It’s here. It’s finally here. After a months-long wait and some agonizing final days between the pre-season’s start and the moment games really matter, the NHL season is upon us. The ice is in, the lines are painted and with the puck set to drop on the 2019-20 season, the rosters for each of the league’s 31 teams are in place.
Of course, when the puck drops Wednesday night, you’ll be acquainted with the top talent. You’ll recognize the Connor McDavids and Sidney Crosbys and Alex Ovechkins of the league. You’ll also be met with the lineup regulars, the secondary scorers and the blue-collar workers who make up the middle of every roster. But if you’re not an NHL obsessive, there may be a few names on opening night that give you a moment of pause. And this, dear fan, is a rundown of those players, a look at the surprises and unfamiliar faces who have landed on NHL rosters ahead of opening night.
Where possible, we tried to avoid using any 2019 draft choices on this list and tried to keep it to those players who were either fringe players, entered training camp fighting for a contract or simply afterthoughts who were believed to need more time to develop in the minors. In some instances, it was either difficult or impossible. In others, the surprise is simply the player who made the cut in the face of a difficult decision.
So, without further ado, here are the opening nights surprises for each team:
Isac Lundestrom, Anaheim Ducks
The young locks for the roster included Sam Steel, Troy Terry and Max Comtois. Lundestrom, meanwhile, was expected to be right on the cusp of making the cut, but some had him starting the season in the AHL. Not so. He impressed during training camp, and after a 15-game look in Anaheim to start last season, he’ll again be skating with the Ducks to start the current campaign. This time, the hope is he can turn it into a full-time spot. Last season, though, he was down in the AHL by mid-season and over in the Swedish League not too long after.
Barrett Hayton, Arizona Coyotes
Maybe this gets this entire list off to something of a bad start, but “surprise” might not be the best descriptor for Hayton. In his five pre-season games, he put up one goal and three points and earned himself a spot on the roster. But here’s the thing: it’s all or nothing. Either he sticks around in Arizona or it’s back to major junior for the 19-year-old, who was the Coyotes’ fifth-overall pick in 2018. It’s a tough spot to be in, as Hayton is a cut above the rest in the OHL and sending him back might not do all that much to continue the growth of his game.
Urho Vaakanainen, Boston Bruins
It’s not that he’s on the roster that’s a surprise, but who he beat out. It seemed that Connor Clifton was a safe bet to make the roster after his performance in the post-season, but Vaakanainen, 20, has a boatload of potential and acquitted himself well when he skated in Boston last season. This could be another taste of the NHL for him before he jumps in head first next season.
John Gilmour, Buffalo Sabres
Gilmour was a standout with Providence during his college days and he’s fared well in the AHL, but he’s had difficulty breaking into the NHL. During his three years in the Rangers’ organization, Gilmour skated in 33 games with the Blueshirts, but he was lapped on the depth chart. Thankfully for Gilmour, injuries on the backend to Zach Bogosian, Brandon Montour and Matt Hunwick opened up a spot on the Sabres and he has him chance to prove himself during the campaign in Buffalo, where he inked a one-year, league-minimum deal this summer.
Tobias Rieder, Calgary Flames
He came into camp on a professional tryout, so that alone made Rieder something of a long shot for the Flames’ roster. However, after his abysmal season down the road with the Edmonton Oilers in 2018-19, Rieder won a spot – and a one-year, league-minimum deal – in Calgary. He’s by no means set to become a point-per-game contributor for the Flames, but if the 26-year-old can find his old form and net something in the 12-goal, 25-point range, he’ll be a useful acquisition and welcome addition to the lineup.
Martin Necas, Carolina Hurricanes
The talent is obvious – Necas put up 16 goals and 52 points as an AHL rookie last season and added another five goals and 13 points for the Calder Cup-winning Charlotte Checkers – but the question was about space, as in where Necas would fit. That’s for Rod Brind’Amour to decide now, though, because the 20-year-old has shown enough to stick with the big club into the season. He possesses a ton of upside and Necas could be yet another home-grown offensive weapon for the Hurricanes in short order.
