10 unsung heroes who could swing the balance of the playoffs
Jonathan Drouin (Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)
10 unsung heroes who could swing the balance of the playoffs
Which under-the-radar players could make major splashes in the Stanley Cup playoffs? Consider these 10 names.
There's one every year. Sometimes it's a Bryan Bickell or Fernando Pisani, a grinder who blows up out of nowhere to becoming a massively influential playoff performer. Other times it's a Justin Williams or Claude Lemieux, an established and effective veteran who elevates his already-strong play to unforeseen levels.
Who will it be in the 2015-16 playoffs? Bookmark these 10 players who could have sneaky-strong influences on one or more series.
Jakob Silfverberg, Anaheim Ducks
The sharp-shooting Swede took a circuitous route to match his 2014-15 point total of 39. Silfverberg embodied everything that was wrong with the Ducks in the early part of the season, as he was full of talent yet couldn't buy a goal. He first found twine in game No. 20. At this season's halfway point, Silfverberg had three goals and eight points. In his next 41 games, he caught fire for 17 goals and 31 points in 41 games. That's the Silfverberg the Ducks expected. He's too good a shooter not to pepper the back of the net with pucks. He forms one third of a dynamite checking line with Ryan Kesler and Andrew Cogliano and thus will play a crucial role in the post-season. Silfverberg was also on another planet the last time he was called into playoff duty, racking up 18 points in 16 games last spring.
Jonathan Drouin, Tampa Bay Lightning
How poetic will the story be if Drouin busted out when the Bolts so desperately need him? It may be happening already. After his trade request and defection from AHL Syracuse couldn't get him dealt, he swallowed his pride and rejoined the Crunch lineup, determined to return to the NHL the old-fashioned way: by scoring. A lot. Drouin ripped off nine goals in nine games, earned an olive-branch recall from Lightning GM Steve Yzerman and scored in two straight games for Tampa Bay. Give Drouin 11 goals in his past 11 professional games. He's still just 21 and blessed with sublime raw offensive talent. Among NHLers with 200 or more minutes played this season, Drouin ranks among the top 15 in team Goals For per 60 minutes of ice time. That group includes Joe Thornton, Connor McDavid, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Joe Pavelski, to name just a few. Drouin has a chance to finally play extended top-six minutes while Steven Stamkos is out, as coach Jon Cooper has Drouin playing on the second line centered by Valtteri Filppula right now. A big post-season lift could render all the past Drouin drama nothing more than a bad dream.
Andre Burakovsky, Washington Capitals
It's too obvious to pick Justin Williams, Mr. Game 7, as an X-factor. So how about a guy slated to play the left wing on a line with Williams and Kuznetsov to open the playoffs? Burakovsky oozes natural scoring ability. He has the pedigree to break out, as he was a first-round pick in 2013. He teased playoff prowess as a rookie last year, too, sniping two big goals, including a game-winner, in Game 4 of the Metro Division final. Burakovsky belongs in a similar category as Drouin in that sudden playoff success would constitute an arrival of a promising talent, not an explosion from an unexpected source. Burakovsky's 2015-16 regular season was spotty, but he did snipe 17 goals in 79 games.
Colton Parayko, St. Louis Blues
If you believe St. Louis can finally win a playoff series or two after so many disappointing early flameouts, Parayko is a big reason. He represents a skill set the Blues have lacked in the playoffs during the Ken Hitchcock era. They've had great mobility on defense through Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk and Jay Bouwmeester, and guys like Barret Jackman and Roman Polak provided sandpaper in seasons past, but Parayko straddles the line between both. He's a tank at 6-foot-6 and 226 pounds, and he's also no brute. He can move the puck and he has a heavy shot. He's just 22 and doesn't have any NHL playoff choke jobs burned into his brain. Parayko likely won't finish as a top-three Calder Trophy vote getter, but his name should ring out when the playoffs are done. Parayko, by the way, posted the best 5-on-5 Corsi rating of any Blues defenseman and the top relative Corsi mark on the team.
Matt Cullen, Pittsburgh Penguins
Raise your hand if you knew Cullen, 39, had 10 goals, including three game winners and two shorties, and 16 points in his past 27 games. Cullen has become the Pens' de facto third-line center in Evgeni Malkin's absence and will maintain that role as long as Malkin remains sidelined with an upper-body injury. Even when Malkin returns, Cullen has carved out a role for himself. He's a faceoff maven, winning at a 55.7 percent clip. He also plays the sixth-most shorthanded minutes per game among all NHL forwards who made the playoffs – and the Penguins finished with a top-five penalty-killing unit in the league.
Vincent Lecavalier, Los Angeles Kings
It's too boring if we ground every pick in logic and statistics. Here's an emotional choice. It may or may not be Vinny's final season, and he has a real chance to win a Cup as the Kings' third-line center. He scored a respectable 10 goals in 42 games since arriving in a trade with the Philadelphia Flyers, and while Lecavalier's relative possession numbers rank among L.A.'s worst, maybe he's saving his adrenaline for the big dance. Again, no rhyme or reason to this pick. Just a gut feeling.
James Reimer, San Jose Sharks
Reimer isn't even slated to start Game 1 for San Jose. But if Martin Jones struggles early against L.A., will Sharks coach Peter DeBoer swap the white-hot Reimer in? DeBoer has already alluded to needing both his netminders in the playoffs. And Reimer seems to excel in low-pressure situations when he's swooping in to clean up someone else's mess.
Radko Gudas, Philadelphia Flyers
Unsung heroes don't always manifest themselves on the scoresheet. Gudas has the ability to change the emotions of a playoff series. He plays so violently, so close to the edge of legal and illegal, that it's a virtual guarantee he does something to seriously tick off the Washington Capitals. That Caps team has plenty of mean customers who flirt with the wrong side of the law as well, most notably Tom Wilson. What if Gudas takes out a star with a questionable hit and incites a brawl? Washington is by far the class of the East, but no player – and team – can draw a contender into an ugly street fight like Gudas and the Flyers can.
Johnny Oduya, Dallas Stars
Poise under pressure, baby. Oduya played crucial top-four minutes, usually alongside Niklas Hjalmarsson, during the Chicago Blackhawks' 2013 and 2015 Stanley Cup runs. Oduya's ice time rose as high as 24:45 per night in the 2015 playoffs. Dallas coach Lindy Ruff will likely lean on Oduya more than he did in the regular season if the Stars end up in deep waters, be it an overtime or an elimination game.
Scott Darling, Chicago Blackhawks
Don't jump to conclusions upon seeing Darling's name on this list. Of course Corey Crawford is the Blackhawks' starting goalie. He's a two-time Cup winner. But (a) Crawford only got one game in after returning from an upper-body injury related to his head; (b) Hawks coach Joel Quenneville showed last spring he's willing to hook Crawford if he gets in a funk; and (b) Crawford allowed four, five and five goals in his final three outings of 2015-16. If Crawford gets shelled in Game 1, maybe Darling gets asked to bail Chicago out of a jam again. He appeared in five games and started four last spring, winning three of four decisions and posting a .936 save percentage.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin