In a fairer sports world, stars would be judged by their larger body of work — ideally their careers, but at least their seasons — rather than how things go during the playoffs. Sadly, our cruel world just doesn’t work that way.
Silly or not, these five NHL players will either silence critics or spend the offseason hearing about how they “choked” during the 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs.
Consider these the four skaters and one goalie with the most to prove.
Really, you could make a list focusing solely on Maple Leafs players feeling the heat from that glaring Toronto spotlight. If the Maple Leafs once again serve up first-round punchlines, John Tavares and Mitch Marner won’t hear the end of it, either. Kyle Dubas, Sheldon Keefe and even Brendan Shanahan could all be out of a job.
Still, heaviest is the head that wears the crown as the best player on a Maple Leafs team absolutely desperate to finally win a playoff series. The good and bad news is that few really care that Matthews followed up last year’s Hart Trophy-winning campaign with “just” 40 goals and 85 points in 2022-23.
Most people forget that Matthews produced plenty of points (nine in seven games) in defeat last time against Tampa Bay. Few will want to hear about a wrist injury that’s nagged Matthews for parts of this season, either.
It doesn’t get much simpler than this: Matthews and the Maple Leafs need to advance past the Lightning. No team faces bigger stakes in this postseason, and the burden falls on Matthews most of all to clear this hurdle.
A normal superstar wouldn’t have much to prove in Connor McDavid’s skates. The unparalleled scorer collected an unthinkable 153 points (including an absurd 64 goals) this season. McDavid also lit up last year’s playoffs with a gobsmacking 33 points in just 16 playoff games.
Those numbers should spoil the swerve here: McDavid isn’t a normal superstar. Instead, he’s already in that superhuman stratosphere where people just expect you to rack up incredible achievements nonstop. Non-believers now only have a lack of a Stanley Cup to cling to, and for those who are especially lazy, that could be enough.
Icons such as Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Mario Lemieux all waited at least six seasons before they won championships, inspiring mind-numbing criticisms before they won it all. With McDavid, expectations are likely to rise in parallel with his brilliant career-highs. It's time for No. 97 to start collecting some rings.
As the most hyped-up target of the 2023 NHL Trade Deadline, Timo Meier faced huge expectations from the second he put on a New Jersey Devils sweater. Although he’s put up strong underlying numbers with New Jersey, Meier could already get bedeviled by those who think his 14 points in 19 regular season games weren’t enough.
Ultimately, the first real test of that big trade will happen in the playoffs, when Meier and the Devils face a Rangers team that made its own splashy trade deadline additions in Patrick Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko.
There’s an additional factor that puts more heat on Meier than, say, already-extended forward Bo Horvat. Meier is a pending RFA who would require a $10 million qualifying offer, while reports indicate that if he signed a long-term contract, he’d reportedly aim for at least $9M per year.
Meier doesn’t just have a lot to prove during these playoffs. He may very well have a lot of money to lose or gain.
Truly, it’s remarkable how many hoops — including sometimes squeezing through salary cap loopholes — the Golden Knights jumped through to make Eichel their No. 1 center. The Golden Knights even missed the playoffs for the first time ever struggling to make it all work.
Now that they won the Pacific Division, few will care that Eichel’s been a little banged-up lately. There won’t be much sympathy if too much is asked of the shifty center with Mark Stone likely sidelined due to continued back issues. This is the time for Eichel to prove he’s a $10M player, and one of the best centers in the NHL.
Coming into this season, it was no sure thing that Ullmark would even be Boston’s No. 1 goalie instead of Jeremy Swayman. Before October, people would’ve cast serious doubts over the Bruins investing $5M per year in Ullmark, whose previous work pointed more toward the goalie being a solid “platoon” netminder.
Instead, Ullmark grabbed the torch as the next great Bruins goalie, echoing the elite peaks of Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask. Remarkably, Ullmark won 40 games in just 49 appearances, putting up a .938 save percentage and ranking high in more advanced goalie stats to boot.
That said, Ullmark only has two games of NHL playoff experience to his name, losing both while allowing eight goals on just 57 shots for an .860 save percentage. Of course, that’s a tiny sample size, yet that’s the point: he’s unproven in “clutch” situations.
Goalies are easy scapegoats in playoff series. If the Bruins fail to follow up their record-breaking regular season with a Stanley Cup victory, Ullmark could very well soak up the blame (grabbing the torch from Rask in a less pleasant way).