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One player to watch closely on each of the NHL’s 24 playoff teams

This is going to be fun.

Beginning Aug. 1, the next two months or so are going to be jam-packed with Stanley Cup Playoff action, with up to six games a day — all day long — to start off. That’s a lot of hockey to watch, but after a four-month hiatus, we’ll take it.

The only truth is that no one knows how anything will play out. No one knows what impact bubble life will have on individuals and teams. There’s no telling what, if anything that happened in the regular season, has any relevance any more. All we can do is watch, and find out.

So ahead of the drop of the puck on Saturday, we present you one player to watch closely on each team.

From the Stanley Cup Qualifiers to the Stanley Cup Final, livestream every game of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, blackout-free, on Sportsnet NOW.

QUALIFYING ROUND TEAMS

Pittsburgh Penguins: Jake Guentzel
The third-most important forward on the team behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Guentzel was Pittsburgh’s leading scorer when he was forced out of the lineup due to injury on Dec. 30. The only game action we’ve seen him in since was this week’s exhibition game, and it took him just over five minutes to record a primary assist. In 41 playoff games, Guentzel has 24 goals and 43 points.

Montreal Canadiens: Phillip Danault
It’s going to be a tough assignment for the should-have-been Selke Trophy finalist. But if Danault plays a key role in limiting (or, less likely, shutting down) Crosby and/or Malkin, he’ll probably open eyes and garner more “defensive forward of the year” attention next season. But he needs to find time for offence, too — Danault was Montreal’s second-highest point-getter at the pause. He’d really make a name for himself on a national scale with a strong playoff.

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Carolina Hurricanes: Sami Vatanen
In case you forgot, yes, the Hurricanes added another defenceman at the trade deadline, picking up Vatanen from the Devils (they got Brady Skjei from the Rangers, too). They always seem to have depth at the position and it is really going to come in handy right now. Both Brett Pesce and Dougie Hamilton will not be ready for Game 1 and that’s going to clear room for someone to get an expanded role. And even though Vatanen, who was injured at the time of his trade, hasn’t played an official game for Carolina yet, in the one exhibition game he suited up for, he logged a game-high 20:16 of ice time and saw action on both the power play and penalty kill.

NY Rangers: Igor Shesterkin
We’ve only seen 12 NHL games from the hyped 24-year-old and his stat line reads: 10-2-0, .932, 2.52. In 25 AHL games earlier in the season he was 17-4-3, .934, 1.90. That’s the reason why there’s so much excitement around him. Still, 12 NHL games is such a small sample and the numbers he posted were so outrageous that it’s hard to know exactly where he’ll settle — especially under playoff pressure. Can he be a series-stealer right away, or are there inevitable bumps ahead? The silver lining for Rangers fans is that if Shesterkin falters, Henrik Lundqvist will be as motivated a backup as there is. But let’s see just what Shesterkin can provide.

NY Islanders: Anthony Beauvillier
New York’s strength is in its structure and they’re at their best when playing tight defence that frustrates opponents. But they’re not quite where they were in this department last season — and offence is also a bit of a sore spot. Most of the pressure to produce will fall on Mat Barzal, Brock Nelson, Jordan Eberle and the like, but Beauvillier slides way under the radar. The 23-year-old had a career-best season even though it was shortened and his return to play has started well, scoring once and recording four shots in the exhibition game. He’s an X-Factor in the Isles’ search for goals.

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Florida Panthers: Erik Haula
Haula joined the Panthers for seven games after being dealt there at the trade deadline and produced only two assists. This is a player two years removed from a 29-goal campaign, but who has also changed teams twice since then and is up for unrestricted free agency this off-season. He’s got work to do if he’s to re-establish himself as a second-line scoring threat and the Panthers will give him all the leeway to do it. He’s their second-line centre and only Jonathan Huberdeau logged more ice time among Panthers forwards in their only exhibition game. What impact can he have?

