When the hockey world came to an abrupt halt in the middle of March due to the pandemic, you would’ve been hard-pressed to find anyone with a silver lining. Now, with hindsight being 20/20, the one positive we can take is that the 142-day break of meaningful hockey games has given players who thought their season was done due to injury, a lifeline. It is a small consolation for having to go through a pandemic, but at this point, I’ll take it.
The players on this list were at risk of missing at least 1 playoff round had the season continued as planned. There are no players that were week to week or day to day at the time of the league stoppage because, well, that would be pretty dumb, wouldn’t it? Also, all of the players on this list were key parts to their team, there are no 3rd pairing defensemen or backup goalies on this list because, again, dumb. So, here’s to healthy playoffs where no one gets hurt, sick or injured!
James Van Riemsdyk – PHI, 19 G, 21 A
Van Riemsdyk was having a solid best all-around year up until he broke his hand on March 4th. JVR was expected to miss at least 6 weeks, but he is one of many examples of the break giving him more time to recover and get back to full health. The former Maple Leaf was superb at both ends of the ice during even-strength play this season and if he wasn’t so snakebitten on the power play (just 4 power-play goals) his goal tally would look a lot better.
Here is Van Riemsdyk’s shot chart, as you can see the 6’3 winger gets into good areas, but has been a tad unlucky and hasn’t been as good a finisher as he was in years prior.
According to Natural Stat Trick JVR was second on the Flyers for individual expected goals created and first for individual high danger chances created. He had a hard time converting all of the chances he created but still managed to find the net 19 times. The American was the best defensive forward on the Flyers when looking at Evolving Hockey’s even-strength defence goals above replacement metric and was seventh on the team in WAR (Wins above replacement). Van Riemsdyk is a key part of the Flyers shut down the line and will be utilized in all types of situations come the later rounds of the playoffs. He also will have the opportunity to make Flyers fans forget about that rough contract if he can score a few big goals.
Steven Stamkos – TBL, 29 G, 37 A
Stamkos was on pace to have another 85 points plus season when he was forced to undergo a procedure to repair a core muscle injury on March 2nd. The surgery meant he would’ve missed anywhere from 6-8 weeks and potentially longer if the surgery went poorly. It would’ve been a huge loss for the Lightning who were on course to play the Leafs in round 1. They would not have been able to match up as well with the Leafs dominant top two lines, but now, they have nothing to worry about.
After some injury-riddled years in the middle of his career, Stamkos is now back to his best points-wise, playing consistently with Nikita Kucherov or Brayden Point. He had a WAR of 2.4 which was good enough for 5th on the stacked Lightning roster, however, his even-strength play wasn’t spectacular when you dive deeper into the numbers. His xGA (expected goals against) at 5 on 5 was in the negative and his xGF (expected goals for) is just about better than average.
Although, when Point, Kucherov and Stamkos did play together, (nearly 300 minutes in total) they were dominant at 5 on 5. They had 62 percent of the high danger chances and created 49 more scoring chances for than against. When the Lightning needs a goal or are trying to break a deadlock, they can throw these three together and just let them cook.
Lastly, Stamkos is this team’s captain and although I think intangibles tend to be overblown in hockey, having your leader and face of the franchise (to casual fans at least) at full health and ready to go is important. The former first overall pick will be as hungry as anyone especially after the Lightning;’s shocking exit in last year’s playoffs.
Jake Guentzel – Pit, 20 G, 23 A
Out of all of the players that are returning from what we thought was a season-ending injury, Guentzel might just be the most important returnee. The 25-year-old was showing this season that his 40 goals, 76 point campaign last year was not just a benefit of playing with Sidney Crosby, But after putting up 20 goals and 43 points in his first 39 games, Guentzel hurt his shoulder after scoring in a game against the Senators in late December. He had to undergo surgery and was supposed to miss the rest of the season. Guentzel spent time at center this season due to injuries to Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but he also spent time on both of the aforementioned players’ wings.
The Nebraska native has turned into a fantastic player who is good at both ends of the ice. When Guentzel was on the ice, the Penguins owned 58 percent of the xG% (expected goals percentage) and 60 percent of the HDC (high danger chances). He has formed relationships with Crosby and Malkin but was particularly playing well with Malkin. They were dominant together creating 30 more HDCF than against and having 63% of the expected goals at 5 on 5. Then, when you add a player like Bryan Rust onto that line, it becomes a real matchup problem for opposing teams. Crosby has proved that he doesn’t need ultra skilled linemates to succeed and after he comes off you are throwing on a line of three players that have over a point a game this season? Good luck.
Guentzel has also already proved how vital he can be for the Pens in the playoffs. During the Pens 17’ Cup run, Guentzel broke out playing alongside Crosby scoring 13 goals in 25 games including a hattrick and OT winner against Columbus in round 1. In 2018 he matched his point tally from 2017 but did so in 9 fewer games, scoring 12 goals and assisting 10 times in just 12 games. 4 of those goals came in an 8-5 series-clinching win against the rival Philadelphia Flyers to send the Penguins to round 2. Scoring goals in the playoffs isn’t easy… unless you’re Jake Guentzel. For the Pens to go far they’ll need more than just Malkin and Crosby, Guentzel will have to show up again as well.
