While the Edmonton Oilers, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Winnipeg Jets are trotting out the kids and giving fans a glimpse of the future potential of the likes of Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, William Nylander, and Patrik Laine, other teams haven’t fared quite as well when it comes to a youthful makeover.
Truthfully, there’s nothing wrong with keeping an 18-to-23-year-old prospect in the minor leagues to continue his development, since playing full time in the NHL is still a really hard job. It’s a physical sport and not everyone is ready for the grind of an 82-game season, especially the youngsters. With the NHL youth movement in full swing and many first and second year players making headlines this season, there are just as many who have found the going too tough to handle at the big league level.
Here are 15 notable young players (mostly rookies) who aren’t quite ready for the bright lights of NHL rinks.
15. Marek Hrivik, F – New York Rangers
By rookie standards, Slovakian Marek Hrivik is an “old” guy at 25. When the New York Rangers suffered key injuries earlier this season, the call went down to the Hartford Wolf Pack for some help. Hrivik, who had eight goals and nine assists in 20 games and who had put in some really good work with the Wolf Pack the three previous seasons, seemed ready to go. The undrafted left winger started off well enough in a third-fourth line role, but saw his ice time cut significantly five games in (to a low of 5:51 against New Jersey on Dec. 18). He recorded his first point against Pittsburgh, an assist, on Dec. 20, but his minutes kept fluctuating, depending on the game. After a minus-2 performance in a win over Columbus on Jan. 7, the Rangers, who were getting the wounded back from the IR, waived Hrivik, who cleared and is back with the Wolf Pack. He had two assists and was -3 in 16 games.
14. Shea Theodore, D – Anaheim Ducks
Playing defence at the NHL level is hard. Even harder for fresh-faced rookies looking to make an impact. In 2013, the Anaheim Ducks had precious few picks in the entry draft (just five), including a late first rounder. Still waiting, when their turn came up at no. 26, was the Seattle Thunderbirds’ Shea Theodore. An offensive stud in the WHL and a member of the 2015 world junior champion Canadian squad, he seemed destined for greater things. After winning gold with Canada, Theodore was given a nine-game audition with the Norfolk Admirals at the conclusion of the Thunderbirds’ season. He impressed, scoring 11 points in those nine contests. Last year, he split between the San Diego Gulls (37 points in 50 games) and Anaheim (eight points in 19 games, +7), which solidified his cred. He made the team out of training camp this season, scored seven points in 23 games but seemed lost in his own zone at times and sank to -7. He was reassigned to San Diego on Jan. 17 after being a healthy scratch in five games during a recent stretch.
13. Nick Lappin, F – New Jersey Devils
Geneva, Illinois’ Nick Lappin was one of those late-blooming, diamond-in-the-rough types NHL teams are fond of signing after going undrafted. The lanky forward didn’t come through the U.S. National Team Development program and didn’t open any eyes in the USHL during his 2011 draft year. He opted for Brown University to further his hockey career and did very well at the ECAC school, earning a two-year contract with the Devils in March 2016. At the conclusion of the Bears’ season last spring, the Devils sent him to Albany, where he scored seven points in 12 games (+7) and another seven points (five goals) in 11 AHL playoff games. A pretty great start for a free agent. Lappin made the team out of training camp this year and was fairly productive in a third-fourth line role through his first 18 games, scoring four goals and three assists and logging a +1. But, he hit the skids over his last 17 contests, with no points and a -11. He was sent back to Albany on Jan. 13.
12. Kyle Rau, F – Florida Panthers
Around the hockey mad confines of Eden Prairie, Minnesota, the Rau brothers were something of a local fixation. Kyle Rau, the shorter (5’8″) and younger brother of former Leafs draft pick Chad (5’11”), had to toil in the shadow of his sibling. He did very well, parlaying a great high school hockey career into a scholarship at the University of Minnesota and a spot on the U.S. junior team at the 2012 world juniors (he had five points in six games). Florida took Rau 91st overall in 2011 and after his senior year with the Golden Gophers he got a seven-game stint with the San Antonio Rampage in 2015 and then a full season with the Portland Pirates in 2015-16, where he scored 17 goals and 14 assists in 63 games. That earned him a nine game call-up, but he failed to register a point. Undaunted, Rau cracked the line-up out of training camp. He would score in back-to-back games in mid-November, but went pointless in 14 games thereafter and was sent back to the AHL with Springfield on Dec. 30.
