One of the biggest stories of this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs was the dominant play of Nathan MacKinnon. Despite their early exit, the 18-year-old phenom was lighting it up for the Colorado Avalanche and had one of the best playoff starts for a rookie in league history, tied for first in the playoffs with 10 points after the conclusion of the first round.
Over the course of the NHL’s history, rookies have stepped on the grand stage of the playoffs and sparked their team to a run for the cup. It’s an unforeseen X-factor for any team making a run. Plenty of emphasis is placed on playoff experience – sometimes too much. A lot of hockey’s all-time greats, like Mario Lemieux, Marcel Dionneand and Brett Hull didn’t even get a chance in the playoffs in their rookie years. That’s what enables relative unknowns to come out of nowhere. Plenty of rookies or first-time playoff performers have hit the ground running in postseasons past. Here are the 10 best performances in a playoff season by rookies.
10) Felix Potvin — Toronto Maple Leafs (1993)
While Patrick Roy was the goaltending story of the 1993 playoffs, Felix ‘the cat’ Potvin did some stellar work of his own.
The Toronto Maple Leafs finished third in the Norris Division in 1993, but went on a surprising run to the Conference Finals and came within one overtime goal of knocking off the Kings. One goal away from a Montreal vs. Toronto Stanley Cup Final.
Potvin came into the playoffs with great numbers and finished third in voting for the Calder Trophy. In 48 games, he was 25-15-7 with a .910 save percentage and a 2.50 GAA.
Before the Kings solved Potvin in their series with the Leafs, he led Toronto to a seven-game upset over the high-octane Detroit Red Wings. The Leafs continued riding Potvin in their seven-game series win over the St. Louis Blues.
Potvin, in his first full season as a starter in 1993-94 again led the Leafs to the Conference Finals, this time losing to the Vancouver Canucks.
9) Ville Leino — Philadelphia Flyers (2010)
Before Ville Leino became a grossly overpaid player on the lowly Buffalo Sabres, he helped the Philadelphia Flyers to an incredible run in the 2010 playoffs.
Leino played eight games for Detroit in the 2009 playoffs, but 2009-10 was technically his rookie year. He was traded to Philadelphia midway through the season and he entered the playoffs with just 11 points in 55 games played. He was an old rookie at 26, but he played the hockey of his life in the 2010 playoffs.
Leino set a new playoff record for assists by a rookie with 14 and added seven goals. He had a plus-10 rating and his 21 playoff points tied Dino Ciccarelli’s rookie record set in 1981. Leino didn’t carry the Flyers, as scoring goals was no problem for the team that year, but he deserves a lot of credit for the seventh-seeded Flyers making a strong run at the Stanley Cup.
Ville Leino has fallen greatly since, but his performance as a rookie is still very memorable.
8) Don Maloney — New York Rangers (1979)
Decades ago, before Don Maloney was in charge of the Phoenix Coyotes, he shined as a rookie for the Rangers.
The New York Rangers entered the 1979 playoffs as a massive underdog, but they knocked off their neighbouring powerhouse New York Islanders in the semifinals, before finally bowing out to the mighty Habs in the final.
Don Maloney entered the playoffs with 26 points in just 28 games played. He rode that wave of momentum into the playoffs, scoring seven goals and 13 assists in 18 playoff games. His 20 points set a rookie record for points in the postseason.
Goaltender John Davidson was the Rangers’ MVP in that playoff run, but without the spark from Maloney, the Rangers most certainly would’ve been out a lot sooner.
7) Martin Brodeur — New Jersey Devils (1994)
Well, this one was quite the glimpse into a long and decorated career. The 1993-94 New Jersey Devils were a team on the cusp of great things. Gone was the ‘Mickey Mouse’ team of the 80s and here was the start for a team that would go on to be one of the most successful franchises of the last 20 years.
The 1993-94 Devils were led by Scott Stevens, Stephane Richer, Scott Niedermayer, John McLean, Bill Guerin and others. Rookie goalie Martin Brodeur made a significant impact, winning the Calder Trophy, backstopping the Devils to 27 wins in 47 starts, with a 2.40 GAA and a .915 sv%.
The Devils knocked off the Sabres and Bruins before advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals to play cross-tunnel rivals, the New York Rangers. The Rangers finished just six points ahead of the Devils, but were still predominant favourites.
Brodeur’s outstanding goaltending helped New Jersey push the Rangers to seven games, where it took Game 6 heroics by Mark Messier and a fluky double overtime goal by Stefan Matteau to eliminate the Devils.
Brodeur’s postseason numbers were incredible, posting a .928 sv% and 1.95 GAA. It was a sign of things to come, as Brodeur would lead the Devils to the Stanley Cup the following year and many more successful playoff runs.
6) Claude Lemieux — Montreal Canadiens (1986)
People loved to hate him, and Claude Lemieux was a pest by every means, but when it came time for the playoffs, he was most certainly an effective pest.
