Once the postseason begins, some youngsters hit a playoff wall, while others step up and play like superstars. Some players crumble under the pressure and need the entire offseason to recover their confidence. Others reach new heights and get fast tracked to stardom seemingly overnight.
Either way, the playoffs offer a unique opportunity to gain invaluable experience and accelerate development.
All throughout the NHL season, I have followed the stars of tomorrow. My criteria for these players was two years' experience in the NHL or less than 160 games combined (with minor exceptions). Many players take that next big step in their third year, and they really come into their own. For some it's sooner and for others later, but the development of a star is fascinating to watch.
Without further ado, here are the top 20 rising stars from the remaining playoff teams.
Jakub Kindl debuts on my rising stars lists for the first time, but he hasn't been in the lineup yet these playoffs. However, don't let that undermine what he's been able to do this year.
Like a lot of Wings prospects, he was groomed and brought along slowly, and it paid off this season in a big way. He suited up for 48 games and didn't look out of place whatsoever. It won't be long until his two-way game becomes a mainstay on the Wings' blue line.
The Detroit scouting department is second to none in this league, and Kindl is another shining example.
Another defenseman who hasn't played in a playoff game yet is Coyotes phenom Oliver Ekman-Larsson. He was overshadowed for much of the season because so many other high-profile rookies had big years, but that doesn't diminish Ekman-Larsson's star potential. In fact, now that he's had a season of experience under his belt, he could shoot past most of the people on this list by this time next year.
He has elite upside and plays a similar game to Victor Hedman in Tampa Bay. His great hockey sense is only matched by his physical skill, and Norris Trophy nominations are not out of the question for this rising star.
All season long people in the media and Capitals fans wondered if the team would acquire a bona fide second-line center. Near the deadline they eventually picked up Jason Arnott, but consider that a buffer move for now. For most of the way, Marcus Johansson showed why he has a future in this league.
Netting 27 points in 69 games was a solid debut considering he is heralded as a two-way center. When Niklas Backstrom went down with an injury, the team had no problems inserting Johansson on the top line with Alexander Ovechkin. He did not look out of place and even remained there for a couple of games after Backstrom returned.
Mathieu Perreault was supposed to step up and take the second-line center spot, but Johansson has already passed him on the depth chart. That won't change next season either.
One of the only Flyers prospects to make the club in the last couple years is second-year winger James van Riemsdyk. He was drafted behind Patrick Kane in 2007, but he went the college route and came along slowly.
All the patience is starting to pay off, as he netted a 20-goal season in just his second year. This is an impressive feat considering some of the talent he is playing behind on the Flyers roster. His unique combination of size, speed and skill makes him one of the up-and-coming forwards in this league, and he should shoot up the depth chart within the next year or so.
He spent last offseason getting stronger so he could withstand the rigors of the long NHL season, but he shouldn't break down in these playoffs like he did last year.
Last offseason, the Nashville Predators lost one of their best defensemen in Dan Hamhuis. Most organizations would have a hard time finding an in-house replacement, but Jonathan Blum has made the jump to the pros this year, and he played so well that they had no choice but to keep him up for the remainder of the season.
He doesn't play the shutdown game that Hamhuis does, but Blum brings invaluable versatility to the Nashville blue line. At 22, he already looks comfortable on the ice and could become a mainstay on the Nashville power play.
His upside is tremendous. Keep an eye on him.
Speaking of defensemen, another keeper on this list is Blackhawks standout Nick Leddy. He's had his ups and downs this season, but he wasn't babied into the league in the third pairing like most blueliners. Instead, he's been paired with Duncan Keith for large chunks of time and has already cemented a spot in the team's lineup.
One of his greatest strengths is his transition game, as he can either lead the rush or make that breakout pass. Leddy isn't afraid to lay the body and play a physical game either.
The Hawks might have lost a lot of good players over the last year, but they found a stud within their own ranks who should be around for a long, long time.
If you are starting to notice a trend on this list, you would be correct if you said it had a lot of defensemen. We are in an unprecedented time of great young defensemen entering this league, and another great example is Nashville young'un Cody Franson.
