This year’s rookie class is one of the deepest in recent memory. Highlighted by top two 2015 draft picks Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, the NHL is loaded with tremendous young talent. While McDavid recovers from a broken clavicle and Eichel learns on the job, other first-year players have made the ’15-16 class one to behold.
Among the notables are Hawks’ Russian ace Artemi Panarin. While the 24-year old has an edge having played against men in the KHL, he’s also benefited from teaming with league-leading scorer Patrick Kane on the best line in hockey. Alongside fellow Russian Artem Anisimov, the supremely skilled Panarin leads all rookies in points (27) and assists (18). A remarkable play maker, Panarin can undress defenders. He’ll be tough to catch in the rookie scoring race.
Another strong Calder candidate is Coyotes’ centerman Max Domi. Selected 12th overall in 2013, one of Canada’s best players who helped lead them to gold at last year’s Under-20 World Junior Championships has fit in seamlessly on the surprising Coyotes. Playing alongside Canadian line mate Anthony Duclair, the 20-year old Domi has posted 10 goals and 13 helpers for 23 points ranking second in rookie scoring. The son of former NHL enforcer Tie Domi is an integral part of Arizona’s rebuild.
Duclair has performed well in his first full year in the Desert. He was a big part of the Keith Yandle trade with the former ‘Yotes offensive defenseman coming over to Manhattan. The 20-year old former Rangers’ 2013 third round pick (80th overall) is proving he has a bright future with the Coyotes. A bit more streaky than Domi, Duclair is fifth in rookie scoring with eight goals and seven helpers for 15 points. If he becomes consistent, look out.
One of the best young players is Red Wings rookie Dylan Larkin. As usual, Detroit’s scouting did a great job landing the gifted 19-year old Waterford Michigan native with the 15th selection of the 2014 Draft. They didn’t have to look far. After a big freshman year at the University of Michigan in which he totaled 47 points, Larkin went 3-2-5 in six AHL playoff games for Grand Rapids. A tremendous scorer, he paces all rookies in goals (11) and is a remarkable plus-19. With 21 points while playing a top six role, he’s not going anywhere.
When training camp broke, Rangers rookie Oscar Lindberg impressed the coaching staff with a strong preseason. After making the team, the 24-year old Swede got off to a hot start scoring four goals in the first three games including a huge one in a come from behind win at Columbus. Until recently, he had centered the third line. But with Derek Stepan out, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault has moved him up to the top line centering Rick Nash and Chris Kreider.
In Lindberg, the Rangers have an active center who has a nose for the net. He’s tied for second among rookies in goals (10) with his 17 points placing fourth. Lindberg has also done a solid job on face-offs winning 48.5 percent. On a team that’s struggled on draws, it’s nice to have a young player who can be an asset. Even better, Lindberg has shown poise and maturity making a 2011 off-season deal with the Coyotes for Ethan Werek look like one of their best. He’s already a key part of a contending team.
This year is supposed to be about McDavid and Eichel. The top two selections have shown flashes of greatness which is why both are considered franchise players. In 13 games with the Oilers, McDavid was just starting to figure it out. An explosive scorer with ridiculous skating ability, he already put together a seven-game point streak in which he totaled 11 points (4-7-11). He has 12 points thus far. Unfortunately, he broke his clavicle in an accidental collision against the Flyers. Already having missed a month, he’s still uncertain when he’ll return. But the good news is he’s ahead of schedule.
While McDavid continues to recover, the Sabres are finding out about the gifted Eichel. Following a freshman season at Boston University where he won the Hobey Baker with 71 points (26-45-71) playing in Hockey-East, the 19-year old from North Chelmsford, Massachusetts went second overall to Buffalo. A dynamic skater with tremendous possession skills, he can control the puck for long stretches. Eichel has already demonstrated some of his unique talent scoring a highlight reel goal on home ice. Sixth in rookie scoring with 14 points including nine goals, he leads all freshmen in shots (90). It’s only a matter of time before he takes off.
