Ranking the Best Rookies Early in the 2017 NHL Playoffs

Carol Schram@pool88Featured ColumnistApril 22, 2017

Ranking the Best Rookies Early in the 2017 NHL Playoffs

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    In the Stanley Cup Playoffs, experience rules the day.

    Learning the grind of the NHL regular season is one thing. The playoffs are an even tougher beast to tame thanks to both the relentless schedule and the increased intensity.

    Many players need a bit of firsthand practice before they dial in how to be their best in the postseason—channeling their excitement and passion in a way that delivers positive results. 

    It's an extraordinary achievement when a rookie has success in the playoffs—like Matt Murray did last season when he channeled his inner Patrick Roy and Ken Dryden to backstop the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Stanley Cup.

    Claude Lemieux was another instant hit, putting up 10 goals and 16 points on his way to the 1986 Stanley Cup with the Montreal Canadiens, and Brad Marchand tallied 19 points as a rookie on the Boston Bruins' 2011 Stanley Cup run.

    Here's a look at the best rookies so far in the 2017 playoffs. Some have already logged memorable individual highlights their teams' fanbases will talk about for years to come. Others are on the path to assembling bodies of work that could end up ranking them among the NHL's best in the league history books.

8. Matt Murray, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    Age: 22


    Draft Status: 
    Chosen 83rd overall in the third round of the 2012 draft.

    2016-17 Regular Season Stats: 49 GP, 32-10-4, 2.41 goals-against average, .923 save percentage, four shutouts

    2016-17 Playoff Stats: None, but his team has advanced to the second round.

    His Playoff Potential: Untapped for the moment.

    Murray was the Pittsburgh Penguins' primary goaltender when they won the Stanley Cup last season. He played the majority of the Penguins' games in the 2016-17 regular season and was projected as the playoff starter before he suffered a lower-body injury during warmups before Game 1 against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

    Marc-Andre Fleury did a solid job in taking the reins on short notice and backstopping his team to the second round. The Penguins are being tight-lipped about when Murray might be able to return, and they might also be wary of taking the net away from a confident Fleury.

    Once Murray is healthy, that scene could change quickly if Fleury falters. The Penguins are looking to repeat their long playoff run from last season. Don't discount the possibility that Murray will get a chance to make his statement. He's still officially a rookie, even as he goes on his second playoff run.

7. Kasperi Kapanen, Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Molly Riley/Associated Press

    Age: 20

    Draft Status: Chosen 22nd overall in 2014.

    2016-17 Regular Season Stats: 8 GP, 1-0-1

    2016-17 Playoff Stats: 5 GP, 2-0-2, still playing

    His Playoff Potential: Surprising.

    Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander have made headlines all year long as the Toronto Maple Leafs' three rookie musketeers, but Kasperi Kapanen has served notice early in the playoffs that he has no intention of being left behind.

    Acquired by the Leafs in 2015 as part of the Phil Kessel trade, Kapanen was a point-per-game player with the AHL's Toronto Marlies before being recalled to the big club for the last eight games of the NHL regular season. He played a limited role, averaging 10:41 of ice time per game and barely getting a whiff of the power play.

    His role has remained similar so far in the playoffs. He's up to 11:03 so far in the postseason—largely because four of the first five games in Toronto's series against the Washington Capitals have gone to overtime.

    Playing on a grinding line with veterans Brian Boyle and Matt Martin, it was Kapanen who played hero at the Air Canada Centre in Game 3 when his double-overtime goal gave the Leafs a 2-1 lead in their series against the Washington Capitals.

    It was Toronto's first home playoff win since May 13, 2013, when Dion Phaneuf and Kessel combined to give the Leafs a 2-1 win over the Boston Bruins and tie their first-round series at 3-3.

    Kapanen's goal has instantly elevated him to rock-star status in the eyes of one of hockey's most passionate fanbases.

6. Kevin Fiala, Nashville Predators

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    Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 20

    Draft Status: Chosen 11th overall in 2014.

    2016-17 Regular Season Stats: 54 GP, 11-5-16

    2016-17 Playoff Stats: 4 GP, 2-0-2, advanced to second round

    His Playoff Potential: Impressive.

