Predicting the 3 Best NHL Rookies at Each Position for the 2013-14 Season

Franklin SteeleAnalyst IIAugust 24, 2013

Predicting the 3 Best NHL Rookies at Each Position for the 2013-14 Season

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    Trying to figure out which teen-aged rookie is going to have an outstanding year can be a lot like trying predict which sports team Justin Bieber will be "repping" next week. It's unpredictable and unscientific at best.

    Still, we can examine the elements that allow a young player to succeed and try to determine who's going to be excellent and who will end up back in the minors. 

    The opportunity to be extraordinary is paramount in these matters. Will the young player even have a chance to crack the roster? And if he does, will he be playing in a top-six role as a forward or top-two pairing as a defenseman?

    All the talent in the world won't do you any good when you're stuck behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on the depth chart. Just ask Jordan Staal.

    On top of the base element of opportunity, a player must also possess an abundance of maturity to deal with the rigors of an 82-game NHL schedule. Time needs to be put in at the gym. There are tapes to watch and skills to hone.

    All while dealing with suddenly becoming a wealthy professional athlete—most of the time before their 21st birthday even rolls around.

    Being an outstanding player in the first place doesn't hurt either, but that's only one step toward becoming an above-average NHL contributor.

    It's easy to look out on the ice and just see a name and a number and a stat line, but a lot of little details add up for guys that manage to snag the Calder Trophy during their first year of competition.

    For the sake of this slideshow, the baseline definition of a rookie is a player who has only played 25 games in the NHL, but there's a little wiggle room there. We reserve the right to "push it" if the player is only a few contests over this limit.

    Also, it's possible that a number of the forwards end up playing different positions. A center could turn into a winger after a training camp battle shakes down in a particular way. If a guy has been used at and listed as a particular position, we'll slot him in there if we see fit.

     

    All stats appear courtesy of Hockeydb.com.

Left Wing

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    Tomas Tatar

    Few systems are tougher to emerge from than that of the Detroit Red Wings. They have no issues burying their best prospects for years on end as their veterans maintain their roster spots for what must feel like decades to youngsters trying to crack the lineup.

    Tatar has been patiently waiting for his chance since being drafted 60th overall in 2009 and will likely get his shot as a full-time NHL player this year. As a 22-year-old, he's more than grown into his frame and already has the maturity necessary to hack it with the Wings.

    Few players have been more consistently outstanding in the AHL over the last few seasons, and Tatar posted 49 points in 61 games last season, proving that he's ready for an extended stay with Detroit after receiving cups of coffee over the last few years.

     

    Jonathan Drouin

    While he's not going to set a rookie record for plus/minus while playing with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Jonathan Drouin is very capable of putting up massive point totals if given opportunities. Tampa had the league's third-best offense in 2013, and the third overall draft pick from this year could play an important part of it in 2014.

    Under the tutelage of Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos, Drouin will learn about the rigors of the NHL schedule while blowing up the nets on a nightly basis.

    Given the circumstances, he should be considered one of the favorites to win the Calder this year.

     

    Chris Kreider

    This isn't the Chris Kreider of the 2011-12 playoffs. Put that player out of your mind, because he was an apparition. The product of a hype-machine media that were all too happy to pile on and go for a ride with a guy who'd played zero NHL games prior to stepping up in a spectacular playoff run.

    After a rough go of it in 2013, there probably isn't a player more fired up to burn his detractors than Kreider.

    He'll arrive at camp this season fresh and ready to take advantage of the clean slate that Alain Vigneault will provide. The new head coach will be looking to implement a more offense-minded and speed-oriented system, and few New York Rangers could benefit from the switch more than Kreider.

Center

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    Ryan Strome

    After crushing his competition in the OHL over the last three seasons, Strome appears poised and ready to leave his mark with the New York Islanders this year. He made his professional debut with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers in 2013, securing seven points in 10 games while adjusting to a new level of competition.

    Expectations will be increasing in New York after the Islanders managed to make the playoffs last season, and Strome will be a huge factor in any forward motion the team makes.

