The Pittsburgh Penguins boast an impressive group of eight former Hockey East players including Northeastern alum Zach Aston-Reese
Hockey East in the Stanley Cup Preview
By J.D. Biagioni, special to

As 24 teams descend upon Toronto and Edmonton to reignite the quest for the Stanley Cup, Hockey East's presence will be strongly felt in the NHL's Return to Play. A total of 71 former Hockey East players are featured on 23 of the 24 returning teams. Forty-eight are rostered on teams in the play-in round, while the remaining 23 will participate in round robin seeding games.

With the one of the most exciting times of the sports calendar finally here, here is a viewer's guide for Hockey East fans, ranking the eight play-in series by Hockey East star power and offering insight into a handful of exciting former players in the round robin games.

No. 8: Chicago Blackhawks vs. Edmonton Oilers

Chicago: Collin Delia (MC), Dylan Sikura (NU)

Edmonton: Matt Benning (NU), Alex Chiasson (BU), William Lagesson (UMA)

Of the five players in this matchup, Chiasson is the grizzled veteran, logging 519 career regular-season games. Sikura and Benning could both play depth roles in the series for their respective teams.

Should goaltender Collin Delia get in a game, he'd be just the second Merrimack player to do so in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Former Warriors winger Matt Foy was the first; he dressed in one game with the Minnesota Wild during the 2008 Playoffs.

Lagesson earned his spot in the playoffs after appearing in eight NHL games for the Oilers in his debut season.

No. 7: Florida Panthers vs. New York Islanders

Florida: Noel Acciari (PC), Brian Boyle (BC), Brady Keeper (ME), Mike Matheson (BC), Frank Vatrano (UMA)

New York: None.

Florida has a deep crop of players with Hockey East roots. Acciari won a National Championship as captain of the Friars in 2015.

Boyle, the 2018 Masterton Trophy winner, is still going strong after beating leukemia in 2018 and returning to his role as an NHL regular. The former Eagle is seeking his first Stanley Cup ring despite 114 career playoff games with a 15-15—30 stat line.

Vatrano has developed into one of the league's more underrated scorers since being acquired by Florida in 2018, racking up 45 goals with the Panthers. On the blueline, Matheson serves as one of the better value signings in the NHL. Two years into an eight-year, $39 million deal with the Panthers, he has rewarded them with 20-plus point campaigns in both seasons.

Despite attending Return to Play camp with the Islanders, Oliver Wahlstrom (BC) and Keiffer Bellows (BU) were not named to the final playoff roster.

No. 6: Minnesota Wild vs. Vancouver Canucks

Minnesota: Jordan Greenway (BU)

Vancouver: Thatcher Demko (BC), Adam Gaudette (VAN)

Two 23-year old forwards and a 24-year old goalie comprise the entirety of Hockey East's representation in this series. Demko appeared in 27 games to Jacob Markstrom's 43, so it's conceivable he gets a start if Markstrom struggles out of the gate for the Canucks.

Gaudette, the 2018 Hobey Baker winner, has steadily improved each season with the Canucks, topping out at 33 points in 59 games during the regular season.

For Minnesota, Greenway is coming off his second-straight 20-plus point season. He also had a goal and an assist in five playoff games during his rookie season, joining the Wild after Boston University's season ended in 2018.

No. 5: Arizona Coyotes vs. Nashville Predators

Arizona: Jordan Gross (ND), Vinnie Hinostroza (ND), Clayton Keller (BU)

Nashville: Nick Bonino (BU), Dante Fabbro (BU)

Play this matchup in a couple years and it ranks a lot higher. Keller and Fabbro, teammates for a year at BU, skate opposite each other as two of the best young players in the NHL. This will be Keller's first playoff appearance after three consecutive years playing every regular season game for the Coyotes. During his first full season in 2017-18 as a 19-year old, Keller he finished with 65 points and has posted over 40 points in each of the last two seasons.

This is Fabbro's first full season in the NHL, appearing in 64 games, but he's already shown flashes of the potential that led Nashville to selecting him 17th overall in 2016.

Bonino should also be a factor in the series. The forward has plenty of playoff experience, skating in 94 playoff games with both Nashville and Pittsburgh and racking up 18 goals and 29 assists.

No. 4: Columbus Blue Jackets vs. Toronto Maple Leafs

Columbus: Cam Atkinson (BC), Adam Clendening (BU), Nathan Gerbe (BC), Gustav Nyquist (ME), Andrew Peeke (ND), Devin Shore (ME)

Toronto: Joseph Woll (BC)

Columbus' Hockey East connections are stacked with former collegiate stars. Atkinson, a former national champion, is just one season removed from 41 goals. Before this season, he had a streak of six consecutive seasons with at least 20 goals.

