Young NHL stars who are leveling up in Stanley Cup playoffs

Alexis Lafreniere and the New York Rangers host the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 5 Monday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN) of the Stanley Cup playoffs' second round. James Guillory/USA Today Sports

The Stanley Cup playoffs are no place for the fresh-faced and inexperienced -- or so the conventional wisdom goes. Because one ill-timed mistake can often send a team spiraling toward elimination, coaches tend to lean on players they can trust in big moments, which often correlates with being a veteran who has seen it all before and knows how to handle the pressure.

That can make it difficult for young players to earn a bigger role when the postseason lights get brighter. It's probably not a coincidence that zero of the remaining teams in this year's stacked playoff field ranked among the 10 youngest by average age during the 2023-24 regular season, while four of the 11 oldest squads are still skating toward the Cup. But despite this, some kids are still using these playoffs as a springboard for greater things and producing beyond their years.

To identify the youngsters who are stepping up big in the games that matter the most, we looked for players under the age of 25 this season (as of Jan. 31) who have never had a regular season of 15 or more goals above replacement (GAR) in their careers before. Why 15? Generally speaking, it's the marker of a good season. The Carolina Hurricanes' Andrei Svechnikov, for instance, has a 15.6 GAR season under his 24-year-old belt -- as does the Dallas Stars' Thomas Harley (22) -- so neither are eligible despite being young players who have big responsibilities for their respective playoff teams.

Instead, we'll focus on nine players (listed youngest to oldest) who haven't quite achieved that level of regular-season success yet, but are playing important roles for Cup-chasing teams.

Wyatt Johnston, C, Dallas Stars

Age: 20 (May 14, 2003)
Best regular season: 14.5 GAR (2023-24)
Playoff stats: 10 GP | 5 G | 3 A | 8 P | +0 | 20:05 TOI/G