It’s the trend that became noticeable even before Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews duetted Bon Jovi on the Maple Leafs’ bench —there is a plethora of young talent in the National Hockey League right now.
And these rookies are good. Like, really good.
Of course the youth brigade in Toronto is garnering the most headlines, but they aren’t alone. Whether they are still getting adjusted to life in the big leagues or are already taking on a veteran persona, the rookie class is making an impact across the entire league. Here’s a look at some of the must-watch young bloods across the NHL that you should be following—if you aren’t already.
Over in Boston…
It is an understatement that expectations were astronomical at the start of the season for Bruins’ rookie Brandon Carlo. Yet the six-foot-five defenseman has seemingly exceeded those expectations as he has been paired with captain Zdeno Chara in his first professional campaign. Carlo has turned the duo in to quite the shutdown pair as Boston gets healthier and has started winning more games—and we aren’t just talking about that game-saving block that he made against the Lightning last week.
There is more rookie blood in Boston courtesy of Zane McIntyre. His performance in his few starts, even with two losses, shows promise for the future. He has been receiving praise for his start on Tuesday, in which he fought hard in the B’s 3-2 loss, turning away 20 of 23 shots. With Tuukka Rask’s health not 100% through the first part of the season, there could be more opportunity for McIntyre to build on his hard work and get some wins under his belt.
…and then in New York…
Granted everyone on the Rangers is contributing nowadays, but the rookie class is definitely part of that. Jimmy Vesey’s game is visibly improving as the season unfolds, with the Harvard product contributing six goals and four assists, putting him tied for points (10) with the team's top goal-scorers Michael Grabner and Rick Nash.
Brady Skjei is also a noticeable addition to New York’s arsenal, both with his scoring and with his physicality. According to the team’s Twitter account, the 22-year-old blue liner has a six-game assist/point streak, the first Rangers’ rookie d-man to do so since Brian Leetch had a seven game streak in 1989. Skjei also showed in a face-to-face moment against St. Louis’s David Perron that his rookie status isn’t hindering his ability to stand up for himself.
Also, we should keep an eye on rookie winger Pavel Buchnevich, whose three goals on the season give hope for more of their caliber.
Up north and out west...
American-born rookie Matthew Tkachuck of the Flames has been looking more veteran than that of an 18-year-old, solidifying himself as one of Calgary’s better forwards to start his professional career. His mix of goal-scoring prowess and agitating nature were on full display in the Flames’ 3-2 win over the Sharks last Thursday, with his two nifty markers, including the game-winner, and his scuffle with San Jose defenseman Brenden Dillon. For a team looking to have a bounce-back season, a player like Tkachuck is a pivotal piece of the puzzle.
Another Western Conference team looking for a bounce-back season, the Blue Jackets, has gotten a boost early in the season from rookie Zach Werenski, particularly on Columbus’s top power play unit. Coach John Tortorella told Aaron Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch that “The addition of Werenski back there is a key… He controls the play. It has gone through him and Wennberg, and I think Wenny has really made some good decisions… But Werenski is a key cog that we haven’t had, someone who can control it and have it run through him.”
Of course we can’t have a rookie discussion without talking about Patrik Laine, because no NHL newbie has announced his presence with as much pizzazz as the Winnipeg Jet has. He is currently leading rookies league-wide with 11 goals and 15 points, has two career hat-tricks under his belt, in addition to leading his own team in goals and points in the power play. (He also has very GIF-able goal celebrations, which makes him even more of a must-watch.)
On Toronto’s young squad…
Sure the 2016 first overall draft pick is the headline-stealer, but Auston Matthews’ is in good company with fellow rookies William Nylander and Mitch Marner on the young Leafs roster. In fact, the two could have been so impressive that—yes I know it’s early in the season—they could very well be in the Calder Trophy conversation with Matthews. Swede Nylander has led the league in points on more than one occassion along with Matthews, although Marner emerged as the superstar in subsequent games. It's almost as if the three knowingly swap turns leading the league in points, in addition to leading the Leafs in being a better team.
One thing to observe as the season gets more serious—keep in mind, this campaign is just a couple weeks old—is if all three of them can stay this hot. Or if, say, one of them goes through a bit of a cold spell and the other two pick up the slack.
Don’t forget about...
Matt Murray. It’s easy to forget that Murray is still technically a rookie, what with having a Stanley Cup victory under his belt and all. It is also easy to forget given that his stats through two starts for the Penguins were staggering—a .50 goals-against average and .985 save percentage through two games after he shut out the San Jose Sharks 5-0 last weekend. His numbers came a bit closer to Earth on Tuesday after the Penguins faced the Oilers, of course. All in all, however, Murray’s veteran-like demeanor between the pipes mixed with solid play ensures that he will see many more starts throughout the 2016-17 season.
Strong showings on struggling teams
On the long list of rookies this season, there are a couple standouts that are making a positive impression even though their respective clubs aren’t looking so hot. Anthony Beauvillier is one such player that caught my attention early, in that he has been impressive on a struggling New York Islanders team. The same goes for Jakub Chychrun, who continues to be productive in his first NHL campaign despite playing on a Coyotes team that hasn’t played so well out the gate. Consider both of them players to watch down the stretch, no matter how their clubs perform.
Players I want to see more of
Hands down, Joel Eriksson Ek. Minnesota is rolling right now—in no small part because netminder Devan Dubnyk has downright unbeatable—but injuries to the squad ushered Eriksson Ek’s recall. The young Swede scored in his NHL debut, and contributed five points in seven games with the Wild. His future with the big club is a bit unclear at the moment, but he is definitely a young player with potential to build on that strong debut.
This does not include the original Rookie of the Year winners, so sorry to Carl Voss, Russ Blinco, Sweeney Schriner, and Mike Karakas.