Toronto Maple Leafs: Morgan Rielly
There are bigger names on the Leafs who must have larger impacts, but on a team that’s primary weakness is depth on the blue line, Rielly needs to be a standout performer. He returned to register three points in the exhibition game, but the playoff-ready Columbus Blue Jackets are built to slow down a team as skilled as Toronto. Rielly has to be terrific at both ends, not just on the attack, and he’s going to pull in monster minutes.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Oliver Bjorkstrand
While Columbus isn’t known for its offence, the 25-year-old Bjorkstrand has potential, at least in a short series. Over the past three seasons combined, Bjorkstrand ranks 23rd league-wide in goals per 60 minutes played at five-on-five, but his career-best is just 23 goals in a season because he’s never sustained a big-minute role. That started to change in the late stages of this season. He logged over 20 minutes of ice time in 11 of his last 23 games played and scored 15 goals in that time. A breakout is coming.

Edmonton Oilers: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
RNH has been a key cog for the Oilers this season. Drafted as a centre, he’s now more often used on the wing next to Leon Draisaitl or Connor McDavid and finished with the best points per game mark of his career — 61 points in 65 games. But the playoffs are a different beast, and in the one season he was exposed to them, Nugent-Hopkins logged only four assists (and no goals) in 13 games. The Oilers can’t afford for him to go quiet again.

Chicago Blackhawks: Corey Crawford
After joining the Hawks late due to a positive COVID-19 test, Crawford is a full go for their qualifying-round series against Edmonton. The two-time Stanley Cup champion has the benefit of experience and was able to put together a good season behind a porous defence, but he’s also 35 years old and there’s no telling what effect the pause and illness could have on his conditioning. He’s going to continue to get peppered with shots against Edmonton and needs to be big for Chicago to have a chance.

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Nashville Predators: Viktor Arvidsson
Over the past three seasons only Auston Matthews, Alex Ovechkin and Brendan Gallagher have scored more goals per 60 minutes of five-on-five play than Arvidsson — and that includes the fact he struggled to just 15 in 57 games this season. Arvidsson scored twice in Nashville’s exhibition game and has huge scoring upside after the pause. We know Nashville’s defence is their strength, and that there’s a bit of a goalie controversy between Juuse Saros and Pekka Rinne, but that either should be fine. Scoring has been the challenge, and Arvidsson is the key to unlocking it.

Arizona Coyotes: Taylor Hall
We’re trying to stay away from naming every team’s best player in these (because of course you’re watching them!), but Hall’s situation is too juicy to ignore. There’s money motivation here, as he’s a pending unrestricted free agent, but he’s also just hungry for playoff action — Hall has been involved in just five post-season games across his entire 10-year career. He had 27 points in 35 games after being dealt to Arizona this season. To what heights can he go?

Vancouver Canucks: Micheal Ferland
There was certainly a time when it looked like Ferland may have had to call it a career. He’s dealt with major concussion concerns recently and played just 14 times for Vancouver this season. But he returned to their camp, looked well, and is now projected to be in the team’s Game 1 lineup. He could be a real force, too. It’s not that Ferland would be a likely candidate to lead Vancouver in scoring, but he’ll add experience and sandpaper to the third line, and he’s not a liability on offence either. More than anything, though, we’re rooting for a safe and successful return for him.

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Minnesota Wild: Mats Zuccarello
Last season Zuccarello was a trade deadline pickup by Dallas and he went on to be a key contributor in their two-round playoff run. He earned a big contract from Minnesota in the off-season, but fell flat in his first year with the Wild, posting just 15 goals and 37 points in 65 games. “We really expect some really good things of Zuccy,” Wild coach Dean Evason said.

Calgary Flames: Sam Bennett
While all the pressure is on Calgary’s top line, Bennett was an important factor in their playoff lineup a year ago, leading the team with five points in five games. And it’s not just that — Bennett plays with the kind of edge and intensity that tends to thrive in the post-season. As long as he’s drawing more penalties than he’s taking, Bennett will be a positive contributor.

