It's not easy being a rookie in the NHL. It’s even more difficult being a rookie in the NHL who’s earned the trust to play a big role during the playoffs.
In recent years, we’ve seen strong playoff performances from rookie NHLers such as Cale Makar, Quinn Hughes, Robby Fabbri and Cale Makar (again). Matt Murray, Jake Guentzel, Jordan Binnington and Matt Murray (again) were not only good, they were also significant contributors to Cup-winners.
Going a bit further back, we even saw a rookie win the Conn Smythe. Cam Ward did it in 2006. Sorry Oilers fans, I know it’s been a rough week; you didn’t need to read that part. Ward isn’t the only guy to accomplish the feat, either. Ken Dryden did the same in 1971.
This year, we may not have a rookie reach that level. But these three players have elevated their games and are being deployed in key positions this post-season. At least early on.
One thing to keep in mind: the sample sizes here are tiny, so it’s best to ask whether these impressive performances ‘pass the smell test’ (I.e. are these players having a good week or is their play indicative of future results).
Ilya Sorokin, NYI
Sorokin has split the crease with veteran netminder Semyon Varlamov through the Isles first four playoff games.
Sorokin, who turns 26 on Aug. 4, has outplayed his countryman, backstopping the Isles to victories in both his starts so far; Varlamov has lost both his starts.
Islanders fans waited a long time for Sorokin, drafted in 2014, who finally came over from Russia this year. He was right on the precipice of not even being considered a rookie by the NHL’s standards. If he was one year older, he wouldn’t meet NHL standards for rookie eligibility.
Regardless, he qualifies, so on this list, he goes.
Sorokin has been marvelous thus far, mystifying Penguins shooters. He’s played to a save percentage of .944 and a goals-against average of 1.76. Most importantly – as mentioned – the Islanders have won both his games.
Sorokin started Game 1 after Varlamov was scratched from the lineup with an injury. That night, Sorokin stopped 39 of 42 shots, in a 4-3 OT win. Despite Sorokin’s strong effort, coach Barry Trotz tabbed Varlamov, healthy again, to start Game 2. Varlamov allowed a stinker early but then sparkled in a losing effort in Game 2. But Varlamov struggled in Game 3, allowing – or perhaps forcing – Trotz to turn to Sorokin.
It proved the right decision, with Sorokin turning away all but one of the Penguins’ 30 shots en route to a 4-1 Islanders win in Game 4.
Though his NHL sample is small, Sorokin has a long resume in pro hockey. Sorokin played to a .940 SP and a 1.37 GAA in 69 career playoff games in the KHL. In 22 games with the Islanders in 2020-21, Sorokin posted a .918 SP, 2.17 GAA and positive goals-saved above average and goals-saved above expected.
For now, Sorokin has wrested control of the Islanders net from Varlamov.
Owen Tippett, FLA
Though the Panthers trail archrival Tampa Bay three games to one, 22-year-old Tippett’s growth must hearten the Panthers and their fans. Tippett is a vital cog in Sunrise and shows more signs of reliability as a legitimate top-six NHL forward each game.
Florida chose Tippett with the 10th pick in the 2017 draft. He leads rookie scorers during the playoffs, with one goal and four points in four games. He has played a shade under 14 minutes a night, skating on the Panthers’ second line with linemates Jonathan Huberdeau and Sam Bennett.
Does his performance thus far in the playoffs square with the larger, season-long sample? It does in the sense it has built steadily. The 6-foot-1 right winger had seven goals and 18 points in 45 games in 2020-21. Tippett was inconsistent offensively but was an overall above-average possession player and gradually become more trustworthy when elevated in the lineup.
The trio of Tippett, Huberdeau and Bennett found instant chemistry when coach-of-the-year candidate Joel Quenneville elevated Tippett to the Panthers’ secondary attacking unit late in the season. At the time, the team was dealing with several injuries to its top forwards, including Patric Hornqvist and breakout star Carter Verhaeghe. The effectiveness of that unit spurred the Panthers to the best points percentage in the NHL post-trade deadline, despite the losses to key up-front contributors.
And in the playoffs, the Tippett-Huberdeau-Bennett line picked up right where they left off; they’ve outplayed their opposition so far at 5-on-5 despite the 3-1 series deficit. The line did struggle, however, in the series’ second game, when Alexander Wennberg replaced Bennett due to the latter’s one-game suspension.
Tippett, individually, has his head well above water in Corsi-for percentage, expected goals-for percentage, scoring chances, high-danger Corsi – you name it – during his 52:31 at 5-on-5 in this series.
When at home and able to dictate line matchups, Quenneville has deployed his second line against the ultra-pest line of Blake Coleman, Yanni Gourde and Ross Colton. In a series as volatile and penalty-filled as this one, and with Tampa Bay’s ruthless efficiency up a man, Quenneville’s trust in his young right winger to control his emotions speaks volumes. Tippett has rewarded that trust; he hasn’t taken a penalty thus far.
It hasn’t all been good, though. In Game 4, Tippett blew a defensive coverage on a backcheck resulting in the Lightning scoring their fifth goal. The play was broken down by Twitter user @BruinsMafia in an illuminating tweet you can read below.
With young players on the big stage, there will always be mistakes. But Tippett played steady hockey after that point and even drew a penalty on a Jan Rutta cross-check midway through the third. The mistake hurts but it hasn’t been a trend for Tippett, nor is it indicative of his overall performance in the playoffs.
His play this post-season is a great sign for Florida’s future.
Alex Nedeljkovic, CAR
If you want a deep dive into Nedeljkovic’s evolution into his current role, our own Steven Ellis examined what makes him so good in an article you can read here.
Nedeljkovic, 25, has been a steadying force on the back end for the Hurricanes in a series that has been much closer than most anticipated in the lead-up to the action.
He was saddled with the loss in Game 3, but Nedeljkovic wasn’t to blame. He turned aside 49 of 54 shots on the night and made a couple of high-quality stops that kept the momentum with Carolina at the time. The best was his right-pad save on Erik Haula as the latter broke in alone shorthanded at the 11:26 mark of the second period. The game was 2-2 at the time – a shorthanded goal would’ve handed Nashville control in front of their raucous crowd. Carolina was sloppy on that powerplay, yielding another high-slot chance to Colton Sissons shortly after, and could’ve been rattled by conceding on the PP. Instead, Nedeljkovic held the fort, Nashville immediately took another penalty and Carolina scored on the ensuing man-advantage. Nedeljkovic also made some tough saves while Carolina trailed 4-3 in the third, keeping the Canes in position to force overtime.
Do his numbers pass the smell test? As you’ll understand if you read Steven’s article, they do. Nedeljkovic was one of the better goalies in the league this year.