Nico Hischier will have a lot of competition for Calder Trophy bragging rights this season.
There is no guarantee that the no. 1 pick, nor just-as-good no. 2 Nolan Patrick will be the class of the freshmen crew in the big leagues this season.
Last year’s Calder winner, Auston Matthews, went goal-for-goal and point-for-point with Patrik Laine, William Nylander and Mitch Marner, the two latter being his teammates.
The salary cap era has mandated that just about every NHL team include one or more rookies in the line-up per year, as they are usually fairly cheap.
This year is no different, with around 30 making opening day rosters.
Some of these freshmen come with a lot of hype, like Patrick and Hischier, but there are some lesser-knowns who may have played less than the legal limit 25 games to still qualify as “rookies.”
Here are 20 that fans should pay attention to over the course of the next few weeks, at least. In no particular order.
20. Alex Tuch, RW – Vegas Golden Knights
Might as well start with the new kids on the hockey block, and one of their young gunners. Tuch, originally drafted in the first round, 18th overall by the Minnesota Wild in 2014 out of the U.S.N.D.T.P. program, got his feet wet with six games in Minnesota last year. Before that, the big (6’4″, 222 lbs.) right winger was a sniper with Boston College and a 57-game stint with the Iowa Wild (18 goals, 37 points). He played well in training camp, enough to make the team, but on Thursday it was announced — mostly because he could clear waivers — that he would start the season in the AHL with Chicago. It won’t be long, though, before GM George McPhee can clear the deadwood and bring him back. He scored a goal and added an assists in five pre-season games skating alongside Erik Haula and Brendan Leipsic.
19. Clayton Keller, RW – Arizona Coyotes
A little on the small side, Missouri native Clayton Keller makes up for it with hands of gold. The Boston University product and seventh overall pick from the 2016 entry draft lit it up in the pre-season, leading the ‘Yotes with eight points in four games. That earned him a spot on the top line with Derek Stepan and Max Domi. He outshone fellow rookie and no. 3 pick from the 2015 draft Dylan Strome, beating him out for this spot on our list. Keller’s pedigree includes an 11-point performance at the 2017 World Junior Hockey Championship that helped the Americans win a gold medal. He also chipped in five goals and two assists for Team USA at the IIHF World Championships in May. A blue chip Calder contender, we think.
18. Brock Boeser, RW – Vancouver Canucks
The Yankee train keeps rolling here, with Burnsville, MN native Boeser rating a mention with the Canucks. A highly touted University of North Dakota player who had 94 points in 74 games, Boeser scored four goals and added an assist in a nine-game stint with the Canucks last season. The 23rd overall pick in the 2015 draft kept up his high scoring ways in the pre-season, leading all Canucks in scoring with four goals and three assists in five games. As of Wednesday, Boeser was manning the right wing on a fairly skilled line with reclamation projects Sam Gagner and Alex Burmistrov. Boeser is also slated to man right wing on the second powerplay unit.
17. Charlie McAvoy, D – Boston Bruins
Again, an American born player warrants a look here, as Long Beach, NY born Charlie McAvoy comes highly regarded. He joins a Bruins blue line that is getting younger with fellow fuzzy-faced defenders Brandon Carlo and Matt Grzelcyk. McAvoy, drafted 14th overall in 2016 by Boston, skated right out of the Boston University Terriers program and into a six-game tryout with the Bruins, during the 2016-17 playoffs no less. He played well, notching three assists in six games. Like Clayton Keller, he too won a gold medal with the Americans at the 2017 World Junior Championships, scoring two goals and four assists in seven games (including being player of the game in the gold medal match). McAvoy is skating with Kevan Miller on Boston’s second pair.
