With the NHL All-Star break wrapping up and the second half of the 2019-20 season ready to begin, we are taking a look at some of the players, coaches, and general managers that could have the biggest impact on the Stanley Cup Playoff races and which teams end up making the postseason.
Here, we focus on 10 players that could stand out the most.
For the six coaches and general managers that could make the biggest impact, click here.
1. Elvis Merzlikins (Goalie), Columbus Blue Jackets. You don’t have to dig very deep to figure out how the Blue Jackets have exceeded all preseason expectations and played their way back into a playoff spot: It’s the goaltending. For as good as Joonas Korpisalo was to start the year, the play of Merzlikins is what has really helped turn this season around.
Since taking over in place of the injured Korpisalo, Merzlikins is 9-2-0 in his 11 starts (Matiss Kivlenieks also won a start in the middle of that stretch) with a save percentage well over .940. The Blue Jackets don’t score a lot of goals, they don’t have a ton of resources to deal from to strengthen the roster at the deadline, and while Zach Werenski and Seth Jones are both great defensemen, the team surrenders a lot of shots and doesn’t have great defensive metrics. But goaltending is the great equalizer in hockey and right now it is making all the difference for Columbus.
2. Sergei Bobrovsky (Goalie), Florida Panthers. While the Blue Jackets have found a tandem that works in net, their former goalie has made a very different impact with his new team. A bad one. There is plenty of reason for Panthers fans to finally be excited about their team, and they do enter the post-All-Star break stretch with a solid playoff footing despite the early struggles of Bobrovsky. He doesn’t have to be the Vezina Trophy goalie he was earlier in his career, but if he can bounce back in the second half the Panthers could become a very dangerous team given the strength of their offense.
3. Johnny Gaudreau (Forward), Calgary Flames. The Flames have regressed this season after finishing the 2018-19 season as the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. At the center of that regression is an offense that has gone from being one of the league’s highest scoring, to one of its lowest scoring. With only five goals in his first 29 games Gaudreau was a big factor in that team-wide decline offensively. He is currently on pace for the worst offensive output of his career, but over the past month or two has really started to show signs of breaking out and getting back to being the offensive difference-maker he is. If that continues down the stretch it could make all the difference in the Pacific Division.
4-5. Jake Muzzin and Tyson Barrie (Defensemen), Toronto Maple Leafs. Everyone knows the Maple Leafs’ flaw. Everyone knows the issue. It is defense. With Morgan Rielly sidelined for at least two months, the Maple Leafs are going to need Muzzin and Barrie to be great. Muzzin, probably the team’s best defensive player, has been sidelined since late December and it’s not a coincidence the team has struggled since then. Barrie was a huge offseason pickup, but has not yet met expectations. A healthy Muzzin and Barrie making the impact the Maple Leafs had hoped for would go a long way toward not only solidifying the Maple Leafs’ playoff hopes, but also giving them a chance to finally make a run beyond the first round.
6. Carter Hart (Goalie), Philadelphia Flyers. His first full season has had some inconsistencies to it, and he is currently sidelined with an injury, but Hart has the upside and ability to impact the Flyers’ playoff chances more than any other individual player on the roster. He and Brian Elliott both have league average numbers this season, but Hart showed last year as a rookie (and has at times this season) that he is capable of far more than that. If he can get to that level on a regular basis there is no reason this can not be a playoff team, even in the wildly competitive Metropolitan Division.
7. Taylor Hall (Forward), Arizona Coyotes. The Coyotes made their big trade deadline acquisition months before the actual deadline, and Hall gives them the exact type of difference-maker they have needed up front. If Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper are healthy, the Coyotes have the goaltending to win with a very good defense in front of them. They can shut teams down. The one thing they lacked was a top-line scorer. Hall provides that and seems to be settling in with 12 points in his past nine games. He carried the Devils to a playoff spot two years ago in his most recent fully healthy season, and he has a much better supporting cast on this team.
8. Jaccob Slavin (Defenseman), Carolina Hurricanes. Dougie Hamilton is most likely done for the season, and you simply can not replace what he has done this season, especially offensively. He has been arguably the best all around defenseman in the league so far. There is no trade to be made to add that back. There is no player sitting in the press box or player in the AHL that can step in and do it. Slavin is the Hurricanes’ best defensive player (and one of the best in the NHL), and without Hamilton in the lineup he becomes their biggest offensive presence on the blue line as well. That is a big role, but he should be capable of filling it.
9. Jean-Gabriel Pageau (Forward), Ottawa Senators — for now. He does not play for a playoff team just yet, but he will. With Hall already traded and the Rangers not necessarily guaranteed to trade Chris Kreider, Pageau might be the biggest name available on the trade market and he would be a significant add to any contender given his two-way play. He provides a shutdown defensive game as a second-or third-line center while also being on pace for more than 30 goals this season. Every playoff team in the league could find a use for a player like that, and he could be the type of secondary player that changes a game or two in the playoffs.
10. Dustin Byfuglien (Defenseman), Winnipeg Jets. On one hand, if he was going to play this season it seems like there would be more progress toward that right now. So maybe this is a long shot. But, if he did return it would be quite an add to a Jets defense that needs all the help it can get. They have managed to stay in the race for more than half of the season with a makeshift defense. They have the forwards, they have the goalie, they just need help on the blue line and there remains the possibility for a top-pairing player to walk through the door at some point. It would help.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.