Alexander Nylander, Chicago Blackhawks
He’s getting his chance. Acquired from the Sabres in something of a head-scratcher this off-season that saw the Blackhawks ship defenseman Henri Jokiharju the other way, Nylander, 21, had difficulty sticking in the NHL with Buffalo across his three pro seasons. The raw talent is undeniable, but Nylander hasn’t been able to put it all together to make good on his upside. If Chicago can tap into that and Nylander flourishes, it’s going to be a great get for Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman. Nylander is going to have to make sure to prove his doubters wrong.
Conor Timmins, Colorado Avalanche
The surprise here isn’t that Timmins, 21, has the ability to stick around in the NHL. The surprise is that he’s ready for the NHL roster right out of the gate after being sidelined for more than a year with a concussion. He didn’t skate in a single game with the Avalanche’s farm club last season, but he beat out Calle Rosen for the final spot on the blueline in the pre-season and will almost assuredly start in a third-pairing role when the puck drops on the season.
Sonny Milano, Columbus Blue Jackets
This is it. He’s being given his make-or-break chance from the jump, and Milano, 23, has no choice but to grab the opportunity and make the most of it if he’s going to stick around in Columbus beyond this season. His stock has dropped year over year since he was drafted, but he remains an offensively gifted winger with potential to be a consistent contributor in the right role. Will he find it? If he doesn’t, the Blue Jackets might start looking to rehome the 2014 16th-overall pick.
Justin Dowling, Dallas Stars
There aren’t many surprises in Dallas, as the lineup regulars one would expect are all present and there wasn’t much room for movement elsewhere. That said, Dowling’s inclusion is interesting. The 29-year-old spent last season as the Texas Stars’ captain and has had a few cups of coffee but no extended stays with the big club. Chances are this will be another season on the fringes, but he’ll at least begin in the NHL.
Taro Hirose, Detroit Red Wings
Maybe it shouldn’t come as a shock given his effectiveness after he put pen to paper late last season. In 10 games, he notched a goal and seven points. Yet, on most rosters, Hirose likely would have had to start the season in the minors and battle his way up. The Red Wings are thin, though, and injuries haven’t helped, so that has opened a spot for Hirose to pick up where he left off in the NHL last season. If he can impress, he’ll be a full-timer.
Tomas Jurco, Edmonton Oilers
His intriguing offensive skillset made Jurco, 26, a once-promising prospect in Detroit, but he failed to really catch on with the Red Wings and has had to fight his way back into the NHL. Last season, Jurco was on an AHL-only deal and ended the campaign with the Charlotte Checkers, lighting up the Calder Cup playoffs to the tune of seven goals and 18 points in 18 post-season outings. That was enough to net him a one-year deal with the Oilers on July 1 and he’s stuck around on the roster through camp. Where he ends up slotting in is anyone’s guess, but the thin wings in Edmonton could mean a middle-six job is his for the taking.
Dryden Hunt, Florida Panthers
Honestly, there are no stunners in Florida. The Panthers’ opening night roster is made up of almost the exact same group most would have expected when camp opened. Not even Troy Brouwer, who was on a PTO, managed to stick around. So, Hunt – or Jayce Hawryluk, if you prefer – gets the nod here if only because played the fewest big league games and potentially snatches a spot from a youngster such as Owen Tippett.
Tobias Bjornfot, Los Angeles Kings
So, we’re avoiding 2019 first-round picks where possible, but it’s difficult not to include Bjornfot when talking about the Kings. The 22nd overall pick in June, he’s getting a look straight out of camp and doing so at a time when there’s not much need on the Kings’ part to fast-track any youngsters. This could be nothing more than a several-game audition for Bjornfot, but if he performs, it wouldn’t be the least bit shocking to see him stick around and learn under Drew Doughty.
Carson Soucy, Minnesota Wild
He’s had his NHL debut already, but the three-game look in 2017-18 was the only time Soucy has seen big-league action. The rest of his professional career, which stems back to the late stages of the 2016-17 campaign, has been spent with the Iowa Wild. There was an open spot on the Minnesota blueline given the injury to Greg Pateryn, and that opened the door for a battle for the final spot. Soucy is sticking around for now, and the 25-year-old could skate consistent third-pairing minutes until the roster is back at full health.
