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​​Which NHL players need to step up down the stretch? Picks for all 32 teams


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Which NHL players need to step up down the stretch, whether it’s to ensure their place in their team’s future, earn spots on playoff rosters or prove they can be counted on to lead the way when the postseason rolls around?

With about one month left in the regular season, The Athletic posed this question to its NHL staff this week. Here’s what our writers said: one player from each team with the most to prove the rest of the way.

Anaheim Ducks

Trevor Zegras: Zegras is the Ducks’ leading scorer and could (or should) very well finish the season as such. But on a team that has many needs to address in the offseason, it would be good if the ultra-talented playmaker shows management over the final few weeks that he is the kind of franchise piece critical to Anaheim being a playoff team and Stanley Cup hopeful once again. We’re talking the long game here and whether he will be a player who just collects points or one who rises to the stature Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry held as they shouldered the franchise. Zegras is on the precipice of earning a new contract and he can show with a strong finish how much he wants to be a leader and deserves that long-term commitment. — Eric Stephens

Arizona Coyotes

Brett Ritchie: The post-trade-deadline part of the season is traditionally audition time in Arizona, giving acquired players a chance to potentially earn contract extensions for next season. Ritchie, acquired from Calgary for his brother Nick, is getting an opportunity to play first-line minutes at the moment and making the most of them. That’s probably not going to last indefinitely, but Ritchie — earning a league-minimum $750,000 on an expiring contract — fits the profile of what the Coyotes are looking for in a depth forward: someone physical and hard to play against and who isn’t going to break the bank. — Eric Duhatschek

Boston Bruins

Matt Grzelcyk: The Bruins acquired Dmitry Orlov to reinforce the left side of their defense. That has put Grzelcyk most at risk of losing his spot come Game 1 of the playoffs. Orlov and Hampus Lindholm are left-side locks. The Bruins like Derek Forbort because of his size and penalty-killing experience. That leaves Grzelcyk on the outs unless he proves he is irreplaceable as a five-on-five two-way presence, especially on Charlie McAvoy’s left side. — Fluto Shinzawa

Buffalo Sabres

Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen: Goalie is the biggest question mark on the Sabres’ roster long term. Devon Levi signed Friday and looks like a top-notch prospect, but the Sabres can’t bank on him becoming a full-time starter right out of college. That gives Luukkonen a head start in trying to prove he can handle that role. He’s been inconsistent this season, but the potential has been evident in his best stretches of play. Few Sabres have as much to gain by playing well down the stretch. — Matthew Fairburn

Calgary Flames

Jacob Markstrom: In a season filled with disappointments for the Flames, Markstrom ranks among the largest. To be fair to Markstrom, his play has improved recently, but the Flames will need him to be perfect the rest of the way to stay in the playoff hunt. If he can finish strong and lift Calgary into the postseason, it would go a long way toward reaffirming his place as one of the league’s elite netminders. — Julian McKenzie

Carolina Hurricanes

Sebastian Aho: With Andrei Svechnikov done for the season after undergoing knee surgery for a torn ACL, the pressure shifts directly to Aho. Carolina already had questions about its ability to score, and losing Svechnikov — along with Max Pacioretty earlier in the year and a quiet deadline — means the Hurricanes need Aho to reach another level more than ever so he can enter the postseason riding a wave of confidence. — Cory Lavalette

Chicago Blackhawks

Ian Mitchell: The Blackhawks have a lot of players who either seem to be firmly returning or not returning next season. Mitchell is one of the few unknowns. He’s a restricted free agent and has played a number of games in the NHL this season, but it’s unclear where exactly he fits in the Blackhawks’ future plans. His play down the stretch could help determine that. — Scott Powers and Mark Lazerus

Colorado Avalanche

Gabriel Landeskog: Landeskog has been out all season after undergoing knee surgery in October. When he’s healthy, he’s an elite-level winger and someone capable of making big contributions in a playoff run. If he proves able to return from his current injury, it will be a huge boost for the Avalanche. He’s skating, so it’s possible he returns, but there’s still not certainty on the situation. — Peter Baugh

