While most of the hockey world will be focused on top end names like Toews, Kane, Hossa, Chara, Krejci, Lucic, and Rask, a handful of lesser knowns could be the true stars of the 2013 Stanley Cup Final. Here's a closer look at five players you need to watch.
If you're not a Blackhawks fan, you might not appreciate what this 20 year old has done this season. He might not win the rookie of the year award, but he was deservingly nominated for his great two-way play on a top six line with Hossa and Toews. The playoffs have been a different matter though. He only has four assists in 17 games and no goals. Saad has also seen his ice time drop and doesn't get much of a chance on special teams either. So why is he a player to watch? To start with he has a +17.2 relative corsi rating which is basically the new +/-, but measured in shots for/against while on the ice. He also starts 55.2% of his zone starts in the offensive zone, so he's not being sheltered much by the coach. He only has 5 giveaways and 9 takeaways. With his great offensive instincts and responsible defensive play, it's only a matter of time before he breaks through on the scoresheet.
Speaking of players on the verge of breaking through, Tyler Seguin should be due for a couple big goals in the final if the hockey gods have anything to say about it. It's amazing that the Bruins are in the finals without him being an important cog. At this point he's almost become an afterthought. This is a guy who was supposed to be producing much more at this point in his career. With superstar potential, you have to think he'll start being a difference maker sooner or later. He might not be on the top two lines, but he's still getting a lot of time on the power-play. The previous 3 rounds will be wiped from memory if he can raise his game now.
Many of you might be saying, who? Make no mistake, without Niklas Hjalmarsson the Blackhawks would be in some trouble. He might not be a wizard with the puck, make bone-crushing hits, or put up points on the scoreboard, but he's as steady as it gets in the defensive end. Yet, when you play on a team that has guys like Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, you're going to be overshadowed. To start with, no defender spends more time killing penalties on Chicago than Hjalmarsson. In 17 games, he's averaging 3:43 minutes of ice time shorthanded. He's tied for the team lead with 32 blocked shots and is second only to Toews with 14 takeaways. When you look up underrated in the dictionary, you'll see Hjalmarsson listed among the examples.
Up front, Bolland might just be every bit as important as the superstars ahead of him. When the Hawks need someone defensively responsible to put on the ice, coach Quenneville usually puts out Bolland first. He leads the team in defensive zone starts at 68.4%. He's usually trusted to shutdown the opposing teams best forwards, which is why he's been promoted to the third line center spot to open this series. Bolland plays a very in your face style and is considered one of the most effective "pests" in the NHL. We're not sure whether he'll be used against Boston's first or second line yet, but if you see some frustration coming from the Bruins bench, there's a good chance Bolland had something to do with it.
I follow this sport closely, but when Torey Krug burst onto the scene against the New York Rangers, even I was saying "who is this guy?". The Bruins have a superstart defensemen in waiting with Dougie Hamilton, which is why a guy like Krug is even more of a surprise this season. He only sees around 16 minutes of ice time per game, but he's being put in advantageous situations to capitalize on his skillset. He sees 2:19 a game on the top power play unit with Zdeno Chara and starts a massive 69.8% of his zone starts in the offensive end. Krug also faces the weakest competition from opposing teams. So far, the results have been amazing. He has four goals and two assists in nine games and boasts a 26.1 relative corsi rating. When he's on the ice, the puck is usually being directed at the opposing goalie.
Will any of these players win playoff MVP? No. Are they more important than the big names in the headlines? Unlikely. However, as Krug proved against the Rangers, anyone can battle for the MVP of a series. These players have just as much of a chance as anyone else to be a deciding factor on hockey's biggest stage.