Prospects Proving That They Belong in the NHL This Season

Steve SilvermanFeatured ColumnistOctober 30, 2013

Prospects Proving That They Belong in the NHL This Season

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    Young players who come into the NHL have a lot to prove if they want to stay in the league shortly after they are drafted.

    There are a number of teenagers who have the talent and skills to play the game well, but when they see the veterans in their locker room or on the opponents' bench, they may shake with intimidation.

    Others put outside factors aside and just play their game. They are often effective from the start.

    Here's our look at the teenage prospects who are getting their chance to play in the NHL and are proving that they belong.


C Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche

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    Stat line: 11 games; one goal, six assists, plus-two


    Why he's in the lineup: Nathan MacKinnon, 18, is playing in the NHL because of his great skating speed and explosive talent. He's an eye-catching player who can turn any play into a scoring opportunity for the Avalanche.


    What he needs to do better: Until reaching the NHL, MacKinnon was nearly always the best player on the ice. He could get by on his natural talent alone. That's not the case in the NHL, where MacKinnon is competing against experienced and talented grown men. MacKinnon has to learn how to use his speed to his advantage and contend with the physical play in the NHL.


C Sean Monahan, Calgary Flames

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    Stat line: 11 games; six goals, four assists, minus-three


    Why he's in the lineup: Sean Monahan, 19, sees the ice like a veteran player and is fully involved with every shift he takes for the Calgary Flames. In some respects, playing for a rebuilding team like the Flames is excellent for Monahan because he can make big plays, make mistakes and grow from his experiences without going through the pain of costing his team much-needed victories.

    The Flames aren't going to the playoffs, so all he has to do is continue to play hard to stay in the lineup. Monahan has an understanding of how to make the pass that leads to a goal or go to the right position on the ice so he can score. He has a mature game that has impressed Calgary's management.

    "We always tell players, they make the decisions," Flames general manager Jay Feaster told Adam Kimelman of "The players decide, and in Sean's case Sean decided. Through his performance through those first nine games he demonstrated he can play in the league."


    What he needs to do better: Monahan may understand what to do offensively, but he needs to improve his skating and get better on faceoffs. The Flames have decided Monahan is better off working on these deficiencies in the NHL than he is at the junior level.

D Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Stat line: 11 games; zero goals, five assists, minus-one


    Why he's in the lineup: Morgan Rielly, 19, seemed like a long shot to stick with the Toronto Maple Leafs at the start of 2013-14. However, the youngster has played consistently during the early part of the season. Head coach Randy Carlyle announced that Rielly would stay with the Maple Leafs and not be returned to his junior team prior to Toronto's ninth game of the season.

    Rielly has shown quite a bit of maturity to his game and is a better option for the Leafs than some of their minor league defensemen like Korbinian Holzer and T.J. Brennan because he can bring the puck up ice and get involved in the offensive end.


    What he needs to do better: Rielly just needs more time and experience to hone his skills. He is regularly in the proper position, he understands how to play a physical game and he can work the transition game because he is a good puck-carrier. However, he has to do all of these things much better.

LW Michael Bournival, Montreal Canadiens

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    Stat line: 10 games; three goals, four assists, plus-five


    Why he's in the lineup: Michael Bournival, 21, projects as a bottom-six forward for the Montreal Canadiens.

    Based on his play so far in the young season, Bournival is going to exceed those projections. Bournival has excellent defensive skills, which is why he's looked at as a bottom-six guy. However, Bournival has flashed excellent offensive skills as well. He has a good shot, goes to the top scoring areas and is a fine passer.

    Forget the reputation, Bournival looks like a big-time contributor on both ends of the ice.


    What he needs to do better: Bournival is showing that he has the offensive ability to be a solid contributor. However, he needs to refine those skills and become a more aggressive offensive player with greater determination in his offensive game.

D Seth Jones, Nashville Predators

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    Stat line: 12 games; two goals, three assists, even plus-minus rating


    Why he's in the lineup: Seth Jones, 19, has played the role of NHL defenseman from the moment he arrived at Nashville Predators training camp. He has looked like he belongs in the NHL from the first instant he stepped on the ice.

