The NHL is changing from a big, tough, knock-your-head off type play to a fast, skilled, and lethal transition game type play. Now, while many older NHL fans think that you may need some “sandpaper” in the lineup that is a terrible misconception. These are also the same people that refuse to look at analytics or “fancy stats” and use the eye test to determine how good a player actually is.
Long gone are the days of staged fights and, if there is a fight, it’s genuinely out of some sort of emotion – frustration, mainly. I can think of one such example as a Rangers fan, with Tanner Glass. Sure, he may have hit people and you need that to take people off the puck, however, you don’t need to have crushing hits when you actually have the puck.
On the opposite side of things, you have the new NHL game, which mainly involves speed. A perfect example of this is the Pittsburgh Penguins. They had speed up and down their lineup and danced around the Sharks on their way to the Cup.
The rising stars on this list are in no particular order, but all are perfectly capable of becoming household names for years to come. The players on this list have all played less than 200 games, and while it may seem like an arbitrary number, it comes out t about two years in the NHL. For some players, their stardom may seem more apparent even before their first game while others fly under the radar and come to the spotlight towards the end of the season.
15 Matt Murray
The selection for Team North America (the young guns) in the World Cup of Hockey tied the record for playoff wins as a rookie with 15. His rise to stardom did not occur until the start of the playoffs when Marc-Andre Fleury went down with a concussion. Fans were worried, but Murray decided he had other plans.
The team that Murray had in front of him did not require a 40+ save performance every night to win, but when called upon, he made the big saves look easy. He finished the playoffs with a 2.08 GAA, .923 save percentage, and 15 wins. This may be a very small sample size, but make no mistake about it, Murray is here to stay in the land of NHL stardom. Expect him to be between the pipes in the ‘Burgh for years to come.
14 John Gibson
This is not the guitar maker or the man that a drink was named after, but he may have All-Star appearance scheduled for the next few next years. This 21-year goalie from Pittsburgh, PA has only played in 66 NHL games and with a 2.22 GAA and .920 SV%, you may ask how he’s on this list.
He was a co-recipient of the William M. Jennings award for the ’15-’16 season along with Fredrik Anderson. Gibson and Anderson combined to give up the fewest goals in the NHL at 192. He, like Murray, is a selection to Team North America and he also was selected to the NHL All-Rookie team in the ’15-’16 season. He is a big goalie that has been compared to the likes of Ryan Miller and Craig Anderson. While those names may not be jaw-dropping, they have had a great deal of success. With Anderson shipped out, Gibson is now the clear cut number one in Anaheim that will need continually show that he's the real deal and this past season was not a fluke.
13 Kevin Hayes
Kevin Hayes is the epitome of a young player “not doing enough” when in actual fact he has not been used enough. His role on the Rangers this year was as a third line center and while many have pegged him for being lazy and unproductive, it is simply not the case. Hayes was eighth on a spread out scoring squad of the Rangers in points while seventh in both goals and assists. Hardly a lazy and unproductive player, right?
What is even more astonishing is that he produced like a like a first/second line center while getting third line minutes at wing and center. His production was comparable to second line winger Reilly Smith, who gets a regular shift on the second line. Many thought that Hayes was in the midst of a “sophomore slump,” which can be nullified by simply looking at his stats, as he was one of the Rangers stronger PP guys, yet was not used correctly. In Hayes third year, we expect a increase in offensive production and for him to soldigy his spot in the top 6.
12 Colton Parayko
In this day in age, it is the “fancy stats” that are taking over, but one category for this player really stands out: plus/minus. Colton Parayko was a +28 on the year. He received time as a bottom pairing defenseman but his numbers are off the charts – literally. His goal scoring/60, first assist/60, and primary points/60 were all in line with top-pairing numbers. He was tenth on the team in points and eighth on the team in assists.
The Blues then smartened up and gave the 6’6” Parayko just over 20 minutes a game in the playoffs. It is no surprise that the 23-year-old received a spot on Team North America for the World Cup, while Parayko also received All-Rookie first team for his off-the-charts numbers. With the departure of Kevin Shattenkirk inevitable, Parayko provides a cap-friendly upgrade at the top-2 pairing position for the Blues and Hitchcock.
