Besides the can't-miss impact of Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine in the young NHL season, RW William Nylander of the Maple Leafs is among other rookies off to a good start in what promises to be another hotly contested Calder Trophy competition.
As demonstrated by Team North America in the World Cup, NHL fans are increasingly becoming accustomed to young prospects rapidly becoming stars or even superstars.
Connor McDavid led the way last season, although a serious injury left him third in Calder Cup voting behind Artemi Panarin and runner-up Shayne Gostibehere.
Jack Eichel, Dylan Larkin, Max Domi, John Gibson, Colton Parayko, Sam Reinhart and Jacob Slavin followed in arguably the strongest rookie class in league history.
Thanks to better coaching, conditioning and diet – all earlier in players’ lives than ever before, as well as a salary cap that convinces teams to give many bargain-priced prospects unprecedented opportunities – the current crop also looks extremely promising.
No. 1 draft pick Auston Matthews became the first player in history to score four goals in his NHL debut. In his fourth NHL game, No. 2 pick Patrik Laine completed a hat trick in a 5-4 come-from-behind victory over the Leafs, scoring the OT winner seconds after Matthews failed to convert a breakaway.
Matthews and Laine are the headliners, but this exciting rookie class has depth. In four games, RW William Nylander of the wet-behind-the-ears Leafs has a goal and four assists, C Devin Shore of Dallas has a goal and three assists, LW Travis Konecny of Philadelphia has four assists, D Michael Matheson of Florida has two goals and one assist and RW Sebastian Aho of Carolina has three assists.
These hot starts don’t include high 2016 draft choices Zach Werenski, Jakob Chychrun, Anthony Beauvillier and Tyler Motte who are among the top-10 rookie scorers for Columbus, Arizona, New York Islanders and Chicago respectively.
They also don’t include 2015 Calder winner Aaron Ekblad, who has been named an alternate captain for Florida at 20; top-10 NHL scorer Johnny Gaudreau of Calgary and 2013 No. 1 overall pick Nathan McKinnon of Colorado or imposing Finnish man-child Mikko Rantanen of Colorado who has yet to play for the Avalanche this season due to an ankle injury but is playing in the AHL for conditioning. He dominated in the AHL last season as a teen, and has nothing more to prove there.
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Ah, yes, injuries.
Not all prospects rocket to stardom immediately. Physical setbacks are a common reason and you just have to review Pittsburgh’s baby Penguins to drive that point home.
Although inadequate defensive play has been the biggest obstacle standing between D Derrick Pouliot and the NHL, he quickly went on IR after a lower-body injury in his first game of the season Thursday. The swift IR assignment indicates the gifted young offensive blueliner could be out for a while, which has dramatically halted his development and forced the Pens to promote David Warsofsky.
Derrick Pouliot's first NHL goal demonstrates his offensive instincts and laser wrist shot:
Promising young forwards Teddy Blueger and Thomas Di Pauli are both sidelined with lower-body injuries. The Latvian and Italian natives respectively are expected to miss a total of four to six weeks of action with AHL’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
The minor-pro Penguins are also without offensive D-Man Lukas Bengtsson (suspected Lyme Disease) and goalie Sean Maguire (lingering effects of a concussion that cost him his entire junior season at Boston University).
Speaking of netminders in the Pittsburgh organization, Matt Murray has yet to play an NHL game this season because of a broken hand suffered in the World Cup. Winger Conor Sheary is day to day with an eye injury, meaning two-thirds of Pittsburgh’s top line is out. You might have heard that Sidney Crosby is dealing with a concussion.
Back to prospects, other notable injured ones around the league include Boston W Frank Vatrano (foot, late December); Columbus G Joonas Korpisalo (groin, day to day); Detroit W Tomas Jurco (back, November); NYR W Pavel Buchnevich (back, day to day); and NYR C Oscar Lindberg (hip, late October/early November).
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A game Friday included the first NHL meeting between Strome brothers. Dylan Strome, 19, was the third-overall pick by the Coyotes in 2015. Ryan, 23, was the fifth-overall pick by the Islanders in 2011. After following an eye-opening 50 points two seasons ago, Ryan skidded badly to 28. He scored on a rebound Friday for his second of the season in five games as the Isles topped the Coyotes 3-2 in OT.
Islanders’ hard-shooting defenseman Ryan Pulock played in his first NHL game this season as a callup after Nick Leddy went down with an upper-body injury. Pulock played only five shifts in the opening period before leaving with a lower-body injury.
Dang those injuries.
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In another game Friday, Werenski had a goal and an assist in a 3-2 win by the Blue Jackets over the Blackhawks. The dynamic young defenseman became the first player in team history with at least one point in each of the first three games of his NHL career. Motte scored his first NHL game on an assist by Jonathan Toews.
Larkin, known more as a skillful speedster, and D Yannick Weber tangled early in the third period of a 5-3 Red Wings’ win over the Nashville Predators in the first NHL career fight for each player. Larkin acquitted himself surprisingly well.
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