It’s a young man’s league.
Every year we see how important it is to be able to bring along youth to be a successful franchise and it felt like 2019-20, in particular, was a strong one for rookies in a lot of markets.
That doesn’t mean there’s a great and deep race for the Calder of course. The rookie of the year award will eventually go to one of Quinn Hughes or Cale Makar (flip a coin), but those weren’t the only two rookie years worth shining a light on. So in today’s list, we’re ranking the teams by the performance of their top rookie. We’re only taking the top first-year player into consideration for each team, so while the Rangers rank sixth on this list thanks to Adam Fox, they’d surely be higher if we also counted Igor Shestyorkin and Kaapo Kakko.
1. Colorado Avalanche: Cale Makar
The Calder Trophy debate is between two players this year and when Sportsnet Insiders picked their award winners (so far) when the pause hit, it was a 50/50 split between Makar and Vancouver’s Quinn Hughes. Colorado’s freshman has the best points per game rate among qualified first-year players.
2. Vancouver Canucks: Quinn Hughes
It seems there’s no real right or wrong answer picking between Makar and Hughes, as both figure to be elite puck movers for years to come. Hughes has the higher point total with more games played in 2019-20, and his role on the Canucks was a bit more significant.
3. Chicago Blackhawks: Dominik Kubalik
That a 30-goal rookie sits third in these rankings, and has almost no shot at the Calder, says a lot about how impactful the first two players on this list have been. Kubalik, who arrived in the NHL at age 24 from the Swiss League, has scored 10 more goals than any other rookie.
4. Columbus Blue Jackets: Elvis Merzlikins
There are a few goalies who will soon appear on our list, but to me, Merzlikins was the best of the group. So much of Columbus’ surprise success this season had to do with their goalies. Joonas Korpisalo was the expected successor to Sergei Bobrovsky, but it was Merzlikins who found his groove and seemed to get better as the season went on. He’s the top rookie netminder in shutouts, save percentage and goals-against average. It’s hard to believe his first game was a 7-2 loss to Pittsburgh.
5. New Jersey Devils: MacKenzie Blackwood
One of the bright spots in a dismal season, Blackwood had to arrive as New Jersey’s leaned-upon starter at least a year early as Cory Schneider continued to struggle and deal with injury. He had the most wins of all rookie netminders and, given New Jersey was this year’s biggest disappointment, his .500 winning percentage is actually an impressive mark. Having Blackwood as the cornerstone in net gives hope that a turnaround could soon come.
6. New York Rangers: Adam Fox
With a number of other strong rookies performances, especially at the defence position, Fox’s rookie season has flown under the radar. He doesn’t get as much ice time as some of the others, but does get a good amount of PP exposure. Still, Fox ranks sixth in 5-on-5 rookie scoring and is just two behind Hughes in this regard.
7. Carolina Hurricanes: Martin Necas
Necas’ raw offensive numbers are lower than some others here, but he also didn’t get the same level of power play or even strength opportunity, averaging just over 12 minutes a game. Still, when looking at 5-on-5 numbers, Necas ranks third in goals and fourth in points.
8. Edmonton Oilers: Ethan Bear
Look, Bear doesn’t have the jaw-dropping offensive numbers some of these other fine rookies do, but his arrival (along with Caleb Jones) has really helped solidify Edmonton’s back end with the kind of quality depth that wasn’t there before. Bear especially played an important role, averaging the second-most even strength ice time on the team and being trusted with second PK duties. In this rookie class, he ranks fourth among defencemen in 5-on-5 scoring.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) April 14, 2020
9. Dallas Stars: Denis Gurianov
The 12th overall pick in 2015, it took Gurianov a while to get here, but he’s quietly arrived as a productive player for a low-scoring defensive team. Gurianov is eighth in rookie scoring, but second in goals both overall (20) and at 5-on-5 (12). But on a veteran-laden team Gurianov’s opportunity has been kept down, averaging 12:59 of ice time per game on the season, though his minutes were rising before the pause.
10. Buffalo Sabres: Victor Olofsson
There’s no question Olofsson came out of the gate hot, scoring six of his 20 goals by mid-October, but he’s been very streaky — which isn’t all that unusual for a goal scorer. Olofsson has earned most of his keep by excelling on the power play, where he scored 11 goals to tie Jack Eichel for the team lead.
11. Washington Capitals: Ilya Samsonov
There’s an interesting storyline developing in Washington with Braden Holtby a pending UFA after this season and 23-year-old Ilya Samsonov arriving to post better numbers than the one-time Vezina winner. Samsonov is one of those rare goalies taken in the first round of a draft (22nd overall in 2015) and he’s lived up to that hype so far.
12. Montreal Canadiens: Nick Suzuki
The key part of the return in the Max Pacioretty trade, Suzuki is part of this youthful core on the rise in Montreal and he came through with 41 points in 71 games. While some other rookies have shone with high goal totals or starred in plenty of ice time, Suzuki did it more quietly as a third-liner. But Suzuki leads all rookie forwards in 5-on-5 assists this season.
“He thinks the game an unbelievable way for a 20-year-old. You know he’s going to be even better just because he works at it, he wants to be better."@CanadiensMTL captain Shea Weber spoke glowingly about Nick Suzuki’s hockey IQ https://t.co/FsiW98qSLL
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) April 20, 2020
13. Pittsburgh Penguins: John Marino
The Pens just have a knack for finding players on cheap contracts to contribute in meaningful ways around their main core and keep the Stanley Cup window open. Marino is the latest in that line. The 22-year-old arrived in the NHL from Harvard this season and averaged over 20 minutes per game with a role on the second PK unit. He has as many 5-on-5 primary assists as Hughes (in 12 fewer games) and is one back of Makar in that regard.
14. Toronto Maple Leafs: Ilya Mikheyev
Already a bit of a fan favourite, ‘Souperman’ is tied for seventh in primary assists at 5-on-5 among all rookies despite getting injured and playing just 39 games. Mikheyev has made a name for himself as a worker bee for the Leafs and has even carved out a role on the PK for himself.
15. Philadelphia Flyers: Joel Farabee
Projected as a scoring right winger after being taken 14th overall in 2018, it’s really a sign of the times that the 20-year-old leads the Philadelphia Flyers with just 39 penalty minutes. But we digress. Farabee seemed to be turning it on a bit before the pause, accumulating nine of his 21 points in the 15 games before the break.
16. Florida Panthers: Chris Driedger
Driedger, a third-round pick all the way back in 2012, had never played more than one NHL game in a season before this one, but was actually a positive story in net for the Panthers in a year where Sergei Bobrovsky couldn’t play up to his contract. Driedger got his first NHL win and shutout in his first game of the year on Nov. 30 and was solid every time the Panthers called his number after that. A multi-week injury interrupted his campaign, but in 12 games his 2.05 GAA and .938 save percentage are impressive.
17. Nashville Predators: Dante Fabbro
Fabbro is projected to be the latest prize coming up through one of the best blue line pipelines in the NHL. Averaging over 19 minutes a game, Fabbro found a home on Nashville’s second pair. The 21-year-old will take some time, but 11 points in 64 games with this kind of usage is a good place to start from.
18. Anaheim Ducks: Sam Steel
The 22-year-old Steel got some NHL experience last season (22 games), but ultimately spent most of the year in the AHL and thrived. He was here to stay in 2019-20, though, as the Ducks begin a transition to a younger core that includes Steel, Max Comtois and others. With 22 points in 65 games, the 30th overall pick from 2016 can be eased into a larger role with centres Ryan Getzlaf and Adam Henrique ahead of him on the depth chart.
19. Arizona Coyotes: Barrett Hayton
It’s been an up and down year for Hayton. The fifth-overall pick in 2018, Hayton’s minutes have been kept down at the NHL level this season, which is why the team felt comfortable with him joining Team Canada for the world juniors in December and January. He starred there as the captain on the gold medal-winning team but also sustained an injury that kept him out weeks. Hayton only got into 20 NHL games this season and registered five points, but his role should increase in 2020-21.