Columbus Blue Jackets

Elvis Merzlikins: The Blue Jackets expect to make substantial changes throughout their lineup this summer, but one position for 2023-24 seems already settled: Merzlikins and Daniil Tarasov will be the tandem in goal. Based on their play this season, that should leave fans with an uneasy feeling. Merzlikins’ .880 save percentage is simply unacceptable, but he’s only one year deep on a five-year, $27 million contract, so the Blue Jackets have no choice but to be committed to him. Merzlikins is currently away from the team and back in Latvia due to a family matter, but it would calm a lot of nerves if he returned and put together a string of strong starts down the stretch. — Aaron Portzline

Dallas Stars

Nils Lundkvist: Mason Marchment would have been the answer, but he’s out for most, if not all, of the stretch run with a knee injury. Lundkvist, meanwhile, is in his third stretch of being regularly healthy-scratched. He’ll be back in the lineup at some point, and when he gets a chance, he’ll need to show the coaches some improvements offensively and defensively, as well as potentially on the power play, if he wants to be depended on in the playoffs. The Stars don’t have a lot of options on the back end so Lundkvist’s advancement will be key to a playoff run. — Saad Yousuf

Detroit Red Wings

Filip Zadina: Zadina has already proven something with the work he put in to come back from a significant leg injury this season. He’s been noticeable in his return, which at times has resulted in top-six usage, even though he still hasn’t found significant production in the NHL. But that production element remains important, and while the two years remaining on Zadina’s contract certainly offer some security, he would benefit significantly from an end-of-season surge to set the tone for next season, much like Michael Rasmussen did at the end of last year. — Max Bultman

Edmonton Oilers

Kailer Yamamoto: Hours after the trade deadline, Yamamoto had one of his best games of the season. He scored twice, added an assist and looked much like he did three years ago when he teamed up with Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on one of the NHL’s best lines. Since then, he’s barely been noticeable, though, continuing a season-long trend. He’s still in the top six, but the Oilers have several fill-in options. Warren Foegele appears to be nipping at his heels for the final spot. Yamamoto needs to step up down the stretch to keep his primo spot in the lineup — and maybe even his job in the offseason, too. — Daniel Nugent-Bowman

Florida Panthers

Sergei Bobrovsky: The Panthers have worked their way back onto the playoff bubble, nipping at the Islanders’ heels for the second wild-card spot (three points back with two games in hand). The easiest way in will be if their $10 million goalie plays like a $10 million goalie. Since Feb. 1, Bobrovsky is 10-4-1 with a .914 save percentage and has saved nearly 10 goals above expected, second best in the league. If he keeps that up, especially with Spencer Knight unavailable, he’ll have re-proven something. — Sean Gentille

Los Angeles Kings

Pheonix Copley: On a team that’s been rolling, with a 12-2-2 mark since the All-Star break, it’s a bit of a challenge to single out one player who needs to step up. The entire team needs to do that as it tries to chase down Vegas for the Pacific Division title — and possible the top seed in the West. But I’m thinking Copley has the most to prove, and that’s odd to say given he is 21-4-3 and was crucial in keeping the Kings’ season from going off the rails. Now, though, Copley has to fend off a challenge from Joonas Korpisalo, who was brought in from Columbus to fortify the net down the stretch. The two are currently in a timeshare, and Copley has risen to the challenge, going 3-0-1 with only six goals allowed and a .942 save percentage since the trade. He’ll have to keep up the strong play with Korpisalo also doing well as they both vie for the Game 1 start in a playoff series. — Eric Stephens

Minnesota Wild

Matt Boldy: Especially with Kirill Kaprizov out, the Wild need Boldy to continue to step up down the stretch and show why that seven-year, $49 extension he was signed to in January was worth it. He needs to play like a go-to guy, something he has started to show with two goals and three assists in three games in Kaprizov’s absence after scoring just one goal and five assists in the previous 18 games. — Michael Russo

