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9 under 25: Young players who are leveling up in the playoffs

The Stanley Cup playoffs are no place for the fresh-faced and inexperienced — or so the conventional wisdom goes. Because one ill-timed mistake can often send a team spiraling toward elimination, coaches tend to lean on players they can trust in big moments, which often correlates with being a veteran who has seen it all before and knows how to handle the pressure.

That can make it difficult for young players to earn a bigger role when the postseason lights get brighter. It’s probably not a coincidence that zero of the remaining teams in this year’s stacked playoff field ranked among the 10 youngest by average age during the 2023-24 regular season, while four of the 11 oldest squads are still skating toward the Cup. But despite this, some kids are still using these playoffs as a springboard for greater things and producing beyond their years.

To identify the youngsters who are stepping up big in the games that matter the most, we looked for players under the age of 25 this season (as of Jan. 31) who have never had a regular season of 15 or more goals above replacement (GAR) in their careers before. Why 15? Generally speaking, it’s the marker of a good season. The Carolina Hurricanes’ Andrei Svechnikov, for instance, has a 15.6 GAR season under his 24-year-old belt — as does the Dallas Stars’ Thomas Harley (22) — so neither are eligible despite being young players who have big responsibilities for their respective playoff teams.

Instead, we’ll focus on nine players (listed youngest to oldest) who haven’t quite achieved that level of regular-season success yet, but are playing important roles for Cup-chasing teams.

Age: 20 (May 14, 2003)
Best regular season: 14.5 GAR (2023-24)
Playoff stats: 10 GP | 5 G | 3 A | 8 P | +0 | 20:1 TOI/G

Johnston just sneaks onto our list, by virtue of posting 14.5 GAR this season, during which he scored 32 goals for a Dallas team that had no shortage of scoring threats. (Eight Stars scored at least 20, which trailed only the 2021-22 St. Louis Blues among teams since the 2005 lockout.) But Johnston is one of the surprisingly few Stars who have carried that momentum over to the playoffs; he’s one of only four Dallas players with three or more goals, and his five goals represent nearly 20% of the entire team’s total. Playing with a combination of talented linemates — he has been centering Jamie Benn and Joe Pavelski recently — Johnston will get chances to snipe home more goals; his big challenge will be to give more at the defensive end, where he was on the ice for multiple goals against in Colorado’s Game 1 comeback last week.

They said it: “What a player. He still can’t get in the casino and play cards, he’s not old enough, it’s unbelievable. One of the great young players, the next generation of stars of this league.” — Stars coach Peter DeBoer

Age: 21 (Feb. 26, 2003)
Best regular season: 3.1 GAR (2023-24)
Playoff stats: 10 GP | 2 G | 2 A | 4 P | +3 | 15:2 TOI/G

Johnston isn’t the Stars’ only precocious young contributor this postseason. After recording a pair of assists in Round 1 against Vegas, Stankoven has two goals in the Colorado series — both coming in Dallas’ critical Game 3 win Saturday night. (He kicked off the Stars’ scoring to begin the game, then later fired home an empty-netter.) The 21-year-old winger is playing so well that he is logging minutes on the Stars’ top line with Jason Robertson and Roope Hintz, showcasing how far he has already come since getting his first NHL goal (naturally, off a Johnston assist) in February.

They said it: “We get enough scoring. What he’s bringing us, all the intangibles, the energy, the relentless puck pursuit, the battles, the setting up other guys, making plays — that stuff alone has earned him the opportunities he’s got.” — DeBoer

Age: 22 (March 22, 2001)
Best regular season: 0.8 GAR (2022-23)
Playoff stats: 6 GP | 4-2-0 | .908 SV% | +1.1 GSAA

Pressed into mid-playoff emergency duty because of injuries to Vezina Trophy candidate Thatcher Demko and backup Casey DeSmith, Silovs has the unenviable task of carrying the netminding load for a team that has real Stanley Cup aspirations. Prior to a few weeks ago, Silovs had started only nine total games in his two-year NHL career, with zero coming in the playoffs. But with the exception of a weak outing in Game 1 of the second round against Edmonton — which Vancouver won anyway in a furious comeback — the young Latvian has mostly been solid, even recording his first career shutout (regular-season or playoffs) in the Round 1 clincher versus Nashville and stopping 42 of 45 shots from the high-powered Oilers while backstopping Vancouver to a 2-1 series lead on Sunday night.

They said it: “You just have to be always ready. A lot of things happen in life, like [an] accident, someone gets hurt, right? And you just have to be ready to embrace your moment.” — Silovs

Age: 22 (Sept. 23, 2001)
Best regular season: 1.1 GAR (2023-24)
Playoff stats: 8 GP | 2 G | 0 A | 2 P | -1 | 9:5 TOI/G

The speedy Holloway, who was taken 14th overall in the 2020 draft, has yet to make a big regular-season splash for Edmonton, netting 9 goals and 9 assists in 89 career games. But in the playoffs, Holloway found himself tied for third on the Oilers with a pair of goals in the first round against the L.A. Kings. (Remarkably, he buried more pucks than Connor McDavid in that series.) In a span of a few weeks, Holloway went from potentially not making the playoff roster to earning time on the third line with Ryan McLeod and Corey Perry — a crucial unit for an Edmonton team that has a lot of top-line talent but needs contributions from its depth players.

