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 a bit less than a 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.


John Gibson: This might seem like an odd choice given how long Gibson has had a stranglehold on the Ducks’ No. 1 goalie job, but he’s slumped badly of late after posting some strong underlying metrics earlier this season and is facing a push from understudy Lukáš Dostál. The 23-year-old Dostál has worked more consistently since the All-Star break and has gotten the call eight times in the past 13 Anaheim games. He’s also authored the highest moments in this Ducks season, with a valiant 55-save effort in an overtime loss to Toronto and a 52-stop showcase that included foiling a last-second Jack Hughes penalty shot to beat New Jersey. Now he’s coming off his first NHL shutout in beating Chicago. Gibson has had the task of playing behind a leaky Ducks team for years. Dostál is in the same boat, but he’s becoming the better one at plugging holes. — Eric Stephens

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Karel Vejmelka: Vejmelka started the season as the Coyotes’ No. 1 goalie but essentially lost the job to Connor Ingram, who has posted a credible 19-18-3 record, with a 2.87 goals-against average and a .908 save percentage. By contrast, Vejmelka won his first game of the season on Oct. 21 against Anaheim and didn’t record another victory until mid-December. He’s 10-17-2 overall but has shown signs of life lately, with a modest 4-2 run in March. With playoffs for the Coyotes out of reach, Vejmelka needs a strong finish to play himself back into the conversation for more responsibility next season. — Eric Duhatschek

Jake DeBrusk: DeBrusk is on an expiring contract. He is still negotiating with the Bruins. But it remains to be seen whether they can solve their divergent opinions regarding his long-term value. If DeBrusk can emerge as a go-to scorer in the rest of the regular season and the playoffs, perhaps he can get closer to the payday he has in mind. That might be with another organization, though. — Fluto Shinzawa

Peyton Krebs: The Sabres traded Casey Mittelstadt at the deadline, which opened up more opportunity for Krebs to play a third-line role after spending most of the season on the fourth line. But the Sabres need to decide what their offseason plans are at center and whether they include Krebs playing in the top nine. The rest of the season is an audition for Krebs, who has three goals and 11 assists. — Matthew Fairburn

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Dustin Wolf: The Flames’ top prospect will get more opportunities in the NHL now that backup Dan Vladar is out for the rest of the season. Wolf is still getting acclimated to being around NHL shooters, but he needs as much time as possible with the Flames in order to properly develop. His performances between now and the end of the year will help indicate to the team how close he is to being the goalie of the future. — Julian McKenzie

Evgeny Kuznetsov: The early returns are promising, and Kuznetsov could be the X-factor in getting the Hurricanes over the hump this postseason. He’s also undoubtedly a reclamation project who has had his struggles on and off the ice. He’s been welcomed by the Hurricanes — particularly longtime friend and former Capitals teammate Dmitry Orlov — and embraced the opportunity. There will surely be some adversity along the way, and how Kuznetsov reacts to it will likely determine the perception of his time with Carolina. — Cory Lavalette

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Chicago Blackhawks

Lukas Reichel: It’s too late for Reichel to earn the multi-year, big-money extension he was expected to get this summer, and he’s far too young and talented to be written off by the Blackhawks. But there’s no getting around what a colossal disappointment this season has been for the 2020 first-rounder, who has just three goals and was demoted to AHL Rockford a month ago. Now that he’s back in the NHL, he needs to close strong, both for his own confidence and the team’s confidence in him heading into next season. He can still be a very big part of the Blackhawks’ future, but it’s time to show that the past six months have been a blip, not a trend. — Mark Lazerus

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Alexandar Georgiev: Georgiev has had an up-and-down season overall but has played really well over the past month. Heading into Friday night’s game against the Blue Jackets, he was 8-2-0 in net since Feb. 13 with an impressive .918 save percentage. The Avalanche have proven they can win in the playoffs with just above-average goaltending (Darcy Kuemper’s .902 save percentage was good enough to win the Cup in 2022). Georgiev has shown he’s capable of being even better than that. If he does that in the playoffs, Colorado would be as scary of a matchup as any team in the league. — Jesse Granger

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Alexandar Georgiev doesn’t need to be a world-beater for the Avalanche to go on a run. (Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images)

Columbus Blue Jackets

Daniil Tarasov: The ship hasn’t yet sailed on Elvis Merzlikins’ time in Columbus, but it won’t surprise anybody if he’s traded or bought out by the new general manager this summer. Of late, however, Tarasov has assumed the starter’s role ahead of Merzlikins, and he’s starting to look the part. Over his past nine outings (eight starts) heading into Friday, Tarasov is 4-3-1 with a .934 save percentage and 2.30 goals-against average, including unexpected wins over Vegas and Edmonton. He has prototype size (6-foot-5, 205 pounds) and is a tremendous athlete, but his early career has been beset with injuries. This might be his time to stake claim to a starter’s job. — Aaron Portzline

Nils Lundkvist: It feels like we’ve been in this cycle for two seasons now, but the spotlight is back on Lundkvist and there’s a real opportunity for him to inject himself into the Stars’ postseason lineup. Jani Hakanpää is injured and Lundkvist has been solid on a pairing with Ryan Suter. The knock, though, has always been consistency, so Lundkvist needs to find a way to maintain this moving forward. — Saad Yousuf

Jonatan Berggren: After spending most of last season in Detroit, Berggren was back in the AHL for much of the 2023-24 campaign. He’s back with the NHL club now, though, and as a pending restricted free agent who will lose his waiver eligibility with the next game he plays, it’s a key chance to prove he belongs in the Red Wings’ plans going forward. The only complication? He’s been sitting of late, after a couple of turnovers that led to goals against early in his call-up. If Berggren gets back in, he’ll need to show he can earn his coaches’ trust going forward. And if he doesn’t return to the lineup, that may tell its own story about what his future in Detroit will hold. — Max Bultman

Cody Ceci: Ceci has been on the bottom pair since March 3 after spending most of the past two seasons as a fixture next to Darnell Nurse. A reduced workload hasn’t helped, as Ceci and new partner Brett Kulak have been outscored 8-5 in nine games. Significant improvement is needed heading into the playoffs. That’s not just for the team’s sake. Already the subject of considerable trade speculation before the deadline, Ceci has just one more year on his contract and could be on the outs if he can’t provide more reliable defending. — Daniel Nugent-Bowman

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Brandon Montour: Montour amped up his production in late February and early March with a nine-game stretch in which he had four goals and 14 points. But he has only two points in eight games since, with a minus-7 rating. His production overall (six goals, 27 points and a minus-4 rating in 53 games) hasn’t been close to the level he hit in 2022-23 (16 goals and 73 points in 80 games), let alone during the Panthers’ run to the Stanley Cup Final. There are mitigating factors, like offseason surgery that cost him a chunk of time in the fall, but he still needs to show that last year wasn’t a fluke, even if it’ll be tough to repeat. The Panthers have a chance to come out of the East again, and he’s a big part of that. — Sean Gentille

Pierre-Luc Dubois: By now, it’s well-established that Dubois has had an underwhelming first season with the Kings. Todd McLellan joined the list of coaches who have tried to get the best out of the enigmatic 25-year-old center. But Dubois has the opportunity to shift the narrative in a positive direction under Jim Hiller as L.A. pushes to lock down a playoff spot. Hiller has drawn out a more inspired player. While five goals and 13 points in 21 games isn’t exactly a scoring tear, Dubois has been a plus player and has put more physical play and intensity in his game. The Kings got him to help push them further in the postseason. That’s still in play with a successful final drive. — Eric Stephens

Filip Gustavsson: After a season in which he burst onto the Minnesota scene with the NHL’s second-best save percentage and goals-against average, Gustavsson earned a three-year deal to be the No. 1. The encore has been disappointing, with an 18-15-4 record, 3.15 goals-against average and .897 save percentage. He admits he’s driving coaches and teammates bonkers with his inconsistency because they never know what they’re going to get from him — a great game or “very bad” one. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Wild give young Jesper Wallstedt some starts in the final weeks of the season to see what they have in the top prospect heading into the summer. If he looks ready for the NHL, perhaps they consider returning with a Marc-Andre Fleury-Wallstedt tandem next season and dangle Gustavsson in the trade winds this offseason. — Michael Russo

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Josh Anderson: Salvaging something from this lost season for Anderson might provide hope he can bounce back next season. He’s now at eight goals in 65 games, well off the pace from his first three seasons with the team (17 in 52, 19 in 69 and 21 in 69), and is signed for another three years after this one at a $5.5 million cap hit. While a fresh start in training camp is likely the best way to put this season behind him, he could at least build momentum by scoring a few goals down the stretch and getting some confidence to take him into the offseason. — Arpon Bssu

