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Ranking the 10 Hottest Playmakers in the 2014 NHL Playoffs

Rob VollmanContributor IApril 24, 2014

Ranking the 10 Hottest Playmakers in the 2014 NHL Playoffs

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    Associated Press

    Nathan MacKinnon has been on fire for the Colorado Avalanche, setting up six goals in the first two games. If Colorado's 18-year-old superstar rookie has been the league's top playmaker so far this postseason, where does everybody else rank?

    Rating playmakers is not an exact science, especially with only a few games to measure them by. After all, there are so many different ways to set up scoring. Some players dangle and make highlight-reel passes in the slot, others dig pucks out of corners, and there are still those who take shots from the point in order to get rebounds or deflections.

    It isn't easy to compare all of those different styles.

    The approach I've taken after watching the first handful of games in the playoffs is to verify what we've seen on the screen with a close study of the scoresheets. It's important to look not only at who is getting the most assists, but also whether they're primary assists. In addition, ice time could also be taken into account, especially in regard to opportunities with the man advantage.

    In the end, I've found 10 playmakers, including MacKinnon, who have had a direct impact on their team's scoring totals. I've ranked them in reverse order and backed up my choices with the key statistics and playmaking highlights, while offering my opinion about whether their success will continue.

10. Beau Bennett, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Jay LaPrete

    The Stats

    Like teammate Evgeni Malkin, Beau Bennett has assisted on all three goals that he's been on the ice for at even strength, two of which were primary assists.

     

    Key Contributions

    Bennett was a key part of Pittsburgh's comeback in Game 3, when it was trailing Columbus 3-1.

    He set up Brooks Orpik to score with one second left in the second period and then did the same for a Paul Martin shot that was tipped in by Brandon Sutter in the third.

     

    Will it Continue?

    Playing on a secondary line and without many opportunities with the man advantage, Bennett is unlikely to remain such a key part of the Penguins offense.

    The talent is certainly there, however. The 22-year-old has 15 assists in 47 regular-season games, and the former first-round selection had 21 assists in 39 games in the AHL last year.

    Bennett was out for four months this season with a broken wrist.

9. James Sheppard, San Jose Sharks

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    The Stats

    James Sheppard has assisted in all three goals that have been scored while he's been on the ice through San Jose's first three games against Los Angeles.

    When you factor in his limited ice time, Sheppard's 4.96 assists per 60 minutes at even strength is the highest so far this postseason.

     

    Key Contributions

    Sheppard set up Tomas Hertl's first playoff goal in Game 1, which proved to be his first of two assists that game. He was also involved in Justin Braun's game-winner in Game 2.

    San Jose has all of its lines rolling, with other secondary players like Matt Nieto and Andrew Desjardins also setting up some nifty plays.

     

    Will it Continue?

    Both Sheppard and the Sharks are likely to cool off eventually, the former to a greater extent.

    The Sharks have scored 17 goals in three games against one of the best defensive teams in the league. Sheppard himself has three assists in three games, the same number of helpers he managed in all 32 games he played in 2012-13.

    He has 57 assists in 323 regular-season games. 

8. Brad Richards, New York Rangers

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    Jack Dempsey

    The Stats

    Brad Richards has three assists in three games. He has recorded primary assists on both Rangers goals he's been on the ice for at even strength and added an assist on the power play.

     

    Key Contributions

    Game 1 belonged to Richards. 

    He scored the eventual game-winner, then managed a beautiful power-play feed from the point to Derek Stepan to extend New York's lead to 3-1. Richards later took the shot that created the rebound Carl Hagelin buried to ice the game in the third.

    Richards also set up Dan Girardi's cannon from the point in Game 3, a goal that gave the Rangers another 3-1 lead.

     

    Will it Continue?

    There's no reason why the 2004 Conn Smythe winner can't continue to fuel New York's offense, especially with ample opportunities at both even strength and with the man advantage.

    Richards had 50 assists in 93 playoff games entering this postseason and has flirted with 70 assists in the regular season twice since the 2005 lockout.