Montreal Canadiens

Denis Gurianov: The Stars had grown frustrated with watching Gurianov shift back and forth from genius to ghost, and it is up to him to avoid the same pattern in Montreal. The Stars also traded him because of his qualifying offer of $2.9 million, an amount they simply were not willing to invest in a player they had determined they were unable to get the most out of. At the trade deadline, general manager Kent Hughes suggested that the Canadiens might not be willing to do that either when, in his initial response on acquiring Gurianov, he immediately noted how they are entering their first offseason where they have some financial flexibility. Gurianov has 13 games left to show he is worthy of a contract. — Marc Antoine Godin

Nashville Predators

Matt Duchene: Fun has returned to Nashville with a lot of young players on the ice — players who are only here because of the deadline selloff — and a team under no pressure trying to make a run to a playoff spot. That’s not happening if Duchene doesn’t have a production surge. It’s been an underwhelming response for him, so far, to last season’s monster numbers. His contract dictates he will almost certainly be with the team next year. But is he all in on the changes? Does he want to help lead the new direction? These questions linger. — Joe Rexrode

New Jersey Devils

Vitek Vanecek: Vanecek has already played a career-high 43 games this season. It’s not clear if that’s weighing him down, but it’s also not exactly surprising to see his levels have dropped off as the season wears on. The question is going to be how the Devils manage his workload down the stretch to best stabilize his game. They need to keep him fresh but also let him play through some of these struggles. — Shayna Goldman

New York Islanders

Bo Horvat: After arriving from Vancouver and signing a huge eight-year contract extension, Horvat had some immediate success and seemed to be developing chemistry with Mathew Barzal before a lower-body injury sidelined Barzal. Horvat has continued to contribute in various ways — including in the face-off circle and, before Jean-Gabriel Pageau’s return, on the penalty kill — but his scoring has dried up with just one goal in his past 10 games. At some point, he’s going to have to do more offensively if the Islanders are to reach the postseason. — Kevin Kurz

New York Rangers

Artemi Panarin: Panarin is having another big-number regular season, but no one was happy with his playoff run last spring. Now, the Rangers have brought in a couple of old Panarin pals in Vladimir Tarasenko and Patrick Kane, so the focus is even more on Panarin as the Rangers head toward the postseason. — Arthur Staple

Ottawa Senators

Alex DeBrincat: The Senators will have a major decision on their hands with DeBrincat this summer. The winger is due a $9 million qualifying offer, but a one-year contract could simply walk him right into unrestricted free agency in 2024. In all likelihood, the Senators need to make a decision in the months ahead: either sign DeBrincat to a long-term extension or trade him to another team. DeBrincat’s production has dipped in his first full season in Ottawa, as the two-time 40-goal scorer is only on pace for a 26-goal campaign. If he can show some flashes of his offensive prowess and help the Senators climb back into the playoff race in the final month, it will help make the decision to sign him to a contract extension a bit easier. — Ian Mendes

Philadelphia Flyers

Morgan Frost: In short, John Tortorella isn’t yet sold on Frost as a future piece, and he’s a pending restricted free agent this summer. Frost has six points in 16 games since the All-Star break, and every time Tortorella is asked about him, the head coach responds with some variation of “we’ll see” when it comes to whether he qualifies as a young piece worth keeping. This final month stands to be pivotal in Frost’s attempts to convince both Tortorella and interim general manager Daniel Briere that he deserves a place in the organization’s long-term rebuilding plan. — Charlie O’Connor

Pittsburgh Penguins

Tristan Jarry: Jarry is the most crucial player for the Penguins over the final weeks of the regular season. He’s missed two stretches of games since Jan. 2 because of different injuries, and he hasn’t performed well consistently. Pulled from three of his past 10 starts, Jarry is trying to re-establish himself as a No. 1-caliber goalie, and he’s doing it in a contract year. Also hanging over him is the fact he’s never won a playoff series. — Rob Rossi

San Jose Sharks

James Reimer: Either Sharks goaltender, Reimer or Kaapo Kahkonen, could work here. Both have had disappointing seasons, and whether or not the 26-year-old Kahkonen can be a starting goalie moving forward has been thrust into doubt. But Reimer is an unrestricted free agent and just turned 35. He has been one of the most consistent goalies in the league over the past decade, but a strong finish could ease any concerns that this season is the start of a significant decline. — Corey Masisak

Seattle Kraken

Philipp Grubauer: Grubauer put in the work to earn the starter’s net back from Martin Jones. Now the question is whether he can maintain this level of play. Between February and March, he’s played 14 games and saved 3.4 goals more than expected. If he can keep up that pace, it may be enough to keep the Kraken going in their playoff run. Ideally, he’d elevate his play even further to show what an outlier last year was and that he’s ready to be their Game 1 playoff starter. — Shayna Goldman

St. Louis Blues

Colton Parayko: General manager Doug Armstrong almost has to deal a defenseman this offseason — both to change the dynamic of a group that hasn’t produced this season and to free up salary-cap space — and Parayko could be that guy if there’s still interest around the league. The Blues aren’t going to make that assessment just based on the next five weeks, but as Parayko’s play has shown signs of improvement, he could make it a more difficult decision with a strong finish. — Jeremy Rutherford

Tampa Bay Lightning

Michael Eyssimont: The Lightning lineup is pretty much set other than two spots: the fourth line and third defensive pair. Eyssimont, acquired at the deadline, is being given a chance to show what he can do, and early returns are good. The only other battle is the bottom pair, and Darren Raddysh is getting a look there. Can he beat out veteran Zach Bogosian? — Joe Smith

Toronto Maple Leafs

Matt Murray: The Leafs made a huge bet on Murray when they traded for him last season after a largely ineffective, injury-plagued year. They hoped he would be the guy to lead them to a Stanley Cup, banking on his experience winning two with the Penguins at the start of his career. It’s been a bumpy proposition so far. Murray has missed two huge chunks of the year with injury and has been bettered in the crease by Ilya Samsonov. He needs to prove he should still be the guy in the playoffs — and is worthy of that risky bet. Crucial to those efforts, of course, will be staying healthy, another big question for Murray down the stretch. — Jonas Siegel

Vancouver Canucks

Vitali Kravtsov: The Canucks have a glut of wingers, especially with Ilya Mikheyev set to return for next season and the likes of Nils Höglander and Linus Karlsson looking to win roster spots for next season as well. Kravtsov has to show potential down the stretch. He doesn’t add penalty-killing or defensive value, so you’d like to see him rack up some points to show that he can be part of the solution for 2023-24. — Harman Dayal

Vegas Golden Knights

Jack Eichel: In his eighth NHL season, Eichel has yet to taste playoff hockey. Pretty much everyone expected that to change last season when he was traded from Buffalo to Vegas, but the Golden Knights shockingly missed out on the postseason for the first time. Now in first place in the Pacific with only 13 games to go, he’s in a great position to end that streak and show the league what he can do on the biggest stage. Without captain Mark Stone, who underwent back surgery earlier this season, the Golden Knights will need the best version of Eichel down the stretch and into the playoffs. — Jesse Granger

Washington Capitals

Anthony Mantha: Anthony Mantha’s future as a Capital feels tenuous. The big winger has one goal in 22 games since the calendar flipped to 2023. He’s also been scratched a handful of times, including Friday’s critical game against visiting St. Louis. While sitting a $5.7 million player is not unheard of, at this late stage in the season — and with the team attempting to make a last-second push toward the playoffs — it sends a strong message about where he stands. The question now is this: Can Mantha show enough down the stretch to change minds about him in D.C. or entice another team to trade for him this summer? — Tarik El-Bashir

Winnipeg Jets

Kyle Connor: It’s easy to point fingers at the usual suspects in Winnipeg: Connor Hellebuyck has allowed 28 goals in his past seven games, for example, while Mark Scheifele and Nino Niederreiter were benched along with Connor against Carolina on Tuesday. But Hellebuyck is on the shortlist for best goaltender of his generation, Scheifele’s production has remained high, and most Jets have found ways to help even when they’ve stayed off the scoresheet. Meanwhile, Connor is a spectacular scorer who isn’t scoring while also hurting the team defensively. He’s better than that, he knows he’s better than that, and a return to form could transform Winnipeg’s playoff outlook. — Murat Ates

“There he goes. One of God's own prototypes.

A high-powered mutant of some kind, never even considered for mass production.

Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”

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