5 NHL Sophomores Poised To Build on Rookie Campaign

“The Sophomore Slump” has claimed numerous victims over the years. Sometimes it serves as a mere bump in the road toward a lengthy, productive career. Sometimes it derails best-laid plans altogether.

In recent memory, Calder Trophy winners Nathan MacKinnon, Jonathan Huberdeau, Gabriel Landeskog and Jeff Skinner all saw their scoring rates dip during their second campaign. Last season, Shayne Gostisbehere came back down to Earth following a meteoric rise the year prior; he even spent several games as a healthy scratch. Historically, even legends like Teemu Selanne and Brian Leetch fell prey to the second-year slip.

This is due in part to NHL teams accruing a full year’s worth of film on the burgeoning youngsters in question. Moreover, the league’s 82-game season can be a slog, and younger players are more prone to lapses in focus.

Last season, NHL fans were treated to a bevy of exciting rookies. Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine erupted for 40 and 36 goals, respectively. Matthews’ teammates William Nylander and Mitch Marner each registered 61 points. Zach Werenski and Brady Skjei each proved ready for the rigors of playing top four minutes on playoff-caliber teams.

Auston Matthews, NHL, Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

All appear to have the talent and supporting cast needed to avoid a sophomore slump. So rather than listing the obvious, I would like to take things one step further to display five second-year players who, though susceptible, will buck the trend and build upon their rookie success.

Without further ado….

Sebastian Aho — Carolina Hurricanes

As a 19-year old rookie, Sebastian Aho exceeded the initial expectations placed on him as a 2015 second-round pick. The Finnish forward appeared in all 82 games, registering 24 goals and 49 points for the Hurricanes; good for third and fifth (respectively) amongst all rookies.

Sebastian Aho, NHL, Carolina Hurricanes
Sebastian Aho (James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

As an 18-year old following his draft year, Aho scored at a point-per-game rate with Karpat of SM-liiga, Finland’s top pro league. Despite being one of the youngest players on the roster, his 45 points in as many games led the team. His success against grown men as an 18-year old with Karpat was a harbinger of things to come, and an indicator that he’s the real deal.

Internationally, he was a key cog in Finland’s run to gold during the 2016 World Junior Championships. Playing alongside Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi, Aho’s 14 points in seven games ranked second in tourney scoring (with only Puljujarvi outpacing him).

Sebastian Aho (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

His five-foot-eleven, 175 pound frame leaves him vulnerable to bigger, stronger players. However, the speed and creativity with which he plays the game makes him lethal in open ice. Aho plays with the kind of confidence one seldom sees in young, diminutive players. That confidence is an integral part of his projected success in year two.

Why He’ll Succeed

As mentioned above, Aho possesses the confidence to go along with his natural abilities. And for two seasons in a row he’s shown more than capable of excelling against grown men. However, arguably the biggest reason to believe in him in year two has more to do with his teammates than Aho himself.

One gets the feeling that something special is brewing in the Tar Heel State. General Manager Ron Francis is slowly, surely assembling quite the cadre of young talent in Raleigh. Aho, Jeff Skinner, Elias Lindholm, Viktor Rask and Teuvo Teravainen anchor the top six forward lines, and all are 25 years old or younger. That same breakdown of young talent can be found on the blue line as well, as all of Carolina’s six projected starting rear guards are 26 or younger.

Hurricanes Bench (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

As the young ‘Canes continue to mature, progress and gel with one another it stands to reason that Aho can build upon last season’s success. He’ll once again be a fixture with the man-advantage, where his creativity will be on full display.

After much line-shuffling early in the season, he found continuity and success alongside Lindholm and Jordan Staal. The similarly skilled Scandanavian and gritty, two-way Staal figure to compliment and support Aho’s abilities moving forward.

Go ahead and pencil him in for 25 goals and 60-65 points.

Jake Guentzel — Pittsburgh Penguins

Where in God’s name did he come from?

Just one year after plying his trade at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, Jake Guentzel was playing his way into Conn Smythe Trophy consideration. Guentzel’s 13 playoff goals last spring topped the NHL scoring charts en route to Pittsburgh’s second consecutive Stanley Cup victory. His stellar postseason capped off an impressive 40-game regular season in which the Omaha native recorded 16 goals and 33 points.

Jake Guentzel (Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports)

Prior to his mid-season call-up, the 22-year old torched the AHL to the tune of 21 goals and 42 points in just 33 games.

At the collegiate level, he registered 119 points in 108 games for his hometown Mavericks, leading them to the school’s first Frozen Four his sophomore year.

Jake Guentzel is not physically imposing at five-foot-eleven, 180 pounds. For his size, he’s also not a terribly gifted or speedy skater. He’s able to compensate for these “deficiencies” with a nose for the puck and net, as well as tremendous finishing ability. From a size/speed/ability standpoint he reminds me a lot of Mark Recchi; a guy who just always seems to be in the right place at the right time.

