There’s a case to be made that we’ve come upon a golden age of talent spread among Canadian NHL clubs.
After a decade of watching the game’s top scorers do their thing in Pittsburgh, Washington, Chicago and elsewhere below the 49th parallel, Canada’s seven franchises now house the sport’s most dominant offensive force in Connor McDavid, and a growing list of other young, elite names.
But how exactly does that list shake out after No. 97 at No. 1?
Has Leon Draisaitl done enough to warrant acclaim apart from his Oilers linemate? Where do dynamic Maple Leafs forwards Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner slot into the mix, and how does the value of a star defender like Quinn Hughes or Thomas Chabot shake up the rankings?
Sportsnet’s Brian Burke has as good an understanding of how these pieces fit together as any — the veteran front-office stalwart served as general manger for the Maple Leafs, Canucks, Ducks, and Whalers, as well as (most recently) the Flames’ president of hockey operations.
The longtime executive broke down the young talent dotted among Canada’s teams alongside David Amber on Saturday, offering up his rankings of the top 12 under-25 stars wearing Canadian NHL jerseys — here’s how his list broke down:
1. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers
No explanation needed here. Through three full big-league seasons following an injury-shortened rookie campaign, McDavid’s amassed a Hart Trophy (and has been a finalist twice already), two Art Ross trophies as league scoring leader and two Ted Lindsay Awards naming him MVP as voted by the players.
And, amazingly, after three straight 100-point efforts, McDavid is playing the best hockey of his career, his current 1.63 points-per-game pace leaving him on track for 133 points.
The crown is his.
2. Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers
When Draisaitl inked his eight-year, $68-million deal back in 2017, many levelled the criticism of him simply being a product of No. 97, who most often lines up as his linemate. But a 50-goal, 105-point season in 2018-19 made that argument tougher to stomach — look back through history at every linemate that skated alongside talented centremen, and you won’t see many such stat lines gifted to average players.
Draisaitl’s come into his own as a superstar in his own right, and it’s his versatility that earns him the No. 2 spot on this list for Burke.
“Leon Draisaitl, he’s a centre but he can play wing, he kills penalties, he has size, he’s on pace for 135 points, he can take faceoffs,” Burke says. “He’s a guy that provides lots of skills for a team.”
“I think Leon Draisaitl’s been a great find for this league and a great player, and if he played anywhere but out in the west, people would be talking about him as an MVP.”
3. Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs
Through three seasons in the league, Matthews has already established himself as one of the most feared snipers in the game.
His debut served as an apt foreshadowing of that potential, his four-goal opener finishing as a 40-goal rookie season. He’s managed to hover around the 35-goal range in each of the past two seasons despite playing fewer than 70 games in each, and in Burke’s eyes, there’s plenty more to come from No. 34.
“[He’s] a centre, he’s got size — he hasn’t even scratched the surface of what he’s going to be,” Burke said. “He’s got the best shot on this list.”
4. Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks
No doubt the biggest surprise for most perusing these rankings, rookie defenceman Quinn Hughes jumps to No. 4, leapfrogging a fair few star forwards that might first come to mind when you think of Canadian-team talent.
But the fact that the talented Hughes does his work from the blue line is key, according to Burke.
“[It’s] a positional choice — this guy’s going to be a star defenceman,” Burke said. “He’s only going to get better, and due to the fact that he’s a defenceman, I’d put him in here.”
He’s rolling along at an impressive clip in his first go-round in the NHL, sitting with 26 points through 33 games so far. More importantly, Hughes has already emerged as the type of dynamic, new-school defender that the Canucks have never had, and only figures to keep improving.
5. Elias Pettersson, Vancouver Canucks
With one of the most unique skill-sets in the game, Pettersson has already thrown his hat into the ring as one of the league’s most exciting offensive names.
A 66-point effort in his first go-round earned him a Calder Trophy, and plenty of eyeballs as young Pettersson cemented himself as one of the league’s true must-watch talents.
That his high-flying offensive game also comes with the responsibilities of playing in the middle of the ice, and some sneaky size, earns him a top-five billing for Burke.
“He’s a centre, elite skill, and he has size,” Burke said. “People think he’s small but he’s six-foot-two, and he will fill out. So he’s got size, he’s a centre, an elite goal-scorer.”
6. Mitch Marner, Toronto Maple Leafs
As with the pairs in Edmonton and Vancouver, Toronto sends two young stars to the rankings, with Mitch Marner slotting in at No. 6. Though he doesn’t have the all-world shot that teammate Matthews does, Marner takes the playmaking edge. And the 22-year-old put the full weight of it on display last season with a career-best 94-point effort.
