Last year’s crop of rookies included the likes of Taylor Hall, Tyler Seguin, Logan Couture and Calder Trophy winner Jeff Skinner. Here are ten first year players who should have an impact on their respective teams for the upcoming season:
10. David Rundblad (D) Ottawa Senators: While his teammate and felow rookie Jared Cowen arguably had the better training camp of the two, Rundblad’s offensive ability gives him the nod at #10. The soon to be 21-year-old is coming off a season in which he was the leading scorer among defenseman in the Swedish Elite League winning the Borje Salming award as the league’s best defenseman.
An offensively gifted blue-liner with good size and mobility, Rundblad will look to follow in Erik Karlsson’s footsteps as an all-star rear-guard for the Sens. He did however struggle at times in his own zone in the pre-season so whether or not he is able to adjust to the defensive side of the game will likely be the biggest factor in determining if he is able to remain in the line-up.
9. Erik Gudbranson (D) Florida Panthers: After narrowly missing out on making the club a year ago, Gudbranson did in fact crack the Panthers roster for the upcoming season where he will look to use his impressive physical tooks to become one of the steadiest young blue-liners in the league. At 6’3 and 200 lbs, Gudbranson has excellent size and strength which he utilizes to play a shut-down game in his own zone. On top of being a very moible skater for his size, the 19-year-old has a rocket point-shot and continues to improve his play with the puck.
Although he isn’t expected to light up the scoreboard up with points, Gudbranson will provide the Panthers with a rock solid defensive presence this year and in the years to come.
8. Jacob Markstrom (G) Florida Panthers: Gudbranson’s Florida teammate, Markstrom cracked the Panthers lineup and is expected to begin the season as the back-up to starter Jose Theodore. The 21-year-old Swede has been one of, if not the top goaltending prospect in hockey for the last two years and with an injury to the expected back-up Scott Clemmenson, Markstrom will now have the chance to force his development to be pushed along a little quicker.
A very athletic goalie standing 6’3, Markstrom is an incredibly competitive net-minder who expects to stop every shot he faces. He has already expressed his strong desire to remain with the club throughout the season and with the likes of Theodore and Clemmenson standing in his way, it wouldn’t at all be surprising if he were able to do so.
7. Mika Zibanejad (C) Ottawa Senators: The 6th overall pick in the 2011 NHL Draft, Zibanejad made it almost impossible for the Senators not to keep him around for at least the start of the regular season. The rangy Swedish center had an excellent training camp and was the club’s most consistently dangerous threat throughout the pre-season. The 18-year-old is an exceptionally skilled player who already has NHL size and strength; something that was noticeable in the pre-season games and should help him to have continued success in the regular season.
Depending on how he is utilized through the first 10 games of the season, Zibanejad has a good shot at remaining with the club and could become a a darkhorse contender for the Calder Trophy.
6. Brayden Schenn (C) Philadelphia Flyers: The time is now for the younger Schenn to make his mark in the NHL. The brother of Toronto defenseman Luke Schenn, Brayden was dealt to the Flyers in the blockbuster trade that sent captain Mike Richards to Los Angeles. The 5th overall pick in 2009, Schenn will now assume full-time duty down the middle for the Flyers and will be counted on to play a strong two-way game. While he certainly does possess the ability to become a point-producer in the NHL, the 20-year-old appears to be more comfortable with taking care of his own zone and is yet to assert himself offensively for the Flyers who are loaded up front.
With lots of talent surrounding him, look for Schenn to eventually find his scoring-legs and produce somewhere in the range of 35-40 points.
5. Adam Larsson (D) New Jersey Devils: Thought of as the most NHL-ready player going into this year’s NHL Draft, Larsson slipped a few spots on draft day right into the welcoming arms of the New Jersey Devils. There was never really any question that Larsson would start the year with the club and he put any that might be lingering to bed with an impressive training camp. The 19-year-old Swedish blue-liner displayed his potential as a dominant two-way defenseman who can be counted on to handle a workload that is usually designated for a more seasoned player. With a lack of depth and talent on the Devils blue-line, Larsson will be used in all situations and should quickly become the top rookie defenseman to watch this year.
4. Gabriel Landeskog (RW) Colorado Avalanche: The second-overall selection in 2011, Landeskog was considered the most complete and NHL-ready forward in this year’s draft class. The sturdy Swedish winger plays a North American style in that he loves the physical aspect of the game and may very well be one of the best body-checking forwards to enter the league in a while. Like his country-men Larsson, Landeskog was almost a sure bet to play in the NHL and he will indeed begin the season with the Avalanche where he wil be given plenty of oppurtunity to develop.
While he might not yet have the purest of offensive skill-sets, the 18-year-old has the strength to hold his own on the wing and has the potential to score 15 to 20 goals this year.
3. Mark Scheifele (C) Winnipeg Jets: No other rookie burst onto the scene in a bigger way than Scheifele did in the pre-season. The Jets inaugural first-round pick from this year’s draft, Scheifele was the club’s best offensive player in nearly every game he played finishing second in pre-season scoring in the process. The 18-year-old displayed the entire package of size, speed, skill and smarts; with and without the puck. His ability to play responsible defensively and then quickly turn defense into offense is something that simply cannot be taught and usually takes much longer for a player to accomplish.
In just a few months, Scheifele has undergone an almost head-scratching development from being a good junior player to a player that looks more than ready for full time NHL duty in a top-6 role.
2. Ryan Johansen (C) Columbus Blue Jackets: A complete offensive hockey player, Johansen is the type of player that makes everyone around him better. An elite playmaker with excellent vision, Johansen is instinctively gifted in the offensive zone possessing the ability to rack up points in a variety of ways. He is a passer first but can also surprise you with a quick and accurate release, and is also very dangerous in close with a goal-scorers finishing touch.
If he can eventually work his way into playing with Rick Nash and the newly acquired Jeff Carter, look for the 19-year-old to be among the leading rookie scorers and a strong contender for the Calder Trophy.
1. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (C) Edmonton Oilers: While the questions surrounding Nugent-Hopkins remain, the #1 pick in the 2011 draft showed in the pre-season that his speed and skill make up for any of the worries people might have about his light frame. The slick center ranked as one of the pre-season assist leaders with five, showing some early chemistry with fellow phenoms Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle. There were times when he looked overmatched by the constant pounding of NHL defensemen, but his electrifying ability with the puck on his stick made it easy to forget those instances.
The 18-year-old is simply a marvel to watch. His speed, quickness and edge-work is second to none in terms of this year’s rookie class. He has the rare ability to dart in and out of traffic yet still have the awareness of knowing where the open player is and then deliver a pass that results in a scoring oppurtunity.
Although it is unfair to judge a player based on the first 10 games of his career, that is likely to be the case with the Oilers and Nugent-Hopkins. If he can continue to produce the way he did in the pre-season the Oilers will have no choice but to keep him around for the year.
Resident of Windsor, Ontario. Extensive knowledge of both the NHL and junior hockey in Canada, particularly the OHL. Writer for THW covering the Winnipeg Jets and the OHL as well as covering Phoenix Coyotes prospects for Hockey’s Future.