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His 13th and final goal of last season’s playoffs is a perfect example of how he gets the job done. He wins a battle down low, cycles the puck back to the blue line and immediately crashes the net, winning another battle (this one against Ryan Ellis) before potting the rebound. Nothing flashy or fancy, just good old-fashioned gritty hockey.

Why He’ll Succeed

He’s a proven scorer, doing so at every level he’s played. He even scored two goals in his first PERIOD of NHL hockey, let alone first game. Considering his out-of-nowhere arrival and modest pedigree (77th overall pick in the 2013 draft) coming out of a middling program, I wouldn’t typically be so bullish on his chances to avoid the sophomore slump. However, Sidney Crosby is his center. Enough said.

(Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)

Crosby is still probably the best player in the world. His ability to bring out the best in his linemates year after year has allowed Pittsburgh to spread its firepower throughout the lineup. With Crosby, players like Guentzel and Connor Sheary become legitimate threats every time they step onto the ice.

He will also continue to receive shifts as part of Pittsburgh’s lethal power play, which ranked third in the NHL last season.

The Penguins will once again be excellent in 2017-18. So will Jake Guentzel. I think he can reach or eclipse 30 goals and 60 points.

Travis Konecny — Philadelphia Flyers

Travis Konecny enjoyed a solid, albeit unspectacular rookie campaign. His 28 points through 70 games were good for eighth on a team that struggled to score all year. The 20-year old missed 12 games due to a lower body injury, which only served to further mire the rookie in a second-half swoon. After a strong start, the Ontario native recorded just seven points over his final 27 games, and zero points in his last seven games.

Photo: Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers

In the OHL, Konecny was productive over three years spent between the Ottawa 67’s and Sarnia Sting. His 85 goals and 239 points over 183 games are a testament to his tremendous playmaking ability, and made him the 24th overall pick in the 2015 draft. He’s quick, shifty and confident with the puck on his stick.

Despite his small stature (five-foot-eleven, 175 pounds), he plays with tenacity. In a lot of ways he reminds me of Brad Marchand and Brendan Gallagher, unafraid to mix it up with players considerably larger. It’s a mentality that will enable him to fight through adversity to score gritty goals while also endearing himself to the Philadelphia faithful. Jeff Brown, Konecny’s coach with the 67’s and a former NHLer himself spoke glowingly of his former player:

It’s his engine, it’s incredible, the kid never stops. He has no mirrors in his house. He has no idea how small he is because he competes so hard against everybody, doesn’t matter the size. His shot, his character, obviously his leadership in the locker room. He’s going to be a pro, it’s that simple. He does the little things like a pro and trains like a pro.

– Jeff Brown (Neate Sager, Yahoo Sports)

Why He’ll Succeed

Konecny seems destined to begin the season in a top six role, playing on his off-wing. Any way you slice it, he’ll be playing alongside some extremely gifted players.

Should coach Dave Hakstol give him a crack at the top line, Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek will be his running mates. Second line duty would slot him alongside Nolan Patrick and Wayne Simmonds.

Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek, Philadelphia Flyers
Giroux, Simmonds and Voracek (Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports)

The worst-case scenario for Konecny sees him start the year on the third line, where he and two-way standout Sean Couturier can feast on an opposing bottom six line. Power play minutes (likely on the second unit) will help to boost Konecny’s numbers and confidence.

The Flyers appear to once again be a team on the fringe of the playoff bubble. Though the team’s chances for success may be moderate, Travis Konecny himself seems destined to build upon last year. With a season of equal success and adversity under his belt, another fade down the stretch seems unlikely. He has the talent, attitude and linemates to prevent it.

Put him down for 20 goals and 45-50 points.

Ivan Provorov — Philadelphia Flyers

A double-dose of love from the City of Brotherly Love.

Last season, Ivan Provorov took the first of many steps in his quest to live up to his pedigree as the seventh pick of the 2015 draft. Despite being just 19 years old for half of the season, Provorov hit the ground running to the tune of six goals and 30 points over a full 82-game campaign. What really stood out for the Russian beyond the statistics, however, was his usage.

Ivan Provorov
(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

By November, the rearguard was logging top pairing minutes; roughly 22 minutes per game, to be precise. Granted, Philadelphia’s blue line has been a work in progress for some years now. Regardless, the ability to function as a de facto number-one defenseman on an NHL team at 19 years of age is extremely impressive and encouraging.

His NHL debut followed two stellar seasons with the Brandon Wheat Kings of the WHL. Provorov scored at a point-per-game rate in 2014-15 (61 points in 60 games), his team to the WHL Championship game. His second campaign was even better, scoring 73 points in 62 games while leading the Pride of Manitoba to a WHL title and being named the CHL’s Defenseman of the Year.

