NHL Rookie Notebook: 7 players to watch during Stanley Cup Playoffs

Watch as Caroline Cameron and Mike Futa discuss the North Division playoff match ups, and players to watch in each series.

The 2020-21 regular season brought some remarkable rookie performances, and the Stanley Cup Playoffs could bring more of the same.

These seven rookies could be in a position to shine as the post-season gets underway.

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Kirill Kaprizov, Minnesota Wild

The regular-season rookie scoring leader and Calder Trophy front-runner played a major role in launching the Minnesota Wild into the post-season, leading the club in goals (27) and points (51). The 24-year-old will now bring his playmaking to Vegas in a clash of two of the league’s hottest teams.

In eight games against the Golden Knights, Kaprizov has eight points. After he was held off the scoresheet in his first three meetings with Vegas, he tallied six goals and a pair of assists in his final five, scoring at least a goal in all five matchups against the club.

Unlike his NHL rookie peers, Kaprizov has extensive playoff experience from his days in the KHL and is no stranger to high-stakes situations — or that championship feeling. He led CSKA Moskva to the Gagarin Cup in 2018-19.

Eeli Tolvanen, Nashville Predators

After taking some time to find his game at the pro level, Tolvanen hit his stride at the best possible time for the Predators. Nashville lacks the kind of explosive, star-studded offence that their Round One opponent in Carolina possesses, but if the underdog Predators are to take down their Goliath, they’ll need depth scorers like Tolvanen to step up. His 11 goals in 40 games this season rank him fourth among his teammates and 10th among NHL rookies.

Think you know how this year's playoffs will unfold? Before every round, from Round 1 to the Stanley Cup Final, predict the winners and number of games for each series and answer a few prop questions.

Cole Caufield, Montreal Canadiens

His regular-season sample size is small, but mighty — four goals and one assist in 10 games this spring — and he’s already built a reputation for coming up clutch.

Caufield’s first career NHL goal, tallied in his third career NHL game, was a thrilling overtime winner against the Ottawa Senators. His second NHL goal, scored two nights later, was another overtime game-winner — this time, against his soon-to-be first-round opponents, the Toronto Maple Leafs. He brings speed and so much skill to this Canadiens squad, and will a blast to watch on the playoff stage.

Zach Whitecloud, Vegas Golden Knights

Whitecloud picked up plenty of valuable playoff experience last post-season — 20 games’ worth, in fact. He may not be all over the highlight reels, but he plays the kind of game that’s built for the post-season. His physical, hard-hitting style, shot-blocking ability, and skill for the penalty kill make him an invaluable part of the Golden Knights’ elite blue line.

Alex Nedeljkovic, Carolina Hurricanes

Few goaltenders have been as solid as Nedeljkovic in the second half of the season. The rookie worked his way into the starter’s role when Petr Mrazek was sidelined for parts of this season and has put up excellent numbers: a 15-5-3 record, 1.90 goals against average, .932 save percentage, and three shutouts. The Hurricanes are one of the most complete teams right now, with depth up front, on the blue line, and now in net. We don’t yet know who will start Game 1 — Mrazek has the experience, but Nedeljkovic’s numbers are too strong to ignore.

Vitek Vanecek, Washington Capitals

One of the biggest surprise starters of the season, Vanecek was unexpectedly thrust into the starter’s crease when Ilya Samsonov was placed on the COVID-19 reserve early in 2020-21.

While he hasn’t necessarily been in the business of stealing games, he hasn’t really needed to, either, considering the strength of the team playing in front of him. That said, his numbers have been strong: 21-10-4 record, 2.69 goals against average, .908 save percentage, and two shutouts.

Now, with Samsonov in COVID-19 protocol for the second time, it’s full speed ahead with Vanecek.

Ilya Sorokin, New York Islanders

New York Islanders head coach Barry Trotz took a patient, methodical approach when it came to giving the highly-anticipated rookie goalie his starts through the first half of the season, and the rookie rewarded the decision with a string of wins. New York’s crease belongs to Semyon Varlamov, who has been excellent this year, but an injury scare for the veteran at the end of the regular season could test the Islanders’ goaltending depth.

Another Islanders rookie to watch: Oliver Wahlstrom. Consistent scoring hasn’t been his strong suit just yet, but based on his streaky scoring pattern all season, he’s due for another offensive outburst. Wahlstrom quietly finished sixth in rookie goal-scoring this season, as well as sixth in goals among his Islanders teammates. New York’s scoring-by-committee approach will need him at his best if they’re to outscore the Penguins.

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