Top NHL rookies: Early Calder Trophy candidates for 2018-19

Toronto Marlies forward Andreas Johnsson comments after winning the Calder Cup.

The NHL is a young man’s league these days, where speed and skill rule and with the salary cap putting pressure on teams to find affordable talent to complement their highly paid stars.

We may be early into the summer yet, but we’re looking forward to what promises to be a great class of NHL rookies in 2018-19. Some of these players have roster spots all but locked up, while others may need a strong showing in September training camps to hang in the NHL out of the gate.

Although a few have gotten into NHL games already, they all remain rookies. To be considered as such in the NHL, a player must not have played in more than 25 NHL games in any preceding seasons, nor in six or more NHL games in each of any two preceding seasons. Any player who is 26 years old as of this coming Sept. 15 is no longer considered a rookie, regardless of games played.

With that said, we decided to highlight 17 rookies to keep an eye on next season.

Elias Pettersson, Vancouver

After the Canucks picked him fifth overall in the 2017 NHL Draft, Pettersson went on to have an historical season in the Swedish League, winning the regular season scoring title outright, and winning the league’s playoff MVP.

“He’s super skilled,” Canucks GM Jim Benning told Dan Murphy in April. “He’s great with the puck. Great release on his shot. He’s a smart player, reads the play, anticipates well. He’s slight right now, but he’s got good balance on his skates so I think he can come in and be a skilled player for us.”

Rasmus Dahlin, Buffalo

Of course the No. 1-overall draft pick shows up on this list. An exciting talent charged with transforming the Sabres’ blue line over the next few years, Dahlin has to battle the odds to win it. Only two of the past 14 Calder Trophies were won by defencemen (Aaron Ekblad and Tyler Myers).

“We’re excited about this week, just to get him acclimated a little bit with people within our organization,” Sabres GM Jason Botterill told ahead of the team’s development camp. “Rasmus will come back in the fall and between the rookie tournament, and then we have seven pre-season games, we’ll try to get him in quite a few of those games just to get him acclimated to the North American game and set him up for success at the start of the season.”

Anthony Cirelli, Tampa Bay

Although he played 18 NHL games last season, the 20-year-old will still be a rookie in 2018-19 because he finished seven games short of the threshold. Cirelli scored 11 points in those 18 games and added three in 17 playoff games. He may be on Tampa Bay’s third line, but that comes with the upside of being on one of the NHL’s highest-scoring teams. And there’s always a chance he works his way into the top six, taking his candidacy to a new level.

“Anthony Cirelli came in late,” Lightning GM Steve Yzerman said in June. “We threw him in there with 20-something games to go in the regular season and he’s going head-to-head against Nick Backstrom, and Kuznetsov and Jay Beagle — really, really good NHL centremen and holding his own. So we’re encouraged by that.”

Valentin Zykov, Carolina

The 23-year-old has played 12 NHL games over two years, but maintains his rookie status for not playing six or more games in both years. In the 10 games he played this past season, Zykov posted seven points — all of which came at even strength. Most of Zykov’s season was spent in the AHL, where he led the league with 33 goals in 63 games. He was better than a point-per-game player in each of the three seasons he spent in the WHL.

Andrei Svechnikov, Carolina

The No. 2-overall pick should stick in the NHL right away — after all, how much more is there to accomplish in junior for a player who scored 40 goals in 44 games? The 18-year-old missed a couple months to injury last season, but still separated himself from the other forwards in the running to be picked right after Dahlin. An exciting, explosive and physically mature talent.

“Andrei is the type of elite talent that you can build a team around,” Hurricanes GM Don Waddell said. “He has a bright future in a Carolina Hurricanes uniform.”

Casey Mittelstadt, Buffalo

The 19-year-old’s place in the lineup became a little clearer with the trade of centre Ryan O’Reilly. Mittelstadt scored 30 points in 34 games for the University of Minnesota, led the WJC in scoring with 11 points and had a successful first taste of NHL action at the end of the 2017-18 season, posting five points in six games. Mittelstadt is set up to have a successful rookie season with the Sabres.

