There is definitely a renewed emphasis on speed and finesse in the post-lockout NHL. Gone are the days of big, brutish defensemen laying out devastating hits, and forwards playing the trap game up in the neutral zone. The game is less east-west, more north-south, and young players are flourishing because of it.
Many young stars have broken into the NHL in recent years. It was difficult to narrow this list down to just 20 players. I wanted to include at least one forward, one defenseman, and one goaltender so as to represent all positions. Some honorable mentions include Colorado defenseman Tyson Barrie, Nashville center Ryan Johansen, and Edmonton forward Ryan-Nugent Hopkins. I had all those guys on my list at some point, but made many switches and revisions.
My three main criteria:
1) Quality of offensive/defensive contributions to one’s team.
2) Degree of leadership taken for one’s team
3.) Greatest potential to build on one’s current success.
The list is obviously subjective, but there should be little argument that the following 20 players are among the brightest young stars in the entire NHL.
20 Rasmus Ristolainen
At just 21 years old, defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen served as a bright spot on a rebuilding Buffalo Sabres squad that missed the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season. The young Finn displayed a promising mix of scoring and snarl. His 41 points ranked fourth on his entire team, and were an impressive 20-point improvement from 2014-15. His 139 hits ranked top-five on his team as well.
Ristolainen has also proved to be a defensive workhorse, blocking 137 shots while logging a team-high 25:16 ice time per game. Fortunately, the Sabres have the cap room to give Ristolainen a nice raise, and with that, they can expect a continued rise in the stud defenseman’s play. The Sabres are a team that's going to enjoy a breakout season very soon and Ristolainen will be a big part of that.
19 Andrei Vasilevskiy
I know I took a gamble by putting a goaltender on this list, but if any netminder deserves the honor, it’s Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy. The 22-year-old went 7-5 in his first 16 appearances in 2014-15, and filled in for starter Ben Bishop for large portions of the Bolts’ past two postseason runs.
In 2016, he went 3-4 in eight playoff appearances with a respectable .925 save percentage.
His dynamic use of the butterfly style and aggressive play at the top of the crease reminds me of a Henrik Lundqvist/Dominik Hasek hybrid.
As a backup last season, Vasilevskiy won 11 games, lost 10, and stopped 91 percent of shots faced in 24 games. While his stats are nothing to write home about, expect those numbers to improve as Vasilevskiy assumes the starting job from Bishop either this season or next season.
18 Jeff Skinner
After last season's departure of captain Eric Staal, the 24-year-old Skinner became the new franchise player. His stats back up that title. He won the 2010-11 Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year, and became the youngest ever player to make an All-Star appearance.
Despite concussion concerns in recent seasons, he had a career year in 2013-14 with 33 goals and 54 points playing on a lackluster Carolina team. He put up another 28 goals and 51 points last season. He has superior playmaking ability and ranked 23rd among ALL NHL players in goals scored per 60 minutes played.
Going into his fifth NHL season, Skinner is primed to enter the best years of his career, and Hurricanes fans have good reason for optimism. Hopefully Carolina can finally come together as a team, which would give Skinner more attention.
17 Brandon Saad
Saad already has his name twice engraved on the Stanley Cup, and is entering his age-24 season. The 6-foot-1, 200 pound power forward is coming off a career-year of 31 goals and 53 points for the Chicago Blackhawks. He was also selected to his first All-Star game this past season.
Some may argue that Saad’s six-year, $36 million contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets will stunt the growth of his career, but I beg to differ. Sure, he won’t be playing with elite linemates like Patrick Kane, but guys like Cam Atkinson, Nick Foligno, and William Karlsson are dependable playmakers who will fit well with Saad’s hard-nosed game.
Saad has championship experience and hasn’t even hit the peak of his career yet. 30 goals and 65 points are certainly achievable in his future.
