Buying or Selling 8 NHL Playoff Breakout Players as Emerging All-Stars

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistSeptember 23, 2020

Buying or Selling 8 NHL Playoff Breakout Players as Emerging All-Stars

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    The Stanley Cup playoffs seem to bring out the best in some players. Veteran superstars tend to rise to the occasion, but sometimes a promising youngster exceeds expectations and lifts his club during the heat of postseason competition.

    This year's playoffs are no exception. Montreal Canadiens center Nick Suzuki and Vancouver Canucks goaltender Thatcher Demko were among a handful of playoff novices who earned rave reviews for their efforts.

    A strong playoff performance by a youngster can be an indicator of great things to come. However, a player can also be hamstrung by heightened expectations or rushed too quickly into a role he might not be ready for.

    Here's a look at this year's noteworthy playoff breakout players and whether we're buying or selling the idea they're emerging All-Stars.

Buy: Carter Hart, Philadelphia Flyers

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    The Philadelphia Flyers had been without a proven, homegrown starting goaltender since Ron Hextall's heyday in the late 1980s. In Carter Hart, their prayers may finally be answered.

    Hart was a promising goalie when the Flyers selected him in the second round (48th overall) in the 2016 NHL draft. He had two good NHL seasons under his belt entering the 2020 playoffs with a career goals-against average of 2.59 and a .915 save percentage. Nevertheless, he'd yet to prove himself in postseason competition.

    The 22-year-old netminder didn't disappoint in this year's playoffs. He outdueled Carey Price as the Flyers eliminated the Montreal Canadiens from the first round in six games. Hart also helped the Flyers reach the full seven games in the second round before falling to the New York Islanders.

    Hart finished with nine wins in 14 playoff games, a 2.23 goals-against average, a .926 save percentage and two shutouts. That performance should be the foundation of an All-Star career with the Flyers.

Sell: Thatcher Demko, Vancouver Canucks

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Vancouver Canucks fans will roll their eyes skyward in disgust over the suggestion of selling goaltender Thatcher Demko as a future All-Star. After all, their overmatched club never would've pushed its second-round series with the Vegas Golden Knights to seven games if not for the 24-year-old's heroics.

    Demko certainly has potential. The 6'4", 192-pound San Diego native was a star at Boston College and was the top draft-eligible goalie heading into the 2014 NHL draft, where the Canucks selected him 36th overall. However, he saw action in just 10 NHL games during the last two seasons before suiting up for 27 games in 2019-20. His career goals-against average is 3.02 with a .906 save percentage.

    Demko was backing up starter Jacob Markstrom until the latter was sidelined by a lower-body injury following Game 4 against the Golden Knights. With the Canucks down three games to one, Demko backstopped his club to two straight wins before they were finally eliminated in Game 7. He allowed just two goals on 125 shots during those three contests.

    It's tempting to suggest Demko has emerged as a goaltending star. However, he has a limited body of work with the Canucks, mostly as a backup. Let's see how well he plays over a full NHL season before anointing him as an All-Star in the making.

Buy: Nick Suzuki, Montreal Canadiens

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    Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

    A lack of skilled depth at center has been an ongoing problem for the Montreal Canadiens. The performance of Nick Suzuki during the 2020 playoffs suggests the issue could finally be resolved.

    Suzuki made the jump from junior hockey to the Habs lineup this season, netting 41 points in 71 games to finish fifth among Habs scorers and sixth among NHL rookies. He made the league's All-Rookie team for 2019-20.

    Suzuki also proved he could handle the pressure of playoff competition. With four goals and seven points in 10 games, the 21-year-old center tied Jesperi Kotkaniemi as the Canadiens' leading goal scorer and Jonathan Drouin as their points leader. He also averaged two minutes and 47 seconds of power-play ice time and 1:53 of short-handed ice time per game.

    Suzuki's solid regular season and impressive playoff effort signal a bright future ahead. He could begin next season centering the Canadiens' top line.

Sell: Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Montreal Canadiens

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    After a disappointing sophomore campaign, Jesperi Kotkaniemi enjoyed a strong postseason that suggests potential stardom ahead. However, he might not be ready yet to center one of the Canadiens' top two lines on a full-time basis.

    Selected third overall in the 2018 NHL draft, Kotkaniemi netted a respectable 11 goals and 34 points in 79 games as an 18-year-old rookie in 2018-19. Offseason knee surgery followed by a groin injury and a concussion limited him to eight points in 36 games this season. Demoted to Montreal's AHL affiliate, he tallied 13 points in as many games before a spleen injury ended his regular season.

