6 Rookies Who Can Have a Major Impact on the 2013 NHL Playoffs
The NHL playoffs, complete with broadened national media coverage and spiked fan interest, have hardly ever failed to introduce the league’s collective fanbase to a couple of new faces.
Since the NHL’s return from the 2004-05 season that never was, every Stanley Cup playoff has yielded a couple of can’t-miss impact rookies, even those whose teams did not reach the halfway mark of the tournament.
In 2006, it was Ryan Getzlaf and Jason Pominville having their impact captured for more than just their local viewers. In 2007, it was Valtteri Filppula and Dustin Penner.
The 2008 and 2009 playoffs saw the first mentions of Nicklas Backstrom and Bobby Ryan, their names sticking with more fans thereafter. The same could be said of P.K. Subban and Ville Leino in 2010, Brad Marchand and Logan Couture in 2011 and Braden Holtby and Adam Henrique a year ago.
Will anybody join that list in 2013?
Among the rookies on teams who are currently in the playoff picture and likely to stay there, here are the six best bets to make a substantial contribution in the postseason, whether it is for one round or four.
Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were found via NHL.com.
Only Ryan Suter has blocked more shots and seen more shorthanded minutes for the Minnesota Wild than Jonas Brodin. The first-year blueliner has halted 51 opposing attempts in his first 38 outings, going through only eight of those without registering a single block.
Columnist Rory Boylen of The Hockey News recently observed that shot-blocking is as rampant a habit this season as it has ever been in recent memory. Odds are that will not change anywhere in the league as the postseason commences, meaning Brodin will likely not be asked to change much in his approach.
That may not make for a glamorous, spectacular or celestial contribution, but an appreciable one nonetheless if you’re a Minnesota fan.
Granted, his first regular season in the NHL has not been the most outstanding, yielding all of three goals and six assists in his first 32 twirls with the Anaheim Ducks.
Nonetheless, Emerson Etem’s build (6’1", 210 lbs) and background point to a force capable of doing damage when the stakes are elevated.
He went through three years' worth of the best-possible amateur simulation of a Stanley Cup tournament, partaking in a cumulative 34 Western League playoff games. In that time, Etem charged up a 24-20-44 scoring log for the Medicine Hat Tigers.
The two World Junior Championships he skated in could not have hurt his preparation, either.
Brendan Gallagher trails only Jonathan Huberdeau of the going-nowhere Florida Panthers in rookie goal-scoring. He has also come through in crucial, competitive matchups enough times to cement his reliability.
In his first 16 divisional games, the burgeoning Montreal Canadien has tallied a 6-4-10 scoring log and a plus-four rating.
That includes a 5-4-9 and plus-three output in 11 meetings with fellow presumptive playoff qualifiers in Boston, Ottawa and Toronto. Gallagher even set up his team’s only goal during an otherwise acrid 5-1 loss to the Leafs this past Saturday.
That, more than anything, is an encouraging early testament to Gallagher’s competitive proficiency. Like his team, he has been tested by an ultracompetitive circuit and emerged with pleasantly surprising achievements.
You knew there had to be at least one Ottawa Senator on this list given that they have dressed 13 rookies overall, six for 10 or more games and four for more than half of their schedule.
The offensive troika of Cory Conacher, Jakob Silfverberg and Mika Zibanejad is bound to draw attention as they are each tested in this tournament for the first time. But Eric Gryba, a top-four defenseman pressed into service by injuries to other players, will be worth watching for a greater individual impact.
After two-plus years strictly in the minors, Gryba has played a nightly average of 21 minutes, 22 seconds in 27 appearances with the big club. He is third among all Sens skaters with 2:36 of shorthanded ice time per game.
In addition, despite playing in only 27 of Ottawa’s first 41 games, he is third among the team’s blueliners with 78 hits. Gryba is also no stranger to postseason success, having won an NCAA title with Boston University in 2009 and a Calder Cup with Binghamton in 2011.
Brandon Saad needs to continue to be a reliable part of the Blackhawks’ next layer of offensive depth after the elite, established likes of Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Jonathan Toews.
So far, he has done plenty of that in what has smoothly evolved into a tune-up for the playoffs in Chicago. Saad is fourth on the balanced Blackhawks with nine goals and 23 points, all of which he has charged up since starting the season pointless in eight outings.
In the last two weeks, Saad has tallied four goals and seven points, all in divisional games. Perhaps the most noteworthy was last Sunday, when he drew a 3-3 knot against Nashville with 10:23 left in regulation and a mere 55 seconds before Toews scored the eventual winner to clinch the 'Hawks’ playoff spot.
If anybody in the 2013 rookie class on a prospective playoff team has the requisite skill set to start clicking when it counts, it is Vladimir Tarasenko. His first NHL postseason will be a test of the young Blue’s psychological strength.
After starting his St. Louis career with a four-goal, 10-point, eight-game hot streak, he has slipped into a cold spell and battled an injury. Starting on Feb. 5, when that hot streak ended, Tarasenko had his plus/minus rating drained in five consecutive games for a cumulative eight-point drop.
He has long since stopped the bleeding in that regard, but has still been slow to revamp his production rate in the 14 games since his mid-March return from a concussion.
With all that said, his protracted slide just might be dumped out with the ice resurfacer’s snow pile once a clean sheet arrives in the form of the playoffs. Tarasenko was in on several stimulating scoring chances late in Sunday’s tough 2-0 loss to the powerful Blackhawks, a sign that he is on the cusp of regaining his rhythm at the right time.