“You’re always excited about Casey’s hockey sense and his skill level,” Sabres GM Jason Botterill told the Buffalo News. “Those are things that we’ve talked a lot about with our group here in Buffalo, improving our team speed and improving our team skill level.”

Filip Chytil, NY Rangers

The Rangers didn’t depart from their plan to focus on youth this summer and have available positions for a player like Chytil to earn and see minutes in the top six. The 21st-overall pick in the 2017 draft came to North America last season and even cracked the Rangers lineup out of camp, though was quickly sent to the AHL where he had 31 points in 46 AHL games. In nine total NHL games he had three points, and then posted two in seven games for the Czechs at the world championship. He’s 6-foot-2, over 200 pounds and a skilled centre for the team to move into the future with.

“It was a dream come true playing in the NHL at 18 years [old], it’s something special,” Chytil told the New York Post. “I enjoyed every minute, every shift. I think I’m more ready than before.”

Lias Andersson, NY Rangers

The other centre of the future in New York, Andersson was the seventh-overall pick in 2017 and split 2017-18 between the Swedish League and the AHL. This terrific talent even got a taste of NHL action, scoring two points in seven games, and then had two points in 10 games for Sweden at the worlds.

Logan Brown, Ottawa Senators

The Senators may be a disaster next season, but someone has to score. At 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds, Brown is looking to build off the brief NHL exposure he had at the start of last season when he initially made the Senators out of camp. Injury shortened his season and WJC tournament, but with 48 points in 32 OHL contests he’s ready for the next step up. The 20-year-old is good friends with two other Sens prospects, Colin White and Brady Tkachuk, all of whom are centrepieces of what fans hope is a brighter future.

Colin White, Ottawa Senators

It’s not all bad in Ottawa — there are still some players to look forward to in the system. The 21st-overall pick in 2015 had six points in 21 NHL games last season and 27 in 47 AHL games, though he missed the start of the season with a broken wrist. White got more good exposure representing USA at the world championship, where he shared a dressing room with the likes of Johnny Gaudreau and Patrick Kane. White has already been given some top-line time, so if he gets that next season he could be in a spot to put up enough points to make a Calder case.

It’s worth noting Tkachuk’s absence from this list — it is not yet clear whether he’ll join the NHL or go back to NCAA hockey with Boston University.

“I think I’ve done some good things, but I think there’s definitely still some things to learn,” White said in February. “I think I’ve got to have more patience out there with the puck.

Eeli Tolvanen, Nashville

The 30th-overall pick in 2017 arrived in North America at the tail end of the regular season to great fanfare following a hugely productive KHL season. With 36 points, Tolvanen had the second-best point total ever in that league for an under-20 player, finishing four points shy of Evgeny Kuznetsov’s record — and Tolvanen played 30 fewer games. He didn’t register a point in three NHL games, but since he’ll come into 2018-19 fresh and accustomed to his surroundings, he could take off. The only thing holding him back could be limited minutes on a deep team.

“The first couple of games were really tough for me,” Tolvanen said of his NHL start. “But that was huge to have those couple games out of the way and just to see the tempo and what the game is like back here. Now, I know I have to get stronger, bigger and faster, and I have to be ready when the training camp starts.”

Miro Heiskanen, Dallas

If Erik Karlsson ends up being traded to a team other than Dallas, it may be because the Stars didn’t want to let this potential top-pair blueliner go. The third-overall pick in 2017, Heiskanen has all the tools: he can skate, pass, shoot, has good composure and is responsible on the defensive side of the puck, too. He had 23 points in 30 games in the Finnish League — a 0.77 points per game mark that was the best among all blueliners in the league.

“He was the best defenceman in the league and one of the best in Europe,” HIFK manager Tobias Salmelainen told The Hockey News. “He makes the game look easy. His IQ is off the charts and his skating is elite. He was our most important player.”

