The NHL has its plan for a return to action, and now we continue the waiting game as teams around the league slowly start to see facilities re-open and small group workouts permitted.
The league’s 24-team playoffs involves an overwhelming portion of the league’s best players, many of whom are capable of taking over a game/series and putting his team on his back.
That said, some get more notoriety than others.
Are players such as Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Nathan MacKinnon capable of such a feat? Absolutely.
However, there are some game-breaking talents that fly under the radar but still have the ability to take over and dominate.
Here’s five such examples.
5 Underrated Game-Breakers in the NHL’s 24-Team Playoffs
Mika Zibanejad, Rangers
Artemi Panarin’s first season on broadway was an overriding success as he finished the regular season tied for third with 95 points, but his center had a lot to do with it and plenty of success of his own.
He didn’t skate with Panarin for the entire season, but Mika Zibanejad nonetheless had himself a campaign to remember.
He missed some time with injuries, but the 27-year-old Swede tallied 41 goals and 75 points in just 57 games. That’s good for a share of 12th in scoring but also ninth with 1.32 points per game. For comparison, Panarin finished with 1.38 points per game.
His 41 tallies were good for fifth league wide despite playing 11-14 fewer games than the four men ahead of him. His goal-scoring prowess was never on fuller display than a March 5 contest again Washington when he led the Rangers to a 6-5 overtime win thanks to a five-goal showing.
— MSG Networks (@MSGNetworks) March 6, 2020
As brilliant as that historical effort was, it was actually just one part of a wild tear the former Senator went on beginning in late January.
From January 31 to March 11, Zibanejad scored 23 goals in 22 games. He finished the regular season on a six-game goal-scoring streak in which he scored 11 (!) times. He scored at least one goal in 12 of his final 13 regular-season games.
He and Panarin carried the Rangers to their fifth-ranked offense and while he’s considered a star already, Zibanejad is actually one of the most dangerous goal-scoring threats in the league at this juncture.
William Nylander, Maple Leafs
When you think of the Maple Leafs’ high-octane offense, the names Auston Matthews, John Tavares and Mitch Marner come to the forefront.
However, don’t sleep on William Nylander.
Perhaps outside of Matthews and his 47-goal, 80-point regular season (in 70 games), no one on the Maple Leafs surprised to the upside more than Nylander.
Nylander’s raw numbers are impressive, but his advanced stats really stand out.
Nylander was a puck-dominating machine for the Leafs, leading the team with a 54.61% Corsi For% at 5v5 play while his .989 PDO in that scenario actually suggests that he deserved to score more than he did.
The eye test showed Nylander controlling the puck with confidence and dominating the offensive zone while generating 54.43% of the high-danger scoring chances for his team while he’s on the ice at 5v5.
Skating with centers in Matthews and Tavares helps, and we should probably expect him to skate with Tavares moving forward as he did for much of his time under Sheldon Keefe after he was deployed with Matthews by former bench boss Mike Babcock this season.
Nonetheless, Nylander has blossomed into a dominating force regardless of linemates this season, and he should be considered armed and dangerous as a result.
Max Pacioretty, Golden Knights
Pacioretty was considered one of the league’s premier goal-scorers thanks to five consecutive non-lockout 30-goal seasons in his days with the Montreal Canadiens.
After regressing to just 17 goals in 64 games in the 2017-18 season, Pacioretty was shipped to Vegas where he tallied just 22 goals in 66 games, struggling to stay healthy and productive on a consistent basis once again.
With his stock seemingly tailing off, Pacioretty bounced back nicely this season, tallying 32 goals in his 71 games while putting a ton of rubber on net in the form of 307 shots on goal, the third-highest mark in the league behind MacKinnon (318) and Ovechkin (311).
His 66 points this season was the second-best output of his career, however he was on pace for a 76-point campaign that would have blown by the 67 points he recorded in the 2014-15 season.
The Golden Knights don’t rely on Pacioretty nearly as much as the Canadiens did in his Montreal tenure with Vegas being much more of a four-line team capable of spreading its offense around.
That said, it appears the 2019-20 version of Pacioretty is as dangerous as we’ve ever seen it. With his ability to get pucks on goal and once again scoring with regularity, ‘Patches’ can no longer be overlooked as a lethal goal-scoring threat.
Jake Guentzel, Penguins
Again, the names Crosby and Malkin come to the forefront when we think of the Penguins’ dangerous offense, however a major piece of that puzzle in recent seasons has been left winger Jake Guentzel.
Originally feared to be lost for the season due to shoulder surgery stemming from a hard crash into the end boards following his 20th goal of the season, the pause in action has allowed Guentzel to heal, rehab and return to action.
— Alex M (@nhlsensandstuff) December 31, 2019
Since the start of last season, only Brad Marchand, Panarin, Jonathan Huberdeau, Ovechkin and Johnny Gaudreau have notched more than the 0.98 points per game than Guentzel has put fourth among left wingers.
He’s tied for fifth alongside Panarin among left wingers with 60 goals in that time despite playing 28-32 fewer games than the men ahead and behind him.
His 40-goal 2018-19 season is a big reason why, however Guentzel was on a 42-goal pace before that devastating injury on December 30.
Fearing he was lost for the year, Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford went out and acquired left winger Jason Zucker from the Minnesota Wild, noting at the time that he’s a nice replacement for Guentzel in the present while the two cam from a nice 1-2 punch on the left side for years to come.
That future dynamic duo is now going to formed much sooner than Rutherford could have thought at the time, giving the Penguins two high-octane lines to lead the offense into the postseason.
Additionally, it’s important to note that Guentzel has already been a postseason game-breaker thanks to his 10-goal, 21-point run across 12 games in the 2017-18 postseason that succeeded a 13-goal, 21-point showing in 25 games en route to winning the 2017 Stanley Cup the prior season.
While he will have not played an NHL game in 7-8 months upon returning, Guentzel should, by all means, be considered as dangerous as they come on the left side.
Andrei Svechnikov, Hurricanes
At 20 years old Svechnikov’s game as plenty of room for growth, but he showed this season that he is a future superstar in this league.
His 20-goal, 37-point showing as a rookie last season was a nice start, however Svechnikov took a massive leap forward with 24 goals and 61 points in 68 games this time around, good for a 29-goal, 74-point pace over a full 82-game season.
Now, it’s not a coincidence that Svechnikov’s production soared in the same season that Sebastian Aho shattered previous career-highs with 38 goals, giving the young Russian plenty of assists in the process.
Nonetheless, the 2018 second overall pick was approaching a 30-goal season as a 20-year-old playing on a team that prioritizes defense over offense.
This won’t be his first NHL postseason rodeo, either.
Svechnikov skated in nine postseason contests last year, notching three goals and five points in the process. Unfortunately, he was on the wrong end of a fight with fellow Russian Ovechkin and missed time with a concussion.
Still, playoff experience means something in this league and that should help the youngster mentally prepare for these playoffs.
He caught the hockey world’s attention when he re-created the lacrosse-style goal this season, but he could catch our attention again by going on a postseason tear at the ripe age of 20.
At the start of the season, not one player had scored a lacrosse-style goal.
— NHL (@NHL) December 18, 2019