Top 5 Rookies to Watch in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs

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Top 5 Rookies to Watch in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs
Gene J. Puskar

Being a rookie in the National Hockey League can be daunting. Competing against players who can be up to twice their age is something that young players have a tough time adjusting to.

The 2013-14 season saw many first-year skaters and goaltenders make a splash for their respective teams, but come April 16, they are about to about to experience the harsh realization of playoff hockey.

These next five rookies have the opportunity to prove themselves to their coaches, teammates and fans as they enter the grueling proving ground that is the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Let's take a look at how they got here and what we can expect from them in the coming months.

 

Francois Lacasse/Getty Images

Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche

When the 2013 NHL draft rolled around back in June, it was believed that the Colorado Avalanche were set to select defenseman Seth Jones. Instead, the Avs went with 17-year-old (now 18-year-old) center Nathan MacKinnon from the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

MacKinnon has had a tremendous rookie season. His 24 goals and 38 assists for 62 points make him the leading candidate for the Calder Trophy. Along with those impressive statistics, MacKinnon also notched a point in 13 straight games, the longest point streak by an 18-year-old. Who was the previous record holder, you ask? The Great One, Wayne Gretzky.

MacKinnon is now ready to begin his first run for Lord Stanley’s Cup. For anyone questioning his lack of experience in big-game situations, they don’t need to look to far for an answer. 

After Halifax won last year's MasterCard Memorial Cup, MacKinnon was named the most valuable player. Leadership in situations like this is necessary for any young player looking to succeed in the NHL.

The center is a very versatile player. This means first-year head coach Patrick Roy will have a grand old time using him any way he wants.

This kid has an incredible amount of potential and he finally gets to showcase it this postseason.

 

Steve Babineau/Getty Images

Teuvo Teravainen

In mid-March, the Chicago Blackhawks front office called up their 2012 first-round draft pick, Teuvo Teravainen, to replace injured goal scorer Patrick Kane for the rest of season.

Teravainen is an elusive, skilled puck handler who resembles a young Kane. The 19-year-old out of Finland had 13 goals and 18 assists in his time with Liiga club Jokerit. He was ranked seventh in points in the Finnish league with 31.

With the Blackhawks, Teravainen has been relatively quiet with only four shots in three games played.

With Kane expected to return for the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Teravainen may or may not see time this April. This would not be a surprise as general manager Stan Bowman stated in an interview with Scott Powers of ESPNChicago.com that the team will not be relying too much on the young Finn.

“He’s not going to be the focal point of our team,” Bowman said. “But he certainly has the talent to be able to play with high-end players here.”

If Teravainen sees time in the playoffs, it will be extremely beneficial for him. He will learn quickly how different postseason hockey is. As a teen with little NHL experience, the center will blossom next season if he gets the chance to see the ice in the coming weeks.

Watch for Teravainen, in what little minutes he receives, to show what he is capable of. A few assists or one or two goals can go a long way for this kid.

 

Bruce Kluckhohn/Getty Images

Darcy Kuemper, Minnesota Wild

The Minnesota Wild have been decimated by injuries in net the entire year. Midway through the season, the organization had resorted to rookie Darcy Kuemper and trade-deadline acquisition Ilya Bryzgalov to take over the reigns.

Kuemper played in only two games in the first half of the 2013-14 season but has seen plenty of time in the crease since January 7. He has stood his ground and recorded a solid save percentage of .915. He uses his 6’5 frame to fill the net and is known for having a great glove hand.

The Western Conference fields plenty of talent that Kuemper will have to face. It will be a tough task fending off some pretty stacked teams. However, he has shown during the regular season that he is capable of beating the Chicago Blackhawks, who could only muster up a single goal against him.

The Wild are placing a huge weight on the back of Kuemper, but keep in mind that rookie goaltenders have had success in recent playoff history.

In 2006, Cam Ward won the Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes, and Antti Niemi won it in 2010 with the Blackhawks. Granted, both teams were seeded No. 2 in the years they won the hardware, unlike the Wild who are currently seventh place in the West.

Still, there is no word on who head coach Mike Yeo will name the starter for their first-round matchup.

Bryzgalov has been playing well lately posting three shutouts and a save percentage of .929 in his last ten games.

Another issue that may hurt Kuemper’s chances of starting is the fact that he sustained an upper-body injury at a morning skate on March 31. Early reports indicated it was not serious, but Kuemper hasn’t played since March 30.

Whether or not Kuemper gets the nod for the playoffs, it will be a great learning experience for the 23-year-old who has his whole career ahead of him.

 

Duane Burleson

Ondrej Palat, Tampa Bay Lightning

Tampa Bay Lighting left wing Ondrej Palat surprised many this season with an impressive rookie year.

Selected in the seventh round of the 2011 NHL draft, Palat used his creativeness to make a name for himself in this league. He currently has 22 goals and 35 assists for 57 points and also leads all rookies in takeaways.

The 23-year-old Czech helped lead his team to the postseason after many thought they would be counted out due to Steven Stamkos’ injury in early November. Powering though the heart of the season in wake of their captain’s absence, the Lightning now hold the third playoff spot in the Atlantic.

Like MacKinnon, Palat’s leadership will pay off in the playoffs. The club is all but locked in to play the Montreal Canadiens in the first round. The Canadiens possess a deep lineup, which could tire out the rookie. If he shows coach Jon Cooper and his teammates that he can stay focused, then he will be just fine heading into the deeper rounds.

 

Matt Slocum
Olli Maatta (Right)

Olli Maatta, Pittsburgh Penguins

The Pittsburgh Penguins made a steal in the 2012 NHL draft when they selected defenseman Olli Maatta out of Finland. It really is a rare occasion when a young player gets the chance to show off his talent this early in his career. 

Maatta has played alongside solid defenseman Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin and, before he was hurt, Kris Letang. The 19-year-old has already been making waves not only for the Penguins but also for Finland’s national team. He was apart of Finland’s bronze medal victory back in Sochi where he posted three goals and two assists.

Among first-year defensemen, Maatta is tied for second in points (29) and is third in goals (nine).

His big frame and talent in all three areas of the ice proves to work well with stars Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and fellow Finn Jussi Jokinen.

Maatta was lucky to be chosen by one of the league’s top powerhouse clubs, and he has proven he can play with the big boys. If he has anything to learn, he has to be more physical, especially considering that the NHL has the most grueling postseason in sports.

With that said, he is surely going to receive advice from veterans on how to become a stronger force on the ice. He will have no other choice when Pittsburgh opens up the tournament most likely against a brutally tough Detroit Red Wings squad.

 

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