The NHL pre-season isn’t a replication of the regular season. This much we know. There are no awards handed out for leading the league in scoring during the exhibition schedule, there are no additional points given to teams who run the table when the games don’t matter and there’s no reason to make much of anything of who succeeds and fails before the regular season really begins.
Yet, knowing full well that the games aren’t played with the same speed or intensity in the pre-season, you can’t help but get excited about players who turn heads as they battle for jobs or spots on the depth chart. This exhibition slate has been no different.
From rookies to veterans, forwards to defensemen, there are a handful of players who have put together pre-season performances of which are worth taking note. Here are eight players who are showing what they’ve got in the pre-season and who might be worth keeping an eye on when the games start to matter:
Clayton Keller, Arizona Coyotes — 2 GP, 2 goals, 5 points
Unlike last year, when Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine were projected to be (and earned their places as) the top two candidates for the Calder Trophy, there is no prohibitive favorite for this season’s top rookie award. It remains a strong class, mind you, but the truth is there’s no generational talent expected to take the league by storm.
That said, few freshmen have turned heads as much as Keller, 19, through the early part of the pre-season. His numbers speak for themselves. Two games and five points, including a two-goal outing against an Anaheim Ducks squad that iced more than a handful of NHL-caliber talent. Keller’s speed is one of his greatest weapons and he’s flashed it in both outings. If you’re picking an early favorite for the Calder, Keller's at or near the top of the list because few will get the opportunity and fewer yet have his skill set.
Patrick Sharp, Chicago Blackhawks — 2 GP, 0 goals, 4 points
From a fresh face to a seasoned vet. When Chicago entered the off-season with little in the way of cap space, there didn’t seem to be any way for the Blackhawks to add any players of note. But GM Stan Bowman was able to dig into his bag of tricks and sign Sharp to the same kind of one-year, hometown-discounted deal that he given to defenseman Brian Campbell prior to last season. In all honesty, though, it’s hard to suggest all that much was going to be expected of Sharp this season. He scored just eight goals and 18 points in 48 games last season, skated bottom-six minutes and missed time with a hip injury.
Sharp has looked good in limited minutes thus far in Chicago, however. He’s not going to play top-six minutes on a consistent basis, but the 35-year-old has all the makings of a skilled mid-lineup winger. Basically, if he keeps showing what he has in the pre-season, he could be the type of player that’s on the third line by name but second line in terms of production.
Pavel Zacha, New Jersey Devils — 3 GP, 3 goals, 5 points
It can only be said so many times, but Travis Zajac’s injury really thinned the Devils out down the middle. The result could be that Nico Hischier, only months removed from being selected first overall, skates top-line minutes while Zacha, who skated little more than 14 minutes per night last season, finds himself centering the second unit. Really, though, it looks as though it could be a blessing in disguise for the Devils.
Zacha, 20, was the sixth overall pick in 2015, but his rookie season left much to be desired. While others from his draft class were tearing up the scoring register, Zacha could barely crack the top half of a substandard lineup. This time around, though, he looks primed to hit the ground running. He’s used his size, speed and skill to show some promise this pre-season, and if he keeps it up, he might be able to maintain a second-line role even upon Zajac’s return.
Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders — 3 GP, 3 goals, 3 points
Three games, three goals and a vote of confidence. That’s what Barzal has done so far this pre-season.
Barzal, 20, was projected and expected to make the Islanders this season, bringing his combination of playmaking ability and foot speed to a lineup that could desperately use an additional offensive weapon. He’s made good on those projections, too. While he hasn’t exactly flashed the vision and passing ability that he possesses to its fullest extent, he’s more than made up for that by burning defenders to the outside on two of his three tallies.
If there were any questions about Barzal’s ability to make this club, they seem to have been answered by his performances during the exhibition slate. Asked if the rookie center had done enough to start the year with the Islanders, coach Doug Weight put it simply: “Yes.”
Mikkel Boedker, San Jose Sharks — 2 GP, 3 goals, 3 points
There was no ticker-tape parade or wild jubilation when the Sharks signed Boedker ahead of last season, but bringing the skillful winger aboard did come with some excitement. A consistent scorer over his previous three campaigns with two 50-point seasons, the hope was he would add another attacking element in San Jose. Instead, on a few occasions, he added an extra warm body to the press box.
So, it’s safe to say the 27-year-old is looking for a bounce-back year. And through two pre-season tilts, he’s at least given Sharks fans reason to be hopeful that he can make an impact this time around. Boedker’s greatest asset is his speed and he’s been able to utilize that on a few exhibition rushes and translating that to regular season play could pay dividends. He’s got a $4-million cap hit to live up to and his determination in the pre-season seems to indicate he’s well aware that he needs to get back on track.
Brock Boeser, Vancouver Canucks — 3 GP, 4 goals, 6 points
There was talk during the off-season, especially after the signing of Thomas Vanek, that Vancouver could be looking to shuffle Boeser down to the minors to start the season. There are benefits to that, of course: he has a two-way deal and won’t need to clear waivers, he can learn to play against men and build confidence in the AHL and he’s almost assured top-line minutes if he heads down to the Utica Comets.
But as THN colleague Ryan Kennedy pointed out last week, Boeser should get his shot at learning his trade with the big club. Boeser, 20, has proven in every single game that he’s capable of competing against NHL-caliber talent. In his first pre-season game, he scored a goal and two points against the Kings, followed it up with two goals and three points against the Golden Knights and then potted a fourth goal against the Flames. He’s shooting, scoring and skating his heart out right now and he’s earning his spot with each shift.
Brad Hunt, Vegas Golden Knights — 3 GP, 1 goal, 6 points
The Golden Knights’ bloated blueline is going to result in a couple of rearguards getting cut as camp progresses, and one of the more obvious choices would have been Hunt, who is 29 and has a grand total of 33 NHL games to his name. It’s getting awfully hard to suggest that as the pre-season slate wears on, though, because he seems to have translated his AHL production to NHL pre-season success, and there has to be some hope that he can do the same with the big club.
Hunt has gotten ample opportunity to show he can hang beyond the pre-season, too. He’s averaging nearly 20 minutes per game on the Golden Knights’ blueline through three outings. He’s also taking shifts, and producing, on the power play. Three of his five assists have come with the extra skater, which should come as no surprise for a defender with 209 points in 287 games in the AHL. Hunt could be one of the great stories of the pre-season if he sticks in Vegas for opening night.
Tomas Hyka, Vegas Golden Knights — 3 GP, 4 goals, 5 points
A sixth-round pick of the Los Angeles Kings in 2012, Hyka has never found his fit in North America’s pro circuits. Instead, after leaving the QMJHL, Hyka ended up in Europe. First, it was a season with Sweden’s Farjestad BK, which led to a job in his native Czech Republic with his hometown BK Mlada Boleslav. There, Hyka took off.
Across 117 games spanning three campaigns, Hyka scored 36 goals and 78 points, and that led the 24-year-old to a one-year, entry-level deal with the Golden Knights. And he’s making the most of the opportunity. Every game he’s played in this pre-season, Hyka has showcased some flash. In his debut, a rookie game against the Kings, Hyka scored the opening goal. Then in his pre-season debut, he fired home two goals, the second of which was a stunner of a wrister. Since then, he’s put up another two tallies and three points in games against the Avalanche and Ducks.
Given the Golden Knights’ projected lineup, Hyka would be a surprising addition to the bottom-six, but if Vegas wants to inject some youthful goal-scoring, keeping him around might be in their best interest.
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