Elias Pettersson stars among 9 early NHL rookie standouts

Nick Kypreos joins Tim and Sid to talk about Vancouver Canucks rookie Elias Pettersson.

It’s very early in the 2018-19 NHL season so, no, Elias Pettersson won’t keep pace to score 82 goals and 164 points by April. But his early returns do confirm our expectations that he will be in the running for the Calder Trophy.

But if Pettersson is going to earn that hardware by the end of the season, he’s going to have to fight off a number of other first year players who have already impressed, plus others who haven’t yet emerged through the early-goings. A total of 61 rookies have played in the NHL this season and eight of them have scored a point per game (two of those have only played one game).

It’s too early to make any final judgements on these rookies, but we can shine the light on some strong performances from the first week and draw attention to how these players are being used. Here are nine rookies who have jumped out at us through seven days.

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Elias Pettersson, VAN: Everyone has seen at least one of Pettersson’s first three NHL goals, but he’s also proving to be a deft passer as well. Despite playing less than 10 minutes in his NHL debut — due entirely to the fact Vancouver handed Calgary seven power plays — the fifth-overall pick of the 2017 draft still managed a goal and an assist. In Saturday’s rematch on the road in Calgary, Pettersson played 16:05, scored twice and added an assist. Two of those points came on the power play. He picked up another assist on Tuesday.

So far, the super rookie is more than living up to the hype. Just last season he set a Swedish League record for points by an under-20 player and won the regular season scoring title outright with 56 points in 44 games. He continued his dominance in the SHL playoffs, leading his Vaxjo Lakers to the championship and earning MVP honours.

Now we’re wondering if he can eventually eclipse Matt Barzal’s exceptional 85-point rookie campaign from last season. While Barzal was insulated on the second line as John Tavares drew the opposition’s best shutdown players, Pettersson could find a similar advantage on Vancouver’s second line if Brock Boeser distracts from the top unit.

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Warren Foegele, CAR: If you had to pick a Calder Trophy candidate off Carolina’s roster when the puck dropped on Oct. 3, the 22-year-old Foegele may not have even been your third choice. No. 2 overall pick Andrei Svechnikov came to the team with fresh draft buzz, while 23-year-old Valentin Zykov was coming off an AHL goal-scoring title and a strong end-of-season NHL showing. Even Martin Necas, the 12th-overall pick from 2017, has breakout potential.

But through four games Foegele’s 16:05 is the highest time on ice average among all Carolina rookies. Playing on the second unit with veterans Jordan Staal and Justin Williams, Foegele was shut out for the first two games before busting out with a two-goal, one-assist effort in Sunday’s 8-5 slugfest against the Rangers and scoring again Tuesday night. Interestingly, Foegele is also the only Canes rookie who hasn’t seen a second of power-play time yet — instead, he has a role killing penalties. He leads all NHL rookies with 13 shots through four games.

Henri Jokiharju, CHI: Various Blackhawks beat reporters have taken note about how head coach Joel Quenneville, usually tough to impress, seems smitten with the 19-year-old.

“I like his competitiveness. I like his poise and patience for a youngster,” Quenneville told the Chicago Sun-Times. “He’s only going to get better in how he’s going to read situations, play around his net in his own end. But I like how he wants the puck. He really has good patience and good play-recognition.”

The 29th-overall pick in 2017, Jokiharju is playing alongside Duncan Keith on the top pair and Quenneville noted he is the perfect complement to the 35-year-old. Jokiharju was held pointless in his NHL debut, but then recorded two assists against St. Louis and three assists against Toronto, all of which came at even strength. He is tied for fourth league-wide — among all players — in even-strength points.

Even more encouraging is that there is reason to believe the goals will start coming. Jokiharju has 10 shots on goal, which is second among all rookies and seventh in the league for defencemen. He has an ability to find the open lanes and get his shots on net.

Maxime Comtois, ANA: One of the more positive stories of the early going is Comtois who has been very productive for a banged-up Ducks squad. After opening his junior career with a near point-per-game scoring rate, he had potential to be a top-15 draft pick, but as his production slipped in Year 2, so did his stock and he ended up going 50th overall to Anaheim in 2017. Last season he exploded again, scoring 44 goals and 85 points in 54 games.

“His game really changed last season, becoming more complete and less selfish,” wrote Sportsnet’s Sam Cosentino.

