Ranking the Best NHL Players Still on Entry-Level Deals

Steve MacfarlaneFeatured ColumnistMarch 12, 2014

Ranking the Best NHL Players Still on Entry-Level Deals

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    Karl B DeBlaker/Associated Press

    What makes a great young NHL player? The usual list includes speed or size, puck-handling and shooting skills, intelligence, an ability to listen and learn, and a work ethic. For some, all may apply.

    The NHL is full of talented young players whose names will eventually be of the hockey household variety. Championship teams are built on youth, and in the salary cap era, having key players on entry-level deals is critical. 

    Click ahead for a look at the brightest young stars still in the first three years of their careers.

10. Torey Krug, Boston Bruins

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    Contract status

    Third year, $925,000

     

    2013-14 by the numbers

    64 games, 13 goals, 22 assists, 35 points

     

    Analysis

    The Boston Bruins got a taste of what Torey Krug could do in the playoffs last season when their undrafted prospect posted four goals and six points in 15 postseason games.

    He still has holes in his game defensively and a way to go in his development to become an all-around player, but his value on the power play as the quarterback on the blue line is extremely valuable in today's NHL in which special teams play goes a long way in winning or losing games.

    He's four goals shy of Bruins legend Ray Bourque's franchise record of 17 set in 1980. His defensive deficiencies can be overlooked for now. The offensive upside is that good and valuable.

9. Tomas Tatar, Detroit Red Wings

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    Francois Lacasse/Getty Images

    Contract status

    Third year, $650,000

     

    2013-14 by the numbers

    56 games, 14 goals, 12 assists, 26 points

     

    Analysis

    With all the injuries the Detroit Red Wings have suffered this season, the team's younger players have had to step into larger roles.

    Tomas Tatar has been one of those support players who has contributed at key times. His talents are only scratching the surface at the NHL level after dominating in the American Hockey League last season.

    The AHL playoff MVP led the Grand Rapids Griffiths to the Calder Cup a year ago, scoring 16 times in 24 games. The 23-year-old from Slovakia, who took part in the Sochi Games in February, has been brought along slowly and is likely set to cash in on a much more attractive contract from the Wings as a restricted free agent this summer.

8. Mikael Granlund, Minnesota Wild

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    Ben Nelms/Getty Images

    Contract status

    Second year, $900,000

     

    2013-14 by the numbers

    52 games, six goals, 28 assists, 34 points

     

    Analysis

    The Olympics were a coming-out party for Mikael Granlund, who teamed up with Teemu Selanne to lead the Finns to a bronze medal. For his efforts in Sochi, Granlund was named to the tournament's all-star team.

    He's carried that confidence back to North America, where Granlund has become an impact player with the Minnesota Wild.

    Mikael Granlund Olympic numbers: led Finland with 7 points, 20 shots, 18:15 ice time (fwds). Today, 2 assists & won 8 of 13 draws #mnwild

    — Michael Russo (@Russostrib) February 22, 2014

    He admittedly struggled a little in his first season a year ago—as much to do with the adjustment to life in North America as the NHL game—but is now shining on a line with Zach Parise and Jason Pominville. He makes up for his lack of size (5'10" and 185 pounds) with his speed and creativity. 

7. Olli Maatta, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Contract status

    First year, $925,000

     

    2013-14 by the numbers

    64 games, 9 goals, 19 assists, 28 points

     

    Analysis

    It's been an incredible rookie season for Olli Maatta, who wasn't even assured of a spot on the team back in October. After a nine-game grace period, the Pittsburgh Penguins had to decide whether or not to keep the 19-year-old defenseman in the NHL and burn the first year of his entry-level contract or send him back to the London Knights in the Ontario Hockey League.

    The Finnish rearguard quickly established the fact he was ready for the big league.

    He contributed a goal and three points through those first nine games, fitting in perfectly with the Penguins as a smart and positionally sound defenseman who also had a gift for moving the puck into the offensive zone.

    Based on strong play so far, it's no surprise PIT is keeping Olli Maatta in the NHL. Nice get for Pens at No. 22 overall in 2012 NHL draft.

    — Bob McKenzie (@TSNBobMcKenzie) October 24, 2013

    Things have only improved. His average minutes have climbed into the 20s and he's filled in on the top pairing with Brooks Orpik in the absence of Kris Letang.

    Again, he's only 19 years old. Not many kids can contribute at this level, in that position, at that age. Add in his bronze-medal performance at the Sochi Olympics, where his teammates had nothing but nice things to say about him, and you've got the start of an incredible hockey career. 

6. Ryan Johansen, Columbus Blue Jackets

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Contract status

    Third year, $810,000

     

    2013-14 by the numbers

    65 games, 25 goals, 24 assists, 49 points

     

    Analysis

    The fourth overall draft pick from 2010 hasn't gained the kind of attention the top two picks, Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin, have over the last few years, but Ryan Johansen is finally being noticed despite the fact he plays for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

    No other player in the league his age (21) or younger has as many goals (25) this season—easily his breakout year in the NHL.

    Now a top-line center who has size and speed to go with his scoring touch and playmaking skills, Johansen will earn a massive raise next season. First, he's leading the Blue Jackets down the stretch with his sights on a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

5. Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues

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    Bill Boyce/Associated Press

    Contract status

    Second year, $900,000

     

    2013-14 by the numbers

    62 games, 19 goals, 21 assists, 40 points

     

    Analysis

    Vladimir Tarasenko had a pretty strong rookie season for the St. Louis Blues last year in a lockout-shortened campaign during which he scored eight times and contributed 19 points in 38 games.

