NHL Rookies Having the Biggest Impact on the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs
Most NHL rookies don’t get a whiff of the NHL playoffs during their first year in the league.
For some, the chance to compete for the Stanley Cup can be pushed back for years—just ask the Edmonton Oilers, who haven't made it to the postseason since 2005-06.
For others, hard work and solid play contributing to the overall success of the club bring a chance at the playoffs and the greatest trophy in all of sports.
Even if a freshman makes it into the 16-team competition, the odds are against them making much of an impact. The playoffs are a time when veterans and clutch players thrive, ushering clubs to the promised land with efforts unmatched during the standard campaign.
Each year, however, there is a special crop of rookies—the ones that make the headlines more often than not by finding success during the most arduous weeks of bonus hockey.
These are the players that stand to have excellent careers in the NHL, the boys who transform into men and never look back again, gaining invaluable experience on the battlefields of ice rinks around North America. These are the kids that give their teams an added boost.
What follows is a list of NHL rookies that are having the biggest impact on the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs.
Matt Nieto: San Jose Sharks
His first season: 21-year-old winger Matt Nieto hit the jackpot when the San Jose Sharks drafted him 47th overall at the 2011 NHL entry draft. A California native, Nieto spent three years playing for the Boston University Terriers before his debut with the Sharks this season. While everyone was talking about Tomas Hertl, Nieto managed to quietly put up 10 goals—including two game-winners—and 14 assists in 66 games with San Jose, finishing 10th on the club in points.
What he’s done since: Playing in his first NHL postseason, Nieto has factored heavily in the first-round success of the Sharks. Playing alongside San Jose staples Patrick Marleau and Logan Couture, Nieto has amassed two goals and three helpers to go along with 10 hits and four blocked shots through five contests. He’s third on the team in scoring and tied for second in points, which are no easy feats considering the fact that he’s starting the play in his own zone more often than not.
What’s next: The future is bright for the kid. Making a splash during the season is one thing, but coming through in the playoffs, where winning every game is paramount, is a completely different story. Nieto is now on the radar in California and will help to help raise the profile of the sport with local kids alongside friend and former teammate Emerson Etem (Anaheim Ducks). "Those type of players, I think it's huge for our state," Sharks head coach Todd McLellan told Lisa Dillman of the Los Angeles Times. "The NHL franchises — the Ducks, Kings and ourselves — we have to be the leaders.”
Ondrej Palat: Tampa Bay Lightning
His first season: Tampa Bay Lightning freshman Ondrej Palat is perhaps the only other rookie in the league to make a legitimate run at what is sure to be Nathan MacKinnon’s Calder Trophy. The 23-year-old Czech winger was a terror for the Bolts, tallying 23 goals and 26 assists in 81 regular-season matches while finishing plus-32. He ended the season second on the team in points—behind only Martin St. Louis, who was traded away—and was instrumental in helping the Lightning secure a spot in the playoffs.
What he’s done since: Riding the success of the regular campaign into the postseason, Palat was equally important to his club despite a first-round exit at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens. The Bolts only potted 10 goals in the short series, but Palat had two of them—as many as superstar Steven Stamkos. He finished his first taste of bonus hockey in April with three points and was facing stiff competition on most nights.
What’s next: There’s no doubt that Palat is headed for greatness in Tampa. His numbers, consistency and overall reliability earned him the honor of being a finalist for rookie of the year—something he clearly deserves. He helped shoulder the load while Stamkos was sidelined with a broken leg and will continue to complement the roster that head coach Jon Cooper has in place for years to come.
Darcy Kuemper: Minnesota Wild
His first season: 23-year-old goaltender Darcy Kuemper exploded onto the NHL scene in a big way during the 2013-14 season. Coming in to support the Minnesota Wild due to injuries, the young Canadian went 6-2-1 in January and 4-1 in February, appearing to be one of the new rising stars between the pipes. Despite his good fortune in the crease—he finished 12-8-4 with a 2.43 goals-against average and .915 save percentage—Kuemper’s ice time dwindled after the Wild traded for fellow netminder Ilya Bryzgalov in order to contend in the postseason.
What he’s done since: Injured himself, Kuemper lost his starting role to a goaltender who, for all intents and purposes, has more experience and a better track record. Bryzgalov had years of postseason contests under his belt. Kuemper had two games. However, the quirky, older Russian netminder couldn’t give the Wild the best chance to beat the Colorado Avalanche in the first round, and Kuemper was brought in. The series changed immediately, as Kuemper won the next two contests, stoning the best of the young Avalanche squad and asserting himself as the go-to guy for the remainder of the postseason.
What’s next: Wild goalie Josh Harding is a wild card due to his ongoing fight with multiple sclerosis, which gives Kuemper some hope for a lengthy stay in the blue paint. Niklas Backstrom has been the main goaltender in Minnesota for eight years, but at age 36, he isn’t getting any younger or faster. Kuemper will now be the guy called upon to step in and continue the success of the Wild, who have only made the playoffs three times now with Backstrom and five times altogether.
Boone Jenner: Columbus Blue Jackets
His first season: The Columbus Blue Jackets made the playoffs for just the second time in the franchise’s 13-year history this season and rookie Boone Jenner was a part of that. Finishing 10th on the team in points, the 20-year-old—a product of the Ontario Hockey League—made an a lasting impression with 16 goals and 29 points through 72 games while averaging roughly 14 minutes of ice time per night.
What he’s done since: Jenner, the 37th overall pick in 2011, has factored heavily in the success of the Blue Jackets thus far in the playoffs. Facing Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins is no easy feat, and for someone just entering the league, Pittsburgh’s reputation can be just as scary as the actual opponent. Jenner has been magnificent regardless, scooping up three goals, two helpers and 22 hits while helping his Blue Jackets win the club’s first two playoff games ever.
