Prospect Ramblings: Playoff Update: Rookie Goaltenders, Tippett & Caufield

Dave Hall

2021-05-18

Welcome back to Tuesday’s Ramblings.

Folks, we made it. 

Despite months of uncertainty, and even stretches during the regular season where there were doubts to continue on, we have made it to the post-season.

Unless, of course, you are a Vancouver Canucks (me) or Calgary Flames fan. In that case, thanks to late-season Covid-19 complications, you still get to enjoy meaningless hockey for a few more days while the rest of the league battles for the ultimate prize. Thrilling.

Given this year’s unique circumstance, trying to create a bracket or successfully formulate a championship fantasy team is comparable to taking part in a game of Russian roulette. Not only will teams be forced to match up against teams that they have yet to play in more than a calendar year (if and when they make it out of their division) but the entire process will get flipped upside down and re-seed heading into the “conference” finals. At this point, I suggest that you close your eyes, pick a team, and hope for the best. Have fun with it.

For what it’s worth, I did take part in Dobber’s annual “Expert Panel: Round 1 Predictions”, so make sure to check it out if you have not. 

With regards to prospects, this year’s post-season will and already has feature(d) some decent storylines. In most years, prospects rarely play a large role in a playoff run, at least not enough to warrant a selection in a fantasy playoff pool. This year seems to have a bit of a different feel. Especially between the pipes. 

Anyway, let’s chat about playoff prospect news and updates.

Let’s start in the East Division, where the Washington Capitals are already enduring goaltender woes. With “supposed to be” starting netminder Ilya Samsonov continuing his recovery as third-string, the 2018 Stanley Cup champions were slated to run with rookie netminder, Vitek Vanecek. No surprises here. He had been handed the starting role early on in the season and passed his test with flying colors. He finished the 2020-21 campaign, his inaugural season, with a respectable 21-10-4 record while sporting a 2.69 GAA and .908 save percentage. This was highlighted by a “rookie of the month” run in February, where enjoyed a 5-0-2 run.

Unfortunately, his first taste of NHL playoff hockey lasted a mere 13 minutes and 10 seconds, leaving the game with what Head Coach, Peter Laviolette, is calling a day-to-day lower-body injury. Pretty standard lingo for the playoff season. 

Obviously, it is unclear how long he will be out of the line-up, and for playoff pool hopefuls, the updated news cannot come soon enough. On the plus side, every postseason needs a storyline, and at 40-years young, a Craig Anderson run may just be what we are after.

Sticking with goalies, on the opposite end of the ice stands longtime Bruin, Tuukka Rask. Now, make no mistakes about it, he is the undisputed number one and will continue to be just that as long his game stays up to snuff. Yet, just to play devil’s advocate, should the club fall into any issues during this matchup, I would be keeping close tabs on former University of Maine standout, Jeremy Swayman

Following a stellar 8-1-0 run in his first pro stint with the Providence Bruins, he was given the promotion in April and has looked very strong during his small sample size to date. So good, in fact, that he has earned himself a backup role, leaping over struggling veteran, Jaroslav Halak. Since his debut (April 6th), he leads all rookies in nearly every column. This includes goal against (1.50), save percentage (.945), shutouts (tied with two), and quality starts (tied with nine).

Why not sprinkle a little bit of Alaskan history in there. Just for good measure.

Over to the New York Islanders, where they went with their own rookie to start game 1 – albeit, thanks to a lingering injury on Semyon Varlamov’s part. Ilya Sorokin, who put up spectacular numbers during the regular season, highlighted by a 12-2-0 run, looked terrific. He made 42 saves against the red hot Penguins, taking home his first playoff win. 

Oh, boy did he make some spectacular saves. None better than this on Sid:

As mentioned, the Pens were red hot coming into this series, having won 18 of their last 24 games and finished with the league’s second-most goals scored with 193 in 56 games. So, to say the least, this was a massive win for the 25-year-old netminder and his Islanders squad. 

