Young NHL Players Who Improved the Most in the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs

Mark Jones@@CanesReportSenior Analyst IJune 11, 2013

Young NHL Players Who Improved the Most in the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs

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    From the magic of Torey Krug’s first playoff series to the emergence of Derick Brassard as a Big Apple star, the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs have featured the growth and improvement of a new generation of young players more than any other in recent history.

    Rookies have become veterans and raw youngsters have become seasoned superstars in front of the hockey universe’s eyes. The past six weeks have changed nobodies to household names and newcomers to established leaders, minor-leaguers to first-liners and backups to clear starters.

    Such is the opportunity that the NHL playoffs have to offer.

    And such is the opportunity that five young players in particular have taken advantage of to the fullest extent.

    For this handful of much-improved youngsters, we break down their evolution and the impact it's had on the postseason as a whole.

Derick Brassard

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    Derick Brassard’s move to New York City brought out a top-tier playmaking ability that was never fully uncovered in Columbus.

    The 25-year-old center, a middle-of-the-line forward for years with the Blue Jackets, experienced a production explosion from Day 1 in the Big Apple on. After scoring 18 points in 34 games earlier in the season in Ohio, Brassard tallied 11 points in 13 regular season-closing appearances for the Rangers and then a team-leading 10 assists and 12 points in 13 playoff contests.

    Brassard’s maturation into a legitimate first-line-caliber center should give Blueshirt fans plenty of optimism moving forward, even considering their ugly second-round playoff exit and the uncertain future of Brad Richards.

    Don’t write off this spring as a fluke—Brassard’s skill and stardom are most certainly here to stay.

Damien Brunner

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    Even at age 27, Damien Brunner’s highly-anticipated rookie season—coming after four impressive years overseas with Switzerland’s EV Zug—did nothing but exceed expectations.

    Brunner’s 12 goals and 26 points in 44 regular-season games were nice, but his game-changing tenacity was best exemplified in his five-goal, nine-point playoff campaign during the Red Wings’ 14-game run. He scored the first three playoff points of his career in Game 2 against Anaheim and proceeded to find the back of the net in four later games as well.

    Detroit owner Mike Ilitch’s decision to sign Brunner rather than a traditional NHL free agent last offseason paid off in a major way.

Torey Krug

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    The massive impact of petite, undrafted rookie defenseman Torey Krug in the Boston Bruins’ second-round matchup against the Rangers seemed like something out a storybook.

    With just three games of prior NHL experience, Krug was inserted abruptly into the Bruins’ Game 1 lineup. His 5’9” frame standing almost comically short compared to teammate Zdeno Chara, Krug scored just 2:55 into the third period of Boston’s eventual 3-2 win and began a week that few Bruins followers will soon forget.

    The 22-year-old scored again in Game 2, and then again in Game 4 and then again in Game 5 as the Bruins routed the Rangers to advance. He became the first defenseman in NHL history to score four times in his first five career postseason appearances.

    He earned text-message congratulations from franchise icon Ray Bourque, as well as a permanent place in both Bruins’ folklore and nightly lineup for many years ahead.

    While Krug went on to register just one point—an assist—in Boston’s conference finals sweep of Pittsburgh, he’ll certainly have plenty of playing time in the upcoming Stanley Cup Final to add even more to his legacy.

Corey Crawford

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    Corey Crawford’s not-too-youthful age of 28 consistently hides the fact that 2013 is just his third season as a starter and his first playoff experience beyond the first round. For all the netminding stability Crawford has brought Chicago over the past three years, he had never managed to translate that into playoff success like his predecessor, Antti Niemi, had.

    Until this spring.

    Entering May with a career postseason stat line consisting of a mere 5-8 record and a .911 save percentage, Crawford has gone 12-5 with an impressive .935 save percentage and 1.74 GAA in the Blackhawks’ ongoing Stanley Cup Final run. He’s recorded a save percentage above .900 in all but one of 17 starts and allowed two or fewer goals against in seven of his last nine appearances.

    With the last (and most important) aspect of his resume now complete, Crawford seems poised to settle in as one of the league’s premier goaltenders for at least the rest of the decade.

Slava Voynov

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    Russian rearguard Slava Voynov’s transformation from the 2012 playoffs to the 2013 playoffs was nothing less than shocking.

    Voynov registered just three points, 40 hits and 22 blocked shots during the Los Angeles Kings’ 20-game Stanley Cup campaign a year ago. A number of rookie mistakes and unlucky deflections highlighted the youngster’s underwhelming spring.

    A year later, Voynov’s role and performance reversed 180 degrees. In 18 games, the 23-year-old former second-round pick blasted home six goals—equal to his total from the entire 48-game regular season—and seven assists. He led the team in points (13), plus-minus rating (plus-nine) and game-winning goals (four, accounting for almost half of the Kings’ nine total wins) and set a career high with 33:13 ice time in Los Angeles’ Game 5 loss to Chicago last weekend.

    Don’t be surprised if Voynov, riding the momentum from this stellar spring, begins the 2013-14 season on the Kings’ top defensive pairing.