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Sophomore Surprise: Top 10 second-year NHLers to watch this season

Last season's Calder Trophy finalists aren't going to surprise anyone this time around, but there are several sophomores who could take the NHL by storm this coming campaign.

Auston Matthews kicked off his rookie campaign with a four-goal game and finished as one of only three players to light the lamp 40 times last season. His Toronto Maple Leaf rookie running mates William Nylander and Mitch Marner likewise impressed with twin 61-point campaigns. Over in Winnipeg, Patrik Laine clapped his way to a 36-goal, 64-point freshman year, while the Columbus Blue Jackets blueline was partially led by the fresh-faced Zach Werenski, who entered himself squarely into Calder Trophy candidacy.

It almost goes without saying that none of the aforementioned players will be surprising anyone this coming season.

Matthews, Marner and Nylander are expected again to be the top trio in Toronto, guiding the Maple Leafs to what they hope will be consecutive playoff berths and yet another glimpse of a blindingly bright future. Another year older, Laine is thought to be on his way to a 40-goal year. And in Columbus, Werenski could step up even further this season, establishing himself not as one of the best defensemen the Blue Jackets possess, but the bestdefenseman on the team.

Similarly, standout performances are expected from another batch of sophomores, each of whom garnered at least some support for the Calder Trophy. That includes the Carolina Hurricanes’ Sebastian Aho, Philadelphia Flyers’ Ivan Provorov, Calgary Flames’ Matthew Tkachuk and, of course, Pittsburgh Penguins’ two-time Stanley Cup-winning netminder Matt Murray. But these 2016-17 rookie standouts aren’t the only sophomores we should be keeping an eye on this upcoming season. 

There are several other uber-skilled young skaters who didn’t even land a single vote for the Calder who could be on their way to establishing themselves as top threats this season. So, which sophomores could surprise in 2017-18?

Christian Dvorak, Arizona Coyotes

Coming right out of major junior and into the NHL is no easy task, but Dvorak handled it rather well last season on a disappointing Coyotes squad. What gives him the most promise, though, is that he started to find his stride as the season wore on. He suited up in 78 games for Arizona, but it was like two different seasons. In the first 39 games, Dvorak scored four goals and 12 points, averaging less than 14 minutes per game, but his final 39 games saw him score 11 goals and 21 points while averaging 17:31 per outing. That's quite a leap.

So, what helps him improve? More opportunity and a chance to play with some excellent young talent. Dvorak projects to be a second-liner this season and play between Clayton Keller — a surefire Calder candidate — and Tobias Rieder. That’s an upgrade when considering Dvorak’s most common linemates last season were Shane Doan and Brendan Perlini. The only thing that could hold Dvorak back is regression of his shooting percentage. It’s going to be hard (read: near impossible) to maintain an 18.3 clip for an entire campaign.

Nick Schmaltz, Chicago Blackhawks

If any single player serves to benefit from the Blackhawks’ decision to trade Artemi Panarin, it’s Schmaltz. Though he’s a natural center, Schmaltz’s playmaking ability could make him the perfect fit as a top-six winger and potentially a fit in the spot vacated by Panarin. Playing alongside Patrick Kane and Artem Anisimov is certainly one way to make your mark, too.

But even if Schmaltz bumps down the lineup after Chicago’s signing of Patrick Sharp, there’s no reason to believe he can’t make the most of his second season while manning his own line. Last season, he had a tough time finding his way in the early part of the campaign and wound up in the AHL around mid-season. He was finally back up in the NHL by Jan. 15, though, and he was the eighth-highest scoring rookie from that point on, netting five goals and 24 points. Yes, he was playing alongside superb talents in Kane and Jonathan Toews, but Schmaltz might be able to make some noise and add some depth as a third-line scoring center.

Mikko Rantanen, Colorado Avalanche

There wasn’t a lot of reasons to be excited about the Avalanche last season. Frankly, there aren’t many reasons to be all that jazzed about this year, either. But if there’s any player who will be worth the price of admission in Colorado this season, bet on Rantanen. 

Taking on second-line minutes with the Avalanche as a rookie, Rantanen proved he can be everything that was expected of him and more. He scored 20 goals — the only 20-goal scorer on the Avs last season — and posted 38 points in 75 games. Only Matt Duchene, who seems all but certain to be on his way out the door, and Nathan MacKinnon contributed more to Colorado’s meager attack. 

Rantanen is primed for bigger things this season, however, as he’s projected to take on top-line duty in every sense of the word. He’ll be a fixture on the top unit with MacKinnon, skate big power play minutes and be given every opportunity to be one of the catalysts that turns around a struggling franchise. His size, shot and passing ability are enough to believe he can play that role.

Oliver Bjorkstrand, Columbus Blue Jackets

Bjorkstrand might be considered the sleeper on this list, but that’s only because his resume is much shorter than others. The Blue Jackets winger only skated in 26 games last season, most in the back half of the campaign, and he wasn’t exactly a featured winger, averaging a mere 14:30 per game. Bjorkstrand stands to factor into the Blue Jackets’ plans for this season much more heavily, though.

Early projections have Bjorkstrand slotted in as a second-line winger, and with the Blue Jackets attempting to compete in the high-scoring and ultra-competitive Metropolitan Division, it makes sense why. When he did get on ice last season, Bjorkstrand was dynamite offensively, scoring six goals and 13 points, all of the goals and 12 of the points coming in a 21-game stretch at the end of the season. For those scoring at home, that’s a better than a half-point-per-game rate while skating fourth-line minutes, and his points per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time was in the same range as Mark Scheifele, Nicklas Backstrom and Brad Marchand.