What makes this year’s rookie class so great is it’s not limited to just five or six players. Blues defenseman Colton Parayko has been a treasure. A third round pick taken 86th overall in 2012, the 22-year old paces all rookie blueliners in goals (5), assists (8) and points (13) while logging over 19 minutes-per-night on a strong contender. No small feat under St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock. He’s also plus-11 with five power play points and three game-winners.
Other notable rookie defensemen are the Bruins’ Colin Miller and Flyers’ Shayne Gostisbehere. Miller, 23, came over from the Kings as part of the Milan Lucic deal. He’s done a nice job registering two goals and eight assists for 10 points and a plus-five rating. Since being recalled from Lehigh, the 22-year old Gostisbehere has shown offensive potential. Boasting a strong shot, he’s scored four goals in 11 games including two overtime winners. He already has eight points on a struggling offensive team.
Keep an eye on Winnipeg’s Nikolaj Ehlers and Buffalo’s Sam Reinhart. Ehlers is only 19. He was the Jets’ first pick in 2014. Taken ninth overall, he represented Canada at last year’s WJC. In 28 games with Winnipeg, he has five goals and seven assists for 12 points. Ehlers possesses great skill and his speed fits with the Jets fast paced style. As for Reinhart, don’t forget the Sabres grabbed him second overall in 2014. After a slow start, he’s been quietly lighting the lamp with three of his seven goals coming over the last four contests. The forgotten youngster could combine with Eichel for a lethal 1-2 punch.
Sam Bennett went fourth overall to the Flames in 2014. He had a nice debut scoring three goals and an assist in last year’s postseason with Calgary. On a team that’s been a bit underwhelming, the 19-year old Bennett has 13 points (5-8-13) in 25 games. He’s yet to find his groove. But the center should be heard from.
The rebuilding Hurricanes are keeping freshman Noah Hanifin. They’re working him in gradually. The 18-year old was selected number five overall in 2015. He’s scored once and has four helpers in 24 games. Big things are expected for the Boston native who is still getting over 21 shifts and 17-plus minutes on a lottery bound club.
Carolina isn’t gonna win many games. At 10-13-4, they should be in the mix for the Auston Matthews lottery. The talented 18-year old American who’s the consensus 2016 first overall pick is playing professional hockey in Switzerland for Zurich. In 19 games, he’s tallied 11 goals and 10 assists for 21 points. The Canes, Maple Leafs, Oilers, Sabres, Avalanche, Flames and Blue Jackets all could be in contention.
As for first-year netminders, Montreal’s Mike Condon leads in wins (9) with a 2.22 goals-against-average and .913 save percentage. He’ll continue to be the starter until Carey Price is ready. Keep an eye on Anaheim’s John Gibson. The former Team USA WJC hero has been splendid since being recalled. He has posted four wins and two shutouts in six starts. But Ducks starter Frederik Andersen is just about ready to return. I still believe Gibson has higher upside.
Ex-Islander Anders Nilsson has been a bright spot for the Oilers. Since overtaking former Ranger Cam Talbot for the starting job, he’s posted impressive numbers including a .922 save percentage and 2.49 GAA on a defensively challenged roster. Somewhat curiously, Nilsson got into 19 games for the Isles in ’13-14 but is still considered a rookie.
Also keep an eye on Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck. The 2012 fifth round pick is considered the Jets future number one. With starter Ondrej Pavelec out, Hellebuyck has outperformed Michael Hutchinson winning all three of his starts allowing three goals on 83 shots. I grabbed him in my fantasy league and it’s already paid dividends. Good thing another team was so anxious to reclaim Hutchinson.
As you can see, this is a great rookie class. It’ll become more interesting once McDavid returns. Can he catch Panarin? Christmas is 18 days away. Hockey fans will also be pleased for the return of the World Junior Championship. A prospect haven.