NHL Power Rankings: Reasons for Rookie Optimism Edition

Calgary Flames' Dan Vladar makes a save as Nikita Zadorov tries to control Toronto Maple Leafs' Michael Bunting on Friday November 12, 2021. (CP/file)

The play of Detroit Red Wings Lucas Raymond and Moritz Seider is amazing, but by no means ground-breaking; we’ve had some incredible rookie running mates this century in the NHL.

The fledging Atlanta Thrashers had to figure they were on their way in 2002, when Dany Heatley won the Calder Trophy and teammate Ilya Kovalchuk – whose season was cut nearly 20 games short by injury — finished No. 2. As it turned out, the Thrashers were on their way — to Winnipeg.

Things certainly worked out better for Chicago Blackhawks fans who were rubbing their hands together after Patrick Kane was the top freshman in 2008 and teammate Jonathan Toews was also a Calder finalist. Two years later, Chicago won the first of three Stanley Cups that will always be inexorably linked to those two franchise-defining players.

One year prior, Evgeni Malkin was your 2007 rookie of the year, with fellow Penguin Jordan Staal finishing third in Calder voting. With a 1-2-3 centre stack of Sidney Crosby, Malkin and Staal, it’s no surprise the Penguins won the 2009 Cup while the latter two were still on their entry-level deals.

Auston Matthews — your 2017 RotY — teamed with Mitch Marner (fifth in Calder voting) in their freshman seasons to give Toronto Maple Leafs fans visions of a bright future. While the Leafs haven’t exactly followed the path laid out by Pittsburgh and Chicago, a generation of fans cheering for hockey’s most popular team are giddy about having a name that starts with ‘M’ on the back of their sweaters.

You’d probably be guessing for a while if I asked you for the fourth instance of teammates finishing Top 3 in Calder voting since 2000: It was in 2014, when Tampa Bay Lightning forwards Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson finished 2-3 behind winner Nathan MacKinnon of the Avalanche.

That should have tipped us off to Tampa’s ability to find and develop players, because unlike all the other sparkling top-of-the-board draft picks listed above, Palat was a seventh-rounder, while Johnson was completely passed over and signed as a free agent. That brings us back to Detroit, not because of Raymond’s or Seider’s pedigree, but because 20 years ago they debuted deep-cut, future-changing rookies in consecutive years. Sixth-rounder Pavel Datsyuk was fourth in Calder voting in 2002, while seventh-rounder Henrik Zetterberg was second 12 months later.

Have the surprising Wings found their next two cornerstones? Perhaps. And as this week’s rookie-themed power rankings reveal, most teams have some reason for optimism as they peer into the future.

1. Carolina Hurricanes (23-7-1)
Seth Jarvis is looking like a steal. The 13th overall pick in 2020 is fourth among rookies with a points-per-game mark of 0.64.

2. Florida Panthers (22-7-4)
This is a good time to be talking about Anton Lundell: The freshman Finn has six points in his past six games. Also, let’s see what Spencer Knight does in the crease in the second half.

3. Toronto Maple Leafs (22-8-2)
Michael Bunting just meets the criteria to still be considered a rookie. He’s averaging just over 16 minutes of ice per game in his past 11 games compared to just over 14 through his initial 20.

4. Colorado Avalanche (19-8-2)
If Nazem Kadri leaves as a free agent, you get the sense first-year Av Alex Newhook will do just fine as 2C for years to come.

5. Pittsburgh Penguins (19-8-5)
Six-foot-three left winger Drew O’Connor burst onto the scene this season with five points in his first four games. He hasn’t been on the scoresheet since, though, and has been a regular healthy scratch.

6. New York Rangers (22-8-4)
Aside from D-man Nils Lundkvist, no Rangers rookie has played more than two games this season. The real youth-related question in New York is likely when will 2019 second-overall pick Kaapo Kakko and 2020’s top selection, Alexis Lafreniere, become serious offensive contributors? Lafreniere has four points in his past three games, so maybe he’s finding his way.

7. Washington Capitals (20-6-8)
Slovak defenceman Martin Fehervary is proving to be a nice fourth-round find. He’s averaging 19 minutes a night and has spent much of his time playing beside No. 1 D-man John Carlson. The Caps — thanks largely to injuries and pandemics — are one of only two teams along with San Jose to have four rookies play at least 20 games this season.

8. Tampa Bay Lighting (22-8-5)
Taylor Raddysh, 23, has cracked the NHL and played 31 games with Tampa this year. His 25-year-old brother, Darren, has also debuted this season, squeezing into a couple games with the Bolts.

9. St. Louis Blues (19-10-5)
The Blues took a flyer on hometown boy Logan Brown, acquiring the 2016 11th overall pick from Ottawa in late September. The 6-foot-6 Brown does have six points in 13 games after starting the year in the AHL, but his ice time has been declining lately.

10. Nashville Predators (21-11-2)
There is no shortage of positive stories in Nashville this year and Tanner Jeannot is firmly among them. The undrafted 24-year-old — who showed well in 15 games last season — is on pace for 48 points with a nice, even 10-10-20 stat line.

11. Calgary Flames (17-8-6)
Dan Vladar has been a stellar backup for Jacob Markstrom, posting a .928 save percentage this season.