16. Andreas Borgman, D – Toronto Maple Leafs
His name won’t likely be mentioned breathlessly like Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner’s were last year, but undrafted Swedish rearguard Borgman looks like a hard-rock NHL defenceman. He surprised everyone in camp and took the final roster spot ahead of the farmhands and prospects like Calle Rosen, first round pick Timothy Liljegren, Travis Dermott (a highly regarded second round pick from 2015), Andrew Nielsen and Rinat Valiev. He tied for the team lead in hits in the pre-season with nine and picked up an assist in Toronto’s first regular season game Wednesday night when the Leafs beat Winnipeg 7-2. Prior to joining the Leafs as a free agent, Borgman played in the Swedish Elite League with HV71 Jonkoping, recording 25 points in 59 regular season and playoff games.
15. Haydn Fleury, D – Carolina Hurricanes
The ‘Canes are certainly blessed with a crew of young, talented — and predominantly American — defencemen. Other than 2014 first round (seventh overall) pick Haydn Fleury, the other five Carolina rearguards hail from south of the 49th parallel. Fleury, from tiny Carlyle, Saskatchewan, was a superstar in junior for the Red Deer Rebels and a regular on national junior team rosters from U17 to U20. After four seasons in the WHL, Fleury had a pretty good season in the AHL with the Charlotte Checkers in 2016-17, compiling 26 points in 69 games and a +16. He won the battle for the sixth spot on Carolina’s defence by playing a good all around game in the pre-season, logging two assists, an even rating, two blocked shots and five hits.
14. Mikhail Sergachev, D – Tampa Bay Lightning
The Montreal Canadiens may rue the day the traded away highly regarded defenceman Mikhail Sergachev for Quebecois playmaker Jonathan Drouin. The Habs drafted Sergachev ninth overall in the 2016 draft from the Windsor Spitfires of the OHL. The 19-year-old native of Nizhnekamsk, Russia, who played four games with Montreal in 2016-17, broke camp with the Lightning as one half of the second pair defence with veteran Anton Stralman. Sergachev was a wheeler in junior, scoring 100 points in 117 games for the Spitfires and showed that offensive prowess in the pre-season, scoring a goal and two assists in six games (the most points by any Bolts defenceman). He also didn’t shy away from the heavy going, blocking seven shots and dishing out seven hits.
13. Alex DeBrincat, RW – Chicago Blackhawks
It’s cliche that good things come in small packages. In regards to Chicago rookie Alex DeBrincat, expect great things. The 5’7″ scoring wiz was sent down to the minors on Wednesday due to a salary cap shuffle and is likely to be called up sooner than later when GM Stan Bowman has the fiscal house in order. Despite scoring 51 goals and over 100 points in each of his first two seasons with the Erie Otters, DeBrincat had to wait until the second round of the 2016 draft (34th overall) to hear his name called. We think Chicago got a massive steal, as he went out and scored 65 goals and 127 points in his last season of junior in 2016-17. DeBrincat had made the final roster before the salary cap shuffle, sniping two goals and an assist in five pre-season games.
12. Tage Thompson, RW – St. Louis Blues
That 2017 world junior gold winning US team sure had a lot of bonafide future NHL talent. Tage Thompson, who had five points in that run, made the Blues roster this year after a 2016-17 season split between the University of Connecticut and the AHL’s Chicago Wolves. He’s a lanky 6’5″ center/winger who has good scoring touch, too. In 70 collegiate games with the Huskies, the Phoenix, AZ born Thompson scored 33 times and added 31 assists. With the Wolves he had two points in 16 games, followed by two goals and an assist in 10 playoff games. In the pre-season, He was tied for the team lead in points with four, in six games. Thompson skates on the third line with Oskar Sundqvist and Magnus Paajarvi, as well as on the second powerplay unit.
11. Tyson Jost, C – Colorado Avalanche
Tyson Jost would do well to follow in the footsteps of fellow St. Albert, Alberta native Jarome Iginla. Jost, drafted 10th overall by Colorado in 2016, didn’t get to play with Iggy there (he was traded at the deadline) but did get in a late-season debut, scoring a goal in six games. This season, the University of North Dakota product centers the fourth line with veterans Matt Nieto and Blake Comeau on an Avs team looking to erase the bad memory of the 2016-17 season. Jost will also anchor the Avalanche’s second powerplay unit. Jost is a pure scorer who averaged a point and a half per game in the B.C. junior league, then put up 35 points in 33 games during his lone NCAA season in 2016-17. He will see his first regular season game action in New York tonight.
