The Stanley Cup playoffs are when the spotlight shines the brightest on the NHL. Not coincidentally, they're also when hockey's star players shine the brightest, too.
Every preseason, we publish the ESPN NHL Rank, which rates the top 100 players based on how good they're expected to be in the upcoming season -- predicting potential greatness rather than relying on past performances or positional value. It's time to do the same for the postseason.
Here's the playoff edition of ESPN NHL Rank, which seeks to identify the top forwards, defensemen and goaltenders in the upcoming Stanley Cup playoffs. Dozens of voters participated, choosing one winner in a series of head-to-head voting matchups created from the players on the 16 postseason qualifiers.
The following list features NHL award winners, previous Stanley Cup champions and stars that are seeking postseason glory. As you'll see, our voters made some interesting calls at the top regarding which players they believe are the best of the best in the 2022 NHL postseason.
2021-22 stats:60 G | 46 A | 106 PTS
Preseason rank: 3
Matthews has ascended to a new level this season. His 60-goal season was the first in the NHL since Steven Stamkos' in 2011-12, and the first ever for an American-born player. He set a new Maple Leafs record for single-season goals -- no small feat for a franchise that entered the league in 1917. His growth as a defensive center has made him one of the most potent total packages the NHL has seen in recent memory.
Matthews has 17 points in his last 19 playoff games, atoning for an invisible performance in 2018 that still defines him. That's because Matthews has yet to carry the Leafs to a playoff series victory. Based on what he accomplished in the regular season, this could be the year -- for a dominant Matthews playoff performance, and potentially, a Toronto Stanley Cup win. -- Greg Wyshynski
2. Cale Makar, D, Colorado Avalanche
2021-22 stats: 22 G | 58 A | 86 PTS
Preseason rank: 5
Makar is the kind of defenseman who can make a crowd gasp with a puck dangle or a dance along the blue line on a power play. No defenseman has a higher points-per-game average than Makar in the last three seasons (1.01). But assume the Avalanche defenseman is one-dimensional at your own risk. Makar is a well-above-average defender despite drawing the toughest assignments for the Avalanche.
He's been a consistent playoff performer, with 31 points in 35 career games, with 12 on the power play and 19 at even strength. That latter stat is key given how playoff officiating can sometimes be stingy with the penalty calls. An essential ingredient to the Avs' Cup recipe. -- Wyshynski
3. Nathan MacKinnon, C, Colorado Avalanche
2021-22 stats: 32 G | 56 A | 88 PTS
Preseason rank: 2
MacKinnon is much more than the guy with the notoriously austere diet and the sullen postseason news conferences. Watching him skate with the puck is like watching a freight train perform ballet. He's so strong, such a powerful skater, and he has a terrific shot. Attempts to take the puck from him are bound to fail.
But having taken his cues from friend and mentor Sidney Crosby, MacKinnon has worked hard to develop the defensive part of his game through the years. He's never played in a championship playoff round, but it's not for lack of trying: MacKinnon has 69 points in 50 career playoff games. -- Wyshynski
2021-22 stats: 39 G | 49 A | 88 PTS
Preseason rank: 4
No less an authority than ESPN's John Tortorella believes Barkov is the superior player to Connor McDavid, and perhaps the best player in the entire NHL. Few players can boast the kind of two-way play that the Panthers center possesses, with 304 points since 2018-19 (12th in the NHL) and last season's Selke Trophy as the best defensive forward in the league.
Barkov has won faceoffs and put up points (14 in 16 games) during his NHL playoff career, but he's also skated to a minus-10, which is uncharacteristic for a player that's been a regular-season minus just once since 2015-16. -- Wyshynski
5. Connor McDavid, C, Edmonton Oilers
2021-22 stats: 44 G | 79 A | 123 PTS
Preseason rank: 1
The greatest evidence that McDavid is a gamebreaker comes from his peers. In the NHLPA's recent Players Poll, McDavid was the overwhelming choice (42.4%) for the skater that most players would want on their team if they needed a victory. Considering how many games McDavid has won seemingly on his own in Edmonton, you can understand why.
The 25-year-old center won his fourth scoring title this season with a career-best 123 points, including 44 goals. The Oilers will need that kind of production to win in the playoffs, where McDavid is "only" a point-per-game player (22 points in 21 career playoff games). -- Wyshynski
2021-22 stats: 39-18-5 | 2.49 GAA | .916 SV%
Preseason rank: 10
Only four goalies in NHL history have a better playoff save percentage than Vasilevskiy's (.924) in at least 60 postseason games. His numbers in Tampa Bay's back-to-back Stanley Cup wins: 34-14, .932 save percentage, 1.90 goals-against average and six shutouts -- five of them coming in his last five elimination games.