11 Dylan Larkin
Dylan Larkin made the jump to the NHL after his freshman year at Michigan with 47 points in 38 games, good for second on the team behind senior Zach Hyman. Prior to Michigan, he played for the US U-18 team, totalling 31 goals and won a gold at the U-18 World Championships.
We're sure many have seen the video of Larkin as a young kid sniping on a net in his basement with one of his buddies, if you have watched NHL on NBC. Not only can this kid score (23 goals), but also he’s got some serious wheels, which he showed off during the All-Star skills competition. Larkin broke the record for the fastest skater with a time of 13.179, which was previously set by Mike Gartner in 1996. While Larkin may have seen sheltered minutes each game with stars like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg during his first year in Mo-Town, he will certainly be looked upon for more production with the departure of Datsyuk.
10 Shayne Gostisbehere
Two years removed from helping his team to win the first NCAA hockey title for Union College, Shayne Gostisbehere is no stranger to making big time plays. He is better known as “The Ghost” in The City of Brotherly Love and he took the Flyers by storm once he was inserted into the lineup. In his rookie campaign, he totaled 17 goals, 29 assists for 46 points in 64 games from the blueline.
The Flyers blueline was without an offensive pulse until Gostisbehere arrived and he took every opportunity given to him. He finished fifth on the team in points and fourth on the team in goals, which is not too bad for a rookie that only played in 64 games. He also finished fifth among rookies in points and assists, while finishing in third for PPG behind Artemi Panarin and, of course, Connor McDavid. We don't believe that this was a freshman phenom year, but a preview of what is in store for the Flyers and the rest of the NHL. He also earned a spot on the North American World Cup team for this Septemeber.
9 Matt Dumba
A bronze medal winner in the U-18 championships and most recently a gold medal winner at the World Championships, Matt Dumba is young talent that surely will flourish on the NHL stage. We certainly believe that he is an overlooked defenseman and while the Canadian W.C. team is loaded, we're not sure if he got enough attention.
He had 26 points in 81 games this year, which was good for third amongst defenseman on the Wild: trailing Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon. In previous years, Dumba was shuttled back and forth between the NHL and the AHL/WHL. This year, he found a rhythm in both shutting down opponents and producing while playing bottom-paring minutes for the Wild. His primary point production was that of a top-pairing defenseman, which may have been helped by his power play production: 12 points and 2:10 average time on ice.
8 Leon Draisaitl
Many have pegged Leon Draisaitl as yet another failed top draft pick of the Edmonton Oilers, but he came into his own in his second season and first full NHL season. It may be difficult to look at other players on the Oilers other than Connor McDavid, but he seems worth a look. He has amassed 60 points in 109 games for a struggling Oilers team. He is a big forward that does not necessarily use his size to his advantage, standing at 6’1” 214lbs, but he will once he has grown into his body.
Draisaitl was second on the team in points to the recently traded Taylor Hall and was tied for second for the team lead in assists with McDavid. When on a line with Draisaitl, players saw an increase in their Corsi% for (51 vs. 48) and their expected goals for% (52 vs. 48). Draisaitl is a player that drives the possession of his team and, usually, if you have the puck you score goals. Expect Draisaitl to be a good follow-up to McDavid, forcing opponents to pick which line they want to try and shut down.
7 Max Domi
Max Domi may be a name feared around the world because of his father's toughness, but this young gun brings speed and a lethal shot to the NHL. While receiving second line minutes, his individual production (primary points/60min) was that of a first line guy and he should continue to produce like a first line player in the years to come.
Arizona has been a bottom feeder/low budget team for many years and Max Domi is the spark that they need. The one/two punch of Domi and Anthony Duclair is a combo that will be deadly as they grow together. Domi was second on the team in points with 54 in 81 games while accruing 72 PIMs (that sounds more like a 'Domi' stat). We believe that in his sophomore campaign, he will continue his speed game and playmaking ability, which opens up the ice for others.
6 Johnny Gaudreau
“Johnny Hockey,” as he is better known, is a crafty, little guy that is a part of the changing culture of NHL hockey. Standing at a whopping 5’9” and 157lbs, he can make NHL defenseman spin like a top. His sophomore year was better, personally, as he averaged close to a point a game (78 points in 79 games), while his squad failed to make the playoffs. The year prior, he had 65 points in 81 games and the Flames made the playoffs for the first time in five years.