He already possesses NHL size, standing six-foot-one, 200 pounds. He’s not a monster by any means, but has the frame to support additional bulk as he ages. He’s a genuinely fantastic skater; exceptionally smooth and effortless, with the ability to change gears in a moment.

He sees the ice very well for such a young player, and makes crisp, confident outlet passes. He’s adept at quarterbacking a power play, and defensively maintains gaps and anticipates play with aplomb. Provorov is a bona fide, all-around, number-one defenseman in the making.

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Why He’ll Succeed

Frankly, he’s too talented and developed already at 20 years of age not to. There were certainly a few hiccups during his rookie campaign, but nothing out of the ordinary for a rookie. In fact, one could argue he played even better than the Flyers’ staff could have anticipated.

As previously mentioned, Philadelphia’s blue line has been a work in progress for some time now. This season, there’s hope for more “progress” than “work.”

Shayne Gostisbehere looks to rebound from his sophomore slump. Samuel Morin and Travis Sanheim, the team’s first-round picks in 2013 and 2014 should each make the jump from the AHL. A stronger unit means more evenly-distributed responsibilities, which should only free Provorov to wreak more havoc.

Ivan Provorov and Travis Sanheim (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Finally, the metrics support Provorov’s continued ascent. Producing offense with a steady dose of defensive zone face-offs illustrates that the points are not a byproduct of sheltered minutes; the puck is starting in his end and winding up in the opponents’ zone. That bodes extremely well for his and the team’s fortunes moving forward.

I expect Ivan Provorov to reach ten goals and 45-50 points this season, while continuing to tighten his game in the defensive zone. I believe he’s a star in the making; shades of Duncan Keith.

Mikko Rantanen — Colorado Avalanche

Things were bad in Colorado last season. Historically so, as the Avalanche finished the season 20 points shy of their previous worst campaign. Stars such as Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog were not immune to the team-wide struggles, as each posted some of the lowest scoring rates of their careers.

Amidst all of the struggles there was a lone bright spot, coming in the form of rookie winger Mikko Rantanen.

Despite the aforementioned star power dotting the roster, it was Rantanen’s 20 goals which led the team. He did so despite playing in fewer games than MacKinnon and Duchene as well.

(Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports)

His rookie-year breakout should not have come as much of a surprise. Despite it being his first full NHL season it was hardly his first foray into the world of professional hockey. Rantanen debuted professionally in his native Finland at the ripe age of 16, dressing in 15 games for TPS Turku of SM-liiga. He managed to score twice during that campaign, despite playing against some men twice his age or more.

He’d go on to play in 93 more games over two seasons in Finland, furthering his development. His initial foray into American hockey with the San Antonio Rampage of the AHL was a smashing success, as the big-bodied forward registered 60 points in just 52 games. A nine-game stint at the NHL level that same year yielded zero points, but proved invaluable toward paving the way for a breakout campaign in 2016-17.

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Rantanen also captained Finland’s 2016 WJC Gold Medal squad, recording five points in seven games.

Rantanen, still just 20 years old, already possesses ideal NHL size. Standing six-foot-four, 211 pounds, he won’t be dogged by as many questions that surround other prospects as they grow into men; he already is one. Furthermore, he’s a gifted skater for a man of his size, hardly a relic of yesteryear as a plodding power forward. He owns a tremendous set of hands, able to make plays in close and in open ice with equal aptitude.

Why He’ll Succeed

The size and skill combination is impossible to ignore, though he’d hardly be the first player with all of the intangibles to struggle as a sophomore. In fact, his occasional linemate Gabriel Landeskog is a prime example of that.

However, it’s the general trend of the organization in conjunction with his abilities that suggest sophomore slump immunity. Make no mistake, Colorado will still be a cellar-dweller next season in the always-tough Central Division. Nevertheless, they can’t possibly be quite so inept in 2017-18.

Matt Duchene Gabriel Landeskog (Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports)

Both MacKinnon and Landeskog are set to rebound along with their teammates. Additional oomph is set to arrive in the form of the ultra-talented Tyson Jost. Though Matt Duchene’s status with the club is still in question, improvement will occur either in the form of Duchene himself or in the pieces acquired for him.

Rantanen will be a fixture in the team’s top six, playing on the wing with one of MacKinnon, Duchene or Jost. Furthermore, his ability to play either wing only enhances his viability, allowing coach Jared Bednar to utilize a number of combinations. His one-timer, net-front work and playmaking abilities will be showcased on Colorado’s power play, adding to his point totals.

Twenty-five goals and 50 points seem achievable for Mikko Rantanen on a marginally-improved Avalanche squad.

Honorable Mention

Josh Morrissey, Timo Meier, Pavel Zacha