Cale Fleury, Montreal Canadiens
Looking at the Canadiens’ blueline ahead of the pre-season, few would have considered Fleury, 20, to be part of the conversation, but he absolutely earned his spot with his pre-season performance. A Montreal third-rounder, 87th overall, in 2017, Fleury put up solid numbers in his rookie season in the AHL and is likely to skate on the third-pairing to start the season. If he can play a steady, reliable game and earn the trust of coach Claude Julien, there’s little reason why Fleury can’t become a mainstay on the back end in Montreal this season.
Daniel Carr, Nashville Predators
Once a fringe player with the Canadiens, Carr spent much of the past two seasons – and almost the entirety of the 2018-19 campaign – in the AHL. Last season, he was remarkable in the minor league, registering 30 goals and 71 points in 52 games with the Chicago Wolves, and that was enough to earn him a look with the Predators. He took advantage of his opportunity and stuck around through camp, too, beating out notable youngster Eeli Tolvanen and roster regular Mikka Salomaki for the final forward spot. Carr will play a depth role and nothing more. That he’s earned that much is impressive, though.
Kevin Rooney, New Jersey Devils
He’s had to battle his way to the big league, and Rooney, 26, is about to start the 2019-20 campaign in the Devils’ lineup. Despite playing 41 games in the NHL last season, his inclusion on the opening day roster is something of a stunner. He wasn’t especially prolific last year at either the AHL or NHL level, but the reality is that he won’t be asked to be. He’s a fourth-line guy who’s going to play minimal minutes, tasked primarily with being a bit of a disturber each time he hits the ice.
Noah Dobson, New York Islanders
It comes down to the benefits of keeping him in the NHL versus any potential gains that can be made through another season in major junior. Ultimately, though, the choice was made to keep the 19-year-old with the big club. Does that mean he’s here to stay? Not necessarily. But if it’s a matter of icing the best possible roster with the greatest potential for upside, Dobson could very well stick around. He’s a big, big part of the future in New York, and if the Islanders and Barry Trotz think Dobson is ready, then he’s ready.
Greg McKegg, New York Rangers
This spot was reserved for Michael Haley, but technically he’s not on the opening-night roster. So, let’s instead give the nod to Greg McKegg, with whom some will be familiar but whose spot on the roster likely came at the expense of the Rangers keeping the likes of Vitali Kravtsov or Filip Chytil in New York. That said, McKegg, 27, has value as a bottom-six, grind-line type and there’s value in getting Kravtsov and Chytil more reps in the AHL than they would get in the NHL.
Scott Sabourin, Ottawa Senators
Undrafted out of the OHL, Sabourin has scratched and clawed for a spot in the NHL. He spent the first four seasons of his professional career in the Los Angeles Kings’ organization, moved along to the Anaheim Ducks’ farm club and spent one campaign with the Flames’ AHL affiliate before being given a shot on a PTO by the Senators. He skated in four games in the pre-season for Ottawa and picked up 14 penalty minutes, but his game was enough to land him a one-year, league-minimum pact. At 27, and with no prior NHL experience, he’ll get a chance to make his NHL debut.
Carsen Twarynski, Philadelphia Flyers
The pre-season is about making the most out of any opportunity that arises and Twarynski did exactly that in Philadelphia. Was he an undeniable standout? Maybe not. But the 21-year-old – along with fellow 21-year-old Connor Bunnaman – reached out and grabbed a spot on the roster with a pair of expected roster regulars, Nolan Patrick and Tyler Pitlick, on the sidelines. Twarynski gets the nod as the biggest surprise as he’s a winger, which makes him a less versatile option up front.
John Marino, Pittsburgh Penguins
A steady producer during his three years at Harvard, Marino, 22, was expected to start the season in the minors as he got adjusted to the professional game. Instead, he has impressed in training camp and throughout the pre-season, enough that he’s pencilled in as an extra defender for the time being but could very well end up in the lineup if Penguins coach Mike Sullivan wants to add some more mobility to the lineup. Whether or not Marino spends the entire season in the NHL is up for debate, but his upside, especially this early, has to excite the Penguins.