16 Tomas Hertl
Knee injuries are amongst the most devastating in all of sports. They can cut short a player’s season, and in some cases, even end a player’s career. So when talented Sharks’ rookie Tomas Hertl went down with a knee injury in December 2013, coaches and fans held their collective breath.
Hertl had gotten off to a historic start, scoring eight goals and 13 points in October, and becoming the youngest player in 25 years to score four goals in a game.
Fortunately, while the knee injury slowed his development during the 2014-15 season, the young Czech came back strong in 2015-16. He put up a career-best 21 goal, 46 point campaign, and added another six goals in the 2016 playoffs as San Jose reached the Stanley Cup Final.
Hertl agreed to a two-year, $6 million extension to stay in the Shark Tank, where he looks to build on an excellent season.
15 Mark Scheifele
Mark Scheifele is one of the best young two-way forwards in the NHL today. He put up 29 goals and 61 points in 2015-16, all of which were career highs. He finished second in team scoring to Jets linemate Blake Wheeler, but led all forwards with 61 takeaways. He was also a team-best plus-16 on a defensively inefficient Winnipeg team.
At just 23 years old, Scheifele still has plenty of room to grow his game as a top-six forward, playing on a line with Wheeler and Mathieu Perrault. Scheifele may also see time with Bryan Little or Drew Stafford, both dynamic playmakers in their own right.
Scheifele has improved his play in each successive season in the NHL, and with little roster turnover from last year, will develop stronger chemistry with his linemates.
14 Max Domi
Domi was another rookie whose freshman campaign shook up the hockey world. He came into the league in 2015 after scoring a ridiculous 102 points in 57 OHL games the year before.
He may be Tie Domi’s son, but he certainly doesn’t play Tie Domi’s game. He scored 18 goals and 52 points in 82 games for the ‘Yotes, drawing particular praise for his speed through the neutral zone and superior on-ice vision. He clicked well with fellow rookie Anthony Duclair, forming what became known as the “Killer D’s” line.
With Duclair returning this season, expect Domi to improve on his already impressive production. Yes, the Coyotes still have the 39-year-old Shane Doan, but the team is infusing some exciting young talent into its roster. Doan could be a perfect mentor for Domi going forward.
13 Alex Galchenyuk
The Canadiens’ third overall pick in 2012 is already paying large dividends in Montreal. The young center has put up career-highs in points in each of his successive seasons in the NHL. His 30 goal, 56 point season is a solid improvement on his 20 goal, 46 point campaign the year before. He also fired a career best 201 shots on net to go along with a 14.9 shooting percentage.
Expect Galchenyuk to continue his consistency playing with Max Pacioretty and Brendan Gallagher, who are huge upgrades over past linemates for Galchenyuk like Lars Eller and Dale Weise.
Galchenyuk likely won’t face a team’s top defensive pairing every shift, given the offensive depth provided by new arrivals like Alex Radulov. This could allow him more space to make plays and increase his potential for another career year.
12 Dylan Larkin
If not for Artemi Panarin, the Red Wings’ Dylan Larkin would’ve certainly won the 2015-16 Calder Trophy as NHL’s Top Rookie. The 20-year-old Michigan native became the first Red Wings rookie to play in an All-Star Game since team legend Steve Yzerman in 1984. He also set the record for fastest skater at the All-Star Skills Competition at 13.172 seconds.
Then of course, there are his stats: 23 goals and 22 assists for 45 points in 80 games. His 23 goals led the team, as did his five game-winning goals, and 221 shots. He was named the team’s Rookie of the Year, and finished sixth in points among first-year players.
Detroit is known for their stellar player development and Larkin is another diamond they’ve mined out of USA Hockey’s National Development Program.
11 Shayne Gostisbehere
Gostisbehere perfectly fit the role left by injured veteran Marc Streit in 2015-16. The rookie defenseman has starred on the Philly blueline since his November 2015 call-up. He was named to the NHL All-Rookie Team, and finished second in Calder Trophy Voting after scoring 17 goals and 46 points in 64 games.
