Previewing the Players Making Their NHL Playoff Debuts

NHL, New Jersey Devils, Jack Hughes #86. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
NHL, New Jersey Devils, Jack Hughes #86. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images) /

By now you’ve heard this is the first season since 2005-2006 that the Pittsburgh Penguins won’t be in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It was a good run, Pittsburgh, and it was the longest active postseason streak among the four major professional sports leagues when it was broken.

That means this will be the first time since 2006 that neither Sidney Crosby nor Alexander Ovechkin will be in the playoffs.

Now, we’re done talking about the people who won’t make it. Let’s talk about the players making it for the first time.

Has the NHL ever had a more exciting class of newbies making their playoff debut? Hard to say so, but look at both conferences and there are plenty of exciting playoff first-timers getting their crack at the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Some NHL stars are going after the Cup for the very first time.

The most well-known out of all of them is Jack Eichel. The 2015 second-overall pick was supposed to be the Buffalo Sabres’ savior. Not even the trade to the Vegas Golden Knights last season got him into the NHL’s big dance.

After eight seasons, two teams, and a controversial back surgery, the greatest consolation prize in NHL history (until maybe Adam Fantilli takes that title in June) is getting his first trip to the playoffs.

Then there’s the Seattle Kraken. Put Seattle in the “we’re just happy to be here” category as they’re playoff-bound in their second season in franchise history.

Seattle isn’t expected to make a serious playoff run (I can’t see into the future, but their goaltending might have something to do with that), but the frontrunner for the Calder Memorial Trophy, Matty Berniers, is leading Seattle to the first of what they hope will be many trips to the playoffs.

Just like fellow playoff novice Jack Eichel, Bernier is a former second-overall pick.

Here are a few honorable mentions for the Western Conference. By “honorable mention”, I mean players who could be making their playoff debuts but are currently out with injury.

First, there is Eichel’s Vegas teammate in goaltender Logan Thompson, who’s seen a stellar rookie year be interrupted by injuries. Rookie Winnipeg Jets center Cole Perfetti is still on injured reserve, although he turned heads with 30 points in 51 games before getting hurt.

Now let’s go over to the Eastern Conference. The New York Islanders might have the most anticipated playoff goalie in Ilya Sorokin. Sorokin’s heroics lead the stingy and low-scoring Islanders this season, and he’s elite enough to potentially steal a series.

His Russian best friend, Igor Shesterkin, made headlines in last year’s playoffs for the cross-division New York Rangers, but this is Sorokin’s show this time around.

If the Islanders’ most important player, Mat Barzal, is missing for even part of the playoffs, every save Sorokin makes will be even more important.

The biggest surprise in the NHL this year also resides in the Eastern Conference. They are the New Jersey Devils, who broke the record for the best single-season turnaround in NHL history.

New Jersey is seeded at second place in the Metropolitan Division and was in play for the divisional crown up until game 82 of the season (an overtime victory against the Washington Capitals).

A second-seed finish sets them up for another chapter in the Hudson River Rivalry against their rival Rangers.

The Devils are a cornucopia of young exciting NHL talent. At the center of it all is Jack Hughes. Hughes broke the franchise record for points with 99 and should get down-ballot Hart Trophy consideration.

Did I mention his brother, highly touted prospect on defense Luke Hughes, just made the jump from college to the show and could get some playoff action? Don’t forget Dawson Mercer, who was close to reaching the 30-goal plateau in his sophomore season.

All three are making the playoffs for the first time. For the record, other leading scorers, captain Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, and long-tenured defenseman Damon Severson, were on the Devils’ last playoff team in 2018. This will be their second trip, so I kept them off the list.

Getting this young Devils team playoff experience is crucial as the team builds itself into a perennial Stanley Cup contender.

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This might be the year we see the old guard changing with the new. We expect Ovechkin and Crosby to come back sooner than later, but now fans can get used to seeing names like Eichel, Berniers, and Hughes come April.

Just wait until next year if Connor Berdard can get a lucky team into the postseason field.