Mario Ferraro, San Jose Sharks
The 21-year-old defenseman wasn’t a lock to make the roster, but as is the case in several other cities, injuries have opened the door, specifically the one suffered by Radim Simek, and Ferraro has taken advantage. Selected 49th overall by the Sharks in 2017, the former UMass-Amherst captain, who put pen to paper to depart college in April, is jumping right into the NHL lineup. And who knows. If he impresses, there’s a chance Ferraro spends the campaign in the NHL. The depth on D isn’t San Jose’s strong suit, so there’s a window there.
Mackenzie MacEachern, St. Louis Blues
Tough to pick out anyone from a roster that stayed largely the same year over year. So, given Justin Faulk, who was acquired from the Carolina Hurricanes, doesn’t count, we’ll go with MacEachern, who spent his first two full pro seasons in the minors, split time last season between the AHL and NHL and looks like he’s got a shot at becoming a full-time big-leaguer this season. The 25-year-old is a crash-and-bang bottom-sixer and not much more, but there’s room for that on the Blues’ fourth line.
Carter Verhaeghe, Tampa Bay Lightning
You have to admire the climb. In 2015-16 and 2016-17, Verhaeghe, 24, was splitting time between the AHL and ECHL, and it wasn’t until the 2017-18 campaign that he became a full-time with the Bolts’ AHL affiliate. His career has taken off since then, too, and last season’s 34-goal, 82-point performance with the Syracuse Crunch put him on the big club’s radar and his pre-season output – two goals and five points in six games – has earned him a spot on the NHL roster to start the season. If he becomes a lineup regular, chalk it up as another spectacular find by the Lightning’s scouting staff.
Timothy Liljegren, Toronto Maple Leafs
The offensive upside Liljegren, 20, possesses gives him tremendous upside, but he hasn’t been able to put it together in the AHL. His one-goal, 17-point rookie season in the minors was his best campaign, but injuries have limited his time and slowed his development. He showed well enough in camp and the pre-season, though, to get an extended look from the Maple Leafs’ staff. Don’t count on him sticking around all season, but he should get some minutes early in the campaign.
Adam Gaudette, Vancouver Canucks
The demotions were the most shocking part of Vancouver’s final cuts, particularly those of Alex Biega and Sven Baertschi. Moves had to be made to make room for those who earned a spot in the eyes of the staff, though, namely defenseman Oscar Fantenberg and Gaudette, a Canucks fifth-rounder in 2015 who looks ready to compete for a bottom-six job. The 22-year-old was an exceptional scorer in his final two seasons at Northeastern, but bounced between the AHL and NHL last season. It’s not so shocking that he made the final cut, but in a roster management sense, with Gaudette waiver exempt, it was surprising to see him kept over others who could have been lost for nothing.
Jimmy Schuldt, Vegas Golden Knights
The former St. Cloud State captain came right out of college and into the Golden Knights’ lineup last season, so it might not be altogether surprising that he made the cut this time around. However, he’s all the way down the depth chart and likely won’t be an every-game player to start the season. The 24-year-old’s offensive output in the NCAA was eye-popping, though, and if he gets a chance to shine, he might do just that. Keep an eye on him.
Martin Fehervary, Washington Capitals
A second-round pick of the Capitals in 2018, 46th overall, Fehervary spent the entirety of last season in the Swedish League and the expectation was that he would get acclimated to the North American game in the AHL this coming season. But that won’t be the case, at least not to start the campaign. Thanks in part to Michal Kempny starting the season on the sidelines, Fehervary is getting a look on the blueline and he’s a possibility to start the campaign on the third pairing. If he’s already ready for full-time NHL work, that will be a boon to the Capitals’ blueline.
Ville Heinola, Winnipeg Jets
The 18-year-old impressed throughout training camp and was in the conversation for a spot on the blueline, but an injury to Nathan Beaulieu all but ensures Heinola will be on the roster on opening night. He could even be in the lineup, particularly if the Jets want to see what they have in the youngster when game action gets underway. There were a lot of factors that played into Heinola’s spot on the blueline – the departure of Jacob Trouba, Dustin Byfuglien’s personal leave, injuries that opened up playing time – but his presence on the Jets’ roster remains among the biggest surprises coming out of the pre-season.
Want more in-depth features, analysis and an All-Access pass to the latest content? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.