From January-February of 2016, Gostisbehere recorded a point in 15 straight games, an NHL record for rookie defensemen. He also became the first rookie to score four overtime goals in a single season. He added another goal and assist in six playoff games. As a near-50 point player during his freshman season, imagine what Gosisbehere can do as he gains more experience at the NHL level.
10 Gabriel Landeskog
When considering the best young forwards from the Avalanche, it was a tough choice between Landeskog and MacKinnon. Both forwards regressed somewhat last year, but Landeskog’s re-emergence towards season’s end was promising.
For example, in the last 28 games of the 2015-16 season, the Avs’ captain scored 13 of his 23 goals and 28 of his 59 points. He still has the potential to be a point-per-game player, despite not topping 25 goals and 60 points since 2013-2014.
His high hockey IQ and all-around solid game have proven useful in the playoffs, too, where he scored three goals and seven points in a hard-fought seven-game series against the Minnesota Wild in 2014.
His strong defensive game will have him logging heavy minutes, and with his fragile history, there’s always an injury concern. However, Landeskog has proven to be a true leader on his team (along with Matt Duchene) and both forwards will be instrumental in helping the Avalanche reach the playoffs once again.
9 Oliver Ekman-Larsson
Ekman-Larsson may not be the best player on his team, but he is certainly the best defenseman. Despite playing the blueline, the 25-year-old possesses a stellar offensive game, and is recognized as one of the elite offensive defensemen in the entire NHL. He hasn't even entered his prime yet and he plays on a rebuilding team. Just imagine how good he'll be in three years.
His lethal slap shot makes him a stalwart on the power play. He led the Arizona Coyotes in scoring in both the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons. He recorded his first four-point game this past January, so his skills are clearly strong as ever. He put up career highs in goals (21), assists (34), and points (55) this past season, and set an NHL record for defensemen with eight game-winning goals. His game is running full-steam ahead.
8 Artemi Panarin
When the 2015-16 NHL MVP happens to be your linemate, you can count on having a fairly successful season. Thus was the story of Artemi Panarin’s rookie year with the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Russian forward potted 30 goals and 47 assists as a 24-year-old rookie. He was only the third rookie since 2011 to reach the 30-goal mark, and his 77 points finished top-10 among all skaters. He was hot from the start, scoring in his first career game, and recording his first career hat trick in February.
He took home Calder Trophy honors as the NHL’s top rookie, and his career can only get better from here. I mean, you can’t expect much else when you play with one of the league’s premier scorers.
7 Jack Eichel
Eichel finished just behind the aforementioned Panarin in goals and points in 2015-16. The Buffalo Sabres center turns 20 this season, but is already among his team’s best players. He led his team with 24 goals last season, and finished second to Ryan O’Reilly in total points (56).
Eichel came into the league with high-expectations, drawing comparisons to bonaifde snipers like Steven Stamkos and John Tavares. The Boston University alum was taken 2nd overall in the 2015 NHL draft after winning the Hobey Baker Award as the top NCAA men’s hockey player.
It's safe to say Eichel has lived up to the hype so far, and he’ll be expected to assume a greater leadership role for the rebuilding Buffalo squad. While Ristolainen will command the back end, Eichel will be the franchise player for many years in Buffalo.
6 Aaron Ekblad
The 2015 Calder Trophy winner has been everything the Panthers hoped he'd be when they selected him number one overall in 2014. In his two years on the Florida blueline, he has put up 27 goals and 75 points in 159 games, fairly stellar numbers for a defenseman.
In fact, Ekblad is one of only six defensemen in NHL history have started an NHL season at age 18 and finished it with more than 25 points. He led all rookie defensemen in goals, power play points, and shots, while also finishing second in plus/minus, hits, and blocked shots.
His mix of offensive flair and defensive responsibility has already drawn comparisons to one of his childhood idols: Nicklas Lidstrom. The Panthers rewarded their franchise blueliner with an eight-year, $60 million extension.
