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NHL Conference Finals Preview: Every Team Has Unsung Heroes

From the GM who built Vegas to the Americans driving Canada’s great hope, here are the less heralded characters of hockey’s final four

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NHL’s conference finals are upon us, and at least half of the remaining four teams are … not exactly who we’d have expected heading into the 2017-18 season. In the East, the top-seeded Lightning were a logical choice, led by Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and an all-around stacked roster. The Capitals were, too, provided they could finally get over that Penguin-shaped hump in the Metropolitan Division. But the two teams squaring off in the West—the Winnipeg Jets and expansion Vegas Golden Knights—had never won a playoff game before this postseason.

Each team in the NHL’s final four has star power, but they got to this point with the help of a strong supporting cast. These are the unsung heroes of the NHL conference finals:

Washington Capitals: Jakub Vrana

Donnie Kwak: It’s a complaint lodged on the message boards of fan blogs for nearly every NHL team: “Why the hell are we not using the young, fast guy?” NHL coaches, generally speaking, are a conservative bunch—and even more so in the high-stakes postseason. “Grit” and “will over skill” are familiar mantras, and euphemisms for deploying defensively sound veterans at the expense of high-risk, high-reward talent. And so it was for the Capitals and notoriously old-school coach Barry Trotz over the first 10 games of this year’s playoffs. In the first round against Columbus, electric rookie Jakub Vrana was a healthy scratch for Game 2. An injury to Andre Burakovsky led to Vrana being inserted back into the lineup, but heading into the second round, the Czech winger remained—much to the chagrin of many Caps fans—near the bottom in time on ice.

But all of that changed midway through Game 5 in the second round against Pittsburgh, in a pivotal (if overdue) coaching decision that one could argue swung the series in Washington’s favor. In the Caps’ Game 4 loss, Trotz had opted to replace suspended winger Tom Wilson on the top line with “will” (in the form of the gritty but offensively challenged Devante Smith-Pelly); halfway through the second period of Game 5, the Caps coach bit the bullet and chose “skill” (Vrana) to skate alongside Evgeny Kuznetsov and Alexander Ovechkin. With the Caps trailing 3-2 at the start of the third period, the new 8-92-13 line produced both the game-tying goal (Kuznetsov, from Vrana) and the eventual game-winner (Vrana, from Ovechkin). Washington went on to win Game 5, which put the team up 3-2 over the Penguins, and the series in Game 6.

Vrana is a lock to appear in the lineup against Tampa Bay in the conference finals, even before you consider the potential absences of key forwards (Burakovsky and Nicklas Backstrom). At the moment Vrana still ranks 13th out of 16 in average time on ice for Capitals forwards in the playoffs, but to combat the Lightning’s speed Trotz may have to fight fire with fire. Which means the young, fast guy may be an even bigger factor yet.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Ryan Callahan

Matt James: Callahan has tallied just one point so far this postseason—an empty-net goal. His average time on ice (12:09) is the lowest he’s ever recorded in nine years of playoff experience. He’s missed two games due to injury, and has been nearly invisible in the box score in the past few weeks. But if you’ve been watching NBC’s coverage of Tampa Bay’s steady march through the playoffs, you’ve probably noticed that analyst Pierre McGuire will not shut up about Ryan Callahan. And throughout the right wing’s 12-year career, his teammates and coaches haven’t been able to shut up about him, either.

Since he debuted as a New York Ranger in 2006, he’s been one of the league leaders in Positive Attributes That Can’t Be Easily Quantified. He was named captain of the Rangers in 2011, on the back of a respectable but not terribly impressive 48-point campaign the season prior, but the decision wasn’t made because of his offensive output. Callahan’s just a natural leader.

The only stat that Callahan’s been accruing en masse this postseason has been hits, which he somehow leads the Lightning in despite playing on the fourth line and picking up recurring “upper body” injuries.

He’s also blocking shots with gusto, proving that even if he isn’t scoring, he’ll find a way to contribute on the ice.

