Last season, few would have expected two of the Los Angeles Kings’ key contributors to be a pair of rookies lined up alongside veteran scorer Jeff Carter. Alas, Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson turned a lot of heads en route to a Stanley Cup victory.
But with the Kings teetering on the brink of elimination from playoff contention and Toffoli and Pearson past their playoff debuts, there’s potential for a new crop of fresh-faced future stars to make their mark in the post-season. There are five, especially, that will be players to watch as teams battle for Stanley Cup glory.
It might be tough to top the 21-point rookie record held by Dino Ciccarelli and Ville Leino, but that doesn’t mean these young guns won’t give it a shot.
5. Andres Lee, New York Islanders
Lee has been at or near the top of the rookie goal scoring race for most of the season, and his added boost to the Islanders offense has been a pleasant surprise on Long Island. With 23 goals and 39 points in 71 games, Lee is second in goals and tied for fifth in points.
In the playoffs, one of the most important aspects of a team’s game is depth scoring. Lee will take some of the pressure off of top-flight offensive stars like John Tavares and Kyle Okposo to get some of the scoring done. And with Ryan Strome coming into his own this season, it could free up even more space for Lee.
With the man advantage, Lee has been one of the most threatening rookies this year, netting five goals. A hot power play can be the difference over the course of the series, so watch out for Lee.
4. David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins
Since getting the call back to the NHL on Jan. 8, Pastrnak has been a key offensive contributor for a Bruins team that has struggled to score. In his 36 games since his call-up, he has 11 goals and 26 points while averaging little more than 14 minutes of ice time per outing.
Down the stretch, Pastrnak has been an offensive dynamo. In his past seven games, the 18-year-old rookie has two goals and eight points and came up with two big helpers against Ottawa before posting a goal and an assist against Florida Tuesday night.
Of rookies that have played at least 40 games this season, Pastrnak ranks fourth in points per game, behind only Mark Stone, Filip Forsberg and Johnny Gaudreau. The Bruins have great goaltending and can be defensively sound, but they’ll need offense and Pastrnak can supply it.
3. Filip Forsberg, Nashville Predators
For much of the season, Forsberg paced the rookie class in goals and points, but he slowly had his lead slip away and now trails Gaudreau by a single point. However, that does little to diminish what he has accomplished this season and he is still going to be an impact player for the Predators come playoffs.
Nashville is currently holding onto the first spot in the Western Conference and will likely play Winnipeg, Los Angeles or Calgary. If it’s Winnipeg or Los Angeles, teams that can play tough defense and a physical game, the Predators are going to need to rely on depth scoring and points on the power play. Lucky for them, Forsberg is second among rookies with six goals and 19 points with the extra man.
If it’s Calgary the Predators draw, then it’ll be up to Forsberg to run and gun, something he has shown the ability to do all year.
The Predators project to make a deep run in the post-season this year and Forsberg might be the only rookie who stands a chance at breaking the points record.
2. Kevin Hayes, New York Rangers
Hayes wasn’t supposed to be a New York Ranger, but after the Chicago Blackhawks failed to lock him up he landed in the Big Apple as an unrestricted free agent without ever having played a game in the NHL. The move to New York has been good for Hayes, too.
In 73 games for the Rangers, the big bodied center has posted 15 goals and 39 points and is on pace to eclipse the 40-point plateau in his first year in the league. Not bad for a 22-year-old who had no professional hockey seasoning prior to coming over to the Rangers from Boston College.
Over the past seven games, Hayes has contributed two goals and five assists while playing some of the highest minutes of his season. It’s no coincidence that coach Alain Vigneault’s confidence is growing in Hayes, either – he’s been that good and there’s little doubt he’ll carry it into the playoffs.
1. Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames
The legend of ‘Johnny Hockey’ continues to grow.
It looked for most of the season as if Forsberg would be the runaway Calder Trophy winner, but Gaudreau has snuck up and taken the point lead and, likely, a sizeable portion of the votes away from the Nashville rookie. With 22 goals and 60 points, Gaudreau is already nearly a point per game player and he’s in just his first season in the big league.
The Flames have shocked the NHL by making a push for the post-season this year and have defied all statistical odds by staying ahead of the Los Angeles Kings for the third spot in the Pacific Division. If Calgary is to make it deep, they’re going to need Gaudreau to keep playing the way he has.
While Forsberg might be the likeliest bet to break the 21-point record, Calgary’s luck never seems to run out. If the Flames play more than two rounds this post-season, there’s no telling what Gaudreau might achieve.