10. Aaron Dell, G – San Jose Sharks
Seldom do rookie goalies get any sort of NHL game action early in their pro careers, however, this will be an important year for Alberta born Aaron Dell. He got in 20 games with the Sharks last season, after paying his dues at three levels of minor league hockey, including the CHL’s Allen Americans, the ECHL’s Utah Grizzlies and AHL Abbotsford Heat, Worcester Sharks and San Jose Barracuda. Dell, a star at the University of North Dakota, was stellar backing up Martin Jones last season, posting a 11-6-1 record in his first 20 NHL games, with a 2.00 goals against average, .931 save percentage and a shutout. Not bad for a guy who went undrafted. It is important to note, however, that Dell won’t win a Calder, as he is too old (he’s 28).
9. Sonny Milano, LW – Columbus Blue Jackets
This was a toss up, picking rookie Sonny Milano over fellow freshman and teammate Pierre-Luc Dubois. We believe Milano will have a more dynamic rookie season than the highly regard Dubois for a couple of reasons. First, Milano, who was drafted 16th overall in 2014, has paid his dues in the minors after an outstanding junior career (where Dubois strictly played junior). In 127 AHL games over three seasons, the Massapequa, NY born Milano scored 32 goals and added 41 assists. He also played in seven NHL games over two seasons, registering an assist. We think he’ll be eager to prove he belongs, given that he’s been shuttled back and forth a bit. Also, Milano is currently manning the left side on the second line, while Dubois is currently playing the same position on the third line. They both will be interesting to watch.
8. Jakub Vrana, RW – Washington Capitals
If there is one rookie more ideally suited to having a breakout campaign, we can’t think of anyone in a better position than Washington’s Jakub Vrana. Washington’s first round selection in 2014 (13th overall) will skate on the Capitals first line to start the season with big snipers Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetzov. The talented Prague native paid his dues in the AHL, earning a 21-game call-up last year after playing in 88 AHL games with Hershey over three seasons. He scored 35 goals, added 40 assists and was +21. During his brief stay last year (he is still a rookie under definition and can win the Calder), Vrana scored three goals and three assists and was +2. Vrana is also expected to occupy the left side on Washington’s second powerplay unit to start the 2017-18 season.
7. Kailer Yamamoto, RW – Edmonton Oilers
Kailer Yamamoto made his NHL debut Wednesday night in the pressure cooker that is the “Battle of Alberta.” And the first-year right winger got a glimpse of what greatness is, watching teammate and superstar Connor McDavid score every goal of a 3-0 victory over rival Calgary. A tiny guy like list-mate Alex DeBrincat, Spokane native Yamamoto is just 5’8″ and listed at a wispy 154 lbs. It is very surprising, then, that the slight playmaker made it, considering he was a late first round pick (22nd overall) in this year’s draft and going to a team already stocked with good young talent. Yamamoto was great in junior with his hometown Chiefs, scoring 84 goals and 143 assists in 190 games. The Oilers have slotted him on the second line with veterans Milan Lucic and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, as well as the second powerplay unit.
6. Josh Ho-Sang, RW – New York Islanders
At times labeled anywhere from dynamic to disinterested, there is no denying New York Islanders rookie winger Josh Ho-Sang is one gifted hockey player. Drafted 28th overall by the Isles in 2014, the Toronto born Ho-Sang put in four outstanding seasons in the OHL with Windsor and Niagara before turning pro last year. He scored 82 goals and 210 assists in 256 junior games, along with 45 points in 32 playoff contests. He broke in with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers of the AHL last year and put up a respectable 36 points (10 goals) in 50 games, earning a late season call-up. He got in 21 games (preserving his rookie status for 2017-18) and scored four goals and six assists, while logging a +1. He will begin the season on the Islanders third line with Brock Nelson and Anthony Beauvillier, as well as manning the point on the first powerplay unit.
