The conclusion to 2013-14 NHL regular season is fast approaching. After game play Thursday, the League will be down to 79 games remaining on the schedule, with seven to be played Friday. Yet, much remains to be decided in the frantic run to the finish line, including playoff qualification, playoff positioning and numerous individual accomplishments and milestones. To celebrate the 10-day countdown to the end of the season April 13 and the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on April 16, NHL.com will provide a piece of playoff-related content each day.
Those teams already having clinched a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and those still whittling down their magic number to qualify can not only thank the savvy veterans on their rosters but the wily rookies paying big dividends down the stretch.
There's no question the San Jose Sharks would probably be thriving even more if center Tomas Hertl hadn't gone down before Christmas with a season-ending knee injury. There's an outside shot Hertl (15 goals, 25 points in 35 games) could return at some point during the postseason, but there are no guarantees.
The same holds true for the New York Rangers and first-year left wing Chris Kreider, who underwent hand surgery March 28 and will miss significant time. Kreider was tied for third on the team with 17 goals and was fourth in rookie scoring with 37 points at the time of his injury.
In a year chock-full of talented rookies, there's a very good chance several will be earning headlines at some point when the postseason extravaganza begins in earnest in two weeks.
Here are 10 rookies expected to make an impact for their respective teams during the playoffs. (Teams with an asterisk have already clinched a playoff berth):
In a year chock-full of talented rookies, there's a very good chance several will be earning headlines at some point when the postseason extravaganza begins in earnest in two weeks. (Photo: Michael Martin/NHLI, Scott Audette/NHLI)
1. Nathan MacKinnon, C/RW, *Colorado Avalanche: He's living up to the all the hype associated with being the No. 1 pick at the 2013 NHL Draft. MacKinnon leads all freshmen in assists, points, power-play goals and shots, and he is tied for the lead in goals and game-winning goals.
MacKinnon might be needed even more now that Colorado's leading scorer, Matt Duchene, will miss approximately four weeks with a left-knee injury. He is averaging more than 17 minutes of ice time.
One other impressive mark set by MacKinnon this season was his 13-game point streak, the longest stretch by an 18-year-old in NHL history, breaking the record held by Wayne Gretzky (1979).
"It's a tough league, especially early on," MacKinnon said. "You have to figure out what you can and cannot do, but it's also important to stick to what you do best and stay confident. The game is the same, for sure; hockey is hockey. It's at a different level, but everybody is just better. You have to make every decision quicker, the pace is faster and it's a lot of fun, for sure."
2. Olli Maatta, D, *Pittsburgh Penguins: Chalk one up for the Penguins scouting staff for projecting the 19-year-old Finn could contribute sooner rather than later. The 6-foot-2, 206-pound defenseman, taken No. 22 at the 2012 draft, has done just that as a top-four defenseman after one season in North America with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League. Maatta ranks second among first-year defensemen in points, is tied for second in goals, and is among the top five in blocked shots and shots on goal. He helped Finland win a bronze medal at the 2014 Sochi Olympics with three goals and five points in six games and will continue to play a vital role for the Penguins, particularly if Kris Letang (stroke) continues to miss time.
"You don't expect a player that age, in his first year, to step into a top-minutes, top-pair role, a matchup pair," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "To be able to have him play there with injuries to two top-four guys in [Paul] Martin and Letang, it's pretty amazing. It screams to me consideration for rookie of the year."
3. Tyler Johnson, C, *Tampa Bay Lightning: The fact Johnson was undrafted and undersized (5-foot-9, 182) hasn't stopped the native of Spokane, Wash., from becoming a candidate for the Calder Trophy. He has already equaled the Lightning’s rookie record for goals in a season (23) set by Steven Stamkos in 2008-09. When first-year coach Jon Cooper needed someone to step up after Stamkos sustained a broken leg in November, Johnson was put into a top-six role and didn't disappoint.
He's transformed into a fabulous two-way threat. He's first among rookies in faceoff wins and shorthanded goals, tied with MacKinnon for the rookie lead in goals, third in points and fourth in shots on goal.
"He's gotten better as the season has gone on," Stamkos told the Tampa Bay Times. "He's a smart player and utilizes his speed. He's been good for us in all aspects of the game."
4. Torey Krug, D, *Boston Bruins: The former Michigan State University standout burst on the scene last spring during Boston's run to the Stanley Cup Final, chipping in with four goals and six points in 15 games. He has continued that play in his first full season in the NHL. Krug leads all first-year defensemen in goals, points, power-play goals and power-play points, and he is averaging more than 17 minutes a game. He has been on a third pairing with Kevan Miller of late and will continue to earn big minutes on the power play and in 5-on-5 situations, since he has a knack for making proper decisions and breaking through traffic under pressure.
