When the Boston Bruins and the Washington Capitals drop the puck this Saturday, it will mark the beginning of an unusual NHL postseason. Four teams in each of the four (temporary) divisions will battle for the Stanley Cup, and they’ll start off playing against one another—a fitting culmination to a pandemic-compressed season that’s been full of heated intra-conference play. The nuances of this year’s format mean that some of the potential Stanley Cup matchups are almost too beautiful to dare to dream of—Toronto could play Boston in the Final? Nathan MacKinnon could go up against Connor McDavid?! But someone has to get there first.
That means tempting first-round matchups like an all-Florida series between the Lightning and the Panthers, and a rekindling of a longtime rivalry between the Islanders and the Penguins. (Due to COVID-19–related schedule delays, we’ll have to wait a little bit to see the Canadian-based teams of the North Division transition from their regular season to the playoffs.) In honor of this year’s 16 playoff teams, below are 16 people to keep an eye on over the next few weeks.
Pittsburgh Penguins (1) v. New York Islanders (4)
Washington Capitals (2) v. Boston Bruins (3)
Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins Center
It has been, gulp, a decade since Sidney Crosby was sidelined for the better part of two seasons with head and neck injuries, a period during which some fretted that his career might be over—and others all but demanded it. (“Why would Crosby risk an invalid’s life in order to return to a game he has already conquered?” wrote a Toronto Star columnist at the time.) Instead, Sid the Big Kid—who will turn 34 this summer—returned to the ice, won back-to-back Cups in 2016 and 2017, and remained a dominant player and leader in Pittsburgh. Even in this, his 16th NHL season, he finished in the top 10 in the league in scoring.
Now, with Geno Malkin still gingerly returning from a knee injury he suffered back in March, and with the Penguins hoping to avenge a rough 2019 first-round sweep at the hand of the Islanders, Crosby has the opportunity to once again elevate everyone around him by playing his game. That is, if New York doesn’t knock him off of it first.
Barry Trotz, New York Islanders Head Coach
The Islanders gave up just 125 goals this season, the second-lowest total in the league, thanks in large part to the defensive schemes head coach Barry Trotz instilled when he took over the team three years ago. (“Trotz the Process,” a 2018 headline instructed early in his Long Island tenure.)
It’s not always pretty, but we’ve all seen our fair share of playoff games over the years that reward a stingy defense; the ones in which a hot goalie and a clogged neutral zone can turn an underdog into a low-scoring victor. When the Islanders swept the Penguins in 2019, Pittsburgh managed just one goal in three different games. And while this year’s matchup hasn’t even started yet, Trotz is already getting into the Penguins’ heads. Giddyap!
Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals Center
Evgeny Kuznetsov is a major player to watch for the Washington Capitals this postseason—but it’s unclear when or whether we’ll actually be able to watch him play. The arm-flapping 28-year-old forward is on shaky ground with the Capitals at the moment, on the ice—his points-per-game total this year was his lowest since his sophomore season in 2014-2015—but more so off of it. In January, the NHL fined Washington $100,000 after it deemed Kuznetsov and other teammates violated the league’s COVID-19 protocols; in February, the center was reported to be recovering from the virus (“I almost cried happy tears when I realized I can walk and breathe again,” he said); and more recently, he has returned to “the COVID list” for reasons unknown.
NHL reporters have hinted that the team might be ready to part ways with Kuznetsov, making this potentially his final playoff appearance in a Capitals’ uniform. It will be fascinating to watch—if we do get to watch him, that is.
Taylor Hall, Boston Bruins Left Wing
Hall is only 29 years old, but he’s well beyond his years in the “Old Guy Without a Cup” vibes department. (That said, he’ll forever be a young’un struggling to play Hangman to me.) In his 11 NHL seasons since being drafted first overall in 2010, Hall has been to the postseason only twice, with his teams losing in the first round both times. This hasn’t exactly been the optimal showcase for the five-time All-Star and former league MVP. And it hasn’t helped that his free agency coincided with COVID-19 (he is currently playing on a one-year, $8 million deal) or that over the years he bounced from one struggling franchise to the next.