20. Calgary Flames: Dillon Dube
With 16 points in 45 games Dube won’t be winning any awards this year, but his tenacity is deserving of recognition. Dube has been a very nice addition to Calgary’s third line after getting a 25-game showcase last season. The 21-year-old second-round pick is here to stay.
21. Minnesota Wild: Carson Soucy
Averaging over 15 minutes a game in a third pair role, the 25-year-old Soucy played 55 games for the Wild so far this season after spending the past two in the AHL. A fifth-round pick in 2013, Soucy’s six 5-on-5 goals ranks in a tie for 11th in rookie goal scoring and his plus-16 is one of the better rookie marks out there.
22. Winnipeg Jets: Ville Heinola
We didn’t see much of Heinola, but what we did catch a glimpse of was surprising. It’s not often that a defenceman picked 20th overall jumps straight into the NHL, but Heinola did just that in October. This was partly due to necessity with the Jets’ blue line being hammered by off-season losses, but also because Heinola seemed up to that task. He recorded five points in eight games, but rather than burn a year on his contract the Jets sent him back to Finland for the season. It won’t be long before Heinola is back in Winnipeg.
23. St. Louis Blues: Jordan Kyrou
As the Blues continue pushing for Cups, Kyrou is one of an exciting group of young players making their way to the team. In January, Kyrou was told by the Blues that he had made it to the team and could find a permanent place to live, which should give him peace of mind moving forward. The best days are ahead still of course, with Kyrou posting nine points in 28 games in a mostly third-line role.
24. New York Islanders: Noah Dobson
A very exciting defence prospect and 12th overall pick from 2018, Dobson’s usage in his rookie season has been a little head-scratching. In and out of the lineup with ice time all over the place (and as low as 8:05) he had accomplished all he could in the CHL and was sort of caught in between this season. Expect that to change in 2020-21 and for Dobson’s role and impact to rapidly grow.
25. Los Angeles Kings: Gabriel Vilardi
The best days for rookies and youth are still ahead for the Kings and Gabe Vilardi gave a glimpse into that this season. The 11th overall pick in 2017 only got into seven NHL games (so far) this season, but registered three goals and seven points. He’ll maintain his rookie status for next season, when Vilardi should have a much better chance to stick with the Kings.
26. Ottawa Senators: Drake Batherson
Batherson is crushing it at the AHL level this season with 54 points in 44 games and that has Sens fans rightfully excited for what he can do when he lands in the NHL for good. He got into 23 NHL games this season, almost all in January and February, posting three goals and 10 points. Since he also played 20 games last season he won’t maintain his rookie status in 2020-21.
27. Detroit Red Wings: Filip Zadina
Zadina was always going to be eased into Steve Yzerman’s Red Wings so it’s no surprise the 20-year-old didn’t start the year with the team and last played an NHL game on Feb. 1. He’s been holding his own in the AHL and we got flashes of his NHL potential in the 28 games he spent in the big leagues, where he scored eight times.
28. Boston Bruins: Karson Kuhlman
It’s not a great shocker that the Bruins don’t have a star rookie this season, since their team is full of established players all assigned to specific roles with playoffs and a Cup run in mind. Kuhlman, 24, got into 25 games and posted six points this season in a limited bottom-six role.
29. Vegas Golden Knights: Cody Glass
The 21-year-old, and first-ever draft pick made by the Golden Knights (sixth-overall in 2017) Glass started the year very well with the team, scoring six points in his first nine games. But his production slowed to the point he registered just two points in the month of November and then injury got in the way of other parts of his season. In all, Glass has 12 points in 39 games this season.
31. San Jose Sharks: Dylan Gambrell
The Sharks are caught in a tough spot now: a team near the bottom of the standings, without its first-round pick, that may have seen its Cup window close far quicker than anticipated. The Sharks are still built in a way where winning is expected, so there’s not a ton of youth in big roles there. Time will tell if 23-year-old Gambrell sticks with the Sharks through their transition, but the bottom-sixer had 11 points in 50 games this season.