The Stanley Cup Playoffs are all about the unsung heroes. Time and time again we see non-household names rise to the occasion in the spring and build their legacy.
The playoffs are a marathon, not a sprint. It may be a cliche, but it remains true. They are considered the toughest postseason in sports for a reason. A team simply can’t depend on their superstars to carry them to victory each night. Other players need to step up and rise to the occasion if a team truly hopes to make a lengthy run.
With the NHL opting for a unique 24-team return to play format due to the pandemic, there’s a bigger chance than ever for unsung heroes to emerge and play a starring role in a team’s playoff run.
Here’s a look at five players who could breakout and play a key role for their respective teams in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Ethan Bear, Edmonton Oilers
Underrated Edmonton Oilers defenseman Ethan Bear is about to be thrown into the national spotlight in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The 22-year-old has been thriving in his first full NHL season, recording five goals and 21 points in 71 games on the Oilers’ blueline. He’s also played a key role on an Edmonton penalty kill that is ranked second-best in the entire NHL with 84.4 percent success rate.
Bear has a great chance of being a key playoff performer this summer due to his well-rounded skill-set. He is a very strong puck mover and possess great offensive instincts. He’s also very reliable in his own zone and never seems to get caught out of position. The fact Bear played almost 22 minutes a night as a rookie tells you everything you need to know about coach Dave Tippett’s willingness to trust the youngster in big-time situations.
The Oilers are going to be a fun team to watch in these playoffs with Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid motivated to carry the team on a run. Edmonton also added talented forwards Tyler Ennis and Andreas Athanasiou at the trade deadline to provide some scoring depth behind the superstars. The Oilers’ weakness has long been defense and goaltending. Bear is going to be a big part of the solution. He’s fit in perfectly with his dynamic offense and improving defense and is primed for a major role when the Oilers kick off their playoff run against the Blackhawks in the qualifying round.
Jordan Kyrou, St. Louis Blues
If the St. Louis Blues hope to duplicate the success of their incredible 2019 Stanley Cup run, they will once again be needing players to step up behind the likes of Vladimir Tarasenko, Ryan O’ Reilly, David Perron, Jaden Schwartz and company. 22-year-old Jordan Kyrou took a step forward in his development this season, sticking with the team following a call-up in December and notching four goals and nine points in 28 games leading up to the pause.
.@Jkellyhockey: "UN-BE-LIEVABLE!" Jordan Kyrou scores one of the most amazing wraparound goals you'll ever see. #stlblues
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— FOX Sports Midwest (@FSMidwest) April 1, 2020
Kyrou has incredible wheels and some slick hands. Blues fans have long been awaiting his arrival to the NHL due to the monstrous numbers he’s put up at almost every level. Kyrou exploded for 39 goals and 109 points in his final OHL season before producing at close to a point-per-game pace in the AHL. Before the call-up to the Blues, Kyrou was on a 12-game point streak for AHL San Antonio which included nine goals. Kyrou was seeing second unit power-play time with the Blues prior to the NHL’s hiatus and clearly has the skill-set to be a difference maker in the NHL. With the loaded Blues set up for another lengthy playoff run, look for Kyrou to emerge as a key contributor behind the big guns.
Valeri Nichushkin, Colorado Avalanche
The Avalanche have so much firepower on offense that it’s sometime easy to forget that they took a flier on the once highly sought after Russian prospect Valeri Nichushkin when he became a free agent in the 2019 offseason. Selected 10th overall in the 2013 NHL Draft by Dallas, Nichushkin failed to live up to his potential in four seasons with the Stars. He only came close to the 15-goal mark in his rookie season and eventually struggled to stay in the lineup. He’s since resurrected his career in Colorado.
Nichushkin had a solid debut season in Colorado with 13 goals and 27 points in 65 games, but he has the chance to really take that next step in the postseason. Listed at 6′ 4″ and 210 lbs, Nichushkin is built for the playoffs. This is the time of year where winning puck battles, outmuscling other players and driving hard to the net helps you win tight games. Nichushkin had slowed down leading up to the pause and will need to play to his strengths if the Avalanche want to make a lengthy playoff run. Considering he spent most of the 2019-20 season playing with Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Matt Calvert, Nichushkin could really explode in the playoffs if he sees any playing time with Colorado’s young superstars.
Nick Robertson, Toronto Maple Leafs
18-year-old Nick Robertson has been included on the Toronto Maple Leafs expanded playoff roster this summer. While he has yet to play an NHL game, Robertson was an absolute force in the OHL this season, going off for 55 goals and 86 points in 46 games with the Peterborough Petes. He also rose to the occasion in the national spotlight at the 2020 World Juniors, notching two goals and five points in five games for Team USA.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have incurred three straight seasons of first-round playoff exits. If they’re finally going to get over the hump in 2020, they’re going to need players behind the likes of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and John Tavares to step up on offense. Robertson may only be 5’9″ and 161 lbs, but his skating ability and puck skills are incredible. His 14-game goal streak in the OHL this season tells you everything you need to know about his potential to be a game-breaker in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
You only have to go back to the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs for the last time a rookie made his NHL debut in the playoffs and had an immediate impact. He may have been two years older than Robertson when he made his debut, but Cale Makar was a great story in the 2019 playoffs. The young Avalanche blueliner contributed six points in 10 games and was a steady presence on the blueline before turning in an incredible rookie campaign in 2019-20. Part of the reason the transition from college to the NHL was so smooth was because Makar wasn’t counted on to be a saviour type. He only played over 20 minutes once throughout the entire postseason. The Avalanche had a wealth of talent, and Makar fit in perfectly due to his incredible skill-set. The Maple Leafs are similar in that regard in that they may have the most talented offense in the Eastern Conference. They don’t need Robertson to come into the NHL and start scoring at a goal-per-game pace. They just need him to use his elite goal-scoring ability and come up with a few big goals in the event that the superstars who get paid millions of dollars can’t get it done.
Igor Shesterkin, New York Rangers
There is a reason the Carolina Hurricanes voted “no” to the NHL’s now approved 24-team return to play proposal. Carolina has to face a very talented Rangers team in the play-in round that includes the likes of Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad. While New York has plenty of firepower on offense, their secret weapon is actually in the goaltending crease. 24-year-old Russian netminder Igor Shesterkin has long been regarded as one of the best goaltending prospects in hockey. When he finally made his NHL debut in 2019-20, he was simply lights out. Shesterkin posted a 10-2 record with a .932 save percentage in 12 starts this season and showed his potential as the successor for Henrik Lundqvist.
It’s possible that the Rangers may go with the veteran Lundqvist for one final run, but if they want the best chance of taking down a very good Hurricanes squad, they will start Shesterkin. Lundqvist saw his save percentage dip to a career-low .905 in 2019-20, and in his two final starts leading up to the pause, he was torched for nine goals. The Rangers actually have a third goaltender in contention to start in 24-year-old Alexandar Georgiev. The Bulgarian netminder has had an up-and-down season for the Rangers, however, posting a 17-14-2 record with a .910 save percentage and 3.04 GAA. Shesterkin posted some absurd numbers with SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL before coming to North America and is clearly the most skilled netminder in the Rangers’ crease. The Rangers were one of the NHL’s best teams coming out of the All-Star break and heading into the pause. If they want to continue that momentum into a lengthy playoff run, look for Shesterkin to play a starring role.