Wednesday, May 29, 2024
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2024 NHL playoffs: Oilers’ Stuart Skinner, Stars’ Wyatt Johnston among Western Conference players to watch

The 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs are here, and heroes will be forged over the next few weeks, beginning with Saturday’s doubleheader when the New York Islanders face the Carolina Hurricanes and the Toronto Maple Leafs take on the Boston Bruins. The big stars will get their chance to shine, but lesser-known names can often be the difference in the postseason.

In the Western Conference, Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon and Jack Eichel will get most of the spotlight, but they can’t hoist the Stanley Cup on their own. They’ll need some help from the rest of the lineup, and we’re going to highlight some of those players.

Young players like Wyatt Johnston of the Dallas Stars and Nashville Predators rookie Luke Evangelista are hoping to break out in the postseason. Casey Mittelstadt and Elias Lindholm, who joined new teams in the middle of the season, will try to be the missing puzzle piece for their respective teams. Other players, like Stuart Skinner and Pierre-Luc Dubois, are looking for redemption in some form or another.

Let’s take a deeper dive and check out some of the players to watch in the Western Conference as the NHL playoffs begin.

When the Stars fell to the Golden Knights in last season’s Western Conference Final, Wyatt Johnston was a rookie, and he looked like it at times. This season, Johnston needs to make more of an impact if the Stars are going to get past the defending champs. If the 2023-24 regular season was any indication, Johnston is up to the task. The 20-year-old forward led Dallas with 32 goals, and his 58.9% expected goals share at five-on-five was one of the best marks on the team, per Natural Stat Trick. Don’t expect Vegas to keep Johnston off the scoresheet this time around.

As the seconds ticked down toward the 2023 NHL trade deadline, the Golden Knights managed to pull off a stunner. Vegas acquired Tomas Hertl from the San Jose Sharks, making an already formidable roster even more imposing. At the time, Hertl was recovering from an injury, but he returned in time to play six games at the end of the regular season. In that time, Hertl posted two goals and two assists while assuming a key role on the power play. Hertl will add more punch to the Golden Knights’ forward group, and that will be especially key with Mark Stone still working his way back from a spleen injury.

The Jets may not have a Nathan MacKinnon or Cale Makar in their lineup, but they do have a rather underrated source of offensive punch in Nikolaj Ehlers. Now in his ninth season with the Jets, Ehlers has been having perhaps the best season of his career. His 25 goals were tied for fourth on the team, and his 61 points were tied for third. Beyond that, the Jets owned a plus-29 goal differential with Ehlers on the ice at five-on-five, according to Natural Stat Trick. There has been some frustration with Ehlers’ lack of ice time this season, but Winnipeg head coach Rick Bowness may not have much of a choice if his team falls behind.

Casey Mittelstadt will be something of an X-factor in this series. Last season, the Avalanche’s lack of depth cost them against the Seattle Kraken, and it’s something the Jets could exploit this year, too. Colorado tried to address its second-line center issue last offseason by bringing in Ryan Johansen. That move didn’t pan out at all, so the Avs swung a big trade to bring in Mittelstadt at the trade deadline. Mittelstadt joined the team on March 8, and since then he has four goals and six assists in 18 games. Those numbers don’t jump off the page, but he has been an upgrade over Johansen, and his playmaking ability gives the Avs more versatility up front. 

If there’s one area where the Canucks have a clear advantage over the Predators, it’s down the middle. Having Elias Lindholm as a third-line center is a luxury that few teams can match, and Nashville isn’t one of them. The trouble is that Lindholm hasn’t exactly been a slam dunk in Vancouver. After being acquired by the Canucks in February, Lindholm got off to a bit of a slow start but has picked it up lately. Still, his five-on-five impacts have been somewhat underwhelming overall. According to Natural Stat Trick, Lindholm’s 44.6% expected goals share is one of the worst numbers on the team. If Lindholm can elevate his game in the postseason, Vancouver can be a serious problem in the West.

The Predators’ top line has been excellent all season, but if they want to go on a run this spring, the rest of the lineup has to contribute more frequently. A prime candidate for a postseason breakout is rookie winger Luke Evangelista. The former second-round pick has shown flashes of greatness all season, finishing with 16 goals and 23 assists, but he really found a groove late in the regular season. Evangelista’s connection with Tommy Novak gave Nashville a skilled second line, and those two boast an impressive 59.0% expected goals share at five-on-five, per Natural Stat Trick. If those two can keep that going in the playoffs, when offense is harder to come by, the Predators suddenly look more threatening at forward.

Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are going to create some offense. That is not a question. The big question in Edmonton is whether the goaltending will hold up well enough for a Stanley Cup run. Stuart Skinner had an uneven season in 2023-24. He started out quite poorly, but he found his game in the middle of the season and helped the Oilers fly up the Pacific Division standings. Of course, the pressure ramps up in the postseason, and Skinner did not handle that pressure well in 2023. Last year, Skinner appeared in 12 playoff games and posted a .883 save percentage to go along with 6.93 goals allowed above average. Skinner has to be better than that in order for Edmonton to survive a loaded Western Conference.

Few players will be under more scrutiny in these playoffs than Pierre-Luc Dubois. This past summer, the Kings acquired Dubois from the Jets and signed him to an eight-year contract worth $68 million. Dubois’ production has not matched that paycheck. He finished the regular season with 16 goals and 24 assists in 82 games. That’s not what Los Angeles thought it was getting when it landed Dubois, but if there is a silver lining, it’s that the team has controlled scoring chances with him in the game. Despite an underwhelming first season with the Kings, Dubois can change that narrative with a big playoff performance against the Oilers.

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