TAYLOR HALL IS A BAD BAAAAAAD MAN pic.twitter.com/YRSGdo1DGF— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) May 11, 2021
That ended this spring, when Hall was traded from the spiraling Buffalo Sabres to the sterling Boston Bruins, finally giving him a chance to play for a true contender. (And alongside David Krejci, to boot.) In 16 games with Boston, Hall has 14 points, and if his performance in Monday night’s game against the Islanders is any indication, this might be his biggest and best shot to be fully seen.
Toronto Maple Leafs (1) v. Montreal Canadiens (4)
Edmonton Oilers (2) v. Winnipeg Jets (3)
Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs Center
I wanted to do a hipster pick here, but the thing about the Leafs is that there are SO many guys to choose from. First is goalie Jack Campbell, the former first-round kinda-bust who began the season backing up Frederik Andersen before emerging as one of the team’s brightest spots! Then there’s defenseman Morgan Rielly, who leads the Leafs in scoring from the blue line (and is dating decorated ice dancer Tessa Virtue, which is extremely important to me!). Next comes Nakey Joe Thornton, Jason Spezza, John Tavares, and Nick Foligno—all dudes who are, somehow, on this bonkers roster at the same time! But with apologies to William Nylander and Mitch Marner, two of the team’s top-four scorers, the guy to watch in this year’s postseason is the guy who gets the goals. Oh, do you know the mustache man?
That would be Auston Matthews, who has lit the lamp 41 times this season, more than double his next most productive teammate. Twelve of those goals have been game-winners, more than anyone else in the league. The Leafs haven’t won a playoff series since the spring of 2004; making matters worse, their postseason appearances since then have included three different seven-game losses to the Bruins. If they can break that streak this year, they’ll likely have the Edmonton Oilers waiting for them in the second round. For Matthews, these next few months have the potential for some truly legacy-defining stuff.
Brendan Gallagher, Montreal Canadiens Right Wing
“He’s the straw that stirs the drink on that team” is how an anonymous NHL coach recently described Brendan Gallagher, the love-to-have-him-hate-to-play-him heart and soul of the Montreal Canadiens. Feisty and powerful, creative and aggro, Gallagher is like a playoff game shaped into human form, which is why it will be interesting to see how his human form handles playoff games.
Montreal was 17-9-9 when Gallagher suffered a fractured thumb in early April, then went 7-12-2 without him in the lineup. (Despite having missed more than 20 games, Gallagher remains fourth on the team in goal-scoring.) He is one of a number of Canadiens players who have been injured of late, a group that also includes goaltender Carey Price, defenseman Shea Weber, and center Phillip Danault. With the Canadiens matched up against the increasingly swaggering Toronto Maple Leafs, it isn’t just important that Gallagher is able to play in the postseason, but that he’s able to play like himself again.
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers Forward
Technically the “guy to watch” on the Edmonton Oilers is, forever and always, Connor McDavid, who is widely considered to be the best hockey player on earth at the moment (and who is nevertheless somehow still underrated.) But it is his teammate, 25-year-old Leon Draisaitl, who can really help position the Oilers to be a difficult matchup in the playoffs.
When it comes to scoring, there is McDavid, and there is Draisaitl, and there is the rest of the league. McDavid has scored 104 points this season, and Draisaitl has earned 83. The next-closest player in the league is Boston’s Brad Marchand, who finished with 69. Which is why, for years now, there has been ongoing discussion about how best to use both McDavid and Draisaitl during even-strength situations. Together? Or split up, with Draisaitl playing center rather than wing? However they’re arranged, it’s a scary sight to opposing coaches. “I’m going to answer how do you stop Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl 412 times,” Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice told reporters. “And if I’m any good, I’m going to give you 412 answers. I’m just hoping one of those is right.”
Paul Maurice, Winnipeg Jets Head Coach
Speaking of Paul Maurice, the man has been at the helm of the Jets since January of 2014, making him the second-longest-tenured head coach in the league. And over the years, he has gotten almost comfy in his perma-hot seat. Under his leadership the Jets have had mixed success, making it to the Western Conference Final in 2018 but also losing in the first or qualifying rounds of the playoffs thrice; this spring, when Winnipeg went on a streak of losing six in a row, Maurice’s employment was once again a subject of much discussion.