Lemieux came into the 1986 Stanley Cup Playoffs having just been called to duty for the Habs, but he lit it up when given the chance. He scored 10 goals in the Canadiens’ 20 playoff games, including four game winners.
He scored the overtime goal in Game 7 against the Hartford Whalers and in Game 3 against the New York Rangers.
Lemieux, despite not being known as an offensive catalyst in his NHL career, always had great playoff seasons, finishing with 80 goals and 78 assists in 234 playoff games. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1995, scoring 13 goals for the Devils in their cup run. It all started in the spring of ’86.
5) Ron Hextall — Philadelphia Flyers (1987)
It takes something really special for a player on a losing team to win the Conn Smythe Trophy. That’s what rookie goaltender Ron Hextall did for the Philadelphia Flyers in 1987.
Hextall won 37 games in 66 games with a .903 sv% and 3.00 GAA. Keep in mind, this was in the highest-scoring era in NHL history. He finished second in voting for the Calder Trophy and took home the Vezina Trophy.
In the playoffs, Hextall backstopped the Flyers to series wins over the New York Rangers and Islanders. He then helped them knock off the defending champion Canadiens to set up a showdown with the Hall of Fame stacked roster of the Edmonton Oilers.
They were the two best teams in hockey, but Edmonton was expected to prevail yet again. Ultimately they did, but Hextall gave the Oilers a scare, as his superb play forced the Oilers to seven games, before Edmonton took Game 7 with a 3-1 win.
Hextall’s playoff stats were a .908 sv% and 2.77 GAA. He is the only rookie to win a Conn Smythe Trophy on a losing team.
4) Cam Ward — Carolina Hurricanes (2006)
The Carolina Hurricanes stumbled out of the gate in their run to their 2006 Stanley Cup championship. One of the cup favourites in the East, they lost their opening two games at home to the Montreal Canadiens behind the shaky goaltending of Martin Gerber.
Ward started Game 3 in Montreal with his team down 2-0 in the series and led the Hurricanes to four consecutive one-goal wins. The 22-year-old backup never lost the starting job once he got it.
The Hurricanes went on to beat the Devils and Sabres before ending the Edmonton Oilers’ Cinderella run in a seven-game final.
Ward took home the Conn Smythe Trophy, finishing the 2006 playoffs with a .920 sv% and 2.14 GAA. Not too bad for a rookie who came in with a 3.68 GAA and .882 sv% in the regular season.
3) Ken Dryden — Montreal Canadiens (1971)
While Ward stepped in for a favourite, Ken Dryden stepped in for a heavy underdog in the 1971 playoffs. Winning all six of his starts coming into the playoffs, Dryden’s first task was to knock off the mighty Bruins in the opening round.
Pundits repeatedly asked themselves, who is this kid stoning Boston?
The 20-year-old sensation helped the Canadiens upset the Bruins in seven games and eventually led the Habs to a seven-game series win over the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Final.
It was surprising enough that Dryden got the starting job over Rogie Vachon. It was downright shocking he outperformed Boston goalie Gerry Cheevers, and Blackhawks Hall-of-Famer Tony Esposito. He stymied the likes of Phil Esposito, Bobby Orr, Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull. It was the start of a great, albeit relatively short career.
2) Dino Ciccarelli — Minnesota North Stars (1981)
The Minnesota North Stars of the early 80s flirted with Stanley Cup glory, but were never quite able to win it all.
Rookie Dino Ciccarelli gave them their best shot in the 1981 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Entering the playoffs with 30 points in 32 games played, Ciccarelli sparked the North Stars.
Ciccarelli netted 14 goals in Minnesota’s run to the Stanley Cup final. That’s a rookie record still standing today, as do his 21 points.
Minnesota was the NHL’s ninth seed out of 16 playoff teams, but got by the Bruins, Sabres and Flames to reach the final with the New York Islanders.
The North Stars were no match for the Islanders, in midst of their dynasty, but Ciccarelli kickstarted his Hall-of-Fame career in a big way.
1) Patrick Roy — Montreal Canadiens (1986)
It was the playoff run that created ridiculously high standards for every Canadiens goalie to follow.
Patrick Roy’s 1985-86 rookie season was average, with a record of 23-18-3 with a 3.35 GAA and .875 sv%.
Roy then hit another gear and grew his legend with the greatest run by a rookie netminder in NHL history. At just 20 years old, Roy posted a 1.92 GAA and .923 sv%, earning all 15 of the Canadiens’ victories.
Roy knocked off Boston, Hartford and New York (Rangers) before leading the Canadiens to a five-game upset over the Calgary Flames. He was unquestionably the Conn Smythe Trophy winner, even with fellow rookie Claude Lemieux’s great playoff run. It was his first of three Conn Smythe Trophy victories and going on to become perhaps the greatest playoff goalie of all time, with 151 wins in the postseason.
All rookie goalies will be measured by this playoff run from Roy.