Technically, Varlamov, who is close to returning, is the club’s number one heading in. However, Sorokin just made one heck of a case to take the reigns for game two and then some.

Were we really expecting anything less from one of the KHL’s top goalies of all time? In case you needed a refresher, here is how Sorokin stacks up in KHL history:

GP: 244 (17th), Wins: 134 (9th), GAA: 1.70 (3rd), SV %: .930 (9th), SO: 44 (4th)

Heading over to the Central, it’s going to be tough to top the battle of the state of Florida. This game had everything you need and more. This includes a two-point rookie debut from a well-known junior-level producer, Owen Tippett

Despite starting the game on the bottom line, the 22-year-old first-year forced his way up the line-up, sneaking his way next to Jonathan Huberdeau and Sam Bennett. A favorable promotion for a rookie in his first playoff bout. 

To be fair, even with his promotion, he ended up skating just 9:10 of ice-time. Yet, he offered tremendous value for his time, scoring his first playoff goal in the process.

Tippett, a pure goal scorer, came into the matchup on a small hot streak with six points over his last six games of the season. This, combined with the fact that Patric Hornqvist stands as the lone player in his way on the right side, he could continue to see time alongside star forward Huberdeau. 

It’s the year of the rookie netminder, and  Alex Nedeljkovic earned himself his first NHL playoff start on Monday versus the Nashville Predators. The 25-year-old came in this year off of a very successful AHL stint, which included a Goaltender of the Year award, a Calder Cup championship, and even an elusive goalie goal. He has been brewing within the farm for a few years now, slowly building himself a flawless resume. He put that job experience to work in 2020-21, capping off an impressive rookie season which saw him sport a very impressive 1.90 goal against, 0.932 save percentage, and a 15-5-3 record. Oh, and three shutouts to boot.

While he didn’t overwhelm, he made a solid 24 saves in the game, backstopping his Hurricanes to a 5-2 win to take a 1-0 series lead. At this point, it’s safe to say that the starting job is in his hands until something catastrophic occurs. Enjoy the ride, he’s a fun one to watch. 

The North is not slated to begin their tournament until Wednesday, but already Montreal fans are questioning their new Head Coach’s decisions. Despite fitting in nicely during his 10 game regular-season stint, contributing five points in the process, sharpshooter Cole Caufield looks to be taking practice in a grey jersey. In laments terms, it’s looking like he may be an extra skater for at least game one. 

At first glance, it’s easy to discredit Dominique Ducharme. I mean, it’s obvious that Caufield offers elements of the game that the Canadiens just simply lack. He is a game-changer and poised to score incredibly clutch goals for a very long time. While goals are always nice and much needed to go deep, experience and size may take priority at the moment. Let’s quickly glance at who he would be replacing on the right side of the line-up.         

Note: these are not the actual lines combinations                                                                      

LW

C

RW

TATAR

DANAULT

GALLAGHER

TOFFOLI

SUZUKI

ANDERSON

ARMIA

STAAL/KOTKANIEMI

PERRY

LEHKONEN

EVANS

BYRON/CAUFIELD

Right off the bat, you see at least nine skaters that are shoo-ins to be in the line-up. As for the remainder, it’s hard to justify taking out role players on the bottom-line, only to replace them with an inexperienced – albeit, extremely talented – undersized rookie. It’s just not the time.

Now, do not get me wrong, I do believe that we do see Caufield in the line-up at some point during the series. However, to set a precedent and search for a hopeful win in game one, keeping Cole out of the lineup may be the best option. Slotting him in during a late-season regular season match is one thing, but replacing grit and energy on the bottom half of the line-up against a high octane Leafs’ team may not be the answer.

This is just my way of justifying the move. It’s a hard decision to say no to this:

Have a great week and enjoy the rest of the first round. Follow me on Twitter @hall1289.

 

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