Johnny Hockey ranked among the league's best for points (sixth), points per game (eighth) and had the same number of hat tricks as the legendary Patrick Kane with two (tied for second with eight players). He has also been an All-Star for his first two campaigns with much more to follow as he continues to burn defenseman with his speed and quick hands.
5 Filip Forsberg
No, this isn’t Peter, but he may develop into the star that he was during his time in Colorado. We're sure that the Washington Capitals are kicking themselves for trading this guy for Martin Erat (KHL) and Micheal Latta (17 points in 113 GP). we're not sure what the Caps thought by trading a proven winner in the Worlds who has a gold and two silvers at the U-20 Worlds and two silvers at the U-18 Worlds.
Can you imagine how deadly the Caps would have been this past year? Instead, Filip Forsberg was a big part of the Preds' success. He led the team in points (64) as well as in goals (31). He was also tied for second in hat tricks along with eight other players. He has averaged 64 points in the past two years but he should have a significant jump in points as his ice-time increases. Forsberg has rightfully earned a spot on the Sweden World Cup team and recently a contract extension.
4 Jack Eichel
The number two overall draft pick in the 2015 draft picked up right where he left off at the college ranks – at the top. Buffalo was a struggling team, (obviously with a #2 overall pick) however, Jack Eichel showed glimpses of stardom. The spotlight was on Connor McDavid for most of the year and, once he went down, Eichel never really claimed the spotlight. Regardless, Eichel is not even 20 years of age yet, but showed that he can make grown men look like little boys against him.
Eichel had 56 points in 81 games, which was good for 0.69 PPG, while being a noticeable -16. A -16 is quite respectable when you consider he was playing first line minutes and Buffalo was under the .500 mark. He trailed only Ryan O’Reilly by four points for the team lead while scoring the most goals during the ’15-’16 campaign. One thing Eichel needs to work on for his sophomore campaign is his brutal 41% rating in the faceoff dot. Once Eichel has a stronger supporting cast, look for him to give McDavid a run for his money.
3 Artemi Panarin
There was a bit of controversy as to the rookie status of Artemi Panarin (24 years old) as he has played for teams in the KHL, the Russian Pro league. While his rookie status may be questionable, his dominating play certainly was not. On a team of Blackhawks that continuously reload every year, producing 77 points in 80 games is quite impressive, even with Patty Kane as your linemate. His PPG production was higher than several superstars of mention such as Alex Ovechkin and Vladimir Tarasenko. He was also responsible for creating 28.9 goals on the year – greater than superstars by the names of John Tavares (28.1) and Joe Thornton (27.1)
Panarin does have a small sample size with only one season under his belt, but he played as though he was a 10-year NHL vet. Expect Panarin to be a force to be reckoned with for many years to come and for the Blackhawks to protect him during the expansion draft next year.
2 Evgeny Kuznetsov
At 24 years young, Evgeny Kuznetsov has been unbelievable through his first 179 games in the NHL, amassing 123 points. He was originally thrown into the fire in his first NHL season, playing 17 regular season games and another 14 playoff games. Alex Ovechkin may draw plenty of attention for his ability to score goals, but Kuznetsov can set you up from just about anywhere. If you want a glimpse of his playmaking ability, just Google Kuznetsov top ten passes and prepare to be amazed.
Kuznetsov did not have a “sophomore slump” by any means. In the ’15-’16 campaign, his stat line was 20 goals, 57 assists – good for 77 points. He was fourth in the league in assists, ninth in the league for points, and a surprising sixth in plus/minus. While players may excel in their offensive abilities and shy away when called upon for defense – this was not the case for Kuznetsov, playing just over 17 minutes a game while averaging 48% of his starts in the D-zone.
1 Connor McDavid
This rising star is an absolute no brainer, as he's a former first overall pick. Connor McDavid has only played 45 games, but came in at just over a point per game (48 points). He's electric on the ice and it gave the Oilers fans hope that just maybe they make the playoffs in the near future. He certainly is a generational talent and the Oilers may have finally got a first overall pick right – yes, I’m speaking to you Nail Yakupov, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Taylor Hall.
McDavid may even be considered to be the next Oilers Captain and, at 19, it would be a large load given to him. However, when McDavid was in the line-up, it was like he was a man playing against boys. He consistently makes defenders look silly and that will only increase with more experience. Being a generational talent, it is easy to say he is the best rising star.