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16 players who'll shape the Stanley Cup chase

Julian Catalfo / theScore

The Stanley Cup Playoffs start Saturday. These 16 key players - one per postseason team - will help dictate who wins and stumbles in the opening round and beyond.

Aaron Ekblad: After missing the final six games of the regular season to nurse an undisclosed injury, Ekblad will return to the Panthers' lineup for Game 1 against the Lightning. Florida didn't address the blue line at the trade deadline. Without Ekblad, the Panthers didn't have anybody on the right side of the defense capable of combating opposing top lines. They need Ekblad healthy, and at his best, to make another deep run.

Victor Hedman: The Lightning's blue line isn't what it used to be, especially with Mikhail Sergachev ruled out for Round 1 as he recovers from a broken leg. Hedman, as he's done for much of the season, will have to do the heavy lifting. While his 76-point season may trick some into thinking he's still at the top of his game, his ugly defensive metrics tell another story. Tampa Bay needs Hedman to be a factor at both ends to have a chance of advancing.

China Wong / NHL / Getty Images

Jake DeBrusk: It hasn't been the contract year DeBrusk hoped for. After producing 27 goals and 50 points in 64 games last season, the Bruins winger managed only 19 goals and 40 points in 80 games in 2023-24. But he can play his way into a big payday with a stellar postseason - and the best recipe for him to do that is with an edge to his game.

Auston Matthews: Every team needs their best players to show up, but perhaps none more so than the Maple Leafs. Matthews has never truly taken over a postseason the way superstars of his ilk are capable of. He scored five times in Toronto's Round 1 win over the Lightning last year but failed to find the back of the net in Round 2 when the Leafs were eliminated. That's not a coincidence.

Jared Silber / NHL / Getty Images

Mika Zibanejad: The Rangers center's production tailed off this season, with only 12 goals at even strength. The whistles tend to go away a bit in playoff hockey, so Zibanejad will have to find ways to contribute outside of the power play. Considering the opposition will place more attention on Artemi Panarin's line, the Rangers need Zibanejad to be the force he's capable of being.

Tom Wilson: The Caps enter Round 1 as heavy underdogs, but Wilson can wreak havoc on the forecheck and strike fear into opposing defensemen with his physicality. The three-time 20-goal-scorer has decent hands around the net, too. Wilson also has a history with the Rangers: Remember when he punched Pavel Buchnevich and body-slammed Panarin in 2021? The Rangers and their fans haven't forgotten, and Wilson will surely relish playing the villain.

Josh Lavallee / NHL / Getty Images

Andrei Svechnikov: Many of Carolina's key forwards - Sebastian Aho, Jake Guentzel, Seth Jarvis, Teuvo Teravainen - are on the smaller side. Svechnikov, a modern-day power forward, is the outlier. He missed last year's postseason after he tore his ACL in March, which contributed to the Hurricanes' lack of scoring. Svechnikov can get to the inside and score goals from ugly areas, and that's often what it takes to succeed in the playoffs.

Noah Dobson: The Islanders' 70-point defenseman missed the last three games with an upper-body injury. His status for Game 1 is up in the air. Dobson is the engine that drives the Islanders from the back end. Given the tenacity of Carolina's forecheck, New York desperately needs its top puck-moving defenseman to be healthy and at his best. Otherwise, the Islanders will constantly be hemmed in their own zone.


Quinn Hughes: The Canucks' dynamic, intelligent captain reached rare heights this year. He became the 11th NHL defenseman to eclipse 90 points in a season. He was the first since Ray Bourque in 1994 to record nine three-assist games. Hughes also leveled up as a shooter. His second postseason, following a fun run in the 2020 bubble, is the first in a long while that Vancouver enters as a Cup favorite.

Tommy Novak: A classic secondary scorer, the Predators center supports the load-bearing quartet of Filip Forsberg, Gustav Nyquist, Ryan O'Reilly, and Roman Josi. Novak put up a second straight 40-point season despite missing a month due to injury. Aside from superstars, few NHL forwards create more chances in their allotment of minutes than Novak. Recent eight-game and six-game win streaks suggest Nashville could be tough to eliminate.

Andy Devlin / NHL / Getty Images

Stuart Skinner: The Oilers always rack up goals at this time of year. Can they prevent them? The decline in Skinner's save percentage from the 2022-23 regular season (.914) to his two-round playoff debut (.883) was too steep for Edmonton to overcome. Thwarting chances is a shared responsibility. That means a defense corps with ample postseason experience has to minimize slipups in front of Skinner.

Drew Doughty: "Dewy" is the gap-toothed, trash-talking embodiment of what the Kings do well. The workhorse defenseman subdues top lines. He clears the crease and blocks shots for the league's No. 2 penalty kill. At even strength, L.A.'s conservative, maligned 1-3-1 defensive structure disrupts opposing breakouts. The Kings count on Doughty to retrieve dump-ins at the back of the trap and spark offense when they gain the puck.

Sam Hodde / Getty Images

Chris Tanev: The Stars' scoring depth wows, Miro Heiskanen is a two-way whiz, and goalie Jake Oettinger has star potential. Trading for Tanev offset a rare weakness: Heiskanen's lack of help on the blue line. Tanev and Esa Lindell form a strong, defensively conscious second pair behind the Heiskanen-Thomas Harley duo. Following Tanev's March 5 debut, Dallas led the West in points percentage (.789), goals allowed (2.32 per game), and expected goals share (62.7%).

Jonathan Marchessault: The Golden Knights' top sniper, whose 42-goal season was a significant personal best, likes to play in traffic. He ranked in the 96th percentile in goals and 87th percentile in shots generated from the high-danger low slot, per NHL EDGE. Marchessault tallied 10 of his 13 goals in the 2023 playoffs from that part of the ice. His dependability helps fuel the reigning champs.

Bruce Bennett / Getty Images

Connor Hellebuyck: The Vezina Trophy favorite uplifts a flawed Cup contender. The Jets' offense sometimes goes dormant, but Hellebuyck masked the shortcoming this season, holding opponents below three goals in the majority of his starts. His goals saved above expected total of 39.35 was the sixth-best recorded in the past 15 years, per Evolving-Hockey. When Hellebuyck's performance peaks, any team is beatable.

Nathan MacKinnon: No playoff opponent has silenced the Avalanche megastar, but MacKinnon's seven points in last year's seven-game defeat to the Kraken felt like a slight letdown. More will be expected and demanded of the Art Ross Trophy runner-up against the Jets, who pummeled Colorado 17-4 across three matchups this season. The Avs are built to win track meets. They're able to run up the score when MacKinnon takes over.

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