At 27 years old, he's got plenty of career ahead of him and the Big Cat is well on his way to being one of the most dominant playoff goalies in history. -- Wyshynski
7. Jonathan Huberdeau, LW, Florida Panthers
2021-22 stats: 30 G | 85 A | 115 PTS
Preseason rank: 42
The Panthers had never had a player with more than 100 points or 70 assists in a season. Then Huberdeau hit the ice in 2021-22 and rewrote the record book. The left wing tallied 115 points thanks to 85 assists, many of them primary helpers. He scored in every situation, including five shorthanded points that tied him for second in the NHL.
Huberdeau has been a point-per-game player in his playoff career. He'll need to drive even more offense for the Panthers to win the Cup. -- Wyshynski
8. Nikita Kucherov, RW, Tampa Bay Lightning
2021-22 stats: 25 G | 44 A | 69 PTS
Preseason rank: 17
What's your lasting vision of Nikita Kucherov? The shirtless guy hoisting beverages in a news conference after winning a second straight Stanley Cup? Probably. But it's worth recalling how the Lightning ended up winning those two championships. Kucherov had 66 points in 48 games for Tampa Bay in those two Cup runs, to lead the team and all NHL scorers. He's fifth among active players with 83 playoff assists.
An elite playmaker and difference-maker for the potentially dynastic Lightning. -- Wyshynski
9. Roman Josi, D, Nashville Predators
2021-22 stats: 23 G | 73 A | 96 PTS
Preseason rank: 24
Josi was let loose as an offensive threat in 2021-22 and responded with one of the best scoring seasons for a defenseman in the last 30 years. His 96 points ranks third in that span, and is the most since the 1992-93 season when Winnipeg Jets (the original version) D-man Phil Housley had 97 points. Josi became the eighth defenseman in NHL history to record at least 96 points.
His even-strength defense was down a bit, and he didn't get the toughest assignments during the season, but his turbo-charged offense will be essential to Nashville in the playoffs. -- Wyshynski
10. Sebastian Aho, C, Carolina Hurricanes
2021-22 stats: 37 G | 44 A | 81 PTS
Preseason rank: 29
The term "hockey IQ" is used a lot in the NHL, and it's never more applicable than when discussing Aho. The smooth two-way center had 81 points in 79 games this season and was an asset on the Carolina penalty kill as well.
Aho has been a point-per-game player for the Hurricanes in his 34 career playoff games. They'll need him to lead the way as the anchor of a dominant line for a championship push, but they're also confident that Aho won't be the reason if they fall short. -- Wyshynski
11. Leon Draisaitl, C/LW, Edmonton Oilers
2021-22 stats: 55 G | 55 A | 110 PTS
Preseason rank: 6
There's a challenge in separating how spectacular Draisaitl is individually from the Oilers' dismal playoff results in recent years. Draisaitl made a 55-goal regular season look easy. He's been a solid statistical playoff performer the last two seasons as well, notching five goals and 11 points in consecutive first-round exits for Edmonton.
What the Oilers truly need from Draisaitl though is playoff impact. That's a big-time goal, a key assist, a moment that moves the needle in Edmonton's favor. The Oilers battled hard to get back on track and into the postseason at all. This is where Draisaitl must channel his game-changing regular season abilities into difference-making playoff outcomes. -- Kristen Shilton
12. Mitch Marner, RW, Toronto Maple Leafs
2021-22 stats: 35 G | 62 A | 97 PTS
Preseason rank: 14
Let's get this out of the way: Mitch Marner hasn't scored a playoff goal since April 11, 2019. In the Leafs' next 18 postseason contests, Marner tallied 10 assists. The Leafs' top-flight winger was a ghost when it mattered most in the first round against Montreal last season. But a 97-point regular season bodes well for what Marner can do this time around.
His chemistry with linemates Matthews and newcomer Michael Bunting is electric, he's equally dangerous at 5-on-5 as he is shorthanded, and there's a hunger in Marner to put the past behind him that's burned all season. There's no time like the present for the Leafs' most famous local product to start crafting a new narrative around his postseason capabilities. -- Shilton
13. Kirill Kaprizov, LW, Minnesota Wild
2021-22 stats: 47 G | 61 A | 108 PTS
Preseason rank: 20
It's possible Kaprizov has had the most underhyped 46-goal season ever. Be that as it may, no one will be able to ignore him come playoff time. The Wild are rolling as a team, and Kaprizov's game has only gotten stronger. His next step is channeling that same success in the postseason.
