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Eight Surprise Rookies Who Made NHL Opening Night Rosters

Which rookies excelled in the pre-season enough to earn an extended look in the NHL? Where can they go from here?
Wyatt Johnston

Every year, NHL teams finalize their rosters with a few surprises in store. It’s often a direct result of a young player coming into camp ready to seize the day and take a roster spot. Other times, an injury opens up a spot for a prospect to play a few games early in the year and get a taste of NHL action.

Whatever the reasons, this season is no different, with several young players getting their shot to start the NHL season. From top prospects arriving a bit early to undrafted players working their way to the big leagues, NHL teams have plenty of surprises on their opening night rosters.

Brandt Clarke, D, Los Angeles Kings

Although he didn't play in game one, Clarke’s arrival in Los Angeles is a welcome sight for a team looking to take the next step. His silky smooth puck-moving ability and youthful enthusiasm will provide a shot in the arm for a Kings team that could always use a bit more offensive punch.

His defensive game showed big signs of improvement in the pre-season. He tightened gaps and attacked puck carriers with the same vigor as he attacks the game at the offensive end of the ice.

Clarke will have to supplant a solid veteran for consistent playing time, but easing into a full-time role may be exactly what he needs to start his NHL career. If he finds his way into 50 games or more this season, it would be a success coming right out of the OHL.

Elmer Soderblom, RW, Detroit Red Wings

This is one of the bigger shocks among the rookies to make the team. Soderblom is a massive 6-foot-8 winger who has hands that dazzle and a quick release from in tight. He's responsible for some highlight reel goals from recent world juniors, such as a couple of between-the-legs goals and an impressive two seasons in the SHL, playing against some of the better competition outside of the NHL.

Soderblom isn’t the best skater, but he's improved leaps and bounds since being drafted in the sixth round in 2019. The hulking Swede projects safely as a bottom-six player who uses his body effectively and wins puck battles while being a dominant presence in front of the net. His impressive training camp and 21-goal season in the SHL last year led some to believe he could play a bit higher up the lineup. 

New Red Wings coach Derek Lalonde must figure out what he wants to do with him, because if he isn't seeing steady NHL minutes on a third line, he could wind up being better off in the AHL.

Dylan Guenther, RW, Arizona Coyotes

This one may be the least shocking of any on the list, but many thought with Arizona expected to be downright bad this year in their pursuit of Connor Bedard, they may have bided their time with Dylan Guenther.

The Coyotes had no choice but to allow the 2021 ninth-overall pick onto their roster. He has the finishing ability to step onto the Coyotes roster as one of their best goal scorers, and if given the opportunities on the power play and at 5-on-5, it wouldn’t be all that shocking for the rookie to lead the club in goal scoring with the depleted roster.

Guenther’s numbers may wind up being somewhat muted at the end of the season, but there is little doubt that the 19-year-old is one of Arizona’s best 12 forwards – he might be among the top three or four. There will be growing pains, but the Coyotes can deal with those this year.

John-Jason 'JJ' Peterka, RW, Buffalo Sabres

Sabres coach Don Granato has sung the praises of Peterka throughout training camp, even if the young German winger hasn’t put up the points as hoped in the pre-season.

That said, the versatile and aggressive forechecking winger isn’t going to be asked to put up massive offensive numbers as a rookie. He’ll be looked at to have an impact all over the ice as he always has. Peterka’s persistence and motor make him a very good player in all three zones and his speed should help him in transition in the NHL.

Peterka plays a smart north-south game, attacking the net and working to get the puck back as soon as the opposing team touches it. Granato’s praise comes from everything Peterka does away from the puck, knowing he was a top-10 scorer in the AHL last season. The offense is there, but it may not yet be at the NHL level. Thankfully, the active and engaged young winger will make up for it in other aspects of the game.

Wyatt Johnston, C, Dallas Stars

The Dallas Stars were questioned when they selected Johnston in the first round of the 2021 NHL draft. He played no OHL games due to the pandemic in his draft year and just seven games total – collecting just four points – at the World Men's Under-18 Championship.

A year later, he led the entire CHL in scoring with 124 points and won the most outstanding player award in the OHL. The Stars seemed to have found themselves a stud.

Dallas has Johnston slotted in as their third-line center with captain Jamie Benn and Denis Gurianov on his flanks. Johnston will bring a high-pace skill game to the line with dual-threat scoring ability. Johnston could wind up finding a way into the Calder conversation if he gets consistent minutes and finds his way onto the Stars' power play.

Arber Xhekaj, D, Montreal Canadiens

From working at Costco to playing in the NHL, Arber Xhekaj has taken quite the path to The Show – and he’s just 21. Undrafted in the OHL and the NHL before signing an entry-level deal as a non-roster invite to Montreal camp last year, Xhekaj has built his game on blending the violence of the old-school defender and the puck-moving ability of a modern blueliner.

Playing on the Habs’ second pair as the season opens, Xhekaj has been filling in for the injured Joel Edmundson while he works his way back from a back injury. His performance in the pre-season earned him an extended look. 

Even if he doesn’t stick with the big club all year, it’s a testament to his persistence and hard work to have made it to the NHL as soon as he has. If he performs well and continues to infuriate opponents early in the season, Xhekaj could find a role on this team full-time.

Nils Aman, C, Vancouver Canucks

The Colorado Avalanche drafted Aman but opted not to sign him when his draft rights expired, so he signed with Vancouver quickly afterward.

Aman made his way onto the Canucks roster thanks to playing smart and fast.

The young Swede played in the SHL for the last three years on a solid third-line role for Leksand. He wasn’t a big scorer, but he did have a sneaky good release and constantly worked his tail off in all three zones.

With the Canucks, Aman will be centering the fourth line. At 6-foot-2, he has the size that teams look for in the bottom six, and his speed will be an asset. He won’t be asked to be an offensive catalyst, but he was one of the Canucks' best players when it came to shot differentials in the pre-season, a big reason he made the squad.

Aman won’t be in the Calder conversation, but he could be a sneaky good bottom-of-the-lineup and penalty-kill player for a team looking to take the next step into the playoffs.

Egor Zamula, D, Philadelphia Flyers

After getting a taste of NHL action the last two seasons, Zamula is slated to start the year on the third pair of the Flyers' defense group after beating out Ronnie Attard and Cam York for the spot.

Zamula understands how to manipulate opponents and use head fakes to open passing lanes and break out. The young defender also has a big shot from the back end but needs to pick his spots better at the pro level.

Zamula has been up and down since he started his pro career, but his ups have looked very good. He is extremely patient – sometimes to a fault – and rarely plays with panic in his game.

Zamula is a solid two-way defender who can throw the body a bit, but he should continue developing his defensive consistency, particularly in front of his own net. Zamula has flashed a ton of talent, so it will be about finding a solid baseline for where his game settles in at the NHL level. 

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