NHL Rookies with the Best Chance of Making 2016-17 Rosters
The start of the 2016-17 NHL season is close, and each day sees more teams culling rosters and sending away hopefuls. It is becoming increasingly evident that many rookies will populate the league, and some very recent draft picks are poised for feature roles.
Some of this is expected, as Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Patrik Laine of the Winnipeg Jets are already famous pro players from European leagues. Other prospects, like Nick Schmaltz and Tyler Motte of the Chicago Blackhawks, are more obscure based on draft number and perceived strength of club roster.
The bottom line is that there is a larger-than-normal group of prospects who have a chance to play a feature role on NHL teams. That makes for an interesting race to the finish line for roster spots and a lot of upheaval for veterans in the final week of NHL training camp.
Here are the nine rookies with the best chance to make rosters this October.
Nick Schmaltz, Chicago Blackhawks
Preseason Stats from CBSSports.com: 4gp, 1-0-1
Nick Schmaltz of the Chicago Blackhawks was the No. 20 overall pick in the 2014 NHL entry draft. He spent the last two seasons in the NCAA—with North Dakota—and spiked offensively in 2015-16, signing an NHL contract with Chicago in June.
Schmaltz is not a big forward but very skilled and able to find seams with his passes. Posting almost one assist per game on average last season in the NCAA, Schmaltz proved invaluable in sending deft passes for linemates to cash.
He arrives in pro hockey at a unique time for Chicago. The team has enjoyed tremendous success this decade but has also been forced to trade away some high-priced talent in order to keep the heart of the team intact. Now more than any time in the last eight years, the Blackhawks badly need young players to perform at or above their abilities. Schmaltz has a fantastic shot at joining a good team opening night.
Zach Werenski, Columbus Blue Jackets
Preseason Stats from CBSSports.com: 2gp, 1-1-2
Zach Werenski of the Columbus Blue Jackets was the No. 8 overall selection in the 2015 NHL entry draft. He arrived at camp this fall after posting a strong World Junior tournament for Team USA and an impact sophomore season at Michigan in the NCAA.
Werenski is a fairly rare item—a defenseman with good size, speed and a fairly complete skill set. Scoring a point per game with Michigan suggests impressive offense, and he followed that up with an impressive playoff run with the Lake Erie Monsters of the AHL.
The defensive side of the game will be a process, as the jump from college to the NHL is a major step. Expect the Blue Jackets to bring him along at his own speed, possibly giving him third-pairing minutes and a power-play push. He is young, but all indicators have him being able to make the jump.
Drake Caggiula, Edmonton Oilers
Position: Center-Left Wing
Preseason Stats from CBSSports.com: 4gp, 2-0-2
Drake Caggiula of the Edmonton Oilers was one of the most sought-after college free agents of the season. His growth over four years at North Dakota of the NCAA gave NHL teams a glimpse of a talented and aggressive—if undersized—prospect.
His game is more than just offense, as Caggiula is an able agitator and forechecking forward. He has shown in exhibition games that he can make plays against NHL defensemen and beat big league goaltenders.
Caggiula has been playing at center for Edmonton in preseason, possibly as an audition for the Oilers in planning their regular-season deployment. Young center Leon Draisaitl is also effective on right wing, and if Caggiula can be a center option, it will give coach Todd McLellan more options in cobbling together a contender this season.
Jimmy Vesey, New York Rangers
Position: Left Wing
Preseason Stats from CBSSports.com: 3gp, 1-0-1
Jimmy Vesey of the New York Rangers is a famous prospect already, mostly due to the bidding war that developed after he decided not to sign with the Nashville Predators—his drafting team. After rumors that included destinations like Toronto and Boston, Vesey signed in New York and appears poised to make his NHL debut out of camp.
A Lance Hornby article in the Toronto Sun in mid-summer highlighted the frenzy created by Vesey's free agency. Vesey plays a rugged style, with speed and skill as his calling cards. He developed tremendously over his college career, and the Rangers are not certain about what he will become as an NHL player.
New York is a great spot for Vesey, having traded away many of its draft picks and badly needing an impact forward to join the group. If he struggles offensively, the team could slow play his rookie season on a checking or energy line. Look for him to grow into a regular role by Christmas and find his way as the season progresses.
