If it seems like the NHL is more and more becoming a young man’s game, it’s because it is. No longer is it commonplace for mid-tier talent to play well into their 30s and players are making an impact at a younger age. Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin set the precedent following the lockout in 2005-06 when the then- 18- and 19-year olds combined for 208 points in their rookie seasons.
Few first-year players have been able to replicate the pace set by Sid and Ovi as rookies, but players like Patrick Kane, John Tavares, and Steven Stamkos proved experience isn’t needed to be a productive scorer in the NHL. But as good as the league’s young players have been in recent years, the crop from the last three NHL Drafts has already infused the NHL with tremendous talent.
In the list below we’ll rank the the top five picks from the last three drafts. To give you an idea of how good those drafts have been, as many as eight of those 15 players are already impact players, while only three have yet to appear in a NHL game. And that’s excluding elite-level young players taken outside the top five in the past three years such as Nikolaj Ehlers, William Nylander, Dylan Larkin, Ivan Provorov, and Zach Werenski.
15. Olli Juolevi
It’s almost unfair for Olli Juolevi to be included in this list. The Finnish defenseman was selected fifth overall in the most recent NHL Draft by the Vancouver Canucks. Needing a blueliner, the Canucks opted for Juolevi over Matthew Tkachuk, who was immediately scooped up sixth overall by the Calgary Flames.
Time will tell if the Canucks made the right choice. Juolevi has a great skating stride and can produce from the blue line (he has 21 points in 26 games with the OHL’s London Knights this season) but Tkachuk has already proven himself a quality NHLer with 23 points in 36 games with Calgary. Defensemen take longer to develop, so we shouldn’t expect to see Juolevi in the NHL for at least another year or two at best. Canucks fans should hold off rioting until then.
14. Pierre-Luc Dubois
Like Olli Juolevi, the jury is still out on Quebec native Pierre-Luc Dubois. There’s a lot to like, as at 6-foot-3 and 202-pounds Dubois is a strong and physical presence with a knack for finding the back of the net. Going into the most recent draft, Dubois was the consensus fourth or fifth pick for a few reasons. Most importantly, he was ranked as the fourth best player by many scouts, but it was believed the Blue Jackets wouldn’t be able to pass on Jesse Puljujarvi because, like the team’s General Manager, he’s from Finland. Great reasoning, right?
Well, perhaps Jarmo Kekäläinen would have been better off taking Puljujarvi. After posting 99 points in 62 games for the QMJHL’s Cape Breton Screaming Eagles last season, Dubois has an underwhelming 18 points through 20 games this season. He was named to the Canadian World Junior team, but hasn’t stood out.
13. Michael Dal Colle
Most of the top five picks on this list, excluding the two above, made their respective teams within a year of being drafted. Generally, top-five picks are fast-tracked to the NHL, but that hasn’t been the case with Michael Dal Colle, whom the New York Islanders selected fifth overall in 2014.
A 6-foot-2, 198-pound winger, Dal Colle spent two more seasons in the OHL after being drafted. In his first season he recorded an incredible 93 points in 56 games, but he hit a brief roadblock the following season in junior after failing to make the Islanders. Despite the Islanders coming to camp this season with a weaker lineup on offense, Dal Colle was sent to the team’s affiliate in Bridgeport, where he has 14 points in 32 games. It’s early in his career, but there’s no doubt the Islanders would have liked Dal Colle to grab a roster spot this season.
12. Jesse Puljujarvi
Before Patrik Laine emerged as a dominant goal scorer in the second half of 2016, many scouts believed Jesse Puljujarvi was the best Finnish prospect eligible for the 2016 NHL Draft. The 6-foot-4, 203-pound winger scored 28 points in 50 games playing in Finland’s top league last season, as well as an absurd 17 points in seven World Junior Championship games. The duo led Finland to their second title in three years.
The Edmonton Oilers were happy to nab the Finn with the fourth overall pick in the draft, and though his development has stagnated some in his rookie season, there’s plenty of reason to believe he’ll have a long, prosperous career in the NHL. For a big man, his skating stride is graceful and quick, and he seems to understand the finer points of the game. In a few years when he’s consistently riding shotgun on Connor McDavid’s line, he should be able to put up 60-70 points with ease.
11. Sam Bennett
If there’s ever a player that proves the NHL Draft Combine means next to nothing in terms of on-ice performance it’s Sam Bennett. The skilled center recorded 91 points in 57 games in his draft year as a member of the Kingston Frontenacs, but made bigger headlines for failing to do a single pull-up at the combine.
The Calgary Flames didn’t care about the pull-up story, taking Bennett with the fourth overall pick in 2014. It paid dividends the following season; Bennett played in 11 playoff games with the Flames following the completion of his junior season and scored three crucial goals for the Flames, while showing a level of grit that one might not expect from a guy who couldn’t lift himself up from a support bar. He responded in 2015-16 with a 38-point rookie campaign and is a consistent contributor with the Flames again this season.