He only averaged about 15 minutes per game last season, but this year he's upped his minutes and importance on the club.
Along with Blum, Franson is making fans forget about Dan Hamhuis quickly. One could almost put this franchise's scouting and development skills on par with Detroit.
At 6'5", Franson has a ton of size to go along with his offensive skill, and he's really improved his two-way game. If the Predators can win a series for the first time in their history, it will be in large part to guys like Franson.
We finally come to another forward on the list with Artem Anisimov. This 22-year-old Russian built on an impressive rookie season with a 44-point campaign this year.
Anisimov is a pretty good skater for his size and shows flashes of offensive brilliance at times. He worked hard at becoming an all-around player and did a nice job at his two-way game last year. He is gifted with above-average hockey sense, playmaking and on-ice vision.
All the tools are there for him to become a really good player in the NHL, but he will need to become more consistent to reach that next level. It could come as soon as next year.
I've become a huge fan of the Capitals over the last couple of years, and one of the main reasons why is how they develop talent. Karl Alzner is the second of four rising stars to make the list.
This former first-round draft pick had big expectations coming out of the draft. He is finally starting to live up to those expectations this season and has plugged a huge hole on the Capitals' blue line.
At 6'2", 205 pounds, he has good size to go along with his above-average mobility. Alzner has untapped offensive upside that he has been working hard at improving. He is already living up to his potential to be a shutdown defenseman.
It was difficult knowing where to place Tyler Seguin on this list. I could have justified leaving him off it because he hasn't come anywhere near the expectations that were placed on him this season, and he's been a healthy scratch for the entire playoffs.
At the same time, there is something to be said for pure talent, and this kid has it. Some thought he wouldn't even be on the starting roster this year, so the fact that he's stuck with the big club all year is a testament to him. He's being asked to play a different role thus far, and he's been a good team player.
Sooner or later this kid is going to get his chance to shine, and when he does, look out.
One player that the Rangers were hoping would step up in the playoffs this year is first-year player Derek Stepan. He's been a nice surprise this season, scoring over 20 goals with 45 points. He boasts a nice two-way game and has a lot of upside.
Unfortunately, he has yet to register a point in the playoffs, and the Rangers desperately need all the production they can get in their stingy series with the Capitals.
Regardless of how things pan out, his future is bright in the Big Apple.
Last season, the Sabres had a hulking rookie take the league by storm in Tyler Myers. This season they have another Tyler making things happen, but he's almost a foot shorter. This doesn't take away from his ability on the ice, though.
He came one point shy of a 50-point season this year and has come close to lighting the lamp many times so far this postseason.
What compensates for his size is his impeccable hockey sense and knack for being in the right place at the right time. He's smart with the puck and has a lot more takeaways than giveaways—which indicates that he knows how to navigate the high-traffic areas.
You'll hear from him before this series is over.
Corey Crawford hasn't been great against the Canucks, but he hasn't been bad either. The Hawks definitely aren't losing the series because of him anyway. In fact, if he didn't take over for the overrated and washed-up Marty Turco, this team would be golfing right about now.
He likely just missed out on getting a Calder nomination, but his play was good enough to make a strong case.
The confidence and demeanor is there to remain a starting goaltender, but he'll have to play just as well next season, if not better, to solidify his position as the future starter in Chicago.
I think he has all the ingredients to make it happen.
Remember Scott Niedermayer? Of course you do. But the memory of his dominance on the Ducks' blue line is fading faster than most people thought thanks in large part to the play of Cam Fowler. He proved right out of training camp that he had what it took to handle the big leagues, and he's never looked back.
Yes, he was a godawful minus-25 this year, but this is overlooked for the most part due to his 40-point season. Speaking of overlooked, how many general managers are kicking themselves right now for letting Fowler slip so low in the draft?
His upside isn't just good—it is phenomenally great. The best is yet to come for this future All-Star.
Before the season started I had Michal Neuvirth as a legitimate Calder candidate. He battled consistency at times this season and subsequently got lost in the rookie of the year debate. Having said that, I'm not sure there are many young goalies in the league with higher upside than him.
