5 unheralded players turning heads in NHL playoffs
Jordan Martinook, Luke Schenn, Eetu Luostarinen, Joe Pavelski and Adam Larsson have made significant contributions to their team's playoff success.
Welcome back to Insights and Observations of the NHL playoffs, where only seven teams remain after the Carolina Hurricanes eliminated the New Jersey Devils on Thursday night. This week, we take a look at five players who have stood out through the first two rounds of the playoffs.
Jordan Martinook, Carolina Hurricanes
We have discussed this before but it’s worth repeating: Jordan Martinook was on waivers this season. There likely weren't many people across the league who doubted Martinook was a solid NHL player, but at $1.8 million this season and next, that proved too rich for any team to take on.
That’s the kind of thing that makes you question what every team is doing with their cap space. Last August for reference, 24 teams had less than $5 million of cap space. Using almost half of that on a 30 year old grinder with a two-year commitment understandably makes you pause. But there isn’t a single team in this league with 12 forwards better than Martinook.
He is worth it alone for his penalty-killing prowess. He plays on the top unit for a Carolina team that finished second in the regular season in penalty-kill percentage and is first so far in the playoffs with a whopping 90% success rate. Martinook and Jordan Staal are the Canes' top penalty-killing forwards.
Usually, anything Martinook adds offensively is a bonus. But with Andrei Svechnikov, Max Pacioretty and Teuvo Teravainen all out, the Canes needed players to step up and for the proverbial playoff heroes to emerge. Enter, Martinook. His 10 points in 11 playoff games is tied with Sebastian Aho in team scoring through two rounds. Often, it’s a reward for how hard he forechecks and how he’s able to get his stick on pucks and win battles, which leads to opportunities. He just loves to grind. This is how he describes his game:
Energy, energy, energy. That's what I try and bring. It's not sexy, it's just go out and work and that's kind of the mindset of our team, so I fit in well here.
But seriously, look at this energy.
He has made some nice plays through the playoffs, including a penalty shot goal and a breakaway goal. He has also made some nice backdoor passes and found open teammates in space to pick up assists. But most of his game is just being aggressive on the forecheck and always having his stick in the right space.
In the series-deciding game against New Jersey, he picked up an assist just by winning a battle on the wall and poking the puck back to the point. It’s a simple play and it wasn’t a pretty goal, but it stemmed from winning a battle. In the playoffs, it’s harder to find space, the checking is tighter, the attention to detail is greater and it's a series, not a one-off game. That means the game is also simplified in terms of needing to win battles, get pucks out, cause turnovers and thrive in the tough areas. Martinook is doing that right now and being rewarded accordingly.
Luke Schenn, Toronto Maple Leafs
When the Leafs acquired Luke Schenn, it was an awesome story. Cool Hand Luke, The Human Eraser — Schenn was once upon a time supposed to be a savior of sorts and was ostensibly the face of the franchise. The Leafs never really took that step with Schenn on the roster, though, eventually trading him to the Philadelphia Flyers straight up for James Van Riemsdyk in a move that helped the Leafs finally break their playoff drought at the time. It was a sad ending to what was once such a promising relationship.
When the Leafs acquired Schenn this season, almost 11 years later, it felt like the final chapter in the hero arc of his story.
The once promising prospect was ran out of town and all but out of the league at one point, riding the bus in the AHL and playing on the Arizonas, Anaheims and even Vancouvers of the world. But then a funny thing happened, as he signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning and became a depth defenseman on a team that was about to become a modern day dynasty. Being on a back-to-back Stanley Cup champion surrounded by guys like Victor Hedman and Steven Stamkos has to rub off on you. He returned to the Canucks as a more confident player and when he was acquired by Toronto, he instantly became a leader.
This is not just a fun story, but a meaningful one. Schenn is paired up with Morgan Rielly and giving the team important minutes. In 10 games, he’s been on the ice for nine goals for and just two against. He’s coming out ahead in scoring chances and has brought a much needed level of physicality to the team. When Rielly collided with Brayden Point and sent him flying into the boards, watching Schenn patrol between benches was a small thing, but a big thing. It was the type of incident and heated response from Tampa the Leafs have not handled well in their playoff series.
Against Florida, down 0-3 in the series but up 2-1 with two minutes left, you can argue he saved the Leafs' season as Carter Verhaeghe walked in, faked a shot and everyone bit. A last second desperation poke by Schenn knocked the puck away and prevented a shot on net.