12. Minnesota Wild (19-10-2)
Maybe the big stories are about to be written, as two top prospects — Marco Rossi and Matthew Boldy — will make their NHL debuts on Thursday night in Boston. Given everything Rossi went through thanks to complications stemming from COVID, this is a moment every hockey fan should applaud.

13. Vegas Golden Knights (22-13-1)
The first three draft picks in Knights history — Cody Glass, Nick Suzuki and Erik Brannstrom — have all been traded. Their fourth selection in 2017 was defenceman Nicolas Hague, who looks like a good one. No. 5 was 62nd overall pick Jake Leschyshyn, who has played 19 games with the club in his NHL debut this season. For what it’s worth, their next pick that year — third-rounder Jonas Rondbjerg — also cracked the NHL this year and has two goals in 13 games.

14. Boston Bruins (17-10-2)
Jeremy Swayman’s NHL tenure (this season, anyway) may be coming to an end soon with the news franchise legend Tuukka Rask has signed a professional tryout contract with the AHL’s Providence Bruins. Swayman, though, has done yeoman’s work in the crease: The rookie puckstopper has played 15 games and sports a .920 save percentage.

15. Winnipeg Jets (16-11-5)
It seems unlikely now that 2017 selection Kristian Vesalainen will ever live up to his first-round pedigree, but he has played 28 games for the Jets this year.

16. Anaheim Ducks (18-11-7)
As far as dynamic duos go, Trevor Zegras and Jamie Drysdale are absolutely in the same class as Raymond and Seider.

17. Vancouver Canucks (16-15-3)
Highly touted prospect Vasily Podkolzin played fewer than 10 minutes in a game six times in his first 10 outings. His ice time started to increase a bit under former coach Travis Green and he’s averaged 15:23 since Bruce Boudreau took over behind the bench in early December.

18. Los Angeles Kings (16-12-5)
2020 second-overall pick Quinton Byfield fractured his ankle in a pre-season game. He has now played six games for the AHL’s Ontario Reign, scoring his first goal in his most recent outing. The Kings hope the big centre is up with the big club before too long.

19. Dallas Stars (15-12-2)
No Jason Robertson-style surprises this year, but Jacob Peterson — a fifth-rounder in 2017 — does have five goals in 22 games, including one in the last contest Dallas played, on Dec. 20.

20. Detroit Red Wings (16-15-3)
The most impressive thing about Raymond, the rookie scoring leader with 29 points, might be his consistency. The 19-year-old Swede has not gone more than two games without showing up on the scoresheet this season.

21. New York Islanders (10-12-6)
We’re still waiting to see if the “other” Sebastian Aho — the 25-year-old Isles D-man, not the stud Carolina centre — can stick as a full-timer. Fellow freshman Robin Salo has also been in the blue-line mix recently.

22. Edmonton Oilers (18-14-2)
There aren’t many hotter topics in hockey right now than the Oilers crease. Long-term, Stuart Skinner may be part of the solution. The 6-foot-4 goalie put up a .916 save percentage in 10 games this season while Mike Smith was out.

23. San Jose Sharks (17-16-1)
The Sharks have seen 14 (14!) rookies play at least one game this season. While he’s hit a scoring wall lately, hopes remain high for 24-year-old Jonathan Dahlen.

24. Columbus Blue Jackets (15-15-1)
Cole Sillinger is the youngest player to skate in the NHL this season and the only pick from the 2021 draft to stick with his club. He has dressed for all 31 of Columbus’s games, though he did have to miss practice on Wednesday after sustaining an injury in Tuesday’s loss to Tampa Bay.

25. Philadelphia Flyers (13-14-6)
After leaving college to play three games with Philly last season, heralded defenceman Cam York played his first NHL game of the year on Tuesday. He played just a tick over 20 minutes in a loss to the Ducks.

26. New Jersey Devils (13-16-5)
2020 first-rounder Dawson Mercer has been a real bright spot for the Devils, putting up 19 points in 34 games.

27. Chicago Blackhawks (11-17-5)
Big MacKenzie Erstwhile has three goals as a rookie and played 18:09 in his most recent game, four minutes more than he’s seen in any of his other 17 contests this season.

28. Ottawa Senators (9-18-2)
2019 first-rounder Lassi Thomson debuted in mid-November. The right-shot blue-liner has three assists in 12 games, seeing just over 16 minutes of average ice time.

29. Buffalo Sabres (10-17-6)
Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen — the big goalie with the long name — has posted a .927 save percentage in seven games since making his season debut in early December. The Finn saw action in four games with Buffalo last year and the Sabres hope he’s the man in net when this team is ready to turn the corner.

30. Seattle Kraken (10-19-4)
There won’t really be much to see here until Seattle’s first draft class starts trickling into the NHL. Matty Beniers, the second-overall pick last summer, is having another point-per-game season with the Michigan Wolverines as a sophomore.

31. Montreal Canadiens (7-23-4)
In a year that’s all about development for the team, let’s see what Cole Caufield can do in the back half of his rookie season after a trying first half that saw him sent down to the AHL.

32. Arizona Coyotes (6-22-3)
Drafted in the fifth round in 2014 by Arizona, Dysin Mayo finally became an NHLer this season and is playing more than 20 minutes a night on the Coyotes blue-line.

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