The NHL usually waits until all the previous series have been completed before starting the next round, but with the prospect of no hockey on a Saturday night, decided to start the second-round set between the Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars immediately. Good call, because this has the makings of an outstanding bunch of games.
One of the more interesting subtexts of the series will undoubtedly be watching the No. 3 and 4 overall picks of the 2017 draft go head-to-head in their first playoff series with a berth in the Western Conference final on the line. Miro Heiskanen of the Stars and Cale Makar of the Avalanche are both 21 years old and are sitting on the cusp of possible superstardom in the NHL. To be sure, they promise to be battling for Norris Trophies for the next decade or so – along with Quinn Hughes of the Vancouver Canucks and won’t that be fun to watch? – and both will be very, very rich young men when their entry-level contracts expire after next season. Their teams will actually be able to sign them to extensions during this off-season if they can come to terms, but the actual contracts won’t take effect until 2021-22.
(And there is some irony here. The Avalanche went into the 2017 draft with the best chance to win the lottery and it’s believed they were prepared to take Heiskanen with that pick. But they lost the lottery and fell to fourth, taking Makar one pick after the Stars took Heiskanen with the third overall pick.)
Even though Makar and Heiskanen were born 240 days and about 4,500 miles apart, in many ways they’re carbon copies of one another. Neither is terribly physically imposing or big and probably still have to add some bulk to their frames, but their abilities with the puck on their sticks are remarkable. Heiskanen’s level of poise and maturity with the puck have drawn comparisons to Nick Lidstrom and Scott Niedermayer. Makar looks like he’s 12 and plays like he’s 30. Watch the next time he scores a goal. It shouldn’t be a long wait. And just examine how little he celebrates. He lifts his eyelids higher than he lifts his stick.
Both are exceptional skaters and have an array of skills that are assets to their roles as power-play quarterbacks. Makar and Heiskanen lead their teams in ice time through the playoffs and their respective bluelines in scoring. Simply put, Heiskanen is the best player on the Dallas Stars. Not just best young player. Not simply the best defenseman, but the best player. Makar isn’t far behind Nathan MacKinnon for that status with the Avalanche.
As much as Denis Gurianov did for the Stars by scoring four goals in their shocking comeback win over the Calgary Flames in Game 6 of their series, Stars coach Rick Bowness said Heiskanen was the driver when it came to pulling his team back into the fight after trailing 3-0 in the first period. “In a game like that, you need someone on your bench to step up and to say, ‘OK, jump on my back and I’m going to get this thing turned around,’ ” Bowness said. “Miro did that. He just took the game over. He wants to be on the ice, he wants to calm things down, he wants to take charge of the game. That’s how good he is.”
Should the Vancouver Canucks defeat the St. Louis Blues Friday night, Hughes will also put himself into the second round of the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs. The next little while should be interesting for all three of them since their contracts all expire after next season. Each one will be using the other two as comparables in contract negotiations and it will be very interesting to see which one signs first. Unlike Heiskanen and Makar, Hughes is not eligible to be tendered an offer sheet next summer. But you can bet that all three of them will strike it rich at some point in the process.
As far as the series itself is concerned, the Stars defeated the Avalanche all four times they played during the regular season, but the Avalanche defeated the Stars 4-0 during the round-robin portion of the qualifying round. The Stars are deep and experienced and not a lot of fun to play against, the Avs young and fast and talented. It should be an outstanding series.