Schenn swats the puck away pic.twitter.com/OdWCh5zvg7
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) May 11, 2023
Stories like this are why we love sports. Watching Schenn return over a decade after he was drafted by Toronto, cherishing the moment and making a difference has been awesome.
Eetu Luostarinen, Florida Panthers
In 2020, the Florida Panthers made a bit of a surprising trade, dealing Vincent Trochek at the deadline after his play dipped following a big season and a subsequent injury. They got four players in return, most notably at the time being Erik Haula, who played all of seven regular season and four playoff games as a Panther. Two of the other players were Lucas Wallmark and Chase Priskie. The final one was Eetu Luostarinen.
He had some pedigree at the time as a second-round pick and was in the midst of his first full season in North America, including an eight-game stint in the NHL with the Hurricanes before getting traded to the Panthers. Now in his second full season in the NHL, the 24-year-old emerged with 17 goals and 43 points and started to learn how to use his 6-foot-3 frame. This is an empty net goal, sure, but he earned full marks here protecting a lead in Boston with their goalie pulled.
Look how he’s physical with Brad Marchand before aggressively pursuing Charlie McAvoy. These are high end players that he’s attacking. He uses his size and reach to pressure the puck and wins the race to it against Marchand to poke it free before icing the game.
He is one of the Panthers' top penalty killers, closes games for them when they are protecting a lead, barely plays on the power play and still chips in offense. That is not the normal ice time deployment for a skilled player in his second year in the league. But he is becoming an effective, detailed checker and developing as a complete player in the process.
Joe Pavelski, Dallas Stars
This is not exactly groundbreaking — Joe Pavelski is catching everyone’s eye. But Dallas has won three games in the second round and Pavelski has the game winner in all three contests plus a historic four-goal outing in the game they lost. What is perhaps most interesting is how Pavelski goes about his business.
The 38-year-old is not big. He is not a speed burner. He does not have a bomb of a shot. And yet here he is, with 1,001 career regular season points and another 134 in 174 playoff games, including 71 goals. He’s maybe the best net front player of his era due to his hand-eye coordination.
All his goals so far have been from the slot and this is how he scored them: shot off the rush, tip, rebound, batting a puck out of the air (so some level of deflection), rebound, rebound, rebound. This one in particular was just so, so good. He circles behind the net against the grain of traffic, comes out to the slot and puts a little bump on the defenseman to create space with his stick. The second the puck is shot, he lifts his stick to track and tip it.
One thing excellent tippers do is refrain from putting their stick to the point of contact until they absolutely have to. When you tip your hand (pun intended), it's easier for defensemen to tie you up. Pavelski’s playoffs started with a big hit and injury, but since returning he has been an absolute force.
Adam Larsson, Seattle Kraken
If you were to guess the player who has logged the most minutes in the playoffs so far, the answer wouldn’t be all too surprising: Miro Heiskanen. In second, though? That would be Adam Larsson.
It feels like ages since he was traded straight up for Taylor Hall. In a way, it was ages ago. The trade took place in the summer of 2016. Two seasons after that, Hall would go on to win the Hart Trophy. By the time he eventually left the Oilers in 2021, most people knew Larsson was a good player and a noteworthy loss. The Oilers even made him a big offer to stay, but having lost his dad while he was visiting Edmonton he wanted a fresh start elsewhere.
The entire Kraken franchise went through a growing pain in Year 1. In Year 2, though? They arrived.
We talked about Vince Dunn’s emergence this season and it’s only fair to give his partner some credit, too. He provides a safety net for Dunn to push on offense. Even when Dunn got burned in Game 3 against Dallas trying to make a play, Larsson was hanging back and snuffed out a speeding Evgeny Dadonov 1-on-1, and although Jamie Benn got a chance after, it wasn't dangerous.
He is a safety net on his pairing, and the team at large. At 5v5 through 12 games, he has been on for 10 goals for and 10 against. That's not eye popping, but he’s logging massive minutes and playing against top players night in and night out. Against Colorado, he played almost 60 5v5 minutes versus Nathan MacKinnon and the score was 3-2 Colorado in those minutes.
The Kraken are a team built on depth, not star power. If he can go up against top players and saw them off, it sets the table for their second, third and fourth line contributors to push them ahead.