    The franchise has been impressively patient with a guy who scored 106 points in his draft year, yet was still sent back to the junior level for two more seasons.

    The Isles will be huge beneficiaries of that developmental process in 2014.

     

    Nathan MacKinnon

    The golden boy of the 2013 NHL draft, the Colorado Avalanche surprised a lot of people when they decided to pass on Seth Jones at No. 1 and instead selected MacKinnon. But the more video that emerges of the kid, and the more the folks in Colorado talk about him, the more the move makes sense.

    MacKinnon is a lightning storm of offensive talent, and his incredible speed will allow him to be a contributor as soon as he hits the ice for his first NHL contest. He'll automatically become one of the fastest professional players after his first shift, and he already has the hockey IQ needed to handle NHL defensmen.

    Like Jonathan Drouin, he's not going to set any plus/minus records and isn't going to win a Selke Trophy any time soon.

    But it's hard to ignore the fireworks that the Avalanche's offense could produce this year.

     

    Brandon Pirri

    The Chicago Blackhawks need a No. 2 center, and would you look at that? They just so happen to have a rock-star option coming down the pipeline in Pirri. While Brandon Saad impressed last season, he's not going to get the first crack at backing Jonathan Toews from the two-hole.

    Pirri will get that shot at training camp, and if history is any indicator, he'll be able to secure the job. He put up 75 points in 76 games in the AHL last season and was among the league's top players all year long.

    Pirri has actually been a strong contributor in the AHL for three years now, so he'll receive a long look from the 'Hawks as they search internally for a No. 2 pivot. There isn't a player more suited for the role than Pirri, and he'll likely be a part of a top-six that produced a gnarly amount of offense last season.

    Looking for a dark-horse Calder bet? Pirri is your guy.

Right Wing

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    Tyler Toffoli

    The Los Angeles Kings posses one of the strongest core groups of players in the NHL. There's always room for a goal-scoring winger though, right? Toffoli fits that bill perfectly, as evidenced by his 28 goals in 58 games in the AHL last season.

    That came just a year after scorching the OHL for 100 points in 65 games—make no mistake about it, this kid is an offensive machine.

    He's done nothing but light the lamp at every level, and after a strong 10-game showing in L.A. in 2013, he could be ready for the bigs this season. If he makes the lineup out of training camp, it'll be because the Kings want him to be another dangerous part of their scoring group (and we're betting on him making the squad, since you can't ignore talent like this for long).

     

    Valeri Nichushkin

    Ten years from now we'll look back at the 2013 draft and wonder why Nichushkin wasn't taken higher. Then we'll all collectively slap our foreheads and mutter to ourselves "oh yeah... it's because he was Russian."

    The Dallas Stars weren't scared off by that fact, mostly because the 6'4", 202-pound bull of an offensive player has been politely compared to Evgeni Malkin. While that level of stardom will be hard to reach, there's no doubt that Nichushkin has some serious offensive chops.

    He's already played in (arguably) the second best hockey league in the world in the KHL, and not only did he not seem out of place, he actually managed to hold his own. Impressive, since he plays a north-south, in-your-face power game, which required him to skate right up the gut instead of hanging to the outside.

    Look for him to be doing the same as a Calder favorite in the NHL this year. The Stars didn't take him to watch him turn into the next Evgeny Kuznetsov or Vladimir Tarasenko.

     

    Beau Bennett

    While the Pittsburgh Penguins clearly have something special going with the line of Sidney Crosby, Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz, and Evgeni Malkin has the whole psychic twin thing going with James Neal, we'd be remiss if we didn't mention Bennett in this space.

    While it'll be tough to end up on even the second line beside Malkin, any young player that can score like this that has even a slim chance of playing in that spot is worth mentioning.

    Pens fans have been waiting anxiously for Bennett to line up inside of the top-six and, after scoring 14 points in 26 games while playing a remedial role with the Pens in 2013, he may be ready for a more important role moving forward.