They said it: “He is in a great spot right now, playing well, and he’s not thinking out there. You can tell the difference in just the time I’ve been here. In the beginning, I thought he was thinking maybe a little too much, but now he is trusting his instincts.” — Oilers teammate Mattias Ekholm

Age: 22 (Oct. 3, 2001)
Best regular season: 10.3 GAR (2021-22)
Playoff stats: 9 GP | 1 G | 6 A | 7 P | +1 | 16:9 TOI/G

Lundell burst onto the scene a few years ago, when the then-20-year-old scored 18 goals with 26 assists and a plus-33 plus/minus for the 2021-22 Panthers squad that posted the best record in hockey. Though he hasn’t quite replicated that level of play in the past few seasons, Lundell has been one of Florida’s most important players this postseason — whether he’s centering a line with Matthew Tkachuk (the team’s most talented player) and Carter Verhaeghe (the team’s best clutch performer), as he did early in Round 2 against the Boston Bruins, or notching a goal and an assist to help Florida erase a two-goal deficit in Game 4 and take a 3-1 series lead.

They said it: “I always love responsibility. I want to play as good as I can and just do as much as I can. I know I can play big minutes. I know I can be a big player on the team, and I want to be a big player for when we need a goal, or we need to defend. Be an all-around player. But I’m just trying to do everything I can to help the team to win.” — Lundell

Age: 22 (Oct. 11, 2001)
Best regular season: 11.2 GAR (2023-24)
Playoff stats: 8 G | 4 G | 6 A | 10 P | +1 | 15:8 TOI/G

The 2020 No. 1 draft pick hasn’t turned into a star the way many had expected, but he made significant progress this regular season with career highs in goals (28) and points (57). And now, he’s averaging more than a point per game in the playoffs on the Rangers’ productive second line with Artemi Panarin and Vincent Trocheck. Panarin leads all playoff scorers with four game-winning goals, but Lafrenière has assists on three of those scores; he has also scored a team-high four goals in the Carolina series so far. The Rangers would not be 7-1 in the playoffs and among the Stanley Cup favorites without Lafrenière’s improved play.

They said it: “Coming into the league at a young age in New York is not the easiest of roles to be put in. He’s confident. He’s having fun. I think that’s when he’s at his best. He honestly is a kid at heart. That’s a compliment.” — Rangers captain Jacob Trouba

Age: 23 (Jan. 17, 2001)
Best regular season: 2.8 GAR (2023-24)
Playoff stats: 9 GP | 1 G | 3 A | 4 P | +0 | 18:1 TOI/G

Lohrei is far from a household name, as the 2020 second-round pick spent most of the 2023-24 regular season bouncing back and forth between the NHL and AHL. But he has dressed for nine of Boston’s 11 playoff contests so far, averaging 18 minutes a night while chipping four points. He has been shielded from bad situations — 72.5% of his non-neutral-zone shifts that started on a faceoff have been in the offensive zone — as we might expect from a rookie with fewer than 50 career NHL games, but he’s playing his role well and giving the Bruins solid minutes on a back line that sorely lacks depth.

They said it: “The sky’s the limit for him. He’s got an extremely high ceiling. His potential is off the charts. I try to help him whenever I can, like I do for every guy and they do in turn for me. But that’s all him. He’s worked real hard and he deserves to be here.” — Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy

Age: 24 (Jan. 21, 2000)
Best regular season: 12.3 GAR (2022-23)
Playoff stats: 8 GP | 1 G | 1 A | 2 P | +4 | 20:9 TOI/G

Despite his age, Miller has been a fixture on the Broadway blueline for a few years now, ever since being named to the All-Rookie team in 2020-21. But Miller took a step back statistically during the regular season, falling from career highs of 43 points and 12.3 GAR in 2022-23 to 30 and 8.0 this year, respectively, even as the Rangers claimed the Presidents’ Trophy. In the playoffs, though, he has been arguably the most reliable member of a New York defense corps that needs more output. Miller leads all Rangers defensemen in goals — he’s actually their only goal scorer from the back line — and plus/minus, despite being tasked with some of their most difficult defensive minutes (he has the team’s lowest offensive zone start rate, at 28%).

They said it: “I think one of the biggest things we’ve talked about is not being satisfied but realizing that we have accomplished a lot this year.” — Miller

Age: 24 (Feb. 3, 2000)
Best regular season: 4.2 GAR (2023-24)
Playoff stats: 9 GP | 1 G | 2 A | 3 P | +4 | 13:4 TOI/G

The son of Ted Drury and nephew of Chris Drury (who played in 135 playoff games in his NHL career), Jack is compiling his own postseason résumé for the Hurricanes. His plus-4 plus/minus is currently tied for fourth on the team behind Brady Skjei, Jake Guentzel and Brent Burns, and his three points includes the game-winner that put the New York Islanders away in Round 1 of the playoffs. He’s up against a Rangers team that his uncle helped assemble as general manager — and facing a 3-1 deficit at that — but a spark from the Drury-Martin NecasJordan Martinook line, which hasn’t scored since Game 1, would be a good start on the comeback trail.

They said it: “I’ve liked his year. … Every time you put him there, good things happen. We know what we’re getting. You’re getting that consistent effort, and he can make plays. This time of year, it’s all about that. That consistency. At the end of the day, he’s earned the ice time.” — Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour

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