As training camp wound down and opening night approached, as many as 20 rookies had a shot at cracking their teams' rosters to start the season. Here's what scouts are saying about the cream of this year's crop.
Jonathan Drouin, LW, Lightning
The preseason Calder Trophy favorite will start the season on IR after fracturing his thumb, but that hasn't dampened anyone's enthusiasm about his first NHL season. The 19-year-old winger is projected to capture the rookie scoring title after netting 70 goals and 213 points over his past 95 games with Halifax of QMJHL.
Ask about what makes him special and the experts throw out the same word: magic.
“It's his ability to conjure something out of nothing,” said one scout. “You think you've got him cornered and then you don't. It's like magic with him. He's such an elusive skater … and [he has] that world-class vision that allows him to think two moves ahead of the other guy. Just an exceptional talent.”
“He's a a magician on the power play,” says Mark Seidel, head scout for North American Central Scouting. In an earlier interview, he raved about Drouin's ability to keep a defense guessing. “He's unpredictable. He's equally dangerous with a shot or a pass.”
“He's that player who can dictate the pace of a game,” said another scout. “Usually he'll just turn it up and dare you to keep up with him. He's so quick, so agile ... he can make defenders look silly.”
Drouin may start on a lower line to get acclimated to the NHL, but the consensus that is he'll be playing alongside Steven Stamkos before the season is over. And that, Seidel says, will be special. “It'll be fun watching [those two] for years to come.”
Sam Reinhart, C, Sabres
The second pick in the 2014 draft is expected to start the season centering veterans Brian Gionta and Cody Hodgson on Buffalo's second line. That's a plum assignment for a player whose camp performance revealed more questions than answers and whose stay beyond nine games is up in the air.
“He's the kind of a kid that coaches love because he has such a high hockey IQ,” said Seidel, before pointing out the fly in the ointment. “He grew up around the game and understands it but will need to show more passion on a nightly basis.”
“He has outstanding defensive instincts,” offered another scout. “That's what will get him through any early rough patches. He knows instinctively where to be. You can't teach those kind of smarts.
“I wouldn't expect a lot of flash from him, just good smart play. Whether that's enough to keep him in Buffalo I can't say, but he might benefit from some more time [in juniors] just to mature physically.”
John Gibson, G, Ducks
Gibson came to camp looking to lock down the starting job for the Stanley Cup-contending Ducks. He may have sealed the backup gig instead. Gibson looked little like last year's late-season sensation while posting a 3.28 GAA and an .896 save percentage in three preseason appearances. Still, he has the full confidence of coach Bruce Boudreau who says that both Gibson and Frederik Andersen will get their turns between the pipes. It's up to them to prove that they should stay there.
“He has all the tools,” one scout said of Gibson. “He has that big frame. He's athletic. He knows how to play the puck. Plus he has that ability to make the highlight reel save that can crush the spirit of the opposition while pumping up his teammates. When he's in there, they know they always have a chance to win.”
Seidel agrees. “Technically he is rock solid and he has the mental makeup to be a star.”
That mental strength will be the key to Gibson's success. “So much attention is paid to technique, but for a goalie to excel at this level he has to have it up here,” said another scout. “That mental toughness, that poise, that ability to remain in the moment. He’s got all that. It'll be tested over a long season, but he's got that foundation.
“I wouldn't be surprised if he wins the Calder.”
Jake Allen, G, St. Louis Blues
Big things are expected of Allen, who is coming off an impressive 2013-14 AHL season ... just not in the early going of the 2014-15 campaign. “I expect Allen to become the starter in St. Louis by Christmas,” says Seidel, who sees Brian Elliott carrying the load early on. “He has all of the physical tools and just needs to show the consistency required for the Blues to put their Stanley Cup aspirations on his back.”
Anthony Mantha, RW, Red Wings
The reigning CHL Player of the Year begins this season on IR after fracturing his right tibia at the Traverse City rookie tournament in September, but the expectations are that he'll find his way into Detroit's lineup after working his way back to shape in AHL Grand Rapids. Once he reaches the NHL to stay, Mantha has a chance to be a special player for the Wings.
“There are guys who score a lot of goals in juniors and then can't find the trigger once they turn pro,” said one scout. “But that's not Anthony. This is a player who can change a game with one chance. He has that sniper's instinct. He's smart. He can find those open spaces and get his shot off quickly.”
“He's a potential superstar,” says Seidel. “He skates tremendously well, possesses a scorer's sense and passes the puck very well. He still needs to get more engaged physically but he will score a lot.”
“He's probably always going to carry that knock of lacking intensity,” said another scout. “He's so big there's an expectation that he'll bulldoze his way to the net but that's not his game. He's all about using his speed, reading the play and reacting quickly to his opportunities. Hey, when you pair him with an elite playmaker like [Pavel] Datsyuk or [Henrik Zetterberg], he could really be special.”
Mirco Mueller, D, Sharks
The 19-year-old came into camp as a favorite to make a squad that's in dire need of some fresh faces and then sealed his spot with a steadily improved effort. One scout noted there's a lot of teammate Marc-Edouard Vlasic in Mueller's game.
"He's someone you can see developing into a workhorse like Vlasic. Not a lot of sizzle in his game, but he's so reliable. He makes very few mistakes. He moves the puck effectively. He skates well. He's a good positional defender."