    Just three games into his NHL playoff career, Kevin Fiala scored a clutch goal that will be remembered for a long time in Chicago—not to mention Nashville. Fiala took the puck around a fallen Corey Crawford in overtime to complete a comeback from a 2-0 deficit and push the Chicago Blackhawks to the brink of playoff elimination.

    The goal was Fiala's second of the series and made him the youngest player in Nashville Predators history to score an overtime goal, per NHL Public Relations.

    The Preds' young first line of Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson drove the bus offensively against the Blackhawks, but Fiala's confidence seemed to grow with each passing game. He'll be a fun player to watch in Round 2, as Nashville tries to advance to the Western Conference Final for the first time in franchise history.

5. Zach Werenski, Columbus Blue Jackets

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    Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

    Age: 19

    Draft Status: Chosen eighth overall in 2015.

    2016-17 Regular Season Stats: 78 GP, 11-36-47

    2016-17 Playoff Stats: 3 GP, 1-0-1, eliminated

    His Playoff Potential: In future years, enormous.

    Zach Werenski's first playoff experience lasted just three games. He scored a power-play goal on a seeing-eye shot in Game 3. He also showed that he possesses the warrior's mentality that's crucial for playoff success when he returned to that same game after taking a puck to the face late in the second period.

    Werenski played a regular shift in the third period, logging 6:45 of ice time, but he was shut down for overtime because his eye swelled shut, according to Aaron Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch.

    Werenski tweeted a gruesome photo of the damage while he was being treated, turning himself into the new poster child for hockey toughness. After being diagnosed with facial fractures, he was unable to return to the series but made a huge impression with his heart and commitment.

4. Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Molly Riley/Associated Press

    Age: 19

    Draft Status: Chosen first overall in 2016.



    2016-17 Regular Season Stats: 
    82 GP, 40-29-69

    2016-17 Playoff Stats: 5 GP, 3-1-4, still playing

    His Playoff Potential: Exciting.

    Continuing the trend of his rookie season, Auston Matthews is proving he's ready to handle whatever the Stanley Cup Playoffs throws his way.

    As an eighth seed, the Toronto Maple Leafs were given little or no chance of knocking off the Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals. But the Leafs have been undaunted by the challenge and have pushed the Caps in every game of the series.

    Matthews led his team in goals and points during the regular season. His three goals also lead the Leafs in the playoffs—and Matthews' 20:47 of average ice time per game is higher than any other Toronto forward.

    There's been no easing this kid into the playoff scene. At 19, Matthews is already proving he has what it takes to lead the Maple Leafs.

3. Shea Theodore, Anaheim Ducks

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    Derek Leung/Getty Images

    Age: 21

    Draft Status: Chosen 26th overall in 2013.

    2016-17 Regular Season Stats: 34 GP, 2-7-9

    2016-17 Playoff Stats: 4 GP, 2-3-5, advanced to second round

    His Playoff Potential: Solid but likely to dim a bit going forward.

    Hardship for the Anaheim Ducks has led to opportunity for rookie defenseman Shea Theodore. A part-time NHL player for the past two seasons, Theodore shuffled back and forth between the Ducks and the AHL's San Diego Gulls for most of the season.

    Cam Fowler's knee injury, suffered on April 4, opened the door for Theodore to play a bigger role in the first round of the playoffs. Sami Vatanen's injury in Game 1 bumped him further up the depth chart.

    After averaging 17:18 of ice time during the regular season, Theodore was Anaheim's second-busiest defensemen in the team's first-round series against the Calgary Flames, averaging 20:08 per game and assuming Vatanen's responsibilities on the power play.

    Against the Flames, Theodore showed he's ready for prime time. After four games, he's 2-3-5—tied for the NHL lead in both goals and points by defensemen so far in the playoffs.

    Thanks to their sweep of the Flames, the Ducks have some time off to rest and recuperate before Round 2. Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle told reporters on Thursday that he does expect Fowler and Vatanen to return at some point in the second round. When that happens, Theodore's role will likely diminish, but he stepped up impressively on an undermanned Anaheim defense in Round 1.

    Brandon Montour also deserves a mention a strong performance on the Ducks blue line in Round 1. After just 27 regular-season NHL games, Montour came out of the first round as a plus-three while averaging 19:27 of ice time per game.