Kaprizov's only NHL playoff experience came last season where he netted only two points in seven outings. That's a far cry from the impact he projects to have this time around. Minnesota is poised for a long run. All eyes will (rightly) be on Kaprizov. -- Shilton
14. Mikko Rantanen, RW, Colorado Avalanche
2021-22 stats: 36 G | 56 A | 92 PTS
Preseason rank: 12
Some players struggle to maintain their offensive excellence in the playoffs. Rantanen is not most players. Colorado's top-line force has been excellent in the Avs' last three postseason appearances -- as in, 18 goals and 48 points in 37 games excellent.
Rantanen's way of rising to the occasion will be a real X factor, even with the rest of Colorado's high-octane lineup. It's the little things Rantanen can do so seamlessly, like creating space and turning a play back up the ice so quickly, that should really make him shine this postseason. -- Shilton
15. Steven Stamkos, C, Tampa Bay Lightning
2021-22 stats: 42 G | 64 A | 106 PTS
Preseason rank: 55
Stamkos had never notched a 100-point season until this one. Will that carry over into playoff dominance as well? Tampa can only hope.
The Lightning captain was limited to just one playoff game during the 2020 Cup run, and made up for it with a strong showing in last season's two-peat. Yet Stamkos seems to be getting better with age, becoming even more savvy in leveraging his chances. Tampa may have stumbled down the regular season stretch a bit, but Stamkos will play a key role in picking them back up in the first round -- and beyond? -- Shilton
16. Mika Zibanejad, C, New York Rangers
2021-22 stats: 29 G | 52 A | 81 PTS
Preseason rank: 30
This is Zibanejad's 10th NHL season. It will be only the fourth time he's reached the playoffs. Talk about a disconnect. Zibanejad is an elite offensive threat who happens to be having a career-best season.
That tracks well -- for him and the Rangers -- into this postseason. The veteran is capable of filling any role and elevating every linemate. Zibanejad is the type of player every team covets this time of year: smart, versatile, dangerous. Watch out. -- Shilton
17. Brayden Point, C, Tampa Bay Lightning
2021-22 stats: 28 G | 30 A | 58 PTS
Preseason rank: 19
If you want to know what Point can do in the playoffs, direct your attention to Tampa's pair of back-to-back Stanley Cup banners. Point scored the Cup-clinching goal in 2020. He averaged a point-per-game or better during both that run and the one in 2021.
His numbers may have dwindled a bit down the stretch this season, but Point is as good a center as any team could ask for -- in the postseason or otherwise -- and his credentials are bound to be padded again this spring. -- Shilton
18. Johnny Gaudreau, LW, Calgary Flames
2021-22 stats: 40 G | 75 A | 115 PTS
Preseason rank: NR
Johnny Hockey showed up huge this season, and helped turn Calgary into a bona fide Cup contender. The superstar winger has some playoff pedigree -- 19 points in 30 postseason tilts -- but he has been special this season. Why? His defensive game has caught up to the offensive prowess. Gaudreau never seems to be without the puck.
19. Sidney Crosby, C, Pittsburgh Penguins
2021-22 stats: 31 G | 53 A | 84 PTS
Preseason rank: 11
So what if Crosby had a (relatively) poor start to the season? When the wins matters most -- like in the playoffs -- one does not bet against the league's best veteran. But, since Pittsburgh won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017, Crosby & Co. haven't advanced past the second round.
Count on Crosby to give his all flipping that script this time around. The Penguins' window with this core is closing -- Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang are among the pending free agents -- and Crosby has played out the end of this regular season like a man on a mission to prove he's still got it. -- Shilton
20. Igor Shesterkin, G, New York Rangers
2021-22 stats: 36-13-4 | 2.07 GAA | .935 SV%
Preseason rank: 32
Shesterkin has been New York's -- and arguably the entire NHL's -- regular-season MVP. Now we'll see what he can do in the playoffs.
