10 NHL teenagers trying to survive 10 games

Despite the tough loss in overtime to the Ottawa Senators, Mike Babcock called it the best night he's had since becoming the Maple Leafs' head coach. He also had nothing but praise for the play and accountability of Auston Matthews.

“If you rush the process, history proved over and over again that it’s not conducive to the player.” —Ron Hextall

The greatest indication of the NHL’s youth movement, beyond the crowd of veteran free agents who failed to hang on even via professional tryouts, is the number of teenagers who actually made the cut this season.

A whopping 22 entry-level slide candidates* made opening-night NHL rosters. That three of those elite prospects belong to the Arizona Coyotes, and that the Islanders, Maple Leafs, Devils, Flyers, and Blue Jackets each have two such rookies, indicates that the trendy way to rebuild a contender is through a healthy injection of fresh blood.

The young man’s league is getting younger. Through system-based coaching and round-the-calendar training, teens are increasingly arriving ready to play. The process has already been rushed before they make their NHL debuts.

Not all of these 22 rookies will survive past the nine-game threshold and activate their entry-level deals, however. (Remember: A second milepost arrives 39 games into the young rookie’s career. Play a 40th game at the NHL level, and you inch one season closer to free agency.)

Here’s a look at 10 slide candidates we’re most excited to see perform in these early days of the 2016-17 season. Some are sure bets to last, while others will be essentially be on a nine-game tryout.

Auston Matthews

Discussion surrounding the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ first No. 1 pick since Wendel Clark’s moustache won’t be about whether he becomes a Marlie after nine games—it’ll be whether he needs more than nine games to jump from a third-line centre to Legends Row.

With the team seemingly waiving, trading or IR’ing anyone over the age of 30, the Leafs’ future starts now.

Upon drafting Mathews, coach Mike Babcock said, “We’re a way better franchise, period.”

Matthews’ indelible four-goal debut drove that point home.

Patrik Laine

The No. 2 with a No. 1’s confidence has openly stated that his goal is to remain in the NHL for the full 82-game slate and not have to learn the small ice in the American Hockey League.

A professional star with Tappara Tampere in his native Finland, Laine joins Nikolaj Ehlers (20) and Kyle Connor (19) as one of three Winnipeg Jets forwards too young to drink on Central Division road trips.

We’ll be shocked if Laine gets demoted. The Jets have pushed all-in on the kids.

Ivan Provorov

The six-foot, 200-pound Russian defenceman has been better than a point per game for the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings the last two seasons. He and forward Travis Konecny impressed GM Ron Hextall so much at camp, they gave him no choice but to keep them.

“We feel these young players make us a better team,” Hextall said Tuesday during a Philly radio spot. “So, our expectations are to be better than last year. And next year to be better than this year, while all along getting a little bit younger.”

In Provorov’s case, having Michael Del Zotto start the season on injured reserve gives him more opportunity.

“Sometimes people want to rush players to the league. We weren’t willing to do that. They had to show up to camp in good shape, do a good job, and quite frankly they had to make us a better team. Otherwise, there’s no sense keeping them.”

Jesse Puljujarvi

Just because the Edmonton Oilers‘ fourth overall pick is wearing No. 98 doesn’t mean his talents fall somewhere between those of Connor McDavid and Wayne Gretzky.

“He’s had some really good days with us and he’s had some average ones. But with an 18-year-old, that’s how it usually goes,” coach Todd McLellan said of the young Finn.

“We weren’t too concerned with Connor. With Jesse we are, but we have time to look at him. If it’s not going right for us and for Jesse, he can go to the American League. Jesse doesn’t have to go back to junior [because he played pro in Finland last year]. We’re trying to grow him with us.”

Getting placed on Leon Draisaitl‘s wing while McDavid’s line draws the tougher defensive match-ups gives Puljujarvi every chance to succeed. And he delivered in Game 1 Wednesday night, potting his first NHL goal:

Mikhail Sergachev

The youngest opening-night player on any NHL roster was outstanding for the 2015-16 Windsor Spitfires, putting up 57 points in 67 games from the back end and finishing his only OHL season with a plus-15 rating.