    Jones has the size, speed, strength and defensive know-how to become one of the Predators' best players. The proof is in the ice time. Jones is averaging 24:42 of ice time per game, a substantial amount for any rookie. 

    Jones can already play the role of shutdown defenseman while maintaining a strong offensive role for the Preds.


    What he needs to do better: Jones is a big man at 6'4" and 205 pounds, but he has to play to that size. He knows how to play the physical game; he just has to start banging bodies with greater frequency.

D Olli Maatta, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Stat line: 12 games; one goal, two assists, plus-one


    Why he's in the lineup: Olli Maatta, 19, got the good news after the Penguins' ninth game of the season. That's when he was called into see general manager Ray Shero and head coach Dan Bylsma, and they let him know that he would remain with the Pens and would not be returned to his junior team.

    The young Finnish defenseman has impressed his coaches and his teammates with his solid positional play. Maatta is not intimidated by the atmosphere of playing in the NHL, and he does not get overwhelmed by playing against experienced veterans. 

    Maatta is usually in the proper position, and he doesn't get overwhelmed when playing in end-of-game situations. His teammates have noticed. 

    "When you make a decision to keep a junior kid, only 19 years old, that's showing a lot of confidence in him," Penguins defenseman Paul Martin said to Shelly Anderson of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "I think he's played extremely well—his poise as a 19-year-old and his confidence as far as his hockey sense. He doesn't make it hard on himself. He makes the right play, the smart play. He knows where to be positionally."


    What he needs to do better: Maatta does not have the NHL attitude of wanting to pound opponents when he gets them in the corner or along the boards. He's a big man at 6'2" and 205 pounds and needs to play a more physical brand of hockey.

LW Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks

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    Stat line: 12 games; eight goals, three assists, plus-eight


    Why he's in the lineup: Tomas Hertl, 19, exploded on the scene with a four-goal game against the New York Rangers Oct. 8 in a 9-2 Sharks blowout victory.

    Hertl announced his presence in the NHL and put his skating and creativity on display. While that's obviously his most impressive game, Hertl has been playing aggressively and showing off his skill set on a regular basis. 

    He has skated with veteran center Joe Thornton for the majority of 2013-14 thus far and has been able to take advantage of the skilled veteran's playmaking and passing. Once Hertl gets the puck in the offensive zone, he's going to take advantage of a scoring opportunity or create one for a teammate.


    What he needs to do better: Hertl has been able to skate fairly freely and fly up and down the ice. However, it doesn't always work like that in the NHL. At some point or another, Hertl is going to have to show that he can play the tough, grinding game in the corners. If he shies away in those situations, Hertl will have a problem.

D Jacob Trouba, Winnipeg Jets

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    Stat line: Eight games; one goal, one assist, minus-three


    Why he's in the lineup: Jacob Trouba, 19, was in the lineup regularly for the Winnipeg Jets until he took a vicious face-first fall into the boards in a game earlier this month against the St. Louis Blues.

    Trouba was stretchered off the ice, but the results of the play were not catastrophic. Trouba suffered a sprained neck and will be able to return to the lineup. He will be re-evaluated shortly by the Jets team doctors and if he gets the go-ahead, he will be able to return to practice and game activity.

    That's important for the Jets because Trouba was averaging 23 minutes of ice time per game before the injury.

    Unlike many rookies, Trouba plays a punishing, physical game. He can also carry the puck and shoot it, but his physical play gives the Jets a player who is going to cause opponents to think twice before they skate in the offensive zone.

    Despite his youth, Trouba was receiving consideration to play for the U.S. team in the Olympics prior to his injury. While he was no more than a long shot, it's clear that a healthy Trouba will be an asset to the Jets for the foreseeable future.


    What he needs to do better: Trouba has the right demeanor to be a tough and effective player for years. However, he needs to improve his skating and stay away from reckless plays that could result in injury.