Maurice can be a hard-ass; this season, he sent messages to goalie Connor Hellebuyck—who is currently his team’s best hope to help pull off an upset—and to Jets leading scorer Mark Scheifele with an early pull and a benching, respectively. Still, the other night Paul Stastny celebrated his 1,000th NHL game by comparing his coach’s locker room pep talks to the speeches of Winston Churchill and getting a little bit emotional while doing so. The seat may be warm, but it’s a toasty warm.
Carolina Hurricanes (1) v. Nashville Predators (4)
Florida Panthers (2) v. Tampa Bay Lightning (3)
Rod Brind’Amour, Carolina Hurricanes Head Coach and Alumnus
Heading into the playoffs with a better record than all but two other NHL teams, the Carolina Hurricanes are no longer the whimsical “Bunch of Jerks” darlings that took the league by storm during head coach (and former Cup-winning Carolina player) Rod Brind’Amour’s first year behind the bench. This time around, they’re a favorite—and Brind’Amour is a possible Jack Adams winner on the verge of a new contract. Which means that all eyes will be on him as he navigates the postseason. And a lot of microphones.
“You guys ask a ton of questions about goalies,” Brind’Amour told the media on Wednesday morning when they pestered him about who would be in net for the team: veteran Petr Mrazek or rookie Alex Nedeljkovic. “And I spend so little time thinking about that.” He’s too busy admiring the efforts, I suppose, of standout players like forward Sebastian Aho and defenseman Dougie Hamilton, both of whom helped Carolina have the second-best power play and third-best penalty kill in the league.
Juuse Saros, Nashville Predators Goalie
Earlier this week, a partial-capacity Predators crowd feted Pekka Rinne—the longtime stalwart in net who has carried the franchise many times over the past decade—with an ovation that felt like a farewell. One good Finn deserves another, and so it is that Rinne’s era in goal has yielded to Juuse Saros.
Not long ago, Nashville was scraping the bottom of the Central barrel, dropping down to third in the division in mid-March while Saros was sidelined with an injury. But since the netminder’s return on March 18, he has posted a .941 save percentage and three shutouts, and the Predators have elbowed their way into the playoffs. They’ll likely need him to maintain this level of play if they want to claw any further. Nashville scored the fewest goals this season of any playoff team, and the Preds’ highest scorer—33-point contributor Roman Josi—is a 30-year-old defenseman who scored eight goals.
Juuse Saros has been playing some SERIOUSLY good hockey this season! pic.twitter.com/EkzJ5GKDJu— NHL (@NHL) May 9, 2021
Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers Left Wing
Before I continue, a moment of obligatory respect for Aleksander Barkov, the 25-year-old center who is a top-10 goal scorer in the NHL and arguably the best player on this team. Oh, and a moment of silence for Aaron Ekblad, the team’s cherished, but currently injured, defenseman. But for Florida—a franchise that is eagerly seeking to win its first playoff round since the team cruised all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in 1996—the bellwether player this postseason might be left wing Jonathan Huberdeau.
That’s because Huberdeau, who led the Panthers in total scoring with 61 points, is now playing alongside center Sam Bennett—the former Calgary Flame whom Florida traded for this spring, and one of the team’s most pleasant surprises. With Bennett on the roster, Florida has been able to keep Huberdeau and Barkov on separate lines, enabling the team to spread the wealth. In the line-matching, out-smarting, chess-piece-moving environment of the playoffs, this can only work to the Panthers’ advantage.
The Team Witch Doctor, Tampa Bay Lightning
No team’s injury report is a hotter ticket than that of the Tampa Bay Lightning. With the defending Stanley Cup bubble champs set to face intra-state competition from the surging Florida Panthers, it isn’t just one key player or two whose status remains cloudy—it’s several: forwards Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov; defensemen Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh; depth guy Barclay Goodrow; and more.