11. Slater Koekkoek, D – Tampa Bay Lightning
The guy with the awesome hockey name (it’s pronounced coo-coo), also has the alias “Lets get Koekkoek.” For the first two seasons of Koekkoek’s junior career with the Peterborough Petes, Koekkoek did not appear to be first round pick material. He missed a ton of games to a shoulder injury and was a collective -36 in 91 games. However, the Lightning saw something special and took him 10th overall in 2012. He proved them right after a trade to the Windsor Spitfires in 2013, amassing a career high 53 points in 62 games and turning his plus-minus around to +44. In 2014-15, he debuted in the AHL with the Syracuse Crunch and put up a respectable five goals and 21 assists in 72 games. He played three games with the big club at the end of that seasons and then another nine early in 2015-16, but was sent back to Syracuse. Last year, he had five goals and 10 assists in 60 AHL games and this year he made the Bolts out of training camp. Koekkoek started off hot playing on the third pair, registering three assists in his first two games. He’d get one more assist and log a -4 overall in 29 games and was sent down on Jan. 10.
10. Marek Mazanec, G – Nashville Predators
Pekka Rinne, the great Finn goaltender, isn’t getting any younger, accelerating the need for the Nashville Predators to have a good young netminder be his understudy and stake a claim to the no. 1 job. Earlier this season, Czech goalie Marek Mazanec seemed to be just that guy. Drafted 179th overall in 2012, Mazanec climbed quickly in the organization and with Rinne on the shelf with a bad hip during the 2013-14 season, Mazanec started 25 games. He went 8-10-4 with a 2.80 goals against average and .902 save percentage. Once Rinne was healthy again, Mazanec would only see action in two games before this season. The 25-year-old played in four games earlier this season as Rinne’s back-up and didn’t impress, logging a .839 save percentage and 4.73 GAA, which saw him banished to Milwaukee. The back-up job is now Juuse Saros’ to lose.
9. Jakub Vrana, F – Washington Capitals
We’ll admit, the red hot Washington Capitals line-up is a tough one to crack. However, we aren’t going to give Jakub Vrana a free pass for failing to stick after being called up to the Caps in early December. The Czech sniper was Washington’s first pick (13th overall) in the 2014 draft, when he was playing with Linkopings HC of the Swedish Elite League in 2014-15. He recorded 12 goals and 12 assists there, and added four goals in 11 playoff games. With the Swedish season over, he debuted with the Hershey Bears, scoring five assists in three regular season games and another six points in 10 AHL playoff contests. He stayed in the AHL last year and had very good numbers, including 34 points (16 goals) in 36 games and then 14 points in 21 more playoff tilts. He again failed to crack the line-up out of training camp this season, but got the promotion and would score his first NHL goal on Dec. 9 against Buffalo. Vrana had two assists in a game against the Islanders on Dec. 13, but lasted just five more games before being demoted.
8. Taylor Leier, F – Philadelphia Flyers
For two games this season, Taylor Leier was on top of the world. The Saskatoon native, who was taken 117th overall by Philadelphia in 2012, finally shook the monkey off his back and scored his first goal — in his 11th game with the team — in a loss to Dallas on Dec. 17. That marker followed his first ever point the game before against Colorado. Leier had paid his dues to that point, putting in three pretty fine seasons with the Portland Winterhawks and then two seasons of progression with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, including 20 goals and 29 assists with the Phantoms last year. He was called up for six games late in the 2015-16 campaign, but didn’t register a point. He was sent back down to Lehigh Valley on New Years Day and has 22 points in 28 games down on the farm.
7. Hunter Shinkaruk, F – Calgary Flames
For a first round pick, 24th overall by the Vancouver Canucks in 2013, Hunter Shinkaruk’s path the NHL seemed to be on the straight and narrow. Yet, he’s had to overcome all kinds of adversity in the form of injuries throughout his career just to get a sniff at the NHL level. The stocky 5’11”, 180 lb. Shinkaruk broke his leg in two places in his midget WHL draft year, missing all but three games. He then played for the Medicine Hat Tigers for parts of four seasons starting in 2010-11. Early in his fourth year, 2013-14, Shinkaruk suffered a torn labrum in his hip and had to undergo surgery, which saw him play just 18 games with the Tigers. After he healed, he got in a full season with the Utica Comets in 2014-15, scoring 16 goals and 31 points in 74 games. He was superb for the Comets last year logging 39 points in 45 games, played his first NHL game, and then was traded to Calgary midway through the season. Calgary sent him to the Stockton Heat of the AHL, where he scored six goals and six assists and again was called up. He fired his first two goals in a seven-game preview and then started the year with the Flames, only to record one assist and a -3 in seven games. He has been with Stockton ever since.
