TORONTO — Never in the history of the game have we had the opportunity to see a version of NHL hockey as dynamic, creative and free-flowing as what teams are rolling out on the ice at this moment.
The confluence of some key rule changes, advances in skills training and the natural evolution of the sport have left us with a version of the game far more reliant on speed and offensive skill than in decades past. But one crucially important piece of that puzzle is the league’s youth.
The past few seasons have seen an endless parade of young players show up with skill-sets so advanced, they find themselves immediately thrust into the spotlight, and central roles on their clubs.
But who among that group has impressed most so far?
Stickhandling specialist Pavel Barber has as good a grasp on the answer as anyone — the slick-handed skills coach has long been YouTube’s preeminent source on all things stickhandling, and has worked with NHLers like Jonathan Toews and Jake Virtanen on improving handles.
Last year, we asked Barber to break down the top 10 stickhandlers in the game overall. His rankings took eight variables into consideration: (1) deception, (2) ability to shoot and pass out of handles, (3) ability to create space, (4) creativity, (5) puck protection, (6) small-area work, (7) soft touch, and (8) hand speed.
This time around, we asked Barber to focus on the young guns — players who’ve logged four years or fewer in the NHL, but have already proven the silkiness of their mitts.
Here’s how his list shakes out:
1. Elias Pettersson, Vancouver Canucks
Fresh off a Calder Trophy win in 2018-19, Elias Pettersson has refused to wilt in his sophomore campaign, scoring at an even better clip for the surging Canucks this season.
But what makes Pettersson the best of the NHL’s youth mvoement isn’t just his ability with the puck — it’s the decision-making that supplements that skill.
“You can be a great stickhandler, but if you don’t know where and when to apply the right skills, you are ineffective — this is where Pettersson thrives,” Barber says. “He has such a great sense for the game and is constantly shifting around on the ice to pose the greatest threat. He can break ankles simply by receiving a puck, rotating his hips, and loading a puck. Every NHL player can do those skills, but the way his body language suggests what he’s going to do is on another level. He’s mastered the art of deception.
“He scans defenders, tries to identify a weakness or create an advantage, and pulls off brilliant moves nearly every game. Anyone who knows me knows I was a huge fan of Datsyuk and watched every one of his shifts. I’m the same way with Petterson. I’ll sit at my computer and watch what he does and it helps me so much as a coach.”
2. Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders
Though Mathew Barzal’s first season in Brooklyn without John Tavares saw a slight dip in his numbers, it did see him further establish himself as one of the most dominant skaters in the game — a skill that only makes his stickhandling abilities more dangerous, says Barber.
“The New York Islanders broadcast team coined the phrase, ‘He’s on the Merry-go-round again’ because the kid can just enter the zone with ease and then do a couple of laps untouched before setting up,” he says. “His skating is phenomenal but his stickhandling is equally as good. He hits defenders with these cutback moves all the time to either eliminate or create a ton of space for himself. I feel truly sorry for any defenders who have had to chase him. He’s very aggressive, and not afraid to dangle through you. He’ll make a move through the defenders stick three times like it’s nothing to generate offence.
“I’ve been compiling footage for a while now of his entire 2017-18 season and the single most amazing thing about Barzal is how easily he can gain the zone. Anyone who watches a lot of hockey knows it’s not an easy skill, but Barzal makes it look like a piece of cake. And if he doesn’t like what he sees, he’ll just do a punch turn and circle back and go at you again. It’s almost funny to watch. He’s patient, and he’s very smart. He knows what he can do, and he doesn’t force it.
“He holds the cards.”
3. Mitch Marner, Toronto Maple Leafs
His 2019-20 campaign was cut short by injury, but the Maple Leafs’ $10.893-million man has made his name over the past few years as one of the most dynamic players in the entire league, let alone among his fellow young guns. And appreciating Mitch Marner’s talent might even require stepping back even further, according to Barber.
“Marner is undoubtedly one of the best stickhandlers the NHL has ever seen,” the skills coach says. “He’s very shifty and is very tactical when deciding what moves to use. He is very creative as well, which both catches defenders off-guard and entertains fans. What I love most about Marner is his ability to slice through guys. He’ll be skating and quickly weave through and come out on the ice side with time and space to make a play. He’s a great passer, so when you see him play with guys like Tavares who can put the puck in the net, it’s almost unfair.
“When he’s in a shooting lane, he has moves like the backhand toe-drag that he uses to get them down and out. He’ll go between the legs, he’ll flip a puck in the air, he’ll pretty much do anything if it means creating space for himself, and it’s truly remarkable seeing how high his execution rate is on moves that many would call ‘high risk.’”
4. Rasmus Dahlin, Buffalo Sabres
The 2018 No. 1 pick proved why he was touted as one of best blue-line prospects in years as he dangled his way to a 44-point effort in 2018-19. But Dahlin’s position necessitates a different kind of elite stickhandling, one that has to be coupled with an understanding of when to take risks and when to hold back, but how to utilize high-end skill in simpler ways.
“What makes Dahlin so effective from a stickhandling standpoint is his ability to set the pace, skate with his eyes looking up, scanning the ice, and hitting some simple moves that are well-timed,” Barber says. “I say ‘simple’ because he makes them look simple, and on paper, they really aren’t anything we’d go crazy about like we would on a toe-drag. He shifts his weight unpredictably and is very sharp with his inside edges. He’s not afraid to go one-on-one either and perhaps his teammates know that best from the times he’s roasted them on one-versus-one drills.
