Ranking the Top Breakout Stars of the 2015 NHL Playoffs So FarMay 6, 2015
Ranking the Top Breakout Stars of the 2015 NHL Playoffs So Far
In Tampa hockey circles, which admittedly have a circumference somewhere between that of a raindrop and an M&M, Tyler Johnson is a huge name. Outside of North Florida? He's just another guy named Johnson.
Well, Montreal and Detroit—two Original Six hockey markets—are exceptions. They know all about the damage Johnson has done so far in these NHL playoffs. It's not like Tyler Johnson was an unknown entity entering this postseason. He was, after all, a Calder Trophy finalist last summer.
But these playoffs have been Johnson's Norma Desmond-Cecil B. DeMille moment.
Known as just a pretty good player before, Johnson is likely the favorite for the Conn Smythe Trophy right now. He scored six goals in the first round against the Red Wings in a seven-game Lightning victory. He had a goal and two assists combined in Tampa Bay's victories to start the Eastern Conference semifinals in Montreal, entering Tuesday as the NHL's second-leading postseason scorer behind Corey Perry (who had 13 points). The 5'8" center, therefore, tops our list of "breakout" playoff performers to this point.
There is a lot more hockey to be played, of course, but of the games played so far, let the following slideshow bestow proper light on those named. What are my qualifications for a "breakout star"? For recently NHL historical reference, think Tyler Toffoli in L.A., who posted 14 points in 26 games last spring as an unknown guy.
Think Dustin Byfuglien with Chicago in 2010, when he terrorized the creases as a forward, posting 16 points in 22 games. He's a star now, but wasn't then.
These are what the playoffs are made for: stoking the star-maker machinery. Those last few words were written by a Canadian, Joni Mitchell.
9. Jakob Silfverberg, Anaheim Ducks
Jakob Silfverberg had two goals and seven points in his first six playoff games for the Ducks. Maybe that will help media members remember how to spell his name from here on in (hand raised, as I misspelled it at one point in the first round).
The Swedish native, who came over to Anaheim from Ottawa in the deal that sent Bobby Ryan there, had a respectable regular season with 39 points in 81 games. Averaging a point per game in the postseason—in one that has been low-scoring in general so far around the league—makes Silfverberg a rising star.
He plays a smooth game, yet he isn't afraid to crash and bang in the corners. That's why he gets good ice time from coach Bruce Boudreau, who has no time for soft players.
8. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning
Nikita Kucherov posted three assists in Tampa Bay's Game 6 victory in Detroit that sent the first-round series back to Florida. In Game 1 of the next round against Montreal, he scored the double-overtime winner on goaltender Carey Price.
Kucherov—No. 86 in your program but No. 1 in the hearts of Lightning fans—is another undersized (5'11") Tampa Bay forward who has cast a bigger shadow than ever projected by NHL scouts (58th overall pick in 2011).
His recent play has been all the more impressive considering he was a healthy scratch early in the season by Lightning coach Jon Cooper. But as he told the Tampa Bay Times recently:
When I was scratched, I saw from the stands how much time I have and how hard I have to compete to be in the lineup. This year, I realize that I have to work more hard than last year to be in the lineup. Scratched gives me more motivation to prove the coaching staff I can play here.
7. Joel Ward, Washington Capitals
Nobody needed to remind first-year Capitals coach Barry Trotz about big, rugged winger Joel Ward when Trotz assumed control this past summer after 16 years in Nashville.
“Joel made a living with me in Nashville being that trustworthy player,” Trotz told The Washington Post's Alex Prewitt. “Big moments, key moments, just getting it done.”
Ward's last-second game-winner took Game 1 against the New York Rangers in the ongoing Eastern Conference semifinals.
“He goes to the hard areas when it counts,” Trotz told Prewitt, “and that’s what Joel has always done.”
6. Patrick Maroon, Anaheim Ducks
"Star" is probably a misnomer, but on the other hand, some stars are much bigger and farther away than our sun in the existing universe, so far that incoming energy from them takes light-years to reach us, whereas it takes only eight minutes for the sun's rays to reach the Earth.
Had enough of a physics lesson? OK. Let's just say Patrick Maroon has been a pleasant find for the Ducks and coach Bruce Boudreau.