Though Callahan’s years of sacrificing his body at the altar of ex-Rangers coach John Tortorella might finally be catching up to his 33-year-old frame, the effort he gives each game is seemingly limitless. And nothing could possibly exemplify his leadership more than avoiding a retaliation penalty after being LICKED ON THE FACE by the league’s most hated instigator:

Winnipeg Jets: America

Katie Baker: The Winnipeg Jets franchise is so proudly and outwardly Canadian that its ownership group is named after an “O, Canada!” lyric; its general manager’s brother is a longtime Saskatchewan politician; its leading scorer in the postseason is a good Ontario boy, and its very existence is mocked on ESPN. But don’t let any of that fool you: The true unsung hero of the Winnipeg organization is the United damn States of America.

Eleven Jets players are American, almost twice as many as on any other remaining playoff team. Winnipeg’s captain, Blake Wheeler—who amassed 91 points this season, tied for the NHL assists lead with 68, and might be one of the league’s most overlooked star-caliber players—is from Minnesota. Goalie Connor Hellebuyck hails from the extremely American-sounding town of Commerce, Michigan. (There are as many Jets from just those two states as there are Jets from Finland, Sweden, Russia, Denmark, and Austria combined.)

Three of the team’s top defensemen are from the U.S.: Dustin Byfuglien, who has scored 13 playoff points in 12 games and is averaging more than 26 minutes of ice time in the postseason; Jacob Trouba, who recorded a Gordie Howe Hat Trick in Game 3 of the Jets’ second-round series against the Predators with a goal, an assist, and a fight; and Tyler Myers, who scored the opening goal in Game 7 against Nashville and who at 6-foot-8 is proudly impervious to the NHL’s grossest game plan.

If Winnipeg were to win a Stanley Cup, it would technically represent the first championship in 25 years for a Canadian team. But a victory for True North would also mean a lot of time spent by the Cup this summer on the south side of the 49th parallel.

Vegas Golden Knights: George McPhee

Megan Schuster: When McPhee was hired in July 2016 to be the general manager of a yet-to-be-named hockey franchise, he faced both an opportunity and a challenge. The ex–Capitals GM got to quite literally craft a team from scratch, something that most people can only dream of, outside of NHL 18 and fantasy sports. But he also had to draw from a scrap heap of cast-offs to piece together a squad that had a chance to compete not only with the league, but also all of Vegas’s casinos and flashing lights. If it didn’t work, the blame would fall largely on his shoulders.

Fast-forward 22 months, and in their first season, McPhee’s Golden Knights won the Pacific Division and are facing off against the Jets in the Western Conference finals. They’ve become the best expansion team in sports history, and though detractors will say the NHL helped the Knights out too much with its generous expansion draft rules ( allowing teams to protect only nine or 11 players, versus the 12 or 15 they were allowed to protect in past drafts), a good portion of the team’s success should be directly credited to McPhee.

Getting the expansion draft right was critical, but it was on the trade market that McPhee really maximized his leverage. By exploiting panicked teams afraid to lose their 10th-best player to the draft pool, McPhee forced them into moves that put the Knights in a position to win immediately. McPhee got forwards Erik Haula and Alex Tuch from the Wild in exchange for not selecting defenseman Matt Dumba, and they ranked fifth and eighth in scoring on the team this season. The Blue Jackets traded their 2017 first-round pick, 2019 second-rounder, and forward David Clarkson to the Knights so that they wouldn’t take one of Columbus’s core players. Instead, McPhee chose William Karlsson, who finished the season as Vegas’s leading scorer. The Penguins sent a 2020 second-round pick to the Knights to ensure they would select Marc-Andre Fleury, who finished the season third in save percentage among goalies that started at least 30 games, and tied for first in goals-against average. And those are just a few of the impactful trades McPhee made. The result is a balanced team built around solid, if not star, players who are turning in some of their best seasons ever for the GM who believed in them.

We don’t know how the Knights will finish this season. Maybe they’ll wind up parading the Stanley Cup down the Strip, or maybe this series against Winnipeg is as far as they’ll go. But let there be no question that whatever the end, McPhee had a major hand in getting Vegas there.