“But when he’s last man back along the boards, if he sees the opposition over-commit, he’s going to exploit you. If you really want to be impressed, go back and watch his highlights when he played for Frolunda HC as a 17-year-old. He made grown men look like kids, when he was the one who just hit puberty.”
5. Mikko Rantanen, Colorado Avalanche
Colorado has a spoil of riches leading their forward corps — Nathan MacKinnon’s play over the past couple years has vaulted him into the conversation of the all-around best players in the league, Gabriel Landeskog remains a top-end two-way talent, and rounding out the top line, Mikko Rantanen has established himself as one of the game’s elite offensive talents in his own right, and seems to get better every year.
“Watching this guy quarterback one of the best lines in the NHL is something else,” Barber says. “He’s got such a soft touch and he can dangle one-on-one — he holds the puck just outside of the defenders stick so well. I always laugh a bit when I see it because it reminds me of someone holding a dog treat just out of their reach. Rantanen loves that position because if you keep backing up, great. If you go for the puck, it’s either off his stick or he’s made a move.
“He’s very good at protecting the puck while facing defenders, which is a very important skill when you consider the vast majority of offensive plays require you to see what’s going on behind and beside the defender. It’s a unique kind of patience he possesses, and it certainly leads to a lot of offensive output.”
6. Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs
The other marquee young talent in Maple Leafs colours, Auston Matthews has dominated the early years of his career by way of a lethal shot that’s frozen defenders and netminders in place on more than one occasion. But the effectiveness of that deadly release is directly tied to Matthews’ ability to make magic happen in the stickhandling department.
“Matthews is best known for his patented drag shot, but man is he ever filthy with the mitts,” Barber says. “He has very soft and quick hands, which he displays quite often, quickly moving the blade and barely moving the puck to throw defenders off his final move. He’s very good in tight, which affords him the time and space to get those lethal shots off.
“His hand-eye on bouncing pucks and pucks in the air is incredible as well. He’s amazing at settling down wobbling pucks and getting them flat to make something happen. He is very established with the toe, which not only benefits the drag shot but also when he wants to fake a shot and drag it in close to his body to eliminate.”
7. Miro Heiskanen, Dallas Stars
Still just 20 years old, young Miro Heiskanen has already put the league on notice as one of the most dangerous offensive defenders in the game. He’s the quintessential example of the new breed of blue-liner, able to thrive in the particular aspects of the game that have become critical as the league leans more towards speed and skill in transition.
“He can quarterback a breakout, zone entry and power play with ease. The way he holds the puck establishes himself as a constant threat, which leads the defender to reach and overstep. This is where he burns you,” Barber explains.
“He’s also remarkably good in small areas, which is not very typical among defenders. However, this proves to be very important when you consider loose-puck battles leading into breakouts and setting up in the zone. He can get the puck and give his teammates that little bit of extra time needed to get open.”
8. Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche
The current leading contender for this season’s Calder Trophy, Cale Makar has the makings of the Colorado Avalanche’s missing piece, bringing the same type of all-world skill the club has up front and unleashing it from the blue line. And in Barber’s eyes, the Calgary, Alta., native is about as close to the full package as you could find.
“Makar stands out in nearly every category you can imagine — skating, shooting, awareness. But his puck-carrying abilities definitely stand out to me, and make players like MacKinnon drool,” Barber says. “He carries the puck with such confidence and poise. You don’t often see him force passes, and when you watch him play a full game, you are so impressed with his ability to identify the best play and make it happen. So many of these plays are created by his stickhandling abilities and he really does have a wide range of skills.
“As a defenceman, he’s very patient with the puck and doesn’t get flustered over high pressure. If anything, he’s begging players to take him on because that’s when he’s most dangerous.”
9. Andrei Svechnikov, Carolina Hurricanes
Those who are tuned into the stick-handling side of the game have long been tracking the failed attempts at bringing The Michigan goal into the NHL. Andrei Svechnikov became the first to pull that feat, and the fact he was able to speaks to how much the game has grown in terms of creating space for this type of creativity.
But the Hurricanes forward is far more than just high-risk flash.
“He’s got an unbelievable set of hands and he knows how to use them. In the offensive zone, he can get defenders to bite on fake shots all day, and he has so many moves in his bag of tricks when it comes to eliminating on one-on-ones,” Barber says. “He loves one-on-ones and when you consider how much of the game is determined by these battles, you understand why a player like Svechnikov is so effective. He loves using the toe of his stick and making moves in tight to his body. He also has great range of motion, having the ability to control pucks far off the body and regaining control of bouncing pucks.
“I think one thing that is often overlooked when discussing good stickhandling abilities is a player’s ability to take a bad pass and get to to a loaded position to establish yourself as a triple threat. Svechnikov does this better than most.”
10. Patrik Laine, Winnipeg Jets
Like the player drafted one spot above him in 2016, Patrik Laine’s made his name in the game thus far with a blistering shot that’s found twine plenty of times through his first few years in the league. But as we’re seeing this season in Winnipeg, there’s much more to the talented Finn’s game.
“I’m sure many people would wonder why he’d be on this list. Laine’s hands are absolutely underrated,” Barber says. “He uses toe drags and backhand toe drags a lot and whenever you have a shot like his, these stickhandling moves are twice as effective because you can get defenders to overcommit from further out.
“If you’re standing in front of a Laine shot, best of luck to you. But if you are brave enough to go and block it, you’ll be surprised with how well he can disguise a fake shot and walk around you — this makes him very effective, especially on high-speed rushes.
“Maybe we don’t see as much of him in the finesse department, but I truly think he’s got outstanding handles.”