A St. Louis native and the 161st overall pick in the 2007 draft, Maroon posted 34 points in 71 games in the regular season and has three goals so far in the playoffs, including the game-tying goal Tuesday night on the road in Calgary after the Flames took an early lead at home in Game 3.
This Maroon appears to have found an island of stability in Anaheim. Thank you, I'm here all week.
5. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals
"Koozy", "Kuzy" or however you want to spell it, the rookie Capitals forward deserves a place on this list. He was overlooked in the original one, but after something just short of the storming of the gates at Bastille, Kuznetsov has been added posthaste.
Kuznetsov posted four goals in his first 10 games with the Caps. As Michael Traikos of the National Post noted: "Kuznetsov scored 11 goals and 37 points this season. But more than half of those came after the All-Star break when he had seven goals and 22 points in 36 games. He has carried that momentum into the playoffs, where the second-line centre scored the series-clinching goal in Game 7 against the New York Islanders."
4. Frederik Andersen, Anaheim Ducks
Some have been downplaying Frederik Andersen's play through the first two rounds, with the Ducks drawing Winnipeg and Calgary, but his Ducks teammates know what they have in the Denmark native.
As Ducks star Corey Perry told Helene Elliott of the Los Angeles Times, "He's Freddie. He's just calm back there. He lets the puck come to him. He makes the first stop and we clear the rebounds."
Anaheim has had a lot of "hot" goalies over the years: J.S. Giguere, Ilya Bryzgalov, John Gibson, Jonas Hiller—they've all been there, done that at this point in the postseason with this team before. If the Ducks can get past the Flames and play, in all likelihood, the Chicago Blackhawks, maybe we'll get to see of which Andersen truly is made.
Until then, he's been made of all the right stuff for these Ducks.
We'll forgive him for Game 3 Tuesday night against the Flames. He had to face a five-on-three in the final two minutes with the Flames pulling the goalie for the extra attacker, and Calgary's OT winner came on a delayed penalty.
3. Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning
Now we all know, finally, why Victor Hedman went second overall in the 2009 NHL draft, one pick behind John Tavares.
Hedman has just been magnificent so far in the playoffs. He's playing 20-22 minutes a night for coach Jon Cooper and is getting it done at both ends, including a goal and assist in Game 2 at Montreal on Sunday night.
At 6'6", 230 pounds, Hedman has always had the size. Now, he's playing with stature.
As Cooper told NHL.com's Corey Long recently:
We're a much better team with Victor Hedman in the lineup than we are without him, that's for certain. He plays power play for us, he has one of the best shots on the team, he is a guy that plays a lot of minutes, and he plays in late-game situations. His value to this team is extremely high.
2. Cam Fowler, Anaheim Ducks
The subject of trade rumors early in his career—and even this season—Cam Fowler seems to have finally taken root in Southern California with the Ducks.
After a solid, 80-game, 34-point, plus-14 regular season, Fowler has been playing more than 20 minutes a night of strong playoff hockey in Anaheim's march to the Western Conference Final.
Drafted 12th overall by Anaheim in 2010, Fowler had some learning to do at the defensive end in his first few years. He was regularly in minus numbers and was tagged as someone who might not work hard enough despite his talent. You don't hear that much anymore.
He and the Ducks were less than 20 seconds away from taking a 3-0 lead on the Flames on Tuesday night, but winger Johnny Gaudreau saved Calgary with a game-tying goal.
1. Tyler Johnson, Tampa Bay Lightning
Our biggest breakout star played in Spokane, Washington, for juniors, almost as far out of hockey's mainstream as one can get in the United States. In fact, the top results on Google for "Tyler Johnson" brought up a basketball player for the Miami Heat when I clicked on his name. A rookie who has played in 32 games over a Calder Trophy finalist? That's practically proof right there that he's underappreciated.
Johnson was too small to play in the NHL, the smart people said. That's why he went undrafted despite being a top scorer in the Western Hockey League for the Spokane Chiefs from 2007-11.
How many scouts' jobs he's cost with his play since, we don't know. What we do know is Johnson has been Tampa Bay's best player so far in the playoffs, which is saying something on a team with Steven Stamkos getting more ice time up front.
This will be the last year Johnson has to battle for anything in the "underrated" categories.