"Positioning is his strength," agreed another scout. "He reads the play well, gets to where he should be and makes the smart play. He'll never be a bruiser, although he's put on some muscle since being drafted. That'll help him play the body more effectively."
"You watch, he'll work his way into their top-four before the season's over," said the first scout.
Johnny Gaudreau, LW, Flames
"He'll be an absolute fan favorite who will bring people out of their seats in the offensive end," says Seidel, echoing the buzz heard around the league about the man they call Johnny Hockey. Gaudreau, the winner of the 2014 Hobey Baker Award as college hockey's top player, is already earning comparisons to Chicago superstar Patrick Kane for his creativity and flair.
His size is at the forefront of every scouting report—he's listed generously at 5'-11", 170 pounds—but it's a "flaw" that's quickly forgotten once you watch him play.
"The puck always seems to be on his stick," said a scout. "He's one of those guys. The other team overcompensates trying to cover him, he finds the open man and it's in the back of the net. He makes smart players make dumb plays."
Scouts agree that Gaudreau needs to get stronger to become an effective player away from the puck, but the occasional lost battle is a fair price to pay for someone who could revitalize the league's 23rd ranked offense ... and undoubtedly sell a lot of tickets.
Stuart Percy, D, Maple Leafs
An injury to veteran Cody Franson simplified matters, but Percy earned his opening night berth with an outstanding performance at camp. Toronto's 2011 first rounder impressed with his play in all three zones, providing the kind of possession-minded hockey that had to please the team's new analytics department. That's important to note because there are elements of his game that aren't necessarily pleasing to the eye.
"He's someone whose game is easy to nitpick," a scout said. "He doesn't knock you out with his skating or his shooting or his physical play, but he's really, really good at moving the puck. He doesn't just retrieve it and put it off the glass. He reads the play quickly and makes smart, accurate passes. He can make a difference in their transition game."
Percy is expected to see some time on Toronto's power play when the season opens, but it's at even strength where he could make the biggest impact.
"He's a natural playmaker," said another. "He has a confidence with the puck that was missing from that group most of last season."
Filip Forsberg, C, Predators
Forsberg scored just once in 18 games last season, which might explain why he led the league with 23 shots in five preseason games this fall. Or maybe he simply gets more chances to fire away while skating alongside premier playmaker Mike Ribeiro on Nashville's new top line.
"He's continually adjusting to the North American game but his skills are starting to shine through," says Seidel of the 11th pick in the 2012 draft. Forsberg is revered for his hard-nosed play and willingness to drive the net. "He's a tremendous all-around player, a real leader," says another scout. "But he'll make his living as a scorer. He's got a quick, heavy shot ... and he'll use it from anywhere on the ice. He's got that ability to really get something on it even when he's off-balance."
Another scout says that Forsberg is just as good dishing the puck as firing it. "His passing skills get overshadowed but he's a gifted playmaker. He can find a seam and exploit it in no time. You have to always be ready for the pass when he's on the ice."
Andre Burakovsky, F, Capitals
Evgeni Kuznetsov came to camp riding a wave of hype, so it was surprising to see Burakovsky win the battle to fill the second-line center gig with the Capitals. Not everyone is convinced that he'll keep the job or even stick with the big club long-term, but everyone agrees that he'll be a special player at some point.
"Smart player, battles hard, elite skater and shooter," reported one scout.
"He's relentless on the forecheck," said another. "He really added to his skill set [while playing junior last year in Erie]. He used to rely on creating chances in transition. Now he goes hard to the net, puts himself in a position to battle for rebounds. He'll pick up the garbage now."
Making the adjustment from his natural wing to center has been smooth to this point, a testament to Burakovsky's playmaking skills. But he may end up back on the wings before long if he's overwhelmed by seasoned NHL pivots. "I'd be surprised if he wasn't [moved back]," said one scout. "The transition to the NHL [requires] a big learning curve. Add in a new position and that's really tough."
Aaron Ekblad, D, Panthers
A big win in the genetic lottery has allowed the top pick in the 2014 draft to play as a man among boys for years. Now Ekblad has to prove that he can play as a man among men.
That, in Seidel's opinion anyway, won't be a problem.
"Someone check his birth certificate because he plays, acts and looks like a 25-year-old. The age-old question of whether an 18-year-old defenseman can handle the physical [challenge] isn't applicable with Ekblad. The question will be can his feet keep improving."
"He's not the prettiest skater, but he moves well for a man his size," countered another scout. "He's not going to lead the rush, but he gets to where to needs to be quickly."
"The key [to his success this season] will be getting him the right match-ups," that scout added. "He's got those natural instincts and he reads the play well. Keep him away from the Ovechkins and Crosbys and he'll be okay."
Leon Draisaitl, Oilers
The No. 3 pick answered the No. 1 question in Edmonton: Who will center the second line? The 6'-2", 215-pound German-born pivot rose to the challenge in camp, impressing with his power game. Seidel says "he has the tools, size and skills that could help Edmonton this year," but wonders if Draisaitl is best served by playing a full season in the NHL. "Will [Edmonton's] history of keeping 18-year-olds and then watching as their development slows play a part in the decision to keep Draisaitl?"
It's a theory that suggests he'll be here for a good look, if not a long time.
"Physically, he's ready," said another scout who watched him keep pace with the men at the World Championship last spring. "But there's more to it than that. He's an answer [to the second line problem] but I'm not sure he's the answer. I think he'll be [sent back to juniors] this year, but he'll be a big contributor before long."