7. Paul Stastny, Colorado Avalanche

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    The Stats

    Paul Stastny has four assists in three games, all of which have occurred at even strength and three of which were primary.

     

    Key Contributions

    Stastny set up the first goal in the series, working hard behind the net to center it to captain Gabriel Landeskog. Stastny would go on to score both the equalizer with 14 seconds left and the overtime-winner.

    But this ranking is about playmaking, and there's no better example than Stastny's behind-the-back blind pass to Landeskog in Game 2. It was his third consecutive assist of the game and the eventual game-winner.

     

    Will it Continue?

    Stastny is a fantastic playmaker, earning four assists in six games in his last postseason appearance back in 2009-10. That was the season he set a regular-season career high of 59 assists.

    He has since been moved into more of a two-way shutdown role over the past few years. His incredible talent, Colorado's wealth of young snipers and the nature of the postseason generally suggest that he will likely continue to get plenty of opportunities to set up the team's scoring.

6. Shawn Horcoff, Dallas Stars

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    Tony Gutierrez

    The Stats

    Veteran checking line center Shawn Horcoff has assisted on four of Dallas' 12 goals over the first four games of its opening-round series with the Anaheim Ducks.

    Horcoff is one of only three players with four assists at even strength and one of only four players with three primary assists at even strength.

     

    Key Contributions

    Dallas's depth lines have been able to contribute thanks in part to Horcoff's playmaking abilities. Take Ryan Garbutt, for instance, who has 14 shots in four games, including a goal he scored on Horcoff's centering pass in Game 2 to pull the Stars within a goal.

    Horcoff's biggest game was during a 4-2 victory at home in Game 4 to pull even in the series. He got the puck to Vernon Fiddler to tie the game at two and also drew an assist on Alex Goligoski's insurance goal in the third period.

     

    Will it Continue?

    Horcoff had 12 assists in 24 games in his last postseason appearance with the Oilers way back in 2006. That was the season in which he set his regular-season high of 51 assists. He would tally at least 35 in two of the three following seasons.

    Of course, that seems like a long time ago. The 35-year-old is now on the checking line and had 13 assists in 77 games this year, giving him 80 in 313 games over the past five seasons.

5. P.K. Subban, Montreal Canadiens

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    The Stats

    P.K. Subban assisted on five of Montreal's 16 goals, making him one of only four players with five assists this postseason.

    Montreal's 5-4 Game 1 victory was the only contest in which Subban didn't record at least one assist.

     

    Key Contributions

    Subban's playmaking highlight was definitely in Game 3, when he undressed Ondrej Palat to set up Brendan Gallagher for the 2-1 lead.

    The goal meant that Subban assisted on Montreal's first two goals in both Games 2 and 3. He would also go on to assist Max Pacioretty's series-winner in Game 4.

     

    Will it Continue?

    It absolutely can continue, though obviously not quite at the same pace.

    Subban, the 2013 Norris trophy champion, recorded 43 assists this regular season, a career high. He previously had 11 assists in 26 previous postseason games with the Canadiens.

4. Brandon Dubinsky, Columbus Blue Jackets

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    The Stats

    Brandon Dubinsky is one of only four players with five assists so far this postseason and one of only three with four at even strength.

    He has recorded an assist in all four games so far—to a different player in each game—and only eight of the team's 14 goals have been scored without him.

     

    Key Contributions

    Dubinsky set up the first goal of the series, carrying it up the ice and making a nifty move to get it to Jack Johnson.

    His next assist was recorded when he centered the puck for Matt Calvert's double-overtime-game-winner in Game 2, the first playoff victory in franchise history.

    Dubinsky combined both techniques early in Game 3, carrying the puck into the zone, playing tough behind the net and ultimately centering it to Johnson to go up 2-0. He later carried it up the ice on a two-on-two rush, before bouncing one in off Cam Atkinson to go up 3-1.

    In Game 4, Dubinsky found Ryan Johansen on the power play to cut Pittsburgh's lead to 3-2.

     

    Will it Continue?