    The true test of his potential has come this year with a much more difficult schedule that has seen him thrive rather than wilt. Despite getting no rest during the Olympics, instead suiting up for Russia at the Sochi Games, Tarasenko is enjoying one of his best stretches of the season with six points in eight games after the break.

    The 22-year-old right-winger is tremendously talented and responsible, thanks in part to being coached in St. Louis by one of the best in Ken Hitchcock. He's only going to get better as he moves up the deep Blues depth chart over the next couple of years.

4. Seth Jones, Nashville Predators

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    Len Redkoles/Getty Images

    Contract status

    First year, $925,000

     

    2013-14 by the numbers

    66 games, 6 goals, 17 assists, 23 points

     

    Analysis

    Could Seth Jones eventually become the kind of Norris Trophy-type defenseman his teammate Shea Weber is? The easy answer seems to be that it's only a matter of time.

    The rookie rearguard is a big 6'4" and 205 pounds, has a heavy slap shot just like Weber and is the kind of poised presence with no panic evident at any time.

    Of course, he's still a rookie and makes the kind of mistakes they are prone to in a league as skilled as the NHL.

    Seth Jones is going to be really good in a couple of years, but he's had some brutal d-zone turnovers of late

    — JoshuaCooper (@JoshuaCooper) February 2, 2014

    Truth is Jones is already a good player. One day he's going to be great. And if Weber departs the Predators anytime soon for salary-cap reasons, that opportunity for Jones to become the team's leader will arrive more quickly than expected.

3. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche

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    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    Contract status

    First year, $925,000

     

    2013-14 by the numbers

    65 games, 22 goals, 29 assists, 51 points

     

    Analysis

    Does anyone still think this kid isn't going to win the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie? Considering his point production has a cushion of nearly double digits on any other freshman, it isn't likely.

    Nathan MacKinnon's skills go well beyond goals and assists, however. He shows an incredible maturity for a player who's just 18 years old. He started the season on the fourth line but now features prominently in the top six, centering the second line with team captain and fellow entry-level contract star Gabriel Landeskog.

    He's also already broken one of The Great One's many NHL records.

    Nathan MacKinnon has a point in 13 straight games, breaking Wayne Gretzky's record for an 18-year-old #NHL player. http://t.co/Tg8iSlRQlZ

    — Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) March 7, 2014

2. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton Oilers

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    Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    Contract status

    Third year, $925,000

     

    2013-14 by the numbers

    64 games, 15 goals, 29 assists, 44 points

     

    Analysis

    The jury is still out on Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in terms of how high his ceiling is. His time in Edmonton so far has been wildly inconsistent, injury-plagued and very much a disappointment in terms of team results.

    But the Oilers center is very talented and, with more strength on his lanky 6'1" frame, can become more of a force as a top-line middle man.

    With 120 points in 166 NHL games, the 20-year-old is off to a nice start to his career. The biggest question going forward is how he'll react to a hefty seven-year contract extension worth $6 million per season that kicks in next year.

    He's slumping now but has a strong work ethic, which bodes well for him converting his talent into numbers—and maybe championships some day.

1. Gabriel Landeskog, Colorado Avalanche

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    Michael Martin/Getty Images

    Contract status

    Third year, $925,000

     

    2013-14 by the numbers

    64 games, 19 goals, 35 assists, 54 points

     

    Analysis

    Gabriel Landeskog isn't a point-per-game player and may never become one. However, there's a reason the 21-year-old was named Colorado Avalanche captain as a 19-year-old—the youngest ever in the NHL—and awarded a long-term deal worth nearly $40 million before hitting the legal drinking age.

    He was an easy choice for former Avalanche head coach Joe Sacco, who explained his reasoning to NHL.com correspondent Rick Sadowski:

    To me, the logical choice kept coming back to Gabe. No. 1, his leadership ability comes very naturally. He doesn’t try to be somebody he’s not. He demonstrated in his first year at 19—he started at 18—strong leadership both on and off the ice. His play on the ice certainly was an example of how we want all our players to play. He played in every situation possible for us. Don’t let his age fool you. He’s way mature beyond his years. The response of the other players to this has been overwhelmingly positive. I think he’s going to be a great captain for a long time.

    His lip-sync performance is up for debate though.

Honorable Mentions

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    Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

    Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks

    The Sharks rookie led all freshmen in goals and points before a knee injury led to surgery at the end of December. His future is bright, and the Czech center has already exceeded early expectations. 

     

    Jaden Schwartz, St. Louis Blues

    Schwartz was picked ahead of Vladimir Tarasenko in the first round of the 2010 NHL entry draft because he was considered a safer selection without a transfer agreement in place between the KHL and NHL at the time. He's made that first round a whopper for the St. Louis Blues.

     

    Justin Faulk, Carolina Hurricanes

    The 21-year-old Minnesotan made Team USA at the Sochi Games ahead of more notable names like Dustin Byfuglien, Keith Yandle, Jack Johnson and Erik Johnson.

     

    Alex Galchenyuk, Montreal Canadiens

    As a 19-year-old, Galchenyuk had a dynamic rookie season with the Habs last year, forming a key part of a young nucleus that includes Brendan Gallagher and Lars Eller. Now 20, he's having a nice sophomore year with 12 goals and 26 points in 51 games.

     

    Tyler Johnson, Tampa Bay Lightning

    For a kid who wasn't even drafted, the 23-year-old Johnson has become a rookie sensation while stepping up for the Lightning while Steven Stamkos was injured.

     

    Sean Monahan, Calgary Flames

    With just one more goal, Monahan will become the first Flames rookie to hit the 20-goal mark. Many of them have come at clutch times, including an overtime winner. Monahan may not be the most inspiring quote, but his well-rounded play does a lot of talking. 

     

    All stats are via NHL.com