Stamkos being injured is one thing. He hasn’t played in five weeks, but at this point, that’s practically written in pen on the league calendar. The real X-factor here is Nikita Kucherov, the 2019 Hart Trophy winner who had hip surgery five months ago and hasn’t played since. It’s not just an if/when question about his return; it’s a “to what degree?” Returning to full form without proper ramp-up time isn’t a given, particularly when your machine’s other parts aren’t well oiled either. Eh, what’s up, doc?
Colorado Avalanche (1) v. St. Louis Blues (4)
Vegas Golden Knights (2) v. Minnesota Wild (3)
Philipp Grubauer, Colorado Avalanche Goalie
The playoffs are a land of small sample sizes and unexpected speed bumps, in which an unfortunately timed injury (or hot streak) can break or make a championship run. Last year, things were going smoothly for the Colorado Avalanche in the postseason until they reached the second round. That’s when goalie Philipp Grubauer went down with an injury, leading to a situation in which even Colorado’s high-octane offense couldn’t make up for its weakness in net. (In the team’s seven-game series against the Dallas Stars, the Avs allowed five goals in all four losses.)
This year, Grubauer has had a quietly terrific season, going 30-9-1 and recording seven shutouts, which tied him with the Islanders’ Semyon Varlamov for tops in the league. If he can even come close to maintaining that level of play, Colorado—led by the masterful forward Nathan MacKinnon and the up-and-up-and-up-and-coming defenseman Cale Makar—will be one of the top Cup contenders. If Grubauer falters or gets injured, though, things could get dicey: Between Pavel Francouz’s season-ending injury and Devan Dubnyk’s COVID-19–list placement, the team’s only Plan B in net right now is 25-year-old Jonas Johansson, who has played 21 total NHL games.
Torey Krug, St. Louis Blues Defenseman
This season has been Krug’s first with St. Louis after the former Bruins defenseman signed a seven-year, $45.5 million deal last fall—a deal that enabled the Blues to let their longtime stalwart Alex Pietrangelo decamp to Vegas.
Thus far, things have been a little rocky. (Head coach Craig Berube declared his team “fragile” more than once this spring.) Krug, who thrived in a playmaking, special-teams-quarterback kind of role in Boston, has been utilized in a more defensive posture in St. Louis this season, and it has been an adjustment. Struggling with a sub-2 shot percentage, he has scored only two goals. With all the ice time he receives, perhaps there’s plenty of opportunity for improvement, especially alongside his top-pairing partner Justin Faulk. On the other hand, the Blues’ first round matchup will probably leave him with his hands full.
Shea Theodore, Vegas Golden Knights Defenseman
Earlier this month, Nashville’s Roman Josi was asked to name the most underrated defenseman in the league, and he chose the 25-year-old Theodore. “I always thought he was an unbelievable skater and [had] great hockey sense,” Josi said. “Great puck mover. Still underrated.” Ryan Reaves, an injured enforcer in the Knights system, might be a little more biased, but he agreed earlier this week. “He might be the best defenseman in the league in two years,” Reaves said of Theodore. “He’s got hands like a really good forward, he can break the puck out by himself, his skating is unbelievable, he’s the full package.”
The smooth-skating, stretch-passing Theodore is part of a Golden Knights team that allowed fewer goals than anyone else this season and that is, in its fourth year of existence, once again a top playoff threat. It’s funny to think back to how Theodore ended up on the Golden Knights in the first place: His former team, the Anaheim Ducks, purposefully traded him to the Knights in order to protect some of their other defenseman from the expansion draft. Just one more stroke of that ol’ Vegas luck.
Kirill Kaprizov, Minnesota Wild Left Wing
In his first NHL game in January, Kirill Kaprizov scored a goal and added two assists; the Russian-born rookie and Calder Trophy front-runner has not looked back from there. Not only has he led his team in scoring this season, with 51 points through 55 games, he has also helped change the entire aura of the Wild’s offense, redefining the team from a stodgy set of grinders to a study in dynamism and excitement. His on-ice chemistry with linemate Mats Zuccarello has been a marvel to behold.
Both his teammates and Twin Cities columnists have begun using the word “superstar” to describe him. And with the Wild looking to play spoiler to an anticipated Vegas-Colorado second-round matchup, Kaprizov has a chance to bring his magician-like ability to conjure something out of nothing to the national stage.