Winnipeg Jets: Nikolaj Ehlers
Zero goals in 21 playoff games for a locked-in 20-goal scorer is a clear sign that Ehlers is due. He did score in Winnipeg’s exhibition matchup, but also had to leave the game for “precautionary reasons.” As long as he’s not nicked up too bad, this is shaping up to be the post-season where he does get rolling. Winnipeg could use him, too — one of the worst defences in the league will need all the scoring support it can get.

ROUND ROBIN TEAMS

Boston Bruins: Jake DeBrusk
Without Ondrej Kase around, DeBrusk’s place on the second line next to David Krejci seems secure. What can he do with it? He seemed to get better as last year’s playoffs went on, finishing with four points in the Stanley Cup Final. His goal rate did drop a little this season, though, so let’s see if he can get it back at the right time.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Steven Stamkos
Stamkos is listed here mostly because he’s missed recent practices and Tampa’s exhibition game due to injury, but he was back with the team on Friday and appears set to go for their first round robin game. Conditioning is a question mark for anybody right now, but especially so for someone like Stamkos who missed a large chunk of Phase 3 training camps. At least he’ll have a few games to work it out before it really starts to matter for Tampa Bay, but it goes without saying Stamkos needs to be a big producer for them.

Washington Capitals: Braden Holtby
Goalie Ilya Samsonov did not join the Capitals in the Toronto hub and it was revealed on Friday that he’s out of these playoffs due to an injury sustained over the pause. Had Samsonov been healthy, this would have had the makings of an interesting goalie controversy. The Russian was the better of the two this season and Holtby is a pending UFA. Now it’s unquestionably Holtby’s crease again. His save percentage finished under .900 this season and his GAA was over 3.00, so it’s not really clear what Washington will get from him. Will we see a rebound that could up his value in free agency, or will the spiral continue and make it a real tough go for the Caps?

Philadelphia Flyers: Travis Konecny
The 23-year-old had a breakout season this year, posting 61 points in 66 games. But any time this happens with a young player, you wonder how it will go in the playoffs. This is Konecny’s second post-season try after scoring just once in six games two years ago. He looked quick in the Flyers’ exhibition game and ready to start strong again.

St. Louis Blues: Vladimir Tarasenko
Tarasenko only played 10 games this season before sustaining a shoulder injury that required surgery, and aside from the exhibition game this week, he hasn’t played with the Blues since Oct. 24. St. Louis went on to be the best team in the Western Conference anyway, and now they have a 30-plus goal man back. Tarasenko scored 11 times with two game-winners in last year’s run to the Stanley Cup, but it’s been such a long layoff for him, the adjustment back to that form may take a little time.

Colorado Avalanche: Nazem Kadri
Kadri was having a solid season for the Avalanche after an off-season trade sent him there from Toronto, and that’s no big surprise. He was a third-liner on the Leafs, but his contributions are more level with a second-liner. He’s a good agitator, too, and that generally plays well in the playoffs, although part of the reason Toronto traded him was that in two consecutive post-seasons, Kadri overstepped and was slapped with a suspension. He’s got to toe that line a little better, and if he does, he could have the best post-season of his career.

Vegas Golden Knights: Shea Theodore
Ask most analytics-leaning writers and it won’t take long to mention Theodore’s name among the most underrated defencemen in the game. That distinction should have become a little more obvious in 2019-20 as Theodore scored a career-high 46 points in 71 games and was Vegas’ time on ice leader. Watch him closely and see what’s so special.

Dallas Stars: Roope Hintz
A personal favourite, Hintz came on strong towards the end of last season and then had five goals and eight points in 13 playoff games. Dallas doesn’t score a bunch (even though their lineup looks like it should have no trouble on offence) so they need all the contributors they can get. Hintz is just fun to watch and comes with sneaky-good upside.

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