Ivan Provorov, Philadelphia Flyers
Preseason Stats from CBSSports.com: 4gp, 0-2-2
Ivan Provorov of the Philadelphia Flyers was the No. 7 overall selection in the 2015 NHL entry draft. He played another strong WHL season in 2015-16 and posted an impressive World Junior tournament at Christmas 2015.
Provorov is a gifted offensive player, with the ability to pass or carry the puck brilliantly. His offensive creativity is on display in most games, and his skating is effective on offense and defense. Provorov plays a mature, patient game that belies his age and experience—and could give the Flyers another potent offensive weapon from the point.
If he spends the season in the NHL, Provorov should be part of an outstanding youth movement on the blue line. Shayne Gostisbehere established himself a year ago, and Provorov could soon be joined by Samuel Morin, Travis Sanheim and others. For Flyers fans, turning the weak defense of recent years into a strength will be a welcome sight, with Provorov one of the centerpieces in the cluster.
Matt Murray, Pittsburgh Penguins
Preseason Stats from CBSSports.com: No games this preseason
Matt Murray of the Pittsburgh Penguins is a famous rookie because of his work in the NHL—a rare item indeed—courtesy an outstanding playoff run in the spring. Murray had a strong AHL resume when he was recalled last season and backstopped the Penguins to the Stanley Cup.
Murray will have some issues in establishing himself this season. It is a lock that he will begin the season on the injured list, courtesy of a broken hand suffered at the World Cup of Hockey. Wes Crosby wrote the story in late September for NHL.com, and it seems likely Murray will miss the beginning of the year.
The other major issue for him is the presence of veteran No. 1 goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. General manager Jim Rutherford did not send Fleury away over the summer, preferring instead to run with two top goalies for some or all of the 2016-17 season. Murray's injury gives the organization a good reason to move the decision back, but it would appear that the Pittsburgh net will eventually belong to Murray.
Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs
Preseason Stats from CBSSports.com: 2gp, 0-0-0
Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs was the No. 1 overall selection in the 2016 NHL entry draft. He has played in only one game in the exhibition schedule, owing to his appearances at the World Cup of Hockey—where he scored a point per game for Team North America.
The one thing an observer comes away with about Matthews' game is the maturity at both ends of the ice. He is both aggressive and responsible and delivers everything—shots, passes, hits—with authority. Toronto is in a rebuilding window, but Matthews is going to make it difficult for the team to stay in the depths of the standings this season.
Finding Matthews two linemates who he can develop chemistry with and getting him power-play minutes are going to be central in getting him a chance at the Calder Trophy. Coach Mike Babcock is not known to gift rookies with cherry minutes, so if Matthews gets a push he will have earned it.
Kyle Connor, Winnipeg Jets
Age: 19 (will turn 20 in December)
Position: Center-Left Wing
Preseason Stats from CBSSports.com: 3gp, 3-0-3
Kyle Connor of the Winnipeg Jets was the No. 17 overall selection in the 2015 NHL entry draft. His one season of NCAA hockey saw him perform brilliantly for Michigan, scoring at almost two points per game.
Connor possesses the complete skill set, although his offense gets a lot of early attention. Able to play center or wing, his speed is an advantage on offense and defensively. His early success in exhibition play suggests he may hit the ground running at the beginning of the season.
It will be fascinating to see how Winnipeg deploys Connor, who could contend for the Calder Trophy if given an opportunity. He is likely to break in with fellow rookie Patrik Laine and may see less offensive opportunities because of it. Whatever his rookie season may involve, Connor is part of an outstanding young rookie crop for the Jets.
Patrik Laine, Winnipeg Jets
Position: Right Wing
Preseason Stats from CBSSports.com: 2gp, 0-0-0
Patrik Laine of the Winnipeg Jets was the No. 2 overall selection in the 2016 NHL entry draft. He built an incredible resume in 2015-16, impacting pro hockey in Finland, the World Junior Championships, the World Hockey Championships and the World Cup of Hockey. Laine spent an entire calendar year in the international hockey spotlight.
Laine has an abundance of elite-level skills, led by an exceptional shot and a power game. The Jets fell into a scorer of substantial proportions, and he appears NHL-ready despite his youth.
Winnipeg is exploding with young players who possess top-level potential at this time, so finding a spot for Laine could be a challenge. The Jets are primed for a playoff run and can afford to bring Laine along at his own pace, but that probably involves placing him in the opening-night lineup.