Among the top young hockey players in the world, most of the attention early in the 2016-17 season has been focused on recent top draft picks Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine (and deservedly so, too). It makes sense that the first and second overall picks from this past summer would be stealing most of the spotlight, but that’s not to say that prospects selected later in the draft, even from outside the first round, won’t end up being better players than Matthews and Laine.
We’ve seen a small drop in the amount of NHL stars being unearthed beyond the top few rounds of the draft in recent years, but players such as Brandon Saad, Ondrej Palat, Nikita Kucherov, and Shayne Gostisbehere are just some of the talented young players who were somewhat of an afterthought on their draft days.
Here are several young players who haven’t yet cracked the NHL, but have emerged as potential future stars in the league thanks to their stellar play to date.
Jeremy Bracco, RW, Toronto Maple Leafs (2015)
It’s generally expected that a player in his final season of junior eligibility will rack up impressive point totals. After all, as the oldest, most experienced, and generally speaking, most high-profile members of their respective squads, countless over-age prospects have posted video game numbers in their final CHL season.
However, what Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Jeremy Bracco has accomplished to open the 2016-17 OHL season is eye-opening any way you look at it. The USA National Team alum has opened the year on a 22-game point streak after being cut from Toronto’s development camp, rolling up 16 goals and 45 points in that span. To put Bracco’s dominance into perspective, his current points streak is now officially longer than Mitchell Marner’s 21-game streak last season, his longest in a season where he captured the OHL’s regular season and playoff MVP awards.
Bracco’s impressive point totals aren’t just confined to this season, either. Prior to posting 64 points in a shortened OHL rookie season last year, Bracco had been among the USNTDP’s leading scorers in back-to-back seasons. Widely expected to be a first-round draft choice in 2015, factors such as his size (listed at 5 feet 9 inches and 172 pounds prior to being drafted) and questionable defensive awareness led to him falling to Toronto late in the second round (61st overall). He’s since packed on strength and now weighs around 190 pounds, and while the questions surrounding his defensive game haven’t disappeared completely, Bracco’s statistical dominance is a positive sign for Maple Leaf fans.
Related: Leafs’ Rising Star: Jeremy Bracco
Nicolas Roy, C, Carolina Hurricanes (2015)
Nicolas Roy, the former number-one pick in the QMJHL Draft, didn’t have his pre-draft season go quite as smoothly as expected. As Chicoutimi struggled in the standings, inconsistency riddled Roy and he finished with a disappointing 50-point season. Carolina, holding an extra fourth round pick and possessing nine in the 2015 Draft, took a chance on the 6’4″ centre with the 96th overall pick.
Roy immediately proved Hurricanes GM Ron Francis’ drafting prowess by improving in leaps and bounds in his third QMJHL season (2015-16). Taking on more of a leadership role than he had previously, Roy improved his previous seasons’ numbers by posting a league-leading 48 goals to go along with 90 points. He also added 71 penalty minutes, using his huge frame more effectively and adding some snarl to his game after a disappointing sophomore campaign.
He’s huge at 6’4″ and over 200 pounds, and he covers a lot of ground with powerful strides and a style of play most comparable to a bulldozer. As a player who can provide some scoring punch with a touch of physicality and two-way play, Roy is a tremendously valuable asset to a team like the Hurricanes, who are brimming with young skill but lack a physical presence of Roy’s ilk. He’s continuing his junior dominance this season with 32 points in his first 19 games, and while he’s probably not ready to make an impact with the Hurricanes yet, he could be a star power forward with Carolina if he continues along his current development path.
Taylor Raddysh, RW, Tampa Bay Lightning
This one seems obvious, as Raddysh is currently ranked first in the OHL in scoring with an astounding 20 goals and 50 points in his first 23 games. Some of his production could be attributed to highly-touted linemate Alex DeBrincat (recent addition Dylan Strome might help a little as well), but Raddysh has far exceeded expectations as a late second-round pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning last summer.
A two-way winger with good size (6 feet 2 inches, 200+ pounds), Raddysh’s 2014-15 rookie season showed glimpses of a future elite goal scorer, as he rolled up 21 goals, the most among 16-year-old players and good enough for fourth among all rookies. Buried on a very deep Otters team, Raddysh was held to just six assists on the season, which did little to dampen his very promising debut. He turned into more of a playmaker upon the departure of Connor McDavid last year, as he was able to tally 49 assists among his 73 points. Though widely ranked as an early second-round pick, Raddysh didn’t hear his name called until late in the second, when Steve Yzerman stopped his mini-slide at 58th overall.
Few predicted Raddysh would begin the season on such a hot streak, but his impressive play has worked him into the conversation to earn a trip to Toronto for the 2017 World Junior Championships as a member of Team Canada. Raddysh was somewhat overlooked on his draft day, but he’s been as motivated as anyone in the CHL and proven early this season that it was a mistake to allow him to fall into Tampa Bay’s lap.
Cliff Pu, C, Buffalo Sabres
The Buffalo Sabres are entering year four of their rebuild, and there have been positive signs among five consecutive playoff-less seasons. Buffalo’s rebuild starts and ends with budding superstar Jack Eichel, but the American’s prolonged absence to open the 2016-17 season has proven the importance of Sam Reinhart, Rasmus Ristolainen, and other recent draft picks by the Tim Murray regime.
One of the most promising prospects selected by Murray last summer is Cliff Pu, a budding young centre with the London Knights of the OHL. Playing in a secondary role to the dominant line of Mitch Marner, Matt Tkachuk, and Christian Dvorak last year, Pu was still able to produce 12 goals and 31 points in a role that didn’t provide much time with the man-advantage. He flashed great potential in the playoffs, however, notching eight goals and 13 points on the way to a Memorial Cup championship with London. His great playoff run gave him serious helium heading into the draft, with The Hockey News identifying Pu as a borderline first-round prospect. However, Pu slipped to the Sabres with the 69th overall pick, where Murray drafted a player that could grow to be the Sabres’ second line centre behind Eichel.
Pu has taken the reins from Dvorak as London’s top centre this year and run with it, tallying 18 goals and 42 points in 23 games. Despite losing Dvorak and Marner to the NHL this year, London sits in first place in the OHL, and Pu has emerged as London’s offensive leader and one of the most dangerous forwards in the entire league. He’s somewhat raw, perhaps part of the reason he fell in the draft, but he’s showing this season he could be ready for the NHL sooner than expected.