Tuukka Rask and Cory Schneider would be his main competition, but both of those guys are stuck behind established starters for the time being.
The time for Neuvirth is now. He never lost a series in the AHL, and he's showing why he's touted as a big-game performer thus far in the Rangers series. He's blessed with incredible agility and never gives up on the play.
Look for the Capitals to part ways with Semyon Varlamov this summer and designate Neuvirth the undisputed starter next year.
He might even have a Stanley Cup ring and Conn Smythe Trophy in his bio when all is said and done.
I got a lot of flak for putting other defensemen higher than Tyler Myers on my rising stars lists this year, but that isn't going to change anytime soon. It's not that I dislike Myers, because I think he has great potential, but I would take the guys above him if I was forced to choose.
The biggest part of Myers' game is his confidence. Once he found it in his rookie season, he took it and ran with it all the way to the NHL Awards Show in Las Vegas, where he collected the Calder Trophy. However, under the weight of expectations and acclimating to a new defensive partner, it took a long time before he felt comfortable this year.
In fact, he was horrible on the ice for the first quarter of the season, and it wasn't until after the All-Star Game that he really found his form again.
Most teams would still love to build their blue lines around him, though. He's fully deserving of the No. 5 spot.
The rookie of the year candidates were just announced, but I don't believe Logan Couture should be on the list. He played in a whopping 40 games last year, including the playoffs, but still remained eligible for the Calder?
Meanwhile, the real rookie of the year, Alex Pietrangelo, was left out because he played in nine regular-season games two years prior. Go figure.
However, this is a debate for another day. For now, it's only important to acknowledge that Couture is one of the best rising stars in the league today and he is well on his way to stardom. His two-way game was so impressive this season that he leapfrogged many players on the depth chart.
Coaches put a lot of trust and responsibility on the young lad this year, and he didn't disappoint. He's blessed with skill to burn and will be a vital piece of the puzzle if the Sharks hope to go far this postseason.
The top three players on this list are all defensemen, and one could make the argument for each of them being the best rising star of the playoffs right now.
I have P.K. Subban in the three spot because he is still looking for that game-to-game consistency that eludes most young players. Despite his questionable decision making at times, there's no debating how much of a force he has been so far in the Boston series.
Subban is already emerging as a team leader and plays a whopping number of prime-time minutes on the ice. His raw talent is worth buying a ticket for alone, and it won't be long until he is the Canadiens' best player.
There really isn't much this kid can't do. He leads the rush, mans the power play, hits with aplomb and has the hockey savvy to be a top-end two-way talent.
Did I mention he is also a world-class agitator? Most fans around the league boo him, but they would all take Subban on their teams in a New York minute.
John Carlson introduced himself to the national stage in the 2009 playoffs by quickly establishing himself as a top-four rearguard. At the time, his scouting report said he had explosive offensive upside with the potential for an all-around game.
The offensive game is still developing, but it didn't take him long to establish himself with an elite all-around game. He uses his size and skating ability extremely well and can easily quarterback the Washington power play.
Carlson is responsible in his own zone and incredibly smart and systematic with his game. In fact, along with Alzner, this duo has already established itself as the best pairing the Capitals have.
Before the season started I got some flak for saying that he would eventually surpass Mike Green as their best defenseman, but that time might have already come.
John Carlson is easily the most underrated rookie of the season.
Victor Hedman doesn't get all the front-page headlines, thanks in large part to Marty St. Louis and Steven Stamkos, but make no mistake about it—every NHL club would love to start its blue line with young phenom Victor Hedman. The No. 2-overall draft pick is already touted as the Lightning's franchise defenseman.
He has taken his game to a new level this season as he continues to adjust to the North American game, but he is already one of the key cogs in the upstart Lightning. Someone with his 6'6" size shouldn't be able to skate as well as he does, but his physical skills are only matched by his technical prowess.
Loaded with an impressive skill set, Hedman is the complete package and will anchor Tampa Bay's defense for the next decade.
His unique blend of size and skill doesn't come around very often, and he will be a Norris Trophy candidate sooner rather than later.
This kid is the real deal.