5. Alex Iafallo, LW – Los Angeles Kings
Alex Who? That is a question we certainly asked about the undrafted forward out of suburban Buffalo (Eden, N.Y.). As of Thursday, the Kings had him skating on the first line with Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown, not bad for a guy who was an afterthought during his 2012 draft year. He played in the USHL with Fargo before going to Minnesota-Duluth for four years of collegiate hockey. He percolated slowly with the Bulldogs, a team that has graduated players to the NHL like Justin Faulk, Brett Hull, Matt Niskanen and Glenn “Chico” Resch. Iafallo scored 22 points in 36 games during his freshman season (2013-14) and by his senior year last year, he led the team with 51 points in 42 games. He got no love in free agency after a good NCAA career, being one of the last players added to the Kings training camp roster. He’s a feel-good story waiting to happen.
4. Nolan Patrick, C – Philadelphia Flyers
No, Nolan Patrick did not do what Auston Matthews did last season in his first game (four goals) but, he did log 13 and a half minutes of ice time in his debut as the Flyers opened their season with a 5-3 win over San Jose. Patrick, picked second overall this year, also logged three shots and spent 44 seconds on the powerplay. What the eminently talented center will bring to the Flyers this year is anyone’s guess and we’re sure Philadelphia brass is tempering fans’ expectations, but know that he is an elite level playmaker who should get better as the season goes on. He scored at a prolific rate in junior with the Brandon Wheat Kings, firing 92 goals and recording 113 assists in 163 regular season games. Patrick was just as adept a scorer in the post-season, with 45 points in 49 total playoff contests. An injury derailed what would have otherwise been a superb last year in junior, but he seems to have recovered.
3. Victor Mete, D – Montreal Canadiens
The biggest surprise of Montreal Canadiens training camp and pre-season was the progress of young defenceman Victor Mete. Defence is hard in the NHL, but the 19-year-old graduate of the powerhouse London Knights of the OHL has handled it with aplomb, so far. And in Montreal, the level of expectation from fans and media can weigh on a young guy, especially since Mete is the youngest Hab. A fluid skater who isn’t on the big side (5’9″, 184 lbs.) Mete played better and better through the pre-season, earning him first pair honors with all-star Shea Weber. Mete had four points in five games and blocked four shots while averaging just under 15 minutes of ice time per game. Mete, who was picked 100th overall by Montreal in 2016, could still be returned to the Knights, but will be given ample opportunity to prove himself.
2. Nico Hischier, C – New Jersey Devils
Being a rookie on a successful club is usually a lot easier. In New Jersey, where the Devils have missed the playoffs five years running, it will be a little harder for 2017 first overall pick Hischier. However, the Devils coaching staff has put him with very capable playmaking veteran wingers Marcus Johansson and Drew Stafford. The Swiss dynamo earned his no. 1 pick by registering 86 points in his lone junior season with Halifax of the QMJHL, followed by seven points in six playoff games. Hischier, who has gone on record that all he wants in his regular-season debut is a “W” for his team, certainly impressed in the pre-season, notching four goals and three assists in four games. The Devils also have Hischier manning the pivot position on the first powerplay unit heading into the team’s season opener at home to Colorado Saturday night.
1. Juuse Saros, G – Nashville Predators
One day soon, Pekka Rinne will have to retire. And we can’t think of a better replacement than Finnish countryman Juuse Saros. A fourth round pick (99th overall in 2013), Saros comes to the Predators at a good time, when the team is developing a winning culture, focused from the net out. Nashville GM David Poile is as astute a judge of talent as any. And the fact he was able to pluck 35-year-old Rinne in the eighth round of the 2004 draft and Saros in the fourth round of the 2013 draft is a testament to his acumen. Saros, 22, developed well in the Preds’ system with Milwaukee and earned a call-up for 21 games in 2016-17. He went 10-8-3 in relief of Rinne last year, along with a .923 save percentage, 2.35 goals against average and a shutout.