5. Ondrej Palat, LW, *Tampa Bay Lightning: The seventh-round pick (No. 208) in 2011 has worked on the same line as Johnson most of the season, so it's no surprise the 6-foot, 180-pound left-handed shooting wing is having an extremely productive season. He led all rookies with 16 points (five goals) in 16 games in March and was named the NHL's Rookie of the Month.
"He's a great player; he's got that kind of skill set," Stamkos said. "You see the way he plays game in and game out. He's a competitor."
Palat is first among rookies in takeaways, tied for first in plus-minus (plus-28), second in assists and points and fifth in shots on goal. He will be one of those players looked upon to provide secondary scoring in the postseason.
6. Hampus Lindholm, D, *Anaheim Ducks: The 20-year-old Swede has already earned a top-four role on one of the NHL's best teams. He is tied for the lead among first-year players with a plus-28 rating, is in the top five among rookie defenders in goals, assists and points, and is averaging more than 19 minutes of ice time. The Ducks rank among the top 10 in the League in goals-against average, and Lindholm plays a significant part.
"I know if I made mistake after mistake, I'd be told to step it up, but that hasn't happened, partially because I'm harder on myself than others [are]," Lindholm told the Los Angeles Times. "My goals are higher than others have for me. No matter what they say, I've already put that pressure on me. I know what I can do out there. I'm like that."
7. Boone Jenner, C, Columbus Blue Jackets: The hard-hitting left wing has been an all-purpose performer for Columbus and has played a key role on the top line with center Ryan Johansen and right wing Mark Letestu. He scores big goals, draws penalties and will scrap for any loose puck in his vicinity; the type of effort required in the sprint that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The 20-year-old ranks among the top-five rookies in game-winning goals, is 12th in goals, and is 24th in points. He's also second in hits (192).
"I'm not sure what he's going to be like when he's 26 or 27 years old, when he hits his prime," Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards told The Columbus Dispatch. "I don't know if there are too many guys who are going to want to play against him when he's that old. You watch him play as a young kid against these guys now, and they struggle to play against him. He's so strong. He's tenacious. Those are great qualities to have."
8. Michael Raffl, LW, Philadelphia Flyers: The Austrian, signed out of Europe by general manager Paul Holmgren last May, has been one of the most versatile first-year players this season having played a role on all four lines. He hasn't been fazed one bit, proving his determination to do whatever it takes for the team. He ranks among the top-15 rookies in hits and the top 20 in takeaways. He plays key minutes on the penalty kill and is a great defensive shutdown complement to Sean Couturier.
"He's a strong skater, good with the puck, and I think that line [Raffl, Couturier and Matt Read], when he's there, he's strong on the puck on the offensive zone and defensive zone," Flyers coach Craig Berube told The (Delaware) News Journal.
9. Tyler Toffoli, C/RW, *Los Angeles Kings: The second-round pick (No. 47) in 2010 is playing a top-six role for the Kings and has been working well alongside center Jeff Carter of late, notching one goal and four points in the past seven games. He is tied for first among rookies with five game-winning goals, is top five in plus-minus, and is top 15 in goals, points and shots on goal. Kings coach Darryl Sutter has shown confidence in Toffoli and will continue to do so in the postseason.
"He's a smart player first and foremost," Kings center Mike Richards told the Los Angeles Times. "He seems to find open areas on the ice. He always seems to be in the right spot to score goals. He makes it easy on you and he talks out there."
10. Valeri Nichushkin, RW, Dallas Stars: The 19-year-old Russian is still growing into his role as a top-six performer for coach Lindy Ruff. He ranks among the top-10 rookies in goals, points, plus-minus and shots on goal. He just needs to learn to pick his spots; he also ranks first among first-year forwards in giveaways. There's no question Nichushkin possesses the raw skill and talent needed to excel in this League and he'll be looked upon to provide some offense in the postseason.
"I think he's grown a lot," Ruff told The Dallas Morning News. "I don't think it's easy for any rookie right now. He has good size, he maybe lacks a little finish right now. He gets a lot of great opportunities, but doesn't finish them the way you would like him to. But I think he's learned that it's a tough League and there's not as much time to hang onto it. We're trying to get him to move the puck quicker and play maybe a little more of a team game."