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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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