The NHL’s 2019-20 rookie class provided plenty of fireworks over the course of a full regular season, but several of those players have really made an impact in the postseason. The long layoff between the regular season and the resumption of the postseason in the bubbles not only allowed players to rest but also continue working on getting stronger and honing their games. The result: The youngsters have produced.
Quinn Hughes and Cale Makar continued to cast a long shadow over the rest of their first-year peers, putting together record production for rookie defensemen in the playoffs while also guiding their respective teams to the cusp of the conference finals. But even beyond that duo, rookies showed what they can do in the spotlight over the past five weeks.
Just as we did during the regular season, here’s a look at the top rookies of the postseason, with an emphasis on their individual impact on team success.
Note: Players who are still in play for the Stanley Cup are marked with an asterisk. Stats are through Sept. 8, and advanced metrics are via Natural Stat Trick.
While Makar’s impact on the Avalanche was obvious during the regular season, he was even better during the playoffs. He averaged more ice time there than any other rookie (23:41) and a point per game (15). At the end of the second round, he was tied for most shots on goal and ranked second in 5-on-5 Corsi for relative at 8.29%.
Makar was involved in every element of the team’s attack and showcased his physicality on a number of occasions. The Avalanche outscored the opposition 20-8 at 5-on-5 and 35-11 at all strengths with Makar on the ice. This was the Calgary-born defenseman at his absolute best, making one of the best teams in the league better.
The most remarkable thing about Makar is that he gets better every season by a significant margin. The fact that there was a long layoff was irrelevant — he was a better player in the postseason. The Avalanche were already a team on the rise toward contender status, but Makar elevated them a lot quicker than I even expected.
Put an asterisk on it if you like, but Hughes had more points than any rookie defenseman in the history of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Yes, that includes the play-in round, but it’s hard to deny the game-to-game impact Hughes had on his club. He had the ability to change the course of a game with his incredible vision and passing, making the Canucks a much better team in transition and giving them the ability to attack proficiently. Like Makar, he was even better in the postseason than he was during a stellar regular season.
The Canucks controlled shot attempts at a rate 6.92% higher at 5-on-5 with Hughes on the ice than without, while also recording a scoring chance for percentage 12.3% better with Hughes out there. He averaged nearly 23 minutes per game and was a weapon on the power play, with nine of his 16 points coming on the advantage. At the end of the conference semifinals, Hughes was fourth among all players in the playoffs with 14 assists. He was snapping pucks all over the ice with such authority and confidence, you’d have never known this was his first foray in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
There was a concern when he was drafted that Hughes couldn’t play the way he played in college in the NHL. Yet he has actually been better at “what he does” in the NHL than he was in college. It’s remarkable.
Gurianov is the first of our rookies still standing in the race to the Stanley Cup, and has he ever made a big impact for the Stars. Averaging just 14:17 per game, Gurianov has provided the kind of scoring depth that takes a team from contender status to legitimate Stanley Cup threat. He has eight goals, which is by far the best total among rookies and ties him with teammate Joe Pavelski for the team lead in Dallas. He is currently tied for second among rookies with 15 points.
Gurianov is among the rookie postseason leaders in 5-on-5 points per 60 minutes with 2.72, and the Stars are outscoring the opposition 22-12 with Gurianov on the ice in all situations and 12-10 at 5-on-5. The Stars are also possessing the puck at a rate 7.9% higher with Gurianov on the ice at 5-on-5 than without him.
In hindsight, I was too quick to dismiss Gurianov as a prospect. He progressed from a 20-goal scorer in the AHL in 2018-19 to a 20-goal scorer as a rookie in the NHL. It’s been a very steady, reasonable development curve for a first-round pick, and Dallas is now reaping the rewards at the best possible time.
The Canadiens did far better than anyone expected, and Suzuki was a big reason for that, moving seamlessly to No. 2 center behind Phillip Danault. He tied for the team lead with four goals and seven points while averaging 19:11 per game — only Danault averaged more ice time among Habs forwards.
Suzuki also proved his two-way value throughout the postseason, taking on tough matchups and often winning the scoring-chance battle with 29 high-danger chances for and 17 against at 5-on-5. He also played on both the power play and penalty kill, giving the Habs a versatile weapon in their arsenal.
You have to do something special to appear in just three games and still make a list like this. But Demko did something very few have done before him.
With the Canucks facing elimination in three consecutive games, Demko — with zero prior career postseason starts to his name — shut down a far superior Vegas team. Demko stole two wins and nearly locked down a third in a virtuoso performance in Game 7 in which only a perfect shot through a screen beat him. His final stat line in three starts: 130 shots against, 128 saves, a .985 save percentage and 0.64 goals-against average.
The Canucks have some decisions to make going forward regarding goaltending, but Demko reminded everyone why he is still considered the goalie of the future for Vancouver.
Few rookies came back looking better versus how they looked in the regular season than Dach. When things shut down, Dach was just starting to heat up. He didn’t miss a beat, playing significant minutes for the Blackhawks, averaging almost a full minute more per game than Jonathan Toews at 19:24.
Dach finished second on the team with five assists, performed well on Chicago’s top power-play unit and also saw time on the penalty kill. Last year’s No. 3 overall pick looked right at home as a top player for Chicago in the bubble.
Acquired in the deal that shipped Erik Haula out of Vegas, Roy has been a solid middle-six option for the Golden Knights throughout the postseason. Playing a lot on the penalty kill, Roy has mixed some grit with his speed and skill level.
Roy has the highest Corsi for percentage of any rookie in the postseason to date with a stunning 63.3% mark at 5-on-5. Roy has also been on the ice for 116 scoring chances for and just 76 against at fives, trailing only Makar among rookies in that category. Getting that level of possession and scoring chance differential from depth is one of the reasons Vegas keeps outlasting its opposition. Roy has a goal and seven assists while averaging just under 15 minutes of ice time per game, too.
Kubalik was one of Chicago’s go-to scorers in its brief playoff run. He finished third on the team with eight points, finding the back of the net four times. He was a handful for opposing teams in their zone and was a quality power-play performer.
Depth can help teams win, and Whitecloud kind of came out of nowhere to provide it. Even coach Peter DeBoer said at one point he didn’t really know anything about him.
Having spent most of the season in the AHL, Whitecloud would have been easy to miss. But over 17 games, he has allowed DeBoer to stretch his bench among defensemen and get him quality penalty-kill and even-strength minutes. Whitecloud has gotten better and better with each passing round, adding a physical element. He also has led all rookies with 35 blocked shots, and Vegas has remained on the positive end of the scoring chances when he’s been on the ice at 5-on-5.
He didn’t put up big numbers, but Texier was everywhere for Columbus and played solid minutes. He was a good two-way presence, showcasing great puck skills and getting after pucks on the forecheck. He finished the postseason with three assists and made a great case for himself to play an even bigger role with the Jackets next season.
Others who have stood out
Vladislav Gavrikov, D, Columbus Blue Jackets: Playing on Columbus’ second pairing, Gavrikov was tough to get around. He did have a bit of a gaffe on the team’s series-ending goal against Tampa Bay, but there were a lot more positives to pull.
Philippe Myers, D, Philadelphia Flyers: Averaging 20:02 per game with barely any time on special teams, Myers offered the Flyers quite a bit on the back end, including better possession numbers and the ability to transition with ease.
Joel Kiviranta, LW, Dallas Stars*: How can we have a section on rookies and not shout out Kiviranta’s hat trick in Game 7 against Colorado? What an incredible performance from a guy most NHL fans probably hadn’t heard of.