Martin Necas, Carolina

The 12th-overall pick in 2017, Necas’ 17 points in 24 Czech League games this season led all under-19 players and his points-per-game mark was .29 higher than Martin Kaut, the 16th-overall pick of the 2018 draft by Colorado. Necas had five points in seven world championship games and tied Mittelstadt for the WJC scoring lead with 11 points.

“He doesn’t need to boost his stock with us. He has an exclamation point beside his name, as far as how good a player he is and we project him to be,” Hurricanes director of amateur scouting Tony MacDonald told the Raleigh News and Observer. “In the game played today in the NHL, speed is the most important element. He has it and he’s got the skill to go with it. It’s a matter of him getting more man strength, and when he gets to 190 pounds he will be a force to be reckoned with.”

Kristian Vesalainen, Winnipeg

So Kyle Connor scored 31 goals as a rookie this past season, Patrik Laine hit 36 the season before and was a Calder finalist — could the Jets go three years in a row with a freshman hitting the 30-goal mark? Vesalainen is already a big body at 6-foot-4, 207 pounds and with 43 points in 49 Finnish League games he led all under-20 players in scoring (as an 18-year-old) and was the sixth-highest goal scorer overall with 22 tallies. Only three players in Finnish League history scored more points than Vesalainen before turning 19: Teemu Pulkkinen, Aleksander Barkov and Sebastian Aho.

“It’s not usual. He’s a special kid, I think,” HPK coach Antti Pennanen told the Winnipeg Free Press. “This is something that doesn’t happen.”

Henrik Borgstrom, Florida

Borgstrom was a human highlight reel coming out of the University of Denver, and nobody is shocked anymore that Florida used a first-round pick (23rd overall) in 2016 to get him. Normally a league where older players dominate, Borgstrom had 95 points in 77 NCAA games across two seasons and was tied as the fourth-highest point-getter in the nation last season, finishing as a Hobey Baker finalist. He’s still filling out his 6-foot-3 frame, but did manage one goal in his end-of-season four-game stint with the Panthers. Borgstrom’s success on the scoresheet could directly tie to where exactly he fits on the depth chart in 2018-19.

“He’s learned being a centre, being low and slow and not blowing the zone,” Panthers director of player personnel Bryan McCabe told the Sun-Sentinel. “He’s a guy that wants the puck and can do a lot of special things with it. He’s not too far off. I think he’s got to get a little stronger, upper-body wise.”

Andreas Johnsson, Toronto

Already stacked with talent, someone has to fill the vacancy created by James van Riemsdyk’s departure and Johnsson could be it for Toronto. With 54 points in 54 games, the 23-year-old had the best points-per-game mark on the Marlies last season and was their big game-breaking talent, adding 24 points in 16 playoff games en route to being named post-season MVP. He had three points in nine games with the Maple Leafs and if he earns a plum spot next to either John Tavares or Auston Matthews, look out. Johnson was a seventh-round pick in 2013.

“He’s a special, special kid,” Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe told Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston. “He’s taken the long road to road to get here. He’s another example that it doesn’t matter when you’re drafted or even if you’re drafted, you just keep working and the cream rises to the top eventually.”

Filip Zadina, Detroit

When we look back on the 2018 draft in 10 years time, we might wonder how Zadina fell all the way to Detroit at No. 6. Once nack-and-neck with Svechnikov for the No. 2 spot, Zadina’s place in the end was a surprising development, considering he was easily the QMJHL’s best rookie with 44 goals and 82 points in 57 games. The kid has a wicked shot and is hungry to make the teams that passed him over regret it.

“We tried to pick him apart – how creative is he? How good is his hockey sense?” Detroit’s director of amateur scouting Tyler Wright told “He wasn’t a one-trick pony that would just score, he’s got good hockey sense, he creates plays, he’s a good character kid, he competes, he kills penalties, he scores in various ways, he’s got a good release, just a very good overall offensive hockey player.”

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