The NHL is being taken over by a new wave of young talent. Here are this generation’s next starts.
The NHL is experiencing what all sports do – a passing of the torch. Sidney Crosby has passed his torch of being the best hockey player in the world onto Connor McDavid. Likewise, hockey is seeing a wave of new talent dominate the league.
This is a refreshing and long overdue change. The league needs to get faster and younger. This generation of players appear ready to take over and be the next stars on ice. They have some very high standards to live up to, as this generation has set the bar mighty high. However, the students have what it takes to match, and potentially even surpass, what the teachers have done.
Everybody already knows the leaders of the youth revolution. McDavid has won the past two scoring titles and Ted Lindsay Awards as the league’s most outstanding player. Patrik Laine has a gnarly beard and even more gnarly shot, as he’s coming off his first 40 goal season. Auston Matthews has scored like very few teenagers have been able to. The scary part? Those guys are only going to get better from here on out.
McDavid, Matthews, and Laine aren’t the only young guns ready to lead the next generation of NHL players. Let’s take a look at hockey’s next brightest stars.
Mitch Marner, Toronto Maple Leafs
If you don’t know the name Mitch Marner now, get ready to hear it a lot this season. He led the Maple Leafs in points last season with 69 and emerged as one of the league’s most exciting young players.
Perhaps no one in Toronto was celebrating harder after the addition of John Tavares than Marner. He’ll be his primary right wing, which should lead to a huge uptick in points. Marner will also be in a cozy position on the Leafs power play and will even be a dangerous weapon on the Leafs penalty kill. In addition, he’ll be a restricted free agent for the first time after this season, so expect him to have a career year.
Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders
Tavares had been “the man” for the Islanders for nearly a decade before signing with the Maple Leafs on July 1. Mathew Barzal is now the guy for the Islanders, as he’ll be the focal point of all of his opponents.
Here’s the thing – opponents are going to have a really hard time stopping him. Barzal is lethal when he has the puck. His creativity, quickness, and speed makes him a threat to end up on a highlight reel every game.
Only four forwards scored more five-on-five points per hour last season than Barzal. The scary thing is he’s only going to get better from here on out. Barzal is going to be counted on early and often by the Islanders this season. It’s safe to say the Isles are in very good hands.
Mikko Rantanen, Colorado Avalanche
The Colorado Avalanche took the NHL by surprise last season. They nearly doubled their point total as a team from their record-setting dreadful 2016-17 season. Obviously, the Hart Trophy caliber season from Nathan MacKinnon played a significant role in this improvement. But don’t overlook the outstanding sophomore campaign from Rantanen.
The 10th overall pick in the 2015 draft narrowly missed his first 30 goal season, as he scored 29. Goal scoring has always been his calling card and it likely will be for his entire career. Last season, though, Rantanen added a new element to his game – playmaking. He went from having 18 assists in 2016-17 to having 55 in 2017-18.
Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers
Aleksander Barkov has always been an underrated center. That’s going to change very quickly. Last season, Barkov exploded onto the scene, posting 78 points in 79 games, besting his previous career-high by 19 points.
He’s also the heir apparent to Patrice Bergeron as the best defensive center in the league. The Florida Panthers only allowed seven power play goals with Barkov on the ice last season. By himself, he scored five. That’s right, Barkov nearly outscored opposing power plays while killing penalties. If the Panthers make the playoffs, he’ll be a significant reason why.
Seth Jones, Columbus Blue Jackets
There’s not a better young defenseman in the NHL right now than Seth Jones of the Columbus Blue Jackets. He finished 10th in the league in points despite playing on a team that struggled to score for most of last season. Jones’ outstanding season did not go unnoticed, as he finished fourth in the Norris Trophy voting.
And it’s not just his scoring that stands out. The Blue Jackets are a far better team whenever Jones is on the ice. They score more goals, allow fewer goals, and generate more offense with him playing.
Though he will be out for a little bit to start the season, Jones still enters the 2017-18 season as one of the Norris Trophy favorites.
