei’s case. Why I believe that Svechnikov is a player to watch out for is that last postseason, he was looking great until he sustained a concussion in a fight with Ovechkin in a game of the first round. Even though he would eventually return in the second-round series versus the Islanders, you could just tell he wasn’t the same player. Also though the break might not have come at the most convenient time for Svechnikov and the Canes, the confidence I think he had this season and going into the playoffs that the 3 to 4-month break won’t stop what spirit he in the season and that it will carry over into the postseason, which should bode exceptionally well for Carolina.
Anthony Cirelli (Tampa Bay Lighting): Ever since he entered the league in 2017, Anthony Cirelli has seemed to get better and better every year, taking the necessary steps to become a star in this league and often compared to Patrice Bergeron, considered one of the greatest two-way players in the long history of the NHL. Cirelli might not put up the points that wow you, but people can’t deny when watching him that he’s one of the rising stars in the league. On a Lighting team filled with stars like Kucherov, Stamkos, Point, Hedman, and Vasilevskiy, it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle. But even if he doesn’t have the skill like those players and I think he has plenty of it, he possesses a high quality to have as a skilled third-line center is that he never takes a shift for granted. His profile on eliteprospects.com reads like this, “A hard-working center who takes his shifts as they come and finds a way to make a difference. A slick skater who can make creative plays in the neutral zone. Has a quick, proactive stick that is noticeable offensively and defensively”.
Cirelli is the under-the-radar player that analysts tell you to look out for because when looking at Tampa Bay’s roster, they have the depth that would make other teams jealous. He is the player that playoff teams need to be able to get over the hump, plus with the expectations that the LIghting has had in the last two seasons, Cirelli will play a pivotal role in the upcoming postseason.
Scott Laughton (Philadelphia Flyers): The first look at Scott Laughton, you think yourself that well he hasn’t done much offensively only putting up 27 points. But his stats don’t tell the whole story and the entire story being that he’s quietly been the Flyers most consistent forward this season. This quote from eliteprospects.com explains well what Scott Laughton’s game is “ All-round players, with good leadership. It plays a very strong two-way game and reads the game well on both sides of the puck. He’s not flashy; he is capable of putting up points and going to the dirty areas to score goals. And he plays the game hard and likes to play the body”. When Laughton was drafted in 2012, many people begged possibly as the next big thing that they found their next Mike Richards, who was traded the offseason before. Laughton doesn’t have a skill set he’s necessarily great at, he’s right on both sides of the puck and sound on the penalty kill.
It’s been a rollercoaster career thus far with him and the Flyers. But now in 2020, Laughton has found his niche as a dependable bottom-six forward who can move up and down the lineup, if need be, wins you crucial faceoffs, and a critical member of the penalty-kill unit. And just before the virus hit, Laughton was hitting his stride in the month of February. In 13 games, he produced 12 points (5 goals, seven assists) and in March collecting three points (one goal, two assists) in five games. The confidence and the system that Flyers head coach Alain Vigneault has instilled into the team has me believing that not only Laughton but the rest of the Flyers will be a problem to deal with in the coming months