6. Anthony DeAngelo, D – Arizona Coyotes
Right shooting defencemen are a hot commodity in the NHL these days. Righties who can also score, even more valuable. DeAngelo was a scoring sensation in junior with the Sarnia Sting, leading all OHL defencemen in scoring during the 2013-14 season with 71 points. The Tampa Bay Lightning were so impressed, they nabbed him at 19th overall in the 2014 draft. DeAngelo split the 2014-15 season between Sarnia and Sault Ste. Marie, firing 25 goals and 64 assists, as well as a 16-assist performance in 13 playoff games. In 2015-16 the Sewell, NJ born DeAngelo played in Syracuse, scoring 43 points in 69 games. The Lightning dealt him, despite his good offensive year, to Arizona for a second round pick in the 2016 draft. He started in the minors, but got called up to Arizona in early November. While his offensive numbers were pretty good, nine points in 20 games, he was a defensive liability, recording a -4. He was sent back to Tucson in early January.
5. Malcolm Subban, G – Boston Bruins
It’s a mighty shadow that older brother P.K. casts. Malcolm, the goaltending brother, followed P.K. into hockey and forged his own path, ending up with the Belleville Bulls (though P.K. did precede him there). The Boston Bruins were enamored of his skills with Belleville and made him one of a small number of netminders to be chosen in the first round, 24th overall in 2012. As with most goalies, he apprenticed two seasons with Providence (2013-14 and 2014-15), earning a one-game call cup. He allowed three goals on six shots and lost his debut. Undaunted, he put in yeoman’s work with Providence last season, winning 14 of 27 games and logging a .911 save percentage. Subban got one start again with the B’s this season, and while his save percentage was better (three goals on 16 shots), he was yanked early again and sent back to the farm.
4. Julius Honka, D – Dallas Stars
At one point not long ago, the future on the Dallas blue line — and the present — were looking pretty fine. They have John Klingberg, Dan Hamhuis, Johnny Oduya and Esa Lindell in the line-up, but have not had the best of seasons. Honka seemed on his way to stardom in Big D after the Stars took him 14th overall in 2014 after a great season in the WHL with Swift Current. The talented Finn scored 16 goals and 40 assists in 62 games for the Broncos. He would then apprentice on the farm at various times with Lindell and Klingberg up until this season with the Texas Stars. In 169 AHL games, Honka has 24 goals and 72 assists and is a collective -14. He was called up to the big club in late November — and as of today earned another one — registered three assists and a -6 in eight games, before being returned to Texas in mid-December.
3. Kyle Connor, F – Winnipeg Jets
Kyle Connor is a stud, and that much won change until he makes the Jets line-up for good. The Michigan native was a scoring phenom in the USHL, notching 82 goals and 113 assists in 174 games with the Youngstown Phantoms. The Jets took the Michigan commit 17th overall in 2015 and after a huge year with the Wolverines (71 points in 38 games), he made the team out of training camp. He had an assist in his first ever game, but his only NHL goal didn’t come until his sixth game on Oct. 27, a win over Dallas. The high-scoring 20-year-old would garner only two more assists through 13 more games and was demoted to the Manitoba Moose in late November. The Jets probably want him to improve his overall game, as he was -8 in the NHL and is -9, with nine points, in 17 AHL games.
2. Tyler Motte, F – Chicago Blackhawks
The Chicago Blackhawks’ scouts are famous for getting good players in the middle to late rounds. Just see what Niklas Hjalmarsson (4th round, 108th overall in 2005) and Marcus Kruger (5th round, 149th overall) have done in a Hawks uniform since being picked. We could go further back than that, but some of those players, like Dustin Byfuglien (8th round, 245th overall in 2003) have moved on. This year’s prize pupil was Motte, who wasn’t taken until the fourth round in 2013, 121st overall out of the U.S. National Team Development Program. Later, a big point producer with the Michigan Wolverines, Motte seemed to make a smooth transition to the NHL, scoring two goals and two assists in his first seven games. But, reality came crashing down and he slumped to just three points in his next 26 games, earning him a ticket to the minors with the Rockford Ice Hogs for a second stint.
1. Jesse Puljujarvi, F – Edmonton Oilers
Unlike more successful countryman, the injured Patrik Laine (2nd overall), Jesse Puljujarvi did not have the weight of too many expectations on a young Edmonton Oilers squad full of early first round picks. And he played pretty much like a fourth overall selection. Projected as a “top 3″ Puljujarvi fell to the Oil when Columbus surprisingly picked Pierre-Luc Dubois third. No knock on Dubois, but Puljujarvi was key to the Finns winning the 2016 world juniors — along with Laine — as well as being a force in the Finnish big league. The 6’4” right winger scored 13 goals and 15 assists in 50 games with Karpat, adding four goals and five assists in 10 playoff games. He made the Oilers out of training camp in 2016, but struggled to just eight points in 28 games, while playing just over 11 minutes on average. He has been with the Bakersfield Condors for four games and has four points.