He takes a bit of a tumble down the list given the position he plays — with McDavid, Draisaitl, Matthews and Pettersson all spending some or all of their time at centre in the big leagues — but the versatility of Marner’s skill-set still makes him an immensely valuable weapon for Burke.
“[He’s] a winger, but he can kill penalties,” Burke said. “He creates space and time better than any player on this list, but that’s where I’d put him.”
Laine put his stamp on the league with a 44-goal effort as a sophomore, leaving some thinking he could be the heir apparent to Alex Ovechkin as the game’s top sniper.
That hasn’t fully materialized as of yet, though with 120 goals through 268 games, it’s clear the talented Finn is on his way to joining the game’s goal-scoring elite.
For Burke, though, it’s what Laine added to his skill-set this season that earns him the No. 7 spot.
“He’s an elite goal-scorer, [but] this season he’s displaying a complete game,” Burke said. “And he’s got size — I’m looking for individual traits that translate to team success. He’s big.”
Drafted four spots below the winger just above him on these rankings, Matthew Tkachuk has emerged as arguably a far more pivotal piece of the Flames’ success than any had predicted — at least this early. The young American winger has become the emotional compass for a Flames squad who’s seemed at times to desperately need it, and now sits as the most likely heir to Mark Giordano’s captaincy.
He broke out with a career-best 34-goal, 77-point season in 2018-19 as well. However, certain aspects of his position and skill-set slid him down Burke’s rankings.
“Again, [he’s] a winger,” Burke said. “He’s got the highest compete level on this list. I love him — he brings grit. But his skating’s only average.”
Leadership aside, Tkachuk’s on-ice role on the team also affected his place among the top 12.
“He doesn’t kill penalties — as a rule I’m looking for specific skill-sets as I put my team together,” Burke said, “and that means centres, defencemen, penalty-killers, and size.”
9. Thomas Chabot, Ottawa Senators
The second defender to earn a place on the rankings, and the highest Senator, Thomas Chabot slots in at No. 9 after shooting out to one of the quickest starts among Ottawa’s blue-line greats.
For Burke, it’s the immense importance of elite blue-liners that earns Chabot a top-10 spot.
“This is a lot about position from here up,” Burke said. “Wingers are the easiest guys to draft, defencemen and centres much harder. [Chabot] has got elite skill as a defenceman, he’s a possible Norris Trophy candidate, as the team improves. Great vision.”
The 22-year-old broke out with 55 points in 70 games last season, earning an eight-year, $64-million deal for his efforts.
10. Kyle Connor, Winnipeg Jets
Gunning for his third-straight 30-goal campaign, the 23-year-old Connor has emerged as one of the Jets’ most important offensive pieces already in his young career.
He’s impressed so far in 2019-20, too, rolling along at nearly a point-per-game clip — 14 goals and 31 points through 33 games — ranking among the top three scorers on the Jets’ offensively-gifted squad.
That said, the weight of the talent of the players sitting above him on these rankings pushed Connor down to one of the lists’s lower rungs.
“Pure skill, racks up points, but I think, again, he’s got to fit in this list,” Burke said.
11. Brock Boeser, Vancouver Canucks
A gifted right-handed sniper looking to reach the level of the top-tier goal-scorers ranked above him here, Brock Boeser’s become a key piece of Vancouver’s forward corps of the future.
Though he’s yet to play more than 70 games in a season, Boeser’s already amassed 71 goals through 174 NHL tilts so far. He’s topped 50 points in each of the past two years as well, thriving alongside dynamic centreman Elias Pettersson.
But like Calgary’s Tkachuk, his ability to move through today’s exceptionally quick NHL pulls him down the rankings a tad.
“He’s got size, he’s an elite goal-scorer but only an average skater,” Burke said, “so I’d have him at 11.”
12. Brady Tkachuk, Ottawa Senators
Rounding out the list is the second Senator and second Tkachuk.
Brady, the cornerstone of the Senators’ offensive future, has thrived already in the big leagues, even besting established brother Matthew at certain aspects of the game so far.
With 22 goals and 43 points as a rookie, Tkachuk’s shown flashes of the gifted offence and bullish style that made him the fourth-overall selection in 2018. He’s off to a strong start this year, too, halfway to that goal total with two thirds of the season left to play.
And, according to Burke, he could plow his way further up the rankings as his career progresses.
“He’s going to move up this list based on sheer will,” Burke said. But taking stock of the other names in the mix, and the variety of elite abilities they’ve already displayed, Tkachuk has his work cut out for him. “He’s got size and hands but he’d be the lowest on that list for me,” Burke said.