    Kotkaniemi made the most of the long layoff, getting healthy and building up his strength. The improvement was evident during the playoffs. He moved up into the top two lines, scoring four goals to tie Nick Suzuki as the Habs' leading goal scorer while finishing second in hits with 36.

    Despite Kotkaniemi's postseason play, he could find himself centering the third line behind Suzuki and two-way veteran Phillip Danault on the Canadiens' depth chart. He has the potential to blossom into a top-two center, but the tribulations of his sophomore season could make the Habs reluctant to rush the youngster.

Buy: Denis Gurianov, Dallas Stars

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Several players have stood out during the Dallas Stars' march to the 2020 Stanley Cup Final. Among them is rookie right wing Denis Gurianov.

    Though the 23-year-old Russian played 22 NHL games before 2019-20, this season is his actual rookie campaign. While he finished with 29 points in 64 games, 20 of those were goals, making him the Stars' top goal scorer.

    With nine goals and 17 points in 21 games, Gurianov is this postseason's leading rookie scorer. He's second among the Stars' goal scorers and tied for fourth in points with Alexander Radulov. Two of those goals were game-winners, including the series-clincher in overtime over the Vegas Golden Knights in the Western Conference Final.

    Gurianov has established himself as a potential star among the Stars. The 6'3", 200-pounder is blossoming into a big, strong-skating second-line scorer with a lethal one-timer. His postseason play suggests better things to come.

Sell: Joel Kiviranta, Dallas Stars

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    Brandon Wade/Associated Press

    Joel Kiviranta was hardly a household name for most Dallas Stars fans this season. An undrafted left wing out of Finland who signed with the Stars as a free agent last year, he spent most of this season with their AHL farm team. Called up in January, he saw action in just 11 games.

    The 24-year-old Kiviranta appeared in just two playoff games before Game 7 of the Stars' second-round series with the Colorado Avalanche. Replacing the sidelined Andrew Cogliano, the young Finn became the first rookie in NHL history to tally a Game 7 hat trick, including the series-winning goal.

    Kiviranta's performance in that game ensured him regular playing time on the Stars' third line. During Game 5 of the Western Conference Final against the Vegas Golden Knights, his game-tying goal late in the third period set the stage for teammate Denis Gurianov's series-winner in overtime.

    While Kiviranta's story makes for wonderful playoff lore, it's no indication he's an All-Star in the making. However, he has proved to be an effective checking-line winger. Cap Friendly indicates Kiviranta has one year remaining on his two-way contract. A good performance throughout next season could earn him a nice raise next summer with the Stars on a one-way deal.

Buy: Kirby Dach, Chicago Blackhawks

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    David Banks/Associated Press

    The Chicago Blackhawks envisioned big things from Kirby Dach when they selected him third overall in the 2019 NHL draft. The young center wasted little time establishing himself as an NHL regular this season.

    Only 19, Dach cracked the Blackhawks lineup during training camp. He went on to net a respectable 23 points in 64 regular-season games, supplanting Dylan Strome as the second-line center.

    Dach acquitted himself well in the playoffs. He collected four assists in his first three playoff games as the Blackhawks upset the Edmonton Oilers in the qualifying round in four games. While the Hawks were knocked out of the following round in five games by the Vegas Golden Knights, he netted two points, including his first NHL playoff goal.

    The 6'4", 197-pound Dach showed considerable promise throughout his rookie campaign. He improved his physical play as the season went on and gained confidence during the playoffs. This could prove to be the start of an All-Star career.

Sell: Dillon Dube, Calgary Flames

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    Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

    The Calgary Flames endured yet another disappointing early exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs. While winger Dillon Dube emerged among the few bright spots, it's too early to consider his performance an indication of a future All-Star career.

    Though he played 25 games in 2018-19, this season was Dube's actual rookie campaign. A speedy, versatile two-way forward, the 22-year-old netted six goals and 16 points in 45 regular-season games on the Flames' checking lines.

    In the playoffs, however, Dube elevated his game. Skating on a line with left wing Milan Lucic and center Sam Bennett, his four goals (one of them a game-winner) tied Johnny Gaudreau and Mikael Backlund for second-most among Flames scorers.

    It was a solid postseason debut for Dube, but Flames fans should keep their expectations realistic. Dube meshed well with his linemates, giving his club a solid third line heading into next season. He should continue to develop into a reliable checking-line forward with good speed and decent hands. Expecting him to score on a 30-goal pace as he did in this year's playoffs could be asking too much.

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