2. Sean Kuraly, Boston Bruins

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    Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images

    Age: 24

    Draft Status: Chosen 133rd overall in 2011.

    2016-17 Regular Season Stats: 8 GP, 0-1-1

    2016-17 Playoff Stats: 3 GP, 2-0-2, still playing

    His Playoff Potential: Explosive.

    Sean Kuraly wrote himself a chapter in Boston sports lore on Friday when he saved the Boston Bruins from playoff elimination in the fifth game of their series against the Ottawa Senators. As the Bruins fought back from a 2-0 deficit to extend the series, Kuraly scored his first NHL goal to tie the game 2-2 with 2:55 to play in the second period.

    The game remained deadlocked after 60 minutes. Inserted into the lineup as a fourth-line center in favor of an ailing Ryan Spooner for Game 5, Kuraly appeared to have won the game for the Bruins with 5:35 to play in the first overtime, but the play was ruled no goal because of goaltender interference.

    No matter. With 9:41 to play in the second overtime, Kuraly finished the job he came to do, firing a rebound off a Charlie McAvoy point shot past a startled Craig Anderson to send the series back to Boston for Game 6.

    Kuraly's accomplishments are even more amazing when you consider his background. Originally a fifth-round pick of the San Jose Sharks, Kuraly came to Boston as a spare part in the three-way trade that saw Martin Jones move from the Los Angeles Kings to the Sharks during the summer of 2015.

    After finishing four years at Miami of Ohio, Kuraly spent most of his first pro season with the AHL's Providence Bruins in 2016-17. He played five of his eight NHL regular-season games for departed coach Claude Julien, then got into the lineup for Bruce Cassidy as an emergency call-up for the last three games of the regular season and first two games of the playoffs.

    After two games on the sidelines, Cassidy decided to go back to Kuraly with his team's season on the line. "We liked Sean's game up here," Cassidy told Eric Russo of the team's official site before Game 5. "He's good at getting on pucks, and the forecheck has been a big part of how we're able to create some of our offense. He gives us that. So we'll see how that plays out."

    Great call, Mr. Cassidy.

1. Jake Guentzel, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 22

    Draft Status: Chosen 77th overall in 2013.

    2016-17 Regular Season Stats: 40 GP, 16-17-33

    2016-17 Playoff Stats: 5 GP, 5-1-6, advanced to second round

    His Playoff Potential: Stellar.

    Once again, the Pittsburgh Penguins have been able to get key contributions from unheralded youngsters as they put together a strong playoff run.

    Last year, rookies Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust and Tom Kuhnhackl each contributed a game-winning goal on Pittsburgh's run to the Stanley Cup. This year, Jake Guentzel is the unlikely hero—leading all players with five goals, including two game-winners, in just five games.

    Guentzel turned pro in 2016 after finishing three years at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. After starting the 2016-17 season in the AHL, he was called up to the Penguins in late November for two weeks, then stuck with the big club for good from mid-January. 

    By the time the playoffs started, he had found his way to Pittsburgh's top line, riding shotgun with Sidney Crosby.

    Guentzel's first playoff goal proved to be the winner in the Penguins' 4-1 victory in Game 2. He followed that up by capping off a hat trick performance with an overtime winner in Game 3. In Game 4, he chipped in his fifth of the series in a losing cause but became the first rookie since Rocket Richard back in 1944 to score five goals in his first four playoff games, according to David Amber of Hockey Night in Canada.

    If he sticks with Crosby in the next series, Guentzel should best Conor Sheary's 10 points (four goals, six assists) and Bryan Rust's nine points (six goals, three assists) from last season. The Penguins' top rookie playoff performer of all time is Jaromir Jagr, who put up 3-10-13 in 24 games as Pittsburgh captured the 1991 Stanley Cup.

    If the Penguins go on another long playoff run, Guentzel could even take a run at the all-time rookie record of 14 goals, set by Dino Ciccarelli of the Minnesota North Stars in 1981. The record for points by a rookie in a playoff year is 21, shared by Ciccarelli (1981) and Ville Leino of the Philadephia Flyers (2010), per Adam Proteau of The Hockey News.

      

    All stats courtesy of NHL.com, current through games completed Friday, April 21.

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