If you happen to be a fan of the NHL, it’s fairly easy to see that the league has seen a surge of young talents quickly dropping the titles of young guns to superstars.
An argument can easily be made that saying there has been a surge of young talent is a bit cliché, as the league has usually had the upper hand in elite-rated prospects upholding that status. Players such as Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin, and Patrick Kane are just a few of those to do so.
However, the amount of game-changing talent that has flooded NHL rosters over the last three years is reflective of the overall change in the prospect pools and the options that prospects have at their disposal. While there have been numerous stars to enter the league in the last three drafts, the disparity between the talent of the first and second overall picks have paid dividends for franchises that have been on the wrong side of hockey lore.
Connor McDavid (No.1 overall, Edmonton Oilers)
Being pegged the next great Canadian-born player to enter the NHL; Connor McDavid has taken the league and its fans by storm.
After playing in only 45 games as a rookie for the Edmonton Oilers due to injury, there was no sophomore slump for the then 19-year-old center. Being named captain prior to the 2016 season made McDavid the youngest player named a captain in NHL history. His play on the ice bolstered his captaincy.
Tallying 30 goals and 70 assists, McDavid recorded 100 points; the fourth fastest player to reach the milestone in NHL history. With a pair of former first-round picks in Leon Draisaitl (No.3 overall 2014) and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (No.1 overall 2013) as the major beneficiaries of McDavid’s superior vision on the ice, they helped end an 11-year playoff drought in Edmonton. The Oilers won 46 games in the regular season and pushed the top team in the Pacific – The Anaheim Ducks – to the brink, falling in Game 7 of the second round of this past season’s playoffs.
The stellar season allowed the NHL’s hottest name to claim the league’s highest honors.
McDavid took home the Ted Lindsay, Art Ross, and the Hart Memorial trophies during June’s NHL Honors in Las Vegas. That wasn’t all, the 20-year-old forward signed an 8-year/$100 million contract extension just a month later. As if McDavid was going to start off slow in 2017, he has registered eight points this season with three goals and five assists. It’s safe to say that the Edmonton Oilers are back to being contenders.
Jack Eichel (No.2 overall, Buffalo Sabres)
While McDavid has essentially stolen the spotlight from the vast majority of the prospects from the 2015 draft, Eichel, who at 17-years old was touted as the “new face of American hockey,” has quietly enjoyed back-to-back 20-goal seasons.
As a rookie, the center played in 81 games and recorded 24 goals, 32 assists for 56 points, earning him a spot on the 2015 NHL All-Rookie team. However, in his second season with the Sabres, Eichel suffered a high ankle sprain in practice, costing him the first two months of the season. Despite the injury, he managed to record his second-straight 20-goal season, registering 24 goals with 33 assists in 61 games.
A major reason that Eichel is undervalued is the fact that the Buffalo front office was in disarray during his first two seasons. After the 2016 season, Sabres owner Terry Pegula fired both General Manager Tim Murray and Dan Blysma.
However, the team is built with a bit of younger talent that when blended with Eichel’s traits, could turn the Sabres into hopefuls for a Stanley Cup playoff spot. In the 2017 draft, the team selected Minnesota’s Casey Mittlestadt, who was ranked as the best American-born player in the draft as a senior in high school (Eden Prairie HS) with the No. 8 overall pick. Mittelstadt is currently in his first season with the University of Minnesota and is already turning heads. In 2016, the Sabres selected winger Alexander Nylander No.8 overall.
McDavid wasn’t the only one to get paid as Eichel inked an 8-year/ $80 million contract extension that will start during the 2018-2019 season. If the Sabres hit on the younger talent selected, Eichel could soon possibly be more of a household name to even the smallest NHL fans.
Auston Matthews (No.1 overall, Toronto Maple Leafs)
While Eichel was pegged by many as the new face of American hockey, that honor could easily go to Matthews. Rather than continuing to play amateur hockey in the United States or in the Canadian Major Junior Leagues, Matthews opted to cross the Atlantic to Switzerland, where he would play his final year of hockey before being eligible for the NHL entry draft.
In his NHL debut against the Ottawa Senators, the 20-year-old phenom put on a show. By scoring four goals, he became the first player in the modern era to reach the impressive milestone. That wasn’t the only ‘first since’ line that Matthews was able to post in his rookie season.
He was the first American-born player to be selected with the No.1 overall pick since Patrick Kane went No.1 in 2007. With fellow ‘young guns’ Mitch Marner and William Nylander, Matthews led the Maple Leafs to their first playoff appearance since the 2004 season. Despite going scoreless in the first two contests against the Washington Capitals in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, He scored in four-straight games before Toronto was eliminated in Game 6, making him the first player since 1986 to do so in the playoffs.
His remarkable season led Matthews to easily run away with the Calder Memorial trophy, garnering 164-of-167 votes. He has shown no signs of slowing down, scoring seven goals and five assists in nine games this season.
Patrik Laine (No.2 overall, Winnipeg Jets)
Whether it’s from the high slot, the point, or really anywhere in the offensive zone, if the puck happens to hit Laine’s stick, there a good chance it will find the back of the net. Dropping out of school to focus on hockey full-time in his native Finland, Patrik Laine is the next great sniper of the NHL.
While the Jets did not reach the postseason in 2016, it wasn’t due to the efforts of their talented forward. Despite missing eight games due to a concussion, Laine scored 36 goals and recorded 28 assists in 73 games for Winnipeg. In February, he broke the Winnipeg Jets/ Atlanta Thrashers franchise record for goals scored by a rookie in a single season, topping Ilya Kovalchuk’s 29 goals.
The pieces are starting to show for the Jets, who will look to end a two-year postseason drought. Mixing with Laine to make the surge to the playoffs in 2017 is former first-round picks Nikolaj Ehlers and veteran Mark Schiefele. Though it can be said, the Jets may be ready to make the leap to contenders if Laine continues to tickle the twine.
Living up to the hype
As for the 2017 NHL draft, New Jersey Devils forward Nico Hischier made history by being the first Switzerland-born player to be selected with the No.1 pick. Canada’s Nolan Patrick was taken No.2 by the Philadelphia Flyers.
It’s still too early to tell whether or not the two youngsters will live up to the expectations as the top picks of the draft. The only thing that is for certain, if that if the Devils and Flyers have aspirations of returning to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Hischier and Patrick will have to be focal points of the franchises.
A look ahead to 2018
The NHL regular season is just under a month into action and fans are just now getting the opportunity to see the selections of the 2017 draft take to the ice for their respective clubs. That’s not to say that we can’t take a peek into the talent pool for the 2018 draft.
The early consensus is Sweden defenseman, Rasmus Dahlin. At 17-years old, the 6-foot-1 defenseman has nifty moves as a puck handler. Moves that could make him the first prospect from Sweden to go No.1 overall in 29 years.
According to multiple NHL scouts, Dahlin possesses McDavid-like talent when the puck is on his stick. He has a good, strong wrist shot, and sees the ice well.Despite not seeing much ice time, he was able to secure a spot on Sweden’s national team for the 2017 WJC (World Junior Classic) ahead of a pair of 2017 first round picks.
It early, but it’s been quite some time that NHL scouts have pegged a blue-liner with generational talent. He is definitely one to keep an eye on throughout the season.
- Josh Zimmer is the Lead NFL Draft analyst for NGSC Sports as well as serving as a contributor for NHL coverage.
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