Welcome to the NHL – Top Ten Players to Watch For

Yes the NHL lockout has finally ended. We as fans are all happy and anxious for the games to begin. But perhaps there is none more anxious than the ten names on the following list.

There are a variety of reasons why I choose these specific players, for some it was because of the opportunity on their team. For others, their play has demanded they receive an NHL audition. Organizational commitment towards some has thrust them into an opportunity to earn their NHL start. For each player I will break down why I think their NHL career begins now.

Gustav Nyquist Red Wings

(Jerome Miron-US PRESSWIRE)

1. Gustav Nyquist, Detroit Red Wings

With the departure of Jiri Hudler to Calgary, and the retirement of Tomas Holmstrom, the door has opened wide for Nyquist to claim his place on a wings top six position, perhaps riding shotgun for either Pavel Datsyuk, or Captain Henrik Zetterberg. Nyquist has paid his dues in the AHL where he was named to the all-rookie team in 2012 while scoring at over a point per game pace. He has played a total of 18 NHL games, but his days of being called up, and sent down should be in the past now.

2. Zack Kassian, Vancouver Canucks

aaron rome and Matt Kassian

(Vincent Muzik/Icon SMI)

The Canucks paid a hefty price to acquire Kassian when they traded Cody Hodgson to the Buffalo Sabres, so expect them to play Kassian full time this season even if he gets a slow start. The plan for Kassian may be to play him with the Sedin twins as he brings the size, grit and sandpaper that line is sorely missing while still having a skill level high enough to produce. Even if Coach Alain Vigneault sticks with super pest Alex Burrows on the top line, Kassian will still see at least third line duties.

3. Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets

The diminutive Atkinson may be small of stature at five foot seven and 172 pounds, but his skill level and goal scoring ability has forced Columbus to give him a look in the NHL. With the trade of Rick Nash, the Jackets are looking to build around youth and would love nothing more than for Atkinson to carry his AHL scoring prowess into the NHL. In 33 AHL games this season, Atkinson has 38 points.

4. Cody Eakin, Dallas Stars

The Stars traded established centre Mike Ribeiro to Washington to acquire Eakin in hopes that Eakin can play either second or third line duties. Derek Roy has been cleared to start the season but if the season had started on time, it would have provided Eakin with a glorious opportunity to start on the second line. Never the less, if his performance is strong enough, it could allow Jamie Benn to shift back to the wing where he is more comfortable.

5. Eric Tangradi, Pittsburgh Penguins

Tangradi has the size and skill that every NHL team loves to have, and he would be an ideal power forward on a line with Sidney Crosby. The 23 year old has the ability to supplant Matt Cooke in a top six role and is versatile enough to play either wing. He can provide some toughness, a net presence and throw his weight around. Even if he does not make the top line with Sid, he could still end up flanking Evgeni Malkin.

6. Brandon Saad, Chicago Blackhawks

Brandon Saad

Brandon Saad recorded 38 penalty minutes in 44 games, all the while scoring 76 points. (OHL Images)

Saad scored six points in six games for the US at the World Juniors and almost two points a game in the OHL last season. This year in the AHL he has 14 points in 28 games , but after an impressive Jr. career and one point in his two game NHL playoff debut last season and a lingering injury to Marian Hossa, look for the Hawks to play Saad in a top six role this season. Saad is a gifted playmaker who scores consistently and playing with either Jonathan Toews or Pat Kane should not hurt his offensive tendencies.

7. T.J. Brennan, Buffalo Sabres

The Sabres have a glut of players on defense and cracking the top six will be difficult. Assuming Christian Ehrhoff, Tyler Myers, Jordan Leoplod, Andrej Sekera, and Robin Regehr hold five of the top six spots, Brennan will compete with Brayden McNabb and Mike Weber for the final spot. I give the nod to Brennan her because he is having an outstanding season in the AHL scoring a whopping 31 points in 33 games. He has NHL size and skates well. His game is offense, but at 23 years old, his defensive game is catching up. He is ready.

8. Erik Gustafsson, Philadelphia Flyers

Gustafsson made some noise in the playoffs when he filled in for an injured Nick Grossman. Now with injuries to Chris Pronger lingering and Andrej Meszaros injured for the season, there is an opening for Gustafsson. His only challenge will be to remain healthy himself. He has produced 14 points in 24 AHL games this season but is currently day-to-day with a foot injury.

9. Patrick Maroon, Anaheim Ducks

Maroon has been, and may only be, a great scorer at lower levels. But he dominated with London of the OHL, scored at a point per game pace last season in the AHL and has 22 points in 33 games for Norfolk this season. Even if he is unable to make the NHL as a offensive threat, he has size at six foot four, 225 pounds to be an effective physical force. The Ducks have serious question marks on their wings after Perry, Ryan and Selanne and Maroon has been turning some heads with his play the last year.

10. Andrei Loktionov, Los Angeles Kings

Loktionov is an offensive player with excellent playmaking abilities. His problem in cracking the NHL is he plays for the defending Stanley Cup Champions who boast Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, and Jarret Stoll at the centre position. However, Kopitar is injured and will possibly miss the first few weeks of the season. This is just the opportunity Loktionov needs to play his way onto the Kings roster and claim his spot.

These young men have been working, and dreaming their whole life of breaking into the NHL, and the time has finally come. While some of the names on this list have had a cup of coffee in the NHL already, the time is now for them to make their marks and win a full time NHL job. For some, it may seem like ages ago that they took their first step towards this dream when they were drafted and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman greeted them by saying “welcome to the NHL”.