Defense

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    Ryan Murray

    The Columbus Blue Jackets are loaded with offensive defensemen. Jack Johnson and James Wisniewski are both capable of putting up solid point totals when healthy, and a defensive anchor would only push them even further in the offensive zone.

    That's where Murray comes into play, and that's why he will undoubtedly be an important part of the Blue Jackets roster this year. What Jonas Brodin did for Ryan Suter? That's what Murray will do for either Wisniewski or Johnson.

    He'll be there to bail his veteran partner out when he clips into the offensive zone at the wrong time, and he'll receive under-the-radar Calder Trophy chatter as a result.

     

    Seth Jones

    Motivation won't be a factor for Jones this season. At least not based on what we witnessed at the draft, when he not only slipped away from the No. 1 position, but fell all the way to the Nashville Predators with the fourth overall pick.

    The body language that Jones displayed was that of a rejected teenager. While fourth overall is a wonderful achievement and nod to his talent, Jones was under the impression that he'd be going first.

    He didn't, and one quick look at his bank account over the next three years will remind him of that. According to Capgeek, Jones is set to make $500,00 less than Nathan MacKinnon, should both players hit their remedial performance bonuses.

    Nashville is always looking for impact players on the blue line, and Jones will have every opportunity to cement his top-four status as soon as this season. Maybe we'll finally see some toughness out of him along the way.

     

    Jamie Oleksiak

    The NHL isn't a league full of giants like the NBA or NFL. 6'2", 220 pounds is considered smallish in just about every other professional league, yet it's the perfect size in hockey. So whenever a talented, 6'7", 240-pound defender is available at the draft, he's going to get snatched up quickly.

    Oleksiak has progressed better than just about anyone could have hoped, and he managed to crack the Dallas Stars lineup for the first time in 2013. That call up wasn't based on desperation. Oleksiak was just dominating in the AHL—all told, the behemoth 20-year-old posted 33 points in 59 games with the Texas Stars in the AHL.

    Dallas is under new management now, and Oleksiak will have another chance to impress all of his new bosses this year. With another season of development under his belt, he could begin his evolution into Zdeno Chara V. 2.0 right before our very eyes in 2014.

Goaltender

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    Jacob Markstrom

    The only young goaltender listed here that will begin the season as his team's starter, Markstrom has been considered one of the best prospects in all of hockey since he was drafted in 2008. The Florida Panthers have allowed him all kinds of time to mature, and the 6'6" Swede will be ready for action in 2014.

    2013 was a tough year for Markstrom and the Panthers. The team was relegated to icing an AHL-caliber squad due to injuries, and they got blitzed on a nightly basis because of it. While it probably wasn't fun to be the guy in net for this team, things will only improve this season.

    Markstrom now knows what it takes to be a starter in the NHL, and he's had all summer to think about how awful it feels to post a 3.22 GAA. His stats won't be nearly as bad in 2014, if for no other reason than the Panthers finally getting healthy in front of him.

     

    Robin Lehner

    There's a lot to like about Lehner's game. He's mobile for such a big man (6'2", 220 pounds) and is very tough to beat down low. The only thing working against the 22-year-old goaltender is who he's backing up.

    Barring a massive slip in Craig Anderson's play or another injury, Lehner will be playing second fiddle to one of the most outstanding starters in the NHL. Of course, there was a point when we were writing the same thing about Cory Schneider.

    Lehner will get spot starts in 2014, and anything more than 20 games would have to be considered a bonus for the youngster. He'll need to continue to impress in those contests if he wants to push Anderson for starts at all over the next year or two.

     

    Jake Allen

    The St. Louis Blues will begin the 2014 campaign with three netminders on the roster. Third on that depth chart is Allen, who the organization loves and wants to be playing as backup very soon. It's likely that Jaroslav Halak or Brian Elliott will get traded within the next few months—rolling with three goalies just doesn't make sense from a monetary standpoint—and Allen will jump up the depth chart once that happens.

    He's capable of stealing the starting role from time to time, as he proved in 2013. Regardless of who Allen is backing up, they'll have to keep a close eye on the kid pulling up behind them in the rear-view.