    Dubinsky, who was acquired from the New York Rangers in the Rick Nash trade, finished second on the Blue Jackets with 34 assists, his single-season career high. He had 10 assists in 31 postseason games with the Rangers.

    The soon-to-be 28-year-old Alaska-born forward is a classic do-it-all player, who is capable of filling in whatever role Columbus needs most. Right now, that includes setting up the team's offense.

3. Paul Martin, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    The Stats

    Paul Martin leads the postseason with eight assists, two more than anybody else. At least two have been recorded in each manpower situation, three at even strength and three of his eight have been primary assists.

    Martin has exactly two assists in each of Pittsburgh's four games so far.

     

    Key Contributions

    Martin assisted on both of the team's short-handed goals, each time by just doing his job getting the puck out of the zone and triggering a rush.

    The bulk of his assists have come with him and Matt Niskanen working together to fire shots from the point, causing either deflections or key rebounds.

     

    Will it Continue?

    Martin showcased his offensive upside last year when he recorded 17 assists in 34 games, followed by nine assists in 15 postseason games.

    The Penguins rely on their two-way veteran big time, which is why he is averaging over four minutes per game more than anyone else on the team. While he's obviously not likely to continue scoring at this same clip, there's no reason he won't be a big part of Pittsburgh's offense moving forward.

2. Brandon Saad, Chicago Blackhawks

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    Associated Press

    The Stats

    Brandon Saad is one of only two players with four primary assists, and he has set up a third of all of Chicago's goals thus far.

    His 3.95 assists per 60 minutes is second only to the player coming up next.

     

    Key Contributions

    Saad has obviously responded well to being a healthy scratch in a late regular-season contest against the St. Louis Blues. His play for the final few games was described as "one of the few highlights" by Tim Lively of FanSided, who wisely predicted that Saad could prove the difference-maker in Round 1.

    The picture for this slide comes from Game 3, where Saad hustled down the ice to set up Marcus Kruger for the empty-netter.

    Game 2 could have been Saad's best. Down 2-1, he assisted on Brent Seabrook's equalizer and then dug up the puck to feed Johnny Oduya's point shot for the 3-2 lead. Saad's hard work also got the puck to Oduya for Chicago's first goal in Game 1.

     

    Will it Continue?

    While Saad has certainly established himself as a capable playmaker at every level of hockey, including the NHL, Chicago obviously has several playmaking options that are unarguably superior to the 21-year-old.

    Saad had just five assists in 23 games in last year's Stanley Cup run and 45 in 126 regular-season games. If his assists continue, then they'll likely be earned the same way—by heading into the corners, digging up the puck and getting it to the open man.

1. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche

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    The Stats

    Nathan MacKinnon is second in the NHL with six assists in just three games and is one of only two players with four primary assists. The Avalanche have only scored two goals without him.

    His 4.17 assists per 60 minutes leads the league.

     

    Key Contributions

    MacKinnon has been on fire. His plays have been a combination of great drop passes and centering feeds from behind the net.

    In Game 1, he set up Ryan O'Reilly in the slot to tie the game at two apiece. Later, MacKinnon fed Erik Johnson from behind the net for a shot that rebounded and was buried by Paul Stastny to take the game to overtime with 13 seconds left. In overtime, MacKinnon went to work behind the net once more and passed directly to Stastny for the overtime game-winner.

    MacKinnon was in on all of the action in Game 2 as well, the highlight being a drop pass to Gabriel Landeskog to take a 2-1 lead.

     

    Will it Continue?

    First overall draft choice Nathan MacKinnon took the NHL by storm, tying for second on the Avalanche with 39 assists as an 18-year-old rookie.

    This level of postseason scoring is nothing new for MacKinnon, who scored 61 points in 34 games in two seasons with the Halifax Mooseheads of the QMJHL and was tournament MVP the second year.

    MacKinnon's upside is boundless, and when he gets hot, he's nearly unstoppable.

     

    Rob Vollman is the author of Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract, co-author of the annual Hockey Prospectus guides and a featured ESPN Insider writer. Follow Rob on Twitter @robvollmanNHL.

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