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Anthony Beauvillier: This is a tough choice considering the Preds are on an absolute tear, playing as well as anyone in the league, rolling four lines and getting contributions all over the lineup. But Beauvillier is one of two new additions to the lineup, along with Jason Zucker, and he hasn’t had a major impact yet. Andrew Brunette has other options, including returning Cody Glass to the lineup, and Beauvillier would seem to be the most likely to move out at this point. — Joe Rexrode

New Jersey Devils

Timo Meier: The Devils gave up a haul to get Meier before last season’s trade deadline, then handed him an eight-year extension. He’s responded with a disappointing 2023-24 season, though that’s perhaps starting to turn. In nine games since the Devils fired Lindy Ruff, he has nine goals and 13 points. New Jersey’s playoff hopes are close to zero at this point, but Meier’s rejuvenated play is encouraging. It will need to continue down the stretch and into next season. — Peter Baugh

Ilya Sorokin: He was supposed to carry this Islanders team back to the playoffs, as he did a season ago when he was the Vezina Trophy runner-up. It hasn’t gone as planned, either for the Islanders or Sorokin, who has faced the most shots of any goalie this season and simply hasn’t found that higher level he did in 2022-23. If he still has enough energy to steal a few games in the closing stretch, the Islanders have a shot. — Arthur Staple


The Islanders need Ilya Sorokin at his best down the stretch. (Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

Artemi Panarin: Panarin has been the Rangers’ best player all season and should blow past the 100-point threshold for the first time in his career. But the playoffs is the stage at which he needs to prove himself. He had zero goals and only two assists in the Rangers’ seven-game series loss to the Devils last season, and he averaged less than a point per game (16 points in 20 games) in the 2021-22 postseason. He’s a combined minus-7 over those two playoffs. A strong postseason will be important to Panarin’s legacy with the Rangers, and New York needs him to be at his best if it’s going to go a deep run. — Peter Baugh

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Joonas Korpisalo: This has been an underwhelming year for many players on Ottawa’s roster, but Korpisalo could be viewed as the most disappointing. He has shown flashes of brilliance but has largely been inconsistent, with an .887 save percentage, the most goals allowed over expectation in the league and only 15 wins in a career-high 39 games. Considering he’s in the first season of a five-year contract, the ideal solution would be for Korpisalo to rediscover his game and provide stable goaltending for Ottawa next season. The only way to inject even a tiny glimmer of hope into that idea would be for Korpisalo to end the season with a solid month of goaltending. — Ian Mendes

Sean Couturier: Maybe it was fair for John Tortorella to make the Flyers’ captain a healthy scratch. Maybe it wasn’t. Regardless, Couturier is suddenly in the spotlight after this week’s controversial decision by the Flyers’ coach, and with just one goal in his past 27 games, the heat has been turned up on the 31-year-old, who made it clear that he wasn’t pleased with how everything was handled in his getting pulled from the lineup. How the Flyers and Couturier handle this situation on and off the ice could determine whether they qualify for the playoffs. That positive culture they’ve all been talking about all season is now at risk. — Kevin Kurz

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Ryan Graves: It’s no secret that Graves has been a big disappointment in his first season with the Penguins. A serviceable player in previous stops, he’s not looked comfortable from the jump in Pittsburgh. There are examples of free-agent defensemen struggling in their first season, only to quickly become stalwarts for the Penguins — Sergei Gonchar and Paul Martin come to mind — but those players had offensive upside that has never been a calling card for Graves. And neither Gonchar nor Martin had fallen to third-pairing status with their first-season struggles. With five years remaining on his contract and with the Penguins probably not headed to the playoffs, these final weeks are an important opportunity for Graves to lay a foundation he can carry into the offseason. He could use the confidence from a decent stretch of hockey. — Rob Rossi

Thomas Bordeleau: Trading away longtime fan favorite Tomáš Hertl — to Vegas, of all teams — was either the final blow in a depressing Sharks season — in the thick of a gigantic rebuild — or the potential start of a rise from the ashes. In a way, I was tempted to go with general manager Mike Grier as the choice, but he no longer qualifies as a player and judgment of his moves has a longer runway than the rest of this season. With not much to look forward to over the final weeks outside of William Eklund’s hopeful flashes, I’ll say Bordeleau, because the 22-year-old forward is now getting an extended look and a chance to show Grier and the San Jose staff that he’s got the chops to be a firmer part of the team’s plans for 2024-25. A natural center who’s playing wing now, Bordeleau has scored his first four NHL goals in 14 games with the club over two stints this season. — Eric Stephens

