With over half the season gone, there have been a number of strong rookie performers. I am going to highlight five players who have shown strong starts to their NHL careers, and who I believe will be important players not just this year, but for their franchises going forward. Four of these five players have made themselves well-known to nearly every NHL fan, but I’ve included a fifth who may not be putting up huge points, and may not be getting huge media hype, but has shown strong play as a rookie and is a player who I feel deserves a little more attention.
Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks: Hertl has only played thirty-five games so far this season. Currently Hertl is out with knee surgery (December 31st) which the Sharks said would keep him out for a minimum of one month at the time of the injury. The injury occurred in a collision into the boards during a game in with the LA Kings. The timing for Hertl couldn’t have been worse. He is a top contender for the Calder Trophy (depending how long he is out this could change). He also has a chance to play for the Czech Republic in the Sochi Olympics. There is no official word on Hertl’s Olympic Status but many sources say he will not be recovered in time to go represent his country.
This season is Hertl’s first time playing in North America. In May the Sharks signed him on a three-year entry level contract bringing him over from Europe. After an impressive training camp he not only made the Sharks, but was placed in a top line role playing with Joe Thornton.
His stats in the first thirty-five games show that the twenty-year-old is a rising star. He has 15 goals and 25 points on the year, including a memorable four goal performance against the New York Rangers. Hertl has shown to be a good quality skater, good play maker, and can play physical when needed and shows defensive awareness. However it is his soft hands, and good shooting skills that are the keys to his success, and define him as a player to look out for as he progresses in the future.
Stats: 35 games/15 goals/10 assists/+11/56.96 FO/15.20 TOI average
Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers: For an eighteen-year-old like Barkov, his production has been very impressive. He was a first round pick in the 2013 draft (second overall by the Florida Panthers). Before this season he played in the top league in Finland, and this is his first year playing in North America.
When he was chosen to play for the Finland men’s national junior ice hockey team at the 2012 World Junior Championships, he was the youngest of all players in the tournament that year. In a January 2012 game during the quarter-finals against Slovakia, Barkov became the second youngest player ever to score a goal in World Juniors, (16 years and four months).
This season on October 3rd, 2013 he notched his first NHL goal, being the youngest player to do so since the 1967 NHL expansion (18-years-old and 31 days). He beat Kari Lehtonen of the Dallas Stars to set the record. Jordan Staal previously owned the record being 18 years old and 32 days.
For the first time in the NHL and playing in North America, Barkov has a pretty good stat sheet, and has shown a strong two way game, and a good nose for the net in his time in Florida. Barkov’s positioning and hockey sense is extremely strong for an 18-year-old, and he shows great vision and playmaking ability. Teaming with last year’s Calder Trophy winner Jonathan Huberdeau, Barkov is proving that the future will be bright for the team that plays in the City of Sunrise.
Stats: 47 games/8 goals/15 assists/-2/50.2% FO/ 1GWG/17 TIO Average
Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche: MacKinnon is a name that has been known for several years amongst hardcore hockey fans, but now in the NHL this young rising star is making a name for himself amongst the more casual fan, and with the game he has, it will be a name that will be known for a long time. The eighteen-year-old was selected first overall in the 2013 NHL draft. Prior to his draft he was named the Most Valuable player of the 2013 Memorial Cup Tournament, where he led his Halifax Mooseheads to the CHL’s highest honour.
As an Atom aged player MacKinnon recorded 200 points in 50 games. During 2007-2011 MacKinnon became one of the few players to have over a hundred points in a season.
During his two seasons with the QMJHL (Halifax Mooseheads) he recorded 78 points during his first season and 75 points for his second. With stats like these, it isn’t hard to see why he was so well known coming out of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia. A town well-known for Sidney Crosby, but 87 may need to make room on the “Home Of…” sign as MacKinnon continues to display a level of excellence in the league.
This season he has shown off his great speed, his soft hands, strength on the puck, hard shot, and a tremendous ability to be dangerous on nearly every shift. There is no doubt he is one of the top rookies in the NHL and one who hockey fans look forward to watching grow over the next several years.
Stats: 47 games/15 goals/ 14 assists/ 4 GWG/42.3 FO/17 TOI Average
Seth Jones, Nashville Predators: This nineteen-year-old has been a very important defenceman for the Predators, and has taken on huge responsibility straight out of junior. When he was little he wanted to play hockey. When he was younger his father (former NBA player Popeye Jones) asked Joe Sakic to look at his son and get some feedback on what he could to do work on. Because of Jones’ size Sakic said he should work on his skating skills. Before playing hockey Jones did figure skating for a year to do just that.
While Jones has a hard shot, and can play the point on the power play, he is best known for his great skating, strong defensive play and his passing ability on the blue line. He has also competed for the USA in World Junior Championships (winning gold), IHF World U18 Championship two years in a row (winning gold both times), and the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge winning silver.
As Jones grows and becomes a stronger player I can see him becoming an elite defenseman in the NHL and challenging for the Norris Trophy.
Stats: 49 games/4 goals/14 assists/-16/1 GWG/ 21 TOI Average
The Dark Horse: Michael Raffl, Philadelphia Flyers. While he has yet to tally high points in the NHL, I have liked Raffl’s game and believe he could be one to watch going forward. I also wanted to include a player in this article who wasn’t as high profile as the first four players. Raffl is 25 years old and was never drafted, signing with the Flyers as a free agent.
He is from Austria and played there his whole life up until getting called by the Flyers and signing an year entry level contract in May 2013. He will play for Austria in the Sochi Olympics. Throughout most of his professional career Raffl was one of a few lead scorers every season including his 2012-2013 season where he scored twenty-four goals and twenty-two assists for his club team, Leksand, playing in Sweden
Playing for the Flyers, he seems to be getting more ice time and more responsibility as this season has progressed and he’s continued his strong play. This left-winger has shown strong skating ability and responsible two-way play. While Raffl hasn’t scored a lot of points, he has shown flashes of an accurate shot, and found himself in good positions in the offensive zone. He is one player who is a bit under the radar right now, but that may not be true if he continues to improve as he gets more experience in the NHL.
Stats: 35 games/3 goals/9 assists/ 13.25 time on ice.
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