The hype surrounding Toronto Maple Leafs draft pick and first-overall selection Auston Matthews isn’t unwarranted, but sometimes lost in the excitement surround Matthews is the fact that there’s a fair chance he won’t be the rookie that makes the biggest difference this coming season.
That doesn’t just go for Matthews, either. Winnipeg Jets fans are excited about Patrik Laine, Edmonton Oilers fans have high hopes for Jesse Puljujarvi, Matthew Tkachuk’s got his sights set on the making the Calgary Flames this coming season and the Columbus Blue Jackets might even see Pierre-Luc Dubois make the jump to the NHL.
But the fresh faces of the 2016 draft class shouldn’t make us forget about the talented group of youngsters drafted in 2015 who could find their way into the NHL and become top scorers or go-to players for their respective clubs. Here are five 2015 draftees yet to see an NHL game who stand to be impact players in 2016-17:
5. Zach Werenski, Columbus Blue Jackets
Unless the Blue Jackets are planning on inking another depth defenseman before the campaign begins, it’s hard to see how Werenski doesn’t factor into their plans for the upcoming season. The 19-year-old rearguard was drafted eighth overall in the 2015 draft and some believed he could have made Columbus’ roster out of training camp last season. This season, it’s hard to imagine he doesn’t find his way onto the ice for Game One of the campaign.
Werenski was an absolute star in the NCAA over his two-year stay at the University of Michigan. In his first year, he netted nine goals and 25 points in 35 games and he followed that up with 11 goals and 36 points in 36 games as a sophomore. He also added nine points in seven games at the World Junior Championship.
Werenski got a taste of AHL action during the 2015-16 season and scored five goals and 14 points in 17 playoff games as the Lake Erie Monsters won the Calder Cup. That put him in a tie for fifth among all scorers as a rookie defenseman. He looks ready.
4. Ivan Provorov, Philadelphia Flyers
Provorov’s position on this list is hurt only by the fact the rearguard isn’t a lock to make the Flyers. That’s not because of talent, though. Make no mistake, Provorov is deserving of an NHL gig given his performance with the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings. The 2015 seventh-overall selection scored 21 goals and 73 points in 62 games last season. The issue is Philadelphia has somewhat of a logjam on the blueline.
However, if Flyers GM Ron Hextall can manage to move out some veteran pieces to free up space for Provorov, there’s a good chance he becomes the 2016-17 version of Shayne Gostisbehere. He might not have the great nickname — it’s hard to compete with ‘Ghost Bear’ — but the production should be there if Provorov is given quality minutes.
The Flyers blueline looks really promising and getting Provorov into the lineup this season would be a great thing for Philadelphia. The only issue is which defenseman gets moved before the campaign, and what the Flyers have to do in order to free up the roster spot and cap space.
3. Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes
The Finnish World Cup of Hockey club is considered one of the favorites to win the tournament, and Aho made the club as a 19-year-old. His play alongside Laine at the World Championship helped Aho seal his spot on the club, but he gave more than enough reason for the Finnish squad to consider naming him regardless of his performance at the worlds.
Hurricanes GM Ron Francis made it clear that Aho will almost certainly be playing in the NHL next season. Francis told the News & Observer’s Luke DeCock that the Finnish winger’s name is already “penciled into our lineup, if not in pen.” Don’t expect Aho to slot into a bottom-six role, either. There’s reason to believe he’s going to come to the Hurricanes this coming season and compete for a top-six spot. He could be a great sleeper pick to have a big season, especially given the opportunities he could have to play big minutes in Carolina.
Playing with Liiga’s Karpat this past season, Aho netted 20 goals and 45 points in 45 games, good for ninth in scoring. The Hurricanes selected him 35th overall in 2015.
2. Mitch Marner, Toronto Maple Leafs
If there’s anyone Matthews has overshadowed, it’s Marner, and he could very well have the biggest season of any rookie set to debut next season. The 19-year-old, who was picked fourth overall in 2015, has torn up the OHL in consecutive seasons. He has scored 83 goals and 242 points in 120 games over the past two campaigns with the London Knights, so going back to junior shouldn’t be an option at this point.
Marner will benefit from his ability to play the wing and center next season, as the trio of Matthews, Nazem Kadri and William Nylander down the middle likely means Marner starts the season on the wing. But given the pure playmaking talent of the players he’ll be suiting up alongside, it’s hard to fathom Marner won’t have a fantastic season.
Three teams in the past decade have had two players finish as finalists for the Calder Trophy. The Tampa Bay Lightning had Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson in 2013-14, the Chicago Blackhawks had Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews in 2007-08 and the Pittsburgh Penguins had Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal in 2006-07. Marner and Matthews — not to mention Nylander — could become the next duo to do so.
1. Dylan Strome, Arizona Coyotes
Think of it this way: the Coyotes got rid of Antoine Vermette, a 34-year-old veteran center who put up 17 goals and 38 points, in part because they wanted to ensure some spots for young talent, which includes Strome. He was ranked the No. 1 prospect in THN’s Future Watch 2016 for a reason, and that’s because Strome projects to be a star for the Coyotes as early as next season.
Like Marner, Strome is definitely through with playing in the OHL. He has 82 goals and 240 points in 124 games over the past two seasons. He was actually more productive on a points per game basis the season after Connor McDavid went to the NHL than the year prior, which is saying something about Strome’s scoring and playmaking ability. Pairing Strome with Max Domi would be highlight-reel fodder, and there’s good reason why colleague Matt Larkin listed Strome among the top 200 fantasy players.
The Coyotes were one of the most high-flying, fast-paced teams to watch during the 2015-16 campaign. Another year older but with some younger, faster players injected into the lineup means Arizona is going to be an exciting team to watch once again. Strome will be a big part of that.
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