Rising NHL Stars: Top 25 Emerging Forwards
All throughout the NHL season I will be following the stars of tomorrow.
My criteria for these players is two years in the NHL or fewer than 160 games combined (with minor exceptions).
Many players take that next big step in year three and really come into their own. Some come sooner, some later, but the development of a star is fascinating to watch.
The rankings will be updated as the season unfolds to reflect who's living up to expectations and who is not.
25. Steve Downie
Steve Downie is a menace on the ice. He is a world-class agitator with the ability to score and make things happen.
Opposing players need to keep their heads up when he is on the ice because he is determined to rip some heads off. This bodes well for the other Lightning skill players, as Downie’s reckless style will draw more attention to him and open up ice elsewhere.
Due to his full-tilt style he is prone to taking bad penalties, but his overall game more than makes up for it. Already a fan favorite, Downie wears his emotions on his sleeve and brings loads of character to the rink. New GM Steve Yzerman has a nice handful of young players to work with, and Downie is near the top of that list.
24. Derick Brassard
Once considered a potential Calder finalist, Brassard took a major step backwards last season.
Much was expected of him after he blew out of the gates in his rookie season. A lot of Blue Jackets had down years last season, and with a new coach expectations will once again be high for this kid to step up his game.
He’s blessed with great skating and offensive instincts and could be a major leader if he can improve his focus. Brassard will need to overcome the injury concerns and play with more consistency, or Columbus will be looking elsewhere to fill their top center position.
With his superb playmaking skills and on-ice vision, there should be no reason why he won’t shoot up this list in 2010.
23. Tyler Bozak
Tyler Bozak saw his stock rise significantly in 2009, as he was counted on to play a lot for an offensively-challenged Maple Leafs team. Fortunately for Toronto, he played very well in his 37 games, registering 27 points.
More of the same will be expected of him this season, as the Leafs are still rebuilding up front. It’s uncertain if he’s a legitimate top line talent, but time will tell.
22. Zack Boychuk
Zack Boychuk, along with Jamie McBain, will lead the youth movement for the Carolina Hurricanes this season. He is a very speedy and shifty skater and is not afraid to lay out his body.
This upcoming season you can expect to see him used in all situations, especially on the power play. He could start the year on the second line and should stay there if he plays up to his potential.
21. Colin Wilson
Colin Wilson worked his way into Nashville’s roster last year and played respectably in his 35 appearances.
He’s a bull of a centerman at 6’1", 215 pounds and is naturally strong on the puck. He possesses excellent playmaking skills and has good goal-scoring potential.
Wilson plays a smart game utilizing his impressive hockey sense and should anchor the second line this coming season. The Predators traditionally draft well, and Wilson is no exception.
20. T.J. Galiardi
T.J. Galiardi was a pleasant surprise of sorts for the Avalance in his rookie season. He’s a strong skater and plays at 100 percent every game.
At 6'2", 190 pounds, he still has room to improve his strength and become a dominant two-way player. He plays with underrated hockey intelligence and passing ability and showcased his preference for big-game situations in the playoffs.
Galiardi still has untapped offensive upside and should create a lot of scoring opportunities with his creative play with the puck. His vision helps him anticipate plays, which makes him an additional asset on the penalty kill. He could find himself much higher on this list as the year unfolds.
19. Artem Anisimov
This 20-year-old Russian is looking to build on a solid rookie season for the New York Rangers.
Anisimov is a pretty good skater for his size and shows flashes of offensive brilliance at times (check out this goal). He worked hard at becoming an all-around player and did a nice job at his two-way game last year.
He is gifted with above-average hockey sense, playmaking, and on-ice vision.
All the tools are there for him to become a really good player in the NHL, but he will need to become more consistent. Many Rangers fan wish he was put on the top two lines so he could play with better wingers, but if he continues to develop on the same path, he will get that chance. Keep an eye on him, as he could surprise.
18. Logan Couture
Logan Couture finally made the jump to the pros late in the NHL season last year, and he’s never looked back. In the playