Before the 2019-20 NHL season was put on hold, conversations were swirling regarding the status of this season's rookie class. And rightfully so.
Naturally a bulk of the spotlight has been set on the mediocre seasons of the first- and second-overall picks: Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko. But don't be fooled. The expansive rookie pool has actually been quite impressive overall and gives us a glimpse of the NHL's future — whether the current season resumes or not.
Here's a look at just how good this season's rookie class has been.
Big noise on the blue line
One of the things that makes this rookie class so intriguing is the number of impressive showings from defensemen, most notably Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes.
Makar already made a splash when the Colorado Avalanche called him up for last year's playoffs. And despite dealing with some injury issues through his first full NHL campaign, the University of Massachusetts - Amherst product has continued to be one of the most impressive rookies on the ice.
The older Hughes brother has also been snagging headlines in his first full season with the Vancouver Canucks. The blue liner's mix of agility and defensive-minded play has quickly morphed him into a player Vancouver wants as part of its future, alongside Brock Boeser and Elias Pettersson.
But you can't talk about rookie defensemen without looking out east and discussing Adam Fox, who was leading all rookies in plus-minus at the time the season was paused. Through the New York Rangers' uneven 2020 campaign, Fox emerged as the team's best defenseman thanks to his success in playing on both ends of the ice. Fox's unexpected season became more of a bright spot for New York when Kakko didn't meet expectations. (More on him a little later.)
Rookies in rough spots
Being that hockey is a team sport, one player's success can easily be overshadowed when a club isn't playing well as a whole. Such is the case for many members of the 2019-20 rookie class, who are having positive rookie campaigns despite how their teams have performed.
Enter, Swedish winger Victor Olofsson. The rookie was getting plenty of buzz earlier in the season when the Sabres got off to a surprisingly hot start but has since been overshadowed by Makar and Hughes, as Buffalo slid down the Eastern Conference standings. Nevertheless, Olofsson has still had one of the best seasons offensively among his fellow rookies.
Dominik Kubalik also fits into this category. While the Chicago Blackhawks have had yet another lopsided season, the Czech winger has emerged as one of the few bright spots. At the time that the league paused, Kubalik was leading all rookies with 30 goals on the season, including one last Wednesday against the San Jose Sharks.
Which brings us to Mario Ferraro, who has become a staple of Team Teal's blue line. San Jose has had a disappointing campaign to say the least, going from a Western Conference Final berth last May to being one of the worst teams in the league this year. But Ferraro, who was Makar's d-partner at U-Mass, has been one of the few good things to come out of the season thanks to his relentless work ethic and continued growth.
The same can be said for forwards Nick Suzuki and Matt Roy. While the Canadiens and Kings have respectfully had their difficulties through the season, both have continued developing into what could be important players for their team's futures.
Whether the NHL season reopens or play is postponed until next season is still anyone's guess. What is clear, however, is that many of these rookies are making moves to keep growing through into their second seasons on the big stage.
On that note...
Tough luck for the top picks
Blame it on the McDavids and the Eichels. The Matthewses and the Laines.
The expectations for top draft picks are extra high thanks to some of the exemplary players who have come out of recent drafts. So naturally the pressure on Jack Hughes and Kakko only grew as the season went on and they didn't fulfill certain expectations.
However, this isn't entirely their faults.
As ESPN pointed out recently , Hughes' first go-round on the big stage has had its fair share of obstacles. The 18-year-old went right into the NHL from the U.S. National Team Development Program without a year of college or minor league hockey under his belt, not to mention being on a New Jersey Devils team that fired its head coach and general manager earlier in the season. And while Kakko's stint with the Rangers hasn't been filled with the same level of drama, his transition to North American hockey from Liiga in Finland has been challenging.
This isn't to say neither player can bounce back to have impressive sophomore seasons and build strong NHL careers. For their first campaigns however, there is still plenty of room to grow.
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