Anthony Mantha, Detroit Red Wings

After an impressive year in the AHL in 2015-16, Mantha failed to make the team out of training camp last season. It was a surprising decision by the Red Wings, especially with the team’s clear need for young talent. But Mantha was undeniable in the AHL, spending the first month in the minors putting up eight goals and 10 points in 10 games. It made him a clear candidate for a call-up and he got it in early November.

Mantha was excellent from that point onward, too. From the time he was brought up to the NHL to the end of the campaign, Mantha was the Red Wings’ fourth-highest scorer, registering 17 goals and 36 points, and he finished third in goals despite playing at least four fewer games than every other player ahead of him. His natural goal-scoring ability was evident, and he’s only going to get better with age and more opportunity. He has the ability to be a first-liner this season and get starts with the first power play unit. With a full year under his belt, he could be a lock for 20 goals.

Michael Matheson, Florida Panthers

It’s hard for rookie defensemen to really get all that much ink in Florida when they have to compete with Aaron Ekblad, one of the league’s standout young rearguards, but Matheson should definitely be getting more attention. While his name might not leap off the page, the 23-year-old made a name for himself before he even had his rookie season in Florida by earning top defenseman honors at the 2016 World Championship.

Now’s the time for Matheson to take that next step at the NHL level. In his rookie campaign, he scored seven goals and 17 points — 10th-most among freshman defenders — and it wasn’t all that surprising given his eye for offense. But more impressive than his production was the minutes he took on. He averaged 21:03 per night, third among Panthers defensemen, and Matheson often faced the highest quality of competition. At times, Matheson challenged Ekblad and Keith Yandle for a top-pairing spot on a nightly basis, and he could find himself chewing up even more top-caliber ice time this season.

Pavel Zacha, New Jersey Devils

All eyes in New Jersey are, with good reason, on Nico Hischier. The first overall draft pick is going to be thrust into the spotlight due to the injury to Travis Zajac, quite possibly forcing the Swiss center to take on first-line duty right out of the gate. All the focus on Hischier, though, is allowing Zacha to fly under the radar. That might be a good thing for the young center, too.

Zacha had a somewhat underwhelming campaign in 2016-17, averaging bottom-six minutes and scoring just eight goals and 24 points, but he has serious upside to be a top producer in New Jersey. What he needs, though, is the chance and, frankly, the linemates to help him do so. Due to Zajac’s injury, Zacha should start the season with both of those. As of now, he’s projected to start the season playing between Adam Henrique and Marcus Johansson, which is a massive, massive upgrade from last season’s most common linemates, Beau Bennett and Jacob Josefson. If Zacha gets the chance to perform, he could be a surprisingly steady scorer.

Jake Guentzel, Pittsburgh Penguins

Guentzel might be the most obvious candidate on this list to be a standout sophomore. Not only did he score 16 goals and 33 points in 40 games to end the campaign, but he was phenomenal in the post-season, too. On the Penguins’ run to their second Stanley Cup in as many years, Guentzel notched a playoff-best 13 goals and added eight assists. The only Penguins with more points were Phil Kessel, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Increasing Guentzel’s chances of having a spectacular sophomore year is the fact he found a fit playing alongside Crosby. The two played more than 300 minutes alongside each other at 5-on-5 and continued to skate together in the post-season, almost exclusively when playing five-a-side. If Guentzel is going to be Crosby’s linemate again this season, it all but ensures that he's going to have an excellent year. 

The one area to watch, though, will be Guentzel’s shooting percentage. He was near 20 percent in the regular season and 25 percent in the playoffs. That’s going to decrease. The only question is by how much.

Nikita Zaitsev, Toronto Maple Leafs

Everyone will want to focus on Matthews, Marner and Nylander, but one of the Maple Leafs’ most important sophomore skaters is Zaitsev. Just one season into his NHL career, Zaitsev has all the makings of a stud defender. He skates well, moves the puck with precision, has shown he can put points on the board and is more than prepared to take on top competition. The former was witnessed by his four goals and 32 points last season, the latter noted by the fact he faced the second-toughest quality of competition among Leafs defensemen.

So, how does Zaitsev take a step forward? More of the same is a start. He was averaging 22 minutes of ice time and helped make Toronto’s blueline stronger than it had been in years. To take his game to the next level, he has to prove he can drive play, too. The only possible knock against his game last season was that he had a substandard possession rate, and changing that this season would go a long way in proving, categorically, that he’s a true top-pairing blueliner.

Josh Morrissey, Winnipeg Jets

The one thing, above all else, that made Winnipeg’s signing of Dmitry Kulikov to a three-year contract surprising was that it seemed to be redundant. That’s not because the Jets have their top-four sorted — they do with Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Toby Enstrom — but because if there was any need for a fifth defenseman, the role seemed perfectly suited for Morrissey. As a rookie, Morrissey scored six goals and 20 points, averaged upwards of 19 minutes per game and took shifts alongside Byfuglien on a regular basis.

But just because Kulikov might eat into Morrissey’s role doesn’t mean he can’t have a big season as a sophomore. He might have fewer chances to stretch his legs offensively, but his skill level isn’t disappearing overnight. As a second option on the power play or a puck-moving defender in the Jets’ bottom three, Morrissey can excel, and on a speedy Jets team, Morrissey’s ability to skate the puck out of danger and up the ice could come in handy. The fact that he proved himself while playing alongside Byfuglien also bodes well if there’s an injury on the blueline.

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