It almost happens without anyone realizing, but the influx of rookie talent has a pretty significant effect on the NHL landscape.
The focus is often on individual cases, be it the top pick in the draft or a prospect that breaks out in the junior, college or international ranks and suddenly generates extra hype. And why not have that approach? It was a lot of fun to watch top-two picks Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel grow with the Edmonton Oilers and Buffalo Sabres in 2015-16.
What gets lost in the fray is that 60 rookies played 40 games or more at the NHL level last season. A number of them had immediate impacts, like Shayne Gostisbehere with the Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray—still considered a rookie this season, Calder Trophy winner Artemi Panarin of the Chicago Blackhawks, Anaheim Ducks starter John Gibson and St. Louis Blues forward Robby Fabbri among them.
This season’s freshman class might not be as top-heavy as the previous one—forwards Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine aren’t quite the same 1-2 punch as McDavid and Eichel—but it has a ton of depth.
Laine might even have a slight production edge over Matthews this season, because his shot is so lethal and he’ll have no trouble scoring goals with the Jets in Winnipeg. On the flipside, Matthews is an elite playmaker that has shown he’s ready for the big time with the Maple Leafs. Either way, they are undoubtedly the main attractions.
However, there are a number of first-years that could challenge that duo for the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie, and they deserve plenty of attention as well.
Two of those players, William Nylander and Mitch Marner, will be competing with Matthews in Toronto. Nylander provided a glimpse of his capabilities of during the second half of 2015-16, and Marner has a strong shot at cracking the lineup on opening night.
From the 2016 draft, Pierre-Luc Dubois (Columbus Blue Jackets), Jesse Puljujarvi (Edmonton Oilers) and Matthew Tkachuk (Calgary Flames) will also get long looks in training camp, and could very well get their NHL careers started immediately. It wouldn’t be unheard of if they made their respective clubs, but it would be equally unsurprising if they needed another year to develop.
Dylan Strome, drafted third by Arizona in 2015, and Christian Dvorak, taken at No. 58 in 2014, will look to be the Coyotes’ next dynamic rookie duo, roles that Max Domi and Anthony Duclair filled in Arizona last season.
Defensively, the two names that offer the most intrigue are the Flyers’ Ivan Provorov and Blue Jackets’ Zach Werenski. Provorov’s all-around game will complement Gostisbehere’s offensive prowess, while Werenski’s impact in Columbus might be similar to Gostisbehere’s in making the jump to the NHL.
Murray leads the pack in terms of rookie goaltenders, and will be just the second puck-stopper to win a Stanley Cup and be a Calder-hopeful the following season. If he can hold off Marc-Andre Fleury and play anything like he did during the playoffs, he’s a shoo-in as a final nominee. A goalie hasn’t claimed the title of Rookie of the Year since Steve Mason took it home in 2008-09.
Hurricanes prospect Sebastian Aho is another intriguing prospect and a Calder sleeper. The center for Laine and Puljujarvi on Team Finland at the World Junior Championship this past winter, he’s quite talented. Aho figures to be on Carolina’s opening night roster, though how much he’ll be able to contribute right out of the gate remains to be seen.
Those looking for deep sleepers should keep Buffalo’s Hudson Fasching in mind. The 21-year-old rugged winger was very solid in his seven games with the Sabres in ’15-16 after he put up strong numbers during his collegiate career at the University of Minnesota.
Other players that could see time in the NHL this season include: Mathew Barzal (NYI), Travis Konecny (PHI), Mikko Rantanen (COL), Pavel Buchnevich and Jimmy Vesey (NYR), Kyle Connor (WPG), Oliver Bjorkstrand (CBJ), Pavel Zacha (NJD), Timo Meier (SJS), Mark McNeil and Nick Schmaltz (CHI), and Anthony Mantha (DET), among others.
With such a deep talent pool, it’s almost impossible to handicap the Calder Trophy race, though no matter what, it’ll be a lot of fun to watch the new kids on the block trying to cement their status as NHLers.