Nyquist, like Atkninson, is a perennial 40-plus point player. In his first season with the Blue Jackets, Nyquist finished with 42 points. Last season, in only his first taste of a deep playoff run, Nyquist notched 10 assists in 20 games with the Sharks.

Toronto's Woll earned a spot on the playoff roster after appearing in 32 games with the Leafs' AHL affiliate in 2019-20.

No. 3: Carolina Hurricanes vs. New York Rangers

Carolina: Warren Foegele (UNH), Brett Pesce (UNH), Trevor van Riemsdyk (UNH)

New York: Steven Fogarty (ND), Chris Kreider (BC), Danny O'Regan

Fans of New Hampshire, this is your top series to watch. All three former Hockey East alumni on the Hurricanes played for the Wildcats. In fact, the group comprises three of the four former UNH players currently in the NHL, with the lone exception being Trevor's brother James van Riemsdyk (Philadelphia).

Foegele doubled his point total from last season to 30 (13g, 17a) in 68 games this year, nine fewer than he played in 2018-19. Pesce has emerged as one of the NHL's best shutdown defensemen in recent years and faces a tall task in front of him, squaring off with Chris Kreider. Kreider, an alternate captain for the Rangers, returns after suffering what would've been a season-ending foot injury had it not been for the pause in play. Kreider's 24 goals put him third among Hockey East alumni during the regular season, behind Jack Eichel (36) and Bryan Rust (27.)

No. 2: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Montreal Canadiens

Pittsburgh: Zach Aston-Reese (NU), Casey DeSmith (UNH), Brian Dumoulin (BC), Evan Rodrigues (BU), Chad Ruhwedel (UML), Bryan Rust (ND), Conor Sheary (UMA), Brandon Tanev (PC)

Montreal: Jake Evans (ND), Christian Folin (UML), Cayden Primeau (NU)

This matchup is all about Pittsburgh. The Penguins boast an impressive group of eight former Hockey East players, remarkably from eight different schools. Notre Dame's Bryan Rust is the has had the biggest standout season of the bunch, averaging over a point per-game in 55 games during the 2019-20 season.

Aston-Reese and Tanev also figure to be key contributors, as well as Sheary and Rodrigues who were acquired from Buffalo just prior to the shutdown. Sheary won the Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh in 2017.

Dumoulin only played 28 games this season but has plenty of postseason experience, having suited up for 20-plus games in back-to-back postseasons for the Penguins in 2016 and 2017.

On Montreal's side, Evans and Folin each appeared in just over a dozen games apiece during the regular season. Primeau, the 2019 Mike Richter Award winner as the best goaltender in the NCAA, figures to be the Canadiens' goalie of the future and will earn valuable experience during his first playoff run.

No. 1: Calgary Flames vs. Winnipeg Jets

Calgary: Johnny Gaudreau (BC), Jon Gillies (PC), Noah Hanifin (BC), Mark Jankowski (PC)

Winnipeg: Anthony Bitetto (NU), Connor Hellebuyck (UML)

Johnny Gaudreau trying to put pucks past Connor Hellebuyck. Need I say more? In 70 games during the 2019-20 season Gaudreau put up 58 points, the most by any playoff-bound Hockey East alumnus. Likewise, Hellebuyck, the Vezina Trophy front-runner and only two-time Hockey East Men's Tournament MVP, was the top former Hockey East goaltender last season, leading the entire NHL with six shutouts.

Don't forget about Calgary defenseman Noah Hanifin, who spent one season at Boston College before becoming the highest-drafted Eagles player in Jerry York's illustrious tenure behind the bench. Hanifin, just 23 years old, has already appeared in 70-plus games in five NHL seasons and is making his second postseason appearance.

Best of the Rest

Here are 10 players to watch for during the round robin seeding games:

Dallas' Ben Bishop (ME)
Boston's Charlie Coyle (BU)
Philadelphia's Joel Farabee (BU)
Philadelphia's Kevin Hayes (BC)
Colorado's Cale Makar (UMA)
Boston's Charlie McAvoy (BU)
St. Louis' Zach Sanford (BC)
Tampa Bay's Kevin Shattenkirk (BU)
Vegas' Alex Tuch (BC)
Philadelphia's James van Riemsdyk (UNH)