Sergachev is a big body (six-foot-three, 206 pounds) who has received rave reviews in camp, and established Montreal D-man Jeff Petry is on injured reserve.

“I’m on my nine-game or something. That thing,” Sergachev told reporters Monday. “So, I haven’t made the team yet.”

Mitchell Marner

We’ve long been shouting that Marner, who left the Ontario Hockey League in shreds and with nothing left to prove, will stay in Toronto this season. Coach Mike Babcock has praised the 19-year-old play-maker’s dedication to defence, and GM Lou Lamoriello gave him a stamp of approval.

“He’s not on a [nine-game] tryout,” Lamoriello told reporters this week. “At this point he’s made the team.”

Babcock after Game 1 of the season: “I know Matthews scored all the goals. I thought Marner in the first half of the game might have been the best player.”

Yeah, he’s staying.

Pavel Zacha

Like fellow 19-year-old Devils forward Blake Speers, Zacha should have nine games to prove he’s NHL-ready. The sixth overall pick of the 2015 draft looked great in his one game as a Devil at the end of last season, and is coming off a torrid OHL campaign with Sarnia.

“I was overthinking when I was playing on the ice,” Zacha told The Hockey Writers of last year’s camp. “This year, I’m just trying to have fun, and just do my best.”

Considering how desperate New Jersey is for offence, we’ll bet the house Zacha stays.

Dylan Strome

One of five rookies on a Coyotes club that should be a treat to watch, Strome has been a point machine in the OHL, putting up a minimum of 111 in each of his last two seasons with the Erie Otters.

Strome deserves at least nine games to prove his worth at the ultimate level but will maintain a positive attitude either way.

“I’m ready for anything that comes my way. If they want to send me back to junior for another year, I’m going to be fully prepared for that,” he told us this summer.

“I’m going to be the best leader on my team [the Otters] I can possibly be and hopefully prove to them at the next camp that I can do it.”

Matthew Tkachuk

The sixth overall pick of 2016 opened the season playing in front of his proud parents as a top-six winger on a line with Sam Bennett and Troy Brouwer.

Flames GM Brad Treliving said Tkachuk will be evaluated on a game-by-game basis. Surely, he could still be sent down after nine games.

“I’m just super excited for the opportunity to play in the NHL. It’s been my lifelong dream,” Tkachuk told reporters. “And to be doing it in my first year, I couldn’t ask for anything better right now.”

Tkachuk saw about 12 minutes of ice in Wednesday’s debut, throwing a couple hits, taking a couple shots, and getting two minutes for boarding Edmonton’s Kris Russell.

Lawson Crouse

When Crouse was traded from the Florida Panthers to the Coyotes in late August, he vowed he’d do everything in his power to make the team.

So far, so good.

A skilled and powerful winger, the six-foot-four Crouse exploded for 62 points in 49 games with the Kingston Frontenacs last season. He doesn’t want to go back.

Sebastian Aho

This second-round winger scored a point per game (45 in 45) for Karpat of the Finnish Elite League last season. For a rookie, Aho brings the ability to score and plenty of professional and international experience (he won world junior gold and was selected to Finland’s World Cup squad) to a club in severe need of offence.

Expect Aho to excel on a sneaky-good line with Elias Lindholm and Teuvo Teravainen.

The other entry-level slide candidates: Pierre-Luc Dubois (CBJ), Jakob Chychrun (ARI), Thomas Chabot (OTT), Travis Konecny (PHI), Mathew Barzal (NYI), Anthony Beauvillier (NYI), Brandon Carlo (BOS), Blake Speers (NJD), Denis Malgin (FLA), Zachary Werenski (CBJ), Jacob Larsson (ANA)

 

*Note: Players aged 18 or 19 as of Sept. 15 before the start of the season are eligible for their contracts to get delayed by one year if they have not played 10 NHL games in a single season previously or in the current season. If a player turns 20 in the calendar year he signs the contract, he is not eligible for an entry-level slide.

(thanks to hockeydb, NHL.com and General Fanager, which were used for research)