It’s easy to get caught up in the potential of an incoming class of freshmen—remember the excitement surrounding Jonathan Drouin last fall?—but it’s without a hint of hyperbole that we suggest the 2015-16 rookie crop sets up as the most promising in a decade.
No, it won’t match the depth of the Sidney Crosby/Alex Ovechkin class of 2005-06, but in terms of game-changing, high-end talent, this group, led by Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and Buffalo’s Jack Eichel, is every bit as exciting.
McDavid enters the season as the odds-on favorite to win the Calder Trophy, but the dashing Eichel is poised to make a race of it. Pushing the first and second picks, respectively, of the 2015 draft will be a solid group of young forwards led by Calgary’s gritty Sam Bennett, Arizona’s relentless Max Domi and Winnipeg’s Nikolaj Ehlers, who could end up being the best goal scorer of the group.
The talent pool isn’t quite as deep on the back end, but there are several young players who could make an impact, albeit in a limited role.
So, who stands out? Here are the NHL freshmen that we expect to emerge as the best rookies at their positions this season, the members of the second annual SI.com Preseason All-Rookie Team.
Goalie: Mike Condon, Montreal Canadiens
Goalies rarely make much of an impression as rookies, and those who do often are too old to earn Calder consideration (case in point: Andrew Hammond, who was 27 during his sensational debut season). Condon isn’t likely to break that mold, especially playing behind 2015 MVP Carey Price. That said, the 25-year-old soundly outplayed Dustin Tokarski during the preseason, and coming on the heels of his solid AHL performance with a bad Hamilton club—he went 23-19-6 with a .921 save percentage, a 2.44 GAA and four shutouts—the Habs believe he can be effective as a spot starter. He’s clearly the one to watch.
Defenseman: Darnell Nurse, Edmonton Oilers
Yes, he was sent to AHL Bakersfield to start the season, but don’t expect Nurse to stay down on the farm for long. He’ll either be the first recall in case of injury, or at the moment Edmonton’s braintrust recognizes its blue line is shy of mobility and physicality, two qualities Nurse brings to the table in abundance. That ability to make the highlight reel hit or deliver a brilliant pass in transition or simply skate his way out of trouble ensures that he’ll be a valuable add at some point soon.
Defenseman: Noah Hanifin, Carolina Hurricanes
Could the fifth pick in this year’s draft emerge as the second consecutive blueliner to capture the Calder? Probably not, but you have to believe the Canes will give Hanifin every opportunity to make an impact during his rookie season. The 18-year-old saw a ton of action in the preseason, averaging better than 22 minutes per night and skating on both the power play and penalty kill. While coach Bill Peters will likely scale that back to start the regular season, Hanifin could play himself into a significant role before long. His skating and hockey sense should go a long way toward easing his transition from college to the pros, and eventually make him a big contributor to this rebuilding squad.
Forward: Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers
It’s been a decade since a rookie last scored 100 points. Could McDavid be the next to join the century club? It seems unlikely—after all, Jamie Benn won the Art Ross Trophy with just 87 points last season—but McDavid is such a unique talent that Steven Stamkos suggested, “He’s better than me right now!” McDavid, who scored 44 goals and 120 points in just 47 games for the OHL’s Erie Otters last season, does it all. He's an elite finisher, a crafty playmaker and possesses unparalleled instincts for the game. He’ll skate with Taylor Hall on Edmonton’s top line, which should help him pile up the points.
Forward: Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres
Ask around and you won't have much trouble finding a scout who believes Eichel could deliver an even better season than McDavid. This is a player who skated with men at the 2015 World Championship ahead of his draft and delivered seven points in 10 games. That performance made clear that he wasn’t just taking advantage of overmatched college kids last season. Eichel may well be the best American-born forward since Mike Modano, and he’s blessed with many of the same tools: blinding speed, terrific agility, a deft scoring touch and an uncanny ability to make those around him better. He also plays with the utmost confidence in his abilities ... and with something to prove to McDavid and his acolytes, Eichel will be skating with a chip on his shoulder as well. This could be a spectacular year.
Forward: Sam Bennett, Calgary Flames
Shoulder surgery sidelined the 19-year-old for all but one game last season, but he was a difference maker come playoff time. Bennett scored just three goals in 11 appearances but he made himself known every time he took the ice with a feisty, fearless game that sets him up as the ideal center for Calgary’s third line. He can contribute in every situation, including the penalty kill, and has the speed and creativity to become a dangerous weapon during three-on-three play.
Nikolaj Ehlers, Winnipeg Jets; Artemi Panarin, Chicago Blackhawks; Max Domi, Arizona Coyotes; Jake Virtainen, Vancouver Canucks; Ben Hutton, Vancouver Canucks; Joel Edmundsson, St. Louis Blues; Dylan DeMelo, San Jose Sharks
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