5 Johnny Gaudreau
There are many young talents on the Flames, but Johnny Gaudreau burns brightest of them all. The left winger may only be 5’9” but his game is anything but diminutive. Gaudreau’s 64 points in 2014-15 tied Ottawa’s Mark Stone for the NHL lead among rookies that year.
His small stature lends itself well to his electrifying speed up and down the ice. His excellent on-ice vision helps create numerous scoring chances, both for himself and his teammates. His mix of scoring and playmaking ability resulted in a stellar stat line last season of 30 goals, 48 assists for 78 points in 79 games.
Gaudreau has also proven valuable in the playoffs, scoring four goals and nine points for the Flames in their run to the 2015 Western Conference Semifinals.
Gaudreau is arguably Calgary’s most exciting player since Jarome Iginla, and while those are big shoes to fill, the speedy winger has proven he is up to the task.
4 Filip Forsberg
The Predators’ forward had one of the best rookie campaigns in recent memory, potting 26 goals and 63 points in 2014-15. He took another huge step in his development the following season, tying the team-scoring record with 33 goals and finishing eighth in Selke Trophy voting.
The Preds coaching staff inserted Forsberg in more defensive and penalty kill situations, and the young Swede was more than ready to handle the added responsibility. He also became the first player in franchise history to score two hat tricks in a single season.
Forsberg has only been in the NHL for two seasons, yet he led his team in scoring BOTH times. The sky is the limit for the 22-year-old winger, and Preds fans finally have the franchise player that Alex Radulov was meant to be back in 2007.
3 Vladimir Tarasenko
Tarasenko is one of, if not THE best, right winger in the NHL right now. In his first two seasons, he scored 21 goals and 37 goals, respectively. He bested those numbers in 2015-16 by netting 40 goals and 74 points. He added another nine goals and 15 points in 20 playoff games as he helped lead the Blues to the Western Conference Final.
Fortunately for the Blues, the Russian winger is locked up for another seven seasons. Fans don’t have to dream about a youth movement, since it’s already here, and Tarasenko is leading it. Playing with young stars like Robby Fabbri, Jaden Schwartz, and Colton Parayko, Tarasenko will assuredly enjoy several more years of elite production.
Now if only coach Ken Hitchock would give Tarasenko more minutes in the playoffs...
2 Connor McDavid
Connor McDavid would’ve topped this list if not for the simple fact that he has only played 45 NHL games. The reason for that? A collarbone injury that sidelined him for more than two months. Before that, the Oilers’ rookie put up 12 points in 13 games.
Despite the small sample size, the 2015 number one overall pick scored 16 goals and 32 assists for 48 points in 45 games. His 1.07 point-per-game average led all rookies and ranked fourth in the entire league. McDavid had 12 multi-point games, highlighted by a two-goal, five-point performance against The Maple Leafs in February.
Although McDavid finished third in Calder Trophy voting, he is the most exciting rookie to break into the NHL since Sidney Crosby over a decade ago. Imagine what McDavid could do with a full 82-game season under his belt. Luckily, we won’t have to wait long to find out.
1 Tyler Seguin
I could almost justify the Bruins trading away Phil Kessel after a 37 goal season, as they got the second overall pick in the 2010 draft in exchange. That pick turned into Tyler Seguin, who was a budding star in Beantown. He finished as the team’s leading scorer in the 2011-12 season.
So what did the Bruins do? They dealt him to the Dallas Stars in 2013. What were they thinking? Since Seguin's arrival in Dallas, he has put up All-Star numbers playing on a line with captain Jamie Benn. The 24-year-old put up three consecutive 30+ goal, 70+ point seasons since the trade. He scored an astonishing 26 points through the first 18 games of the 2015-16 season, and finished with 73 points in 72 games.
Seguin and Benn are right up there with Toews and Kane as the best one-two forward punch in the NHL, and if their chemistry keeps up, expect Seguin to continue producing at a point-per-game pace.
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