What’s next: Jenner is helping his Blue Jackets compete with one of the best teams in the entire NHL, and that won’t go unnoticed. With a roster full of guys who have also made their own postseason debuts, Jenner is beginning to stand out from the pack. He could very well see his responsibilities increase moving forward and will give Columbus added depth for years to come—no matter the outcome of the first round.
Tyler Toffoli: Los Angeles Kings
His first season: 22-year-old freshman forward Tyler Toffoli got a head start on his first season with a quick 10-game dip in the NHL last year. He finished with two goals and five points and managed to hang with the Los Angeles Kings for a handful of postseason starts as well. Still considered a rookie, Toffoli carried his good fortune over to the 2013-14 campaign, putting up 12 goals and 17 assists in just 62 contests with a meager 13 minutes of ice time per night.
What he’s done since: Jeff Carter, Anze Kopitar, Marian Gaborik, Tyler Toffoli. That’s how the stat sheet stacks up after five grueling playoff battles against the San Jose Sharks. Down 3-2 in the series, the Kings have played hard and looked for help from everyone on the roster. Luckily for them, Toffoli has risen to the occasion when it mattered most, scoring two goals—both game-winners—and helping out on two others, all with roughly 12 minutes of playing time. It doesn’t hurt that he’s playing alongside deadly sniper Carter either.
What’s next: Toffoli adds to a stellar Los Angeles Kings roster and, should his solid numbers keep trending upward, could give the Kings enough of an edge to make a run at the Stanley Cup once more. His ability to come up big when many superstars are struggling speaks to his capacity to perform under pressure, which is a valuable asset in the NHL.
Torey Krug: Boston Bruins
His first season: Torey Krug had a pretty good freshman campaign playing for the best team in the NHL, the Boston Bruins, this past year. The 23-year-old rear guard managed to register 14 goals and 40 points through 79 contests while playing behind guys like Johnny Boychuk, Dennis Seidenberg, Matt Bartkowski and Zdeno Chara–a Norris Trophy finalist. A dependable piece of potentially the best defense in hockey at the moment, it is hard to believe that Krug, a Michigan native, actually went undrafted.
What he’s done since: Krug has actually seen playoff action before, having played 15 games during Boston’s 2012-13 bid for the Stanley Cup, but this year he’s already making more of an impact and has only played in five contests. Krug finished the first round—a 4-1 series win over the Detroit Red Wings—tied for first on the team in points (five) and assists (four). He averaged nearly 19 minutes of ice time per game and is one point shy of tying his career best in a single postseason campaign.
What’s next: A Stanley Cup ring is probably in the cards for the rookie this year, as Boston is near unstoppable. Even if that doesn’t come to be, Krug is learning from some of the best in the game and excelling under head coach Claude Julien. Despite being heavily sheltered in his matchups and zone starts, Krug will begin to face tougher competition as his career goes on and the 5'9" defenseman will be tasked with continuing to put up big numbers for his storied club.
Frederik Andersen: Anaheim Ducks
His first season: There was a time when the Anaheim Ducks' goaltending tandem of the future consisted of Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth. Both were excellent and spoke to the quality of development within the Anaheim system. Then Fasth got hurt and 24-year-old Danish puck-stopper Frederik Andersen got the chance to shine. Suddenly, the duo was a trio, and that’s a problem in the NHL. It wasn’t long before Fasth was traded and Andersen got the nod. He finished the season with a 20-5 record, .923 save percentage and 2.29 GAA.
What he’s done since: Andersen played well enough during his first season that Ducks head coach Bruce Boudreau rewarded the Dane with the bulk of the playoff workload during the team's first-round matchup against the Dallas Stars. Despite getting pulled in Game 6—and watching Hiller close out the series—Andersen was strong between the pipes, finishing the quarterfinals with a 3-2 record while surrendering 18 goals on 166 shots. While his .892 save percentage and 3.40 GAA aren’t spectacular, Andersen was key in helping the Ducks move on.
What’s next: Having played well enough to see a legitimate goaltender get shipped off, Andersen is in a prime position with the Ducks. The club finished first in the Western Conference and the rookie carried the bulk of the starts as the playoffs began. Even if he loses his starting job to Hiller, Andersen will continue to challenge his teammate, earning and stealing starts as the seasons go on and securing the blue paint in Anaheim for years to come.
Nathan MacKinnon: Colorado Avalanche
Who he is: The first overall pick at the 2013 NHL entry draft, Colorado Avalanche rookie Nathan MacKinnon was often compared to hometown hero Sidney Crosby in terms of ability and potential. Despite a meager start to the season, the 18-year-old finished as the front-runner for the Calder Trophy, leading his fellow freshman in assists (39), points (63), shots (241) and takeaways (51). He also completed the full 82-game season tied for first in goals (24).
What he’s done since: MacKinnon was electrifying in the regular season, using speed, strength and an advanced hockey IQ to find his way to the scoresheet. None of that changed when Colorado made the playoffs as the Central Division champs. The kid is already becoming a superstar, as he leads the entire NHL in points (10) and plus/minus (plus-eight) through just five postseason games played. Thanks to an injury to Avalanche center Matt Duchene, MacKinnon has been thrust into a primary role with the Avalanche and regularly faces Minnesota’s best during his even mix of zone starts.
What’s next: There’s always the question of a sophomore slump, but as of now, it doesn't seem like that should be a problem for MacKinnon. Having already beaten a record set by Wayne Gretzky—when The Great One was 18 years old—MacKinnon is poised for a lengthy and incredibly successful run in the NHL. He is one of those players who looks to be not only the future of his club, but also an example of what the league will look like in the coming years. Expect to see and hear a lot about him.
Advanced statistics courtesy of Extra Skater.
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