The 26-year-old has made only one prior postseason appearance, in a Rangers' loss during the league's COVID bubble tournament of 2020. That's all but irrelevant now. Shesterkin has since taken hold of the Rangers' reins, and will lead them on what projects to be a fruitful playoff run -- especially when it's Shesterkin shutting the door. -- Shilton
21. Charlie McAvoy, D, Boston Bruins
2021-22 stats: 10 G | 46 A | 56 PTS
Preseason rank: 21
22. Artemi Panarin, LW, New York Rangers
2021-22 stats: 22 G | 74 A | 96 PTS
Preseason rank: 13
23. Matthew Tkachuk, LW, Calgary Flames
2021-22 stats: 42 G | 62 A | 104 PTS
Preseason rank: 49
24. Chris Kreider, LW, New York Rangers
2021-22 stats: 52 G | 25 A | 77 PTS
Preseason rank:Honorable mention
25. Victor Hedman, D, Tampa Bay Lightning
2021-22 stats: 20 G | 65 A | 85 PTS
Preseason rank: 7
26. Gabriel Landeskog, LW, Colorado Avalanche
2021-22 stats: 30 G | 29 A | 59 PTS
Preseason rank: 43
27. Patrice Bergeron, C, Boston Bruins
2021-22 stats: 25 G | 40 A | 65 PTS
Preseason rank: 33
28. Brad Marchand, LW, Boston Bruins
2021-22 stats: 32 G | 48 A | 80 PTS
Preseason rank: 9
29. Alex Ovechkin, RW, Washington Capitals
2021-22 stats: 50 G | 40 A | 90 PTS
Preseason rank: 15
30. Adam Fox, D, New York Rangers
2021-22 stats: 11 G | 63 A | 74 PTS
Preseason rank: 8
31. John Tavares, C, Toronto Maple Leafs
2021-22 stats: 27 G | 49 A | 76 PTS
Preseason rank: 52
32. Nazem Kadri, C, Colorado Avalanche
2021-22 stats: 28 G | 59 A | 87 PTS
33. Filip Forsberg, LW, Nashville Predators
2021-22 stats:42 G | 42 A | 84 PTS
Preseason rank: NR
34. David Pastrnak, RW, Boston Bruins
2021-22 stats: 40 G | 37 A | 77 PTS
Preseason rank: 25
35. Morgan Rielly, D, Toronto Maple Leafs
2021-22 stats: 10 G | 58 A | 68 PTS
Preseason rank: 73
36. Jake Guentzel, LW, Pittsburgh Penguins
2021-22 stats: 40 G | 44 A | 84 PTS
Preseason rank: 79
37. Sam Reinhart, C, Florida Panthers
2021-22 stats: 33 G | 49 A | 82 PTS
38. Elias Lindholm, C, Calgary Flames
2021-22 stats: 42 G | 40 A | 82 PTS
Preseason rank: NR
39. Robert Thomas, C, St. Louis Blues
2021-22 stats: 20 G | 57 A | 77 PTS
Preseason rank: NR
40. Tom Wilson, RW, Washington Capitals
2021-22 stats: 24 G | 28 A | 52 PTS
Preseason rank: Honorable mention
41. Ryan O'Reilly, C, St. Louis Blues
2021-22 stats: 21 G | 37 A | 58 PTS
Preseason rank: 47
42. Sergei Bobrovsky, G, Florida Panthers
2021-22 stats: 39-7-3 | 2.67 GAA | .913 SV%
Preseason rank: NR
43. Jacob Markstrom, G, Calgary Flames
2021-22 stats: 37-15-9 | 2.22 GAA | .922 SV%
Preseason rank: 58
44. Darcy Kuemper, G, Colorado Avalanche
2021-22 stats: 37-12-4 | 2.54 GAA | .921 SV%
Preseason rank: 63
45. Pavel Buchnevich, LW, St. Louis Blues
2021-22 stats: 30 G | 46 A | 76 PTS
Preseason rank: NR
46. Jordan Kyrou, C, St. Louis Blues
2021-22 stats: 27 G | 48 A | 75 PTS
Preseason rank: NR
47. Jason Robertson, LW, Dallas Stars
2021-22 stats: 41 G | 38 A | 79 PTS
Preseason rank: 99
48. Marc-Andre Fleury, G, Minnesota Wild
2021-22 stats: 28-23-5 | 2.90 GAA | .908 SV%
Preseason rank: 83
49. Devon Toews, D, Colorado Avalanche
2021-22 stats: 13 G | 44 A | 57 PTS
Preseason rank: NR
50. Aaron Ekblad, D, Florida Panthers
2021-22 stats: 15 G | 42 A | 57 PTS
Preseason rank: 51