He’s scored one point in each of the three NHL games: a goal opening night against San Jose, another goal against Arizona three nights later, and an assist versus Detroit on Monday. With wingers Corey Perry, Ondrej Kase and Patrick Eaves on the shelf, Comtois has found his way to the top line and his time on ice has risen each game.

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Miro Heiskanen, DAL: If you haven’t seen the video of Heiskanen’s second NHL shift, it’s worth checking out. He didn’t get a point, but he looked smooth and as polished as a player who has been in the NHL for 10 years.

Heiskanen recorded his first point, an assist, Tuesday against Toronto and nearly had his first goal, but was denied by a highlight-reel Frederik Andersen save. Heiskanen played 19:35 in his debut, 20:52 in his second game and 23:51 against the Leafs.

After starting the pre-season on a pair with John Klingberg, Heiskanen now plays on the second pair alongside Marc Methot, who was famously a great mate next to Erik Karlsson in Ottawa. It’s a sign that coach Jim Montgomery trusts the rookie to carry his own pair and with Methot as the stay-at-home safety net, Heiskanen could freewheel his way to a stunning first season.

Dennis Cholowski, DET: With an average of 22:10 per game, Cholowski leads all rookies in average ice time. The 20th-overall pick from 2016 racked up a point per game in the pre-season and an injury to Mike Green opened up a spot for some youngster to take advantage — and Cholowski hasn’t missed.

He never made any Canadian WJC squads in junior even after moving from the NCAA to the WHL last season and becoming a major contributor. A great skater with a nose for offence, the 6-foot Cholowski is the kind of defenceman who thrives in today’s NHL and he leads all Detroit defencemen in power-play ice time. When Mike Green eventually returns some of that will be shaved off, but if Cholowski keeps up this level of play, he’ll be hard to turn away from.

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Jesperi Kotkaniemi, MTL: The late draft riser last summer and first player born in the 2000s to play in any of the four major North American sports leagues, Kotkaniemi so far looks the part of future No. 1 centre. He’s gotten better as his North American season has gone along — strong showing at rookie camp, followed by a pre-season performance of three points in five games, and now a good start to the regular season with an assist through two games.

Kotkaniemi is being flanked by Jonathan Drouin and Joel Armia, who was an idol of Kotkaniemi’s growing up in Finland. Armia is still just 25, so that gives you an idea of how green Kotkaniemi is. But with an average of 14:38 through two games, Kotkaniemi is ninth among all Habs forwards in ice time, so it’s not a sure thing he’ll stick beyond a nine-game trial. On one hand, he’s been fun to watch so far and he’s fitting right in with NHL competition. But on the other, it’s a long, gruelling season so is it better for his long-term development to go back to Finland, play at the WJC, and return a little bigger and more polished a year from now? His play over the next two weeks will determine how far this goes.

Andrei Svechnikov, CAR: While Kotkaniemi became the first player born in the 2000s to play in the NHL, Svechnikov was the first one to score a goal.

That’s fitting, considering he was the sniper of the 2018 NHL Draft. It was always going to be a long shot for him to chase down Rasmus Dahlin for the distinction of top prospect in his year, but perhaps if Svechnikov was healthy through all of last season there would have been more discussion about the possibility. He scored at nearly a goal-a-game pace for the Barrie Colts.

Svechnikov is currently on a three-game points streak and has four points in four games overall, all of which have come at even strength. He’s starting from the bottom on Carolina’s fourth line, but is getting some strong power-play minutes, which suggests his offensive numbers can be maintained to some level. In Carolina’s third game, the 8-5 win over the New York Rangers, Svechnikov had more PP minutes than any Canes forward.

Svechnikov’s second goal of the season came with a little bit of a cherry on top, as he beat fellow rookie Elias Pettersson to the net and outmuscled him to convert.

Anthony Cirelli, TB: A bit of a dark-horse for the Calder Trophy, Cirelli plays on perhaps the most offensively loaded team of any rookie on this list. Currently on Tampa’s third line between Mathieu Joseph and Alex Killorn, it’s harder to read into Cirelli than these other names because he’s still only played one game — but he looked great in it.

In that game, Cirelli led all Lightning forwards with 3:58 of penalty-kill time as the unit not only shut out the Florida Panthers in five opportunities, but also converted off Cirelli’s stick. Through one game, Cirelli has the highest average penalty-kill time of any non-Canucks forward. Cirelli had 11 points in 18 games for the Lightning last season, but was fifth among the team’s forwards in short-handed time — it’s worth keeping an eye on his usage here going forward.


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