This past June’s NHL entry draft featured a deep group of prospects at both the forward and defense positions. With the fourth selection, the Nashville Predators selected the top defensive prospect in Seth Jones. He has a very good chance to play immediately in Music City this year.
Three very talented forwards were selected right before Jones. The Colorado Avalanche selected Nathan MacKinnon with the first pick, Florida chose Aleksander Barkov with the second and the Tampa Bay Lightning selected Jonathan Drouin third overall.
These three forwards had excellent 2012-13 seasons. MacKinnon and Drouin were part of an outstanding junior team in Halifax. The Mooseheads captured the CHL’s Mastercard Memorial Cup this past spring with both players playing very important roles in that victory.
Barkov toiled in the SM Liiga for two seasons and was only 16 years old in his rookie season. This was no small feat, as the Finnish Elite League, while not on par with the NHL or Russia's KHL, is one of the better European leagues. Barkov not only survived in that league, but he flourished against much older and seasoned competition.
Here are their numbers from the 2012-13 season:
It should be emphasized that Barkov and MacKinnon were primarily centers last year. They had greater defensive responsibilities as a result, while Jonathan Drouin had more opportunities to focus on his offensive game with fewer defensive-zone responsibilities. This is not to say that Drouin was not a good defensive player—his attention to detail is good in all three zones. Quite clearly, though, Drouin is the best offensive player of the three.
Looking ahead to this season, it is always tricky to project how a first-year player will perform at the NHL level. It appears that Barkov will be given every opportunity to play with the Panthers this season. He may even be paired with Calder Trophy winner Jonathan Huberdeau.
Nathan MacKinnon has been slotted in as Colorado's third-line center. He is not likely to see the same kind of quality minutes as Barkov with both Matt Duchene and Paul Stastny ahead of him on the Avalanche depth chart. Some power-play time is not out of the question, though.
Drouin appears to be going into the best situation of these three. Most left wingers would be very happy to potentially start the season with Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis as linemates. This is the likely starting point for Drouin, and he should also get some significant power-play minutes as well.
In trying to project their statistics, the best place to turn is to the advanced statistics website Behind the Net. It features a great study based on recent data tracking players' transitions to the NHL from their respective leagues.
The raw number is based on the multiplier for Barkov's SM Liiga and the QMJHL for Drouin and MacKinnon. I used last season's PPG totals (points per game) and projected a full 82-game season in 2013-14 to get each player's raw point total before using the multiplier.
It is appropriate to make some small adjustments based on the fact that these are elite players making the transition and each has individual circumstances with which to deal with. None of these teams are expected to be upper-tier clubs in the final standings.
MacKinnon's role and playing time is potentially trickier than the other two, as his role seems the cloudiest at this stage. Given that the Avalanche have a lot of young depth at forward, a 10 percent bump to his raw number seems appropriate. This would see MacKinnon finish the season with 43 points.
Barkov will have very good linemates in Florida and could play a lot of top offensive minutes. Bumping his projection by 15 percent does not seem unreasonable, giving him a point total of 45.
Drouin's situation is the most intriguing. From an offensive standpoint, his multiplier has to be much more generous given that he could be playing on one of the top offensive lines in the game. Giving Drouin a boost of at least 20 percent is not unreasonable. This would have Drouin finishing with 59 points next spring.
Of course, there are other, more nuanced ways to measure each rookie's impact on a team. But in focusing on each player's projected point total, and barring unforeseen injuries, it seems clear that Jonathan Drouin will have the greatest impact on his NHL team next season.