Dougie Hamilton – CAR, 14 G, 26 A
Before his devastating injury in late January that had him slated to miss the rest of the season with a broken leg, Dougie Hamilton was on fire. He had finally managed to put it all together and was in serious contention for the Norris Trophy. His point totals were high, his defence was solid, his play driving numbers were excellent and he was doing it with confidence too. Hamilton’s partner, Jaccob Slavin, helped him to make their pairing the best D pairing in the Eastern Conference. As a pairing, at 5 on 5, they had 58 percent of the xGF %, the HDCF% and the SCF% (scoring chances for), truly a dominant defence pairing.
Hamilton has always had the potential to be a number 1 defenceman, he’s big, he can skate, he’s intelligent and he has some offensive flair to his game, including a nasty snapshot. Playing in an analytic based, possession heavy style in Carolina has allowed his game to flourish, as did playing with Slavin, a fantastic player in his own right. Carolina has their number 1 pairing back together just when they needed it most… or do they?
So as I was writing this we found out that the former Bruin may be hurt once again, but I am holding out hope. It wasn’t a re-aggravation and he should be fine to play as long as the Canes can get past the Rangers in round 1. If they do lose to the Rangers and Hamilton isn’t able to play, that’ll be a huge reason why. The Rangers’ top line is tough to stop and the Canes would have to shoehorn someone else into that top pairing along with Slavin, but no one would be as good as Hamilton would. If the World Junior Champion is healthy and able to play or if we get to see him at all, he will remind us of how good a player he is.
Jacob Markstrom – VAN, 918 SV%
In this year’s edition of the NHL playoffs more than any other, goaltending will be the biggest factor in deciding series. Luckily for the Canucks, they’re getting their number one back, fully healthy and with a two-week training camp behind him. Markstrom’s appearance on this list may be a bit of a stretch, but we’re doing it anyway. The pending UFA (unrestricted free agent) underwent surgery in the final days of February and was scheduled to be out for at least 6 weeks. The Canucks were far from having guaranteed a playoff spot and would’ve had to rely on young Thatcher Demko, who albeit is very talented, hasn’t dealt with that kind of pressure before. Markstrom was an All-Star this season and for good reason, the Swede had a 918 SV% and a 2.75 GAA on the team that gave up the 4th most SCA (scoring chances against) in the league. Markstrom made the 10th most high danger chance saves. As you can tell, the Canucks aren’t great defensively and their best defensive defenceman (Chris Tanev) has declined more than they’d hoped. Out of the goalies that have played at least 40 games, Markstrom is 5th in Goals Saved Above Average with 11.66.
The reason I am spewing all of these random numbers at you is that it shows how key Markstrom is to the Canucks. Demko, who I mentioned earlier, has shown signs that he can be a high end starting goalie in the NHL. But he is not who you want to go into a 5 game series with at this point in his career. He played 27 games backing up Markstrom this season and his numbers weren’t spectacular. The 24-year-old had a 905 SV% and a negative GSAA, again, in front of a poor Canucks defence, but there is a clear gap between Demko and Markstrom. Demko had the 2nd worst HDGAA (high danger goals-against average) in the league. In the playoffs, you are going to need your goalie to make the more difficult saves more than you would usually and Demko isn’t ready for that pressure yet. The Canucks will now have a huge goaltending advantage in their series against the Wild and that is thanks to having a fully healthy, ready to go Jacob Markstrom.
Vladimir Tarasenko – STL, 3 G, 7 A
Now for the player who has been out the longest of anyone on this list, 2019 Stanley Cup Champions Vladimir Tarasenko. We weren’t even a month into the season when the Blues lost their best scorer due to an injury to his left shoulder which ended up requiring surgery. There were no signs that Tarasenko was even remotely close to returning to the Blues lineup before the hiatus. But now that he had the extra 4-month break to recover, the defending champions feel even better about their chances of repeating. Tarasenko expressed his indifference about the quality of the bubble life and it is clear that all he wants to do is play hockey, something he hasn’t done for 10 months.
If there is one thing the Blues lack, it is an elite shooting threat. Their leading goal scorer, David Perron, only scored 25 times this season, whereas Tarasenko has scored 30 goals or more in his last 5 seasons. He is a unique player for the Blues, he gives them another threat on the power play and can get them those easy goals, or as easy as goals come in the NHL, due to how good his shot is. He is not strong defensively, but that’s okay because the rest of the Blues forwards are or at least the ones he will be playing with. He was 3rd on the Blues in WAR last season and had some very clutch goals during their Cup run including 3 in the Cup final. It’ll be interesting to see how he pays after coming back from such a lengthy injury, but he shouldn’t have a problem. Scoring goals just comes naturally to some players and he is one of them.