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.
10. Dylan Strome
The third overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, Dylan Strome was expecting to be a fixture in the Arizona Coyotes lineup by this point; instead, the Ontario native was sent back for his final season of junior eligibility after playing in just seven NHL games.
His skill and goal-scoring ability is evident. He has 16 points in just seven games this year with the OHL’s Erie Otters and posted 240 points combined in the previous two seasons. He had just one assist with the Coyotes and was struggling to find his way through seven games, so a demotion to junior made sense not only for his development but also for the fact that the Coyotes wouldn’t burn a year of his contract. Strome has the combination of skill and smarts that should make it only be a matter of time before he becomes a big part of the Coyotes’ offense.
9. Sam Reinhart
A gifted playmaking center, Sam Reinhart was chosen by the Buffalo Sabres with the second overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft. He was a big point producer in junior and it took little time for the British Columbia native to look comfortable in the NHL.
Reinhart made the Sabres out of training camp in the 2014-15 season, but was sent back to the WHL’s Kootenay Ice after nine games to preserve a year of his restricted free agent status. He looked a lot better in training camp the following year and went on to finish eighth in rookie scoring with 42 points in 79 games, while his 23 goals was tied for third most among first-year players. He has eight goals and 15 assists through 38 games this season.
8. Noah Hanifin
Noah Hanifin is exactly the type of young defenseman teams look for. At 6-foot-3, 206-pounds, the Boston native is a stabilizing force on the back end with some offensive flair to his game. The Carolina Hurricanes selected Hanifin with the fifth overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft after a dominant season with Boston College the year prior. He made the team out of training camp the following season, posting four goals and 18 assists in 79 games.
This season, Hanifin has 13 points in 38 games and is the anchor of the best, young defensive core in the NHL. He doesn’t turn 20-years-old until January 25th and already has 117 games and counting under his belt. Look for Noah to be a huge part of the Hurricanes success looking to the future.
7. Mitch Marner
Nobody was questioning the skill of London Knights’ forward Mitch Marner prior to the 2015 NHL Draft. He finished second in OHL scoring in the 2014-15 season with 126 points in 63 games, but it was believed his size – or lack thereof – might deter teams from making him a top-five pick in the draft. His skill was undeniable and not surprisingly he was compared to a young Patrick Kane, who also starred with the Knights in London.
However, London Knights General Manager Mark Hunter moved into the role of director of player personnel with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2014 and, because of his familiarity with Marner, didn’t let the slick winger fall past fourth overall. Marner didn’t make the Leafs the following season, but he won just about every award in junior hockey that he was eligible to win, including Canadian Hockey League MVP. He’s been dynamite as a rookie with Toronto this season, recording 29 points in 37 games and showing flashes of brilliance on a nightly basis.
6. Leon Draisaitl
Big-bodied German center Leon Draisaitl doesn’t have the magic mittens that Mitch Marner above possesses, but he’s already an instrumental player for the Edmonton Oilers. The third-year center is becoming more and more defensively responsible, which is a great complement to his power offensive game. At 6-foot-1 and 214-pounds, Draisaitl is a beast to handle in the opposing zone and can be tough on the forecheck.
After a rookie season that saw him spend time with the Oilers and the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets, Draisaitl proved himself a budding Superstar in 2015-16 with 51 points in 72 games, good enough for second on the Oilers behind only Taylor Hall. He has taken his game to another level this year, having posted 34 points through 40 games. He’ll never be a number one center on the Oilers with Connor McDavid on the team, but he has the skill set of one.
5. Jack Eichel
The 2015 NHL Draft was initially hyped as the McDavid-Eichel draft, though it soon became clear that the former was a much more dynamic and explosive player than the latter. That might sound like a slight against Jack Eichel, but he’s likely used to it after Buffalo Sabres General Manager Tim Murray publicly discussed his disappointment for his team not winning the Connor McDavid sweepstakes.
We at TheSportster think Jack Eichel is more than a solid consolation prize. The Massachusetts native scored an astounding 71 points in 40 games as a freshman for Boston University and followed that up with a 56-point rookie campaign in the NHL. Poised for a big second season, Eichel suffered an ankle injury in training camp. He has 14 points in 17 games since returning to the Sabres’ lineup.
4. Aaron Ekblad
You can argue that Jack Eichel, Leon Draisaitl, and even Mitch Marner might have more prolific careers than Aaron Ekblad, but none of those players are trusted with the responsibility that the Panthers give Ekblad. The first overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, Ekblad made playing defense in the NHL as an 18-year-old look easy. He scored 12 goals and added 27 assists while playing top-pairing minutes against the game’s biggest and brightest stars.
Ekblad has strong defensive instincts and plays a mean, in-your-face game, but he does have the potential to rack up a pile of goals in his career. He improved his goal total from 12 to 15 in his second season and has seven through 39 games this year, on pace to equal or better last year’s total. He’s not yet, but he’s eventually going to be the captain of the Panthers.
3. Patrik Laine
Patrik Laine undoubtedly has the best release and hardest, most accurate shot of any of the players on this list. In fact, he has a chance to go down as one of the best goal scorers in modern history and here he is at number three, which should give you an idea of how great the recent wave of talent into the NHL has been.
Laine scored 33 points in 46 games in Finland’s top league last year. And if that wasn’t enough, he only began to peak as the season ended, scoring ten goals in 18 playoff games and seven in ten games at the World Championships. And if the 6-foot-4 winger’s best attribute is his intimidating shot, his second best is his confidence. Laine, who was taken by the Winnipeg Jets second overall, felt he should have been the top pick in the draft and has been on a mission in proving so. He has 21 goals through 41 games as a rookie, which ties him for third overall behind only Sidney Crosby and Jeff Carter.
2. Auston Matthews
The Arizona (formerly Phoenix) Coyotes have fared poorly in developing top-line NHL players since the franchise moved from Winnipeg, but they can take solace in knowing that they are indirectly responsible for developing the first mega-prospect from the state.
Matthews grew up attending Phoenix Coyote games and idolized the team’s longstanding captain Shane Doan. The Coyotes captain is a veteran of 1,500 NHL games, but even at his peak he could only hope to be as good as Matthews already is. The Scottsdale native took an unfamiliar route to the NHL, opting to play a year of pro hockey in Switzerland prior to his draft year and it paid off. The 19-year-old is the leading candidate in a stacked field for Rookie of the Year and is tied for third in the league in goals with 20 through 37 games.
1. Connor McDavid
We haven’t seen a player like Connor McDavid since Crosby and Ovechkin broke into the league. McDavid thinks the game at a high level and plays the game at a whole different speed than the rest of the league. Though it sounds impossible, his pace quickens with the puck on his stick, allowing him to create breakaways out of thin air, blazing past opposing defenders on what seems like a nightly basis.
He was limited to just 47 games with the OHL’s Erie Otters in his draft year, but that didn’t stop him from finishing just nine points behind OHL leading scorer and teammate Dylan Strome, who played 68 games and recorded 129 points. The second-year Superstar is currently first in league scoring with 45 points, two more than Evgeni Malkin who sits second.
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