Nico Hischier, New Jersey Devils
Much like the Avalanche, the New Jersey Devils surprised everyone by making the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2017-18. 2017 first overall pick Nico Hischier had an impressive rookie season and was a huge part of their success.
He put up 20 goals and 52 points in his first season. That’s even more impressive considering Hischier only played just over 16 minutes per game. When he was on the ice, he was productive. The Devils are likely going to take off his training wheels this season. They’ve waited a long time to have a dynamic center who can put up points. Hischier appears to be the answer to their prayers.
Ondrej Kase, Anaheim Ducks
Ondrej Kase hasn’t gotten too many chances with the Anaheim Ducks. But when he’s been given opportunities to play, he’s made the most of them. Despite only appearing in 66 games, Kase was the only player in the NHL to score at least 20 goals last season while averaging under 14 minutes per game.
Corey Perry’s injury is a heartbreaker for the Ducks. However, Kase could benefit from it, as he’ll probably take over his second line right wing role. The Ducks desperately need him to build on his successful sophomore campaign.
Brock Boeser, Vancouver Canucks
The Vancouver Canucks are beginning their first season in the 21st century without the Sedin twins on the roster. So who’s going to take over as the face of the franchise? Enter scoring sensation Brock Boeser.
He has every tool necessary to be the NHL’s next elite goal scorer. Boeser has a lightning quick release. His high hockey IQ helps him pick up on soft spots in the defense and get to the right areas to score.
Boeser burst onto the scene last season, finishing second in the Calder Trophy voting despite missing 20 games. He also picked up 29 goals and 55 points in 62 games. You might remember him from the NHL All-Star Skills Competition, when he literally broke a target during the accuracy competition.
Clayton Keller, Arizona Coyotes
On paper, Clayton Keller’s numbers were pretty darn impressive in his rookie season. He put up 65 points, including 23 goals. However, Keller was responsible for a lot of the Arizona Coyotes offense last season. They scored just 208 goals, which means Keller was directly responsible for over 30 percent of their offense.
He hasn’t shown the ability to drive play yet, but he’s electrifying when he has the puck. An improved Coyotes roster should help him build on last season. The dreaded sophomore slump has destroyed many players, but Keller has the talent to overcome whatever his second season throws at him.
Jakub Vrana, Washington Capitals
Under Barry Trotz, Jakub Vrana struggled to get consistent playing time with the Washington Capitals. But after an impressive Stanley Cup run (eight points in 23 games), he’s a lock to play with the eternally underrated Nicklas Backstrom on the Caps’ second line.
Vrana will be asked to take on more roles this season. But given his success so far, it’s hard not to be excited about the thought of Vrana getting more playing time.
Charlie McAvoy, Boston Bruins
Charlie McAvoy’s offense hasn’t yet begun to fully blossom. This should be frightening to everyone except Boston Bruins fans. 32 points is pretty great from a rookie, but it’s worth noting he also got a lot of ice time.
McAvoy plays like a veteran. He’s a very smart defenseman who knows how to use his unique blend of quickness and speed to his advantage. Once McAvoy’s offense begins to grow, he could contend for a Norris Trophy or two.
Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov, Philadelphia Flyers
It’s hard to think of one without thinking of the other. Shayne Gostisbehere is the more famous of the two. He recovered from an unimpressive sophomore season to have his best season in his third year, finishing fourth among blueliners in points with 65.
Meanwhile, Provorov saw his offense grow to complement his underrated two-way game. The Flyers have tried Gostisbehere with multiple partners and he’s put up his best numbers with Provorov. They form the Flyers’ top defensive pairing.
Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes
Sebastian Aho isn’t a household name yet. But he could be by the end of the 2018-19 season. Aho has been outstanding in his first two seasons, scoring 53 goals, including 29 in 2017-18. His best years are ahead of him too, as he just turned 21 this summer. Aho has also been a strong two-way player, facing tough competition and having success while doing so.