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Matty Beniers: Beniers, last season’s Calder Trophy winner as the NHL’s rookie of the year, hasn’t been able to produce similar results in his official sophomore season. He averaged 0.71 points per game last season, scoring 57 points in 80 games, and led all NHL rookies in goals, points and plus-minus. This season, that average is down to 0.44 — just 28 points in 63 games. He is averaging slightly more ice time (17:55 compared to 17:06), but instead of a steady upward progression, there have been ups and downs, which also reflects team performance. Collectively, the Kraken hasn’t been as good. The final stretch gives Beniers, who is a restricted free agent without arbitration rights this summer, a chance for a quality finish, which he can potentially use as a springboard heading into Year 3. — Eric Duhatschek

Jordan Kyrou: You could make an argument for prospects Zack Bolduc, Zach Dean or Matthew Kessel, because each could help his cause for a spot on the Blues’ 2024-25 opening-night roster. But the player with the most to prove, even with just a handful of games left, remains Kyrou. The 25-year-old, who’s finishing the first year of an eight-year, $65 million contract, will finish well behind his career-high 37 goals from last season. But he can still show everyone that there’s too much upside to consider moving him before his full no-trade clause kicks in before the 2025-26 season. — Jeremy Rutherford

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Andrei Vasilevskiy: It’s no surprise that it took Vasilevskiy time to get back to form after having back surgery. But he has yet to hit that game-changing level in his 43 appearances. The Lightning’s longtime No. 1 has just four quality starts in his past 10 games and has been pretty inconsistent all year. He tends to up his game as the stakes rise and has had fantastic playoff runs after iffy regular seasons. Tampa Bay needs to start seeing that down the stretch and especially into the playoffs if it’s going to have a chance. — Shayna Goldman

TJ Brodie: There’s a case to be made for the goalies, Ilya Samsonov and Joseph Woll. But Brodie’s sudden decline has put the Leafs in a bind. He was supposed to be (and was for a long time) their most reliable defender and one-half of their top defensive pair. Now, it’s looking less and less like he can still handle that kind of role and responsibility. Brodie was a healthy scratch (not including games for rest) for the first time as a Leaf this week. The Leafs badly need him to find his way again before the playoffs. If he can’t, there are difficult questions for head coach Sheldon Keefe to answer — namely, where does Brodie play and who steps into his challenging minutes? — Jonas Siegel

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TJ Brodie’s decline in play has left the Maple Leafs in a bind. (Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

Elias Lindholm: The Canucks paid a hefty price to acquire Lindholm as a rental. He’s brought a lot to the table defensively but has struggled offensively, with just seven points in 20 games. Lindholm needs to produce at the level of a top-six player. If he can’t, it feels like Vancouver is short of an impact forward heading into the playoffs. — Harman Dayal

Vegas Golden Knights

Chandler Stephenson: After back-to-back seasons with more than 60 points, Stephenson’s production has dipped considerably in 2023-24. He’s currently sitting at 42 points and has even been moved to the wing several times. As a pending unrestricted free agent, no player on the team has more to gain down the stretch than Stephenson. If he can return to his usual form, it helps Vegas’ overall team game a lot, as his foot speed backs opposing defensemen off and creates space through the middle of the ice. — Jesse Granger

Washington Capitals

Connor McMichael: McMichael, a first-round pick in 2019, has already proven plenty this season. He scored his 15th goal Wednesday and is regularly playing center on Alex Ovechkin’s line. If the Caps pull this off, though, and wind up as one of the most unlikely playoff teams in recent history, it’ll be because McMichael continues his recent hot streak and establishes himself as a long-term piece in their top six. — Sean Gentille

Nikolaj Ehlers: There are fans who don’t believe in Ehlers because he scored zero goals and seven assists in Winnipeg’s first major playoff run in 2018. There are fans who don’t believe in him because of playoff-limiting injuries suffered in 2019 and 2023. Multiple coaching staffs have kept him off the top line and top power play despite elite five-on-five scoring rates. Whatever the reason for his secondary status in Winnipeg, Ehlers has an awful lot to gain from an impactful stretch run and productive playoffs, particularly with free agency around the corner in 2025. — Murat Ates

(Photos of Sean Couturier, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Elias Lindholm: Patrick Smith, Christian Petersen and Derek Cain / Getty Images)



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