3 Undrafted Rookies Making a Name For Themselves in 2022-23

There are always some surprises in any given NHL season. There are always some new players that come up, seemingly out of nowhere and become a big part of the sport. The rookies to watch this season mostly included players drafted high in the NHL Entry Draft. That includes two first-overall picks in Owen Power and Juraj Slafkovsky, and other highly touted prospects in the likes of Matty Beniers, Shane Wright, Jake Sanderson, and Kent Johnson.

However, there are a few players who broke from the traditional development pathway and are still making waves in the world’s top league, despite being undrafted. Here are three of those players who are making a name for themselves early in the 2022-23 season.

Arber Xhekaj – Montreal Canadiens

There’s a new bad boy in Montreal. Arber Xhekaj (pronounced: Jack-eye) is a name that many didn’t know heading into this season and I bet you had no idea how to pronounce his name on first look. The first NHL player to have a last name starting with the letter “X” has set a high bar for anyone who will follow.

Of humble beginnings, Xhekaj’s name was not called in the Ontario Hockey League’s draft but he worked his way into a three-year career with the Kitchener Rangers and Hamilton Bulldogs. And his name was not called at the NHL draft, yet here he is making headlines with the Montreal Canadiens.

It’s easy to see why the Canadiens were okay with letting physical defenseman Alexander Romanov go in a trade to the New York Islanders this past offseason. Xhekaj is an absolute beast of a defender. He’s 6-foot-4 and 238 pounds. He throws the body, he throws fists, and he doesn’t take any hostages.

“You look for the biggest, baddest guy in the yard and beat the tar out of him.” Xhekaj took the old advice about someone’s first few days prison and applied it early in his career. In just his fifth game he went after one of the few tough guys left in the league in Zack Kassian, and threw him around like a ragdoll. It was quite a way to make a first impression.

On top of all that, he has one of the best hockey nicknames of the last 20 years. “WiFi” is an appropriate nickname for a guy whose last name admittedly looks as absurdly random as the automatically generated passwords that you can find on the back of your router. You better learn how to spell it, because Xhekaj is looking like a name that will be around for years to come.

Nick Blankenburg – Columbus Blue Jackets

Nick Blankenburg is not your typical 5-foot-9 defenseman. After his first few games in the NHL, Columbus Blue Jackets head coach Brad Larsen said that it was almost as if Blankenburg didn’t get the memo that he was so diminutive in stature.

He’s also not your typical rookie, at 24 years old, and his age no doubt is a contributing factor in his hockey awareness and maturity on the ice. He hits like a truck and blocks shots like a hockey mom’s garage door. Aside from the physical style of play, he also possesses a superior hockey IQ. His excellent skating allows him to pinch in when another player is needed on the rush and still get back in the defensive zone where he always seems to make the right decisions.

Blankenburg’s route to the NHL was a long one, dominating Michigan High School hockey for three years, before spending a year with the Okotoks Oilers in the Alberta Junior Hockey League. His 42 points through 57 games earned him a commitment to the University of Michigan where he spent four years, including his last as team captain. He drew attention from the Blue Jackets who were checking in on their fifth-overall pick Kent Johnson, and noticed that Blankenburg was no slouch playing with the likes of Beniers, Power, and Luke Hughes.

Related: Blue Jackets’ Blankenburg Early Standout of Training Camp

His leadership style is one of a “lead by example” variety, which he has brought to the NHL in his first full season of action. After being inexplicably scratched for the first three games of the season, he set the tone early in his first game helping the Jackets to their first win. He received the team’s “Kepi” for the team-elected player of the game and followed that with a goal and assist to be the first star in his second game.

After a strong first four games, Blankenburg was hurt on a play that looks like he over-extended his left elbow and has been out since. Make no mistake, he will be back and making noise at the NHL level in no time.

Logan Thompson – Vegas Golden Knights

A huge question for the Vegas Golden Knights heading into this season was their goaltending. With the injuries to top goalie Robin Lehner and backup Laurent Brossoit, the Golden Knights had to go get help. To that end, they went out and added an established goalie, Adin Hill, in a trade. However, the more important piece has been 25-year-old Logan Thompson.

Logan Thompson Vegas Golden Knights
Logan Thompson, Vegas Golden Knights (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

While he did have a 19-game appearance last season, Thompson is still considered a rookie for this season. His .931 save percentage (SV%) through his first five games of play put him only behind Alexandar Georgiev among undrafted goalies this year.

Thompson is one of few active NHLers who have spent time in the Canadian University hockey system. That system is generally an outro from a professional hockey career, but he parlayed a strong season with Brock University into a contract in the ECHL. He recorded a .920 SV% over each of the next three seasons in the ECHL, American Hockey League, and played well in his first stint in Vegas. With Lehner over 30 and only two years left in his deal after this one, Thompson could be the future in goal for the Golden Knights.

A lot of rookies entered the NHL talent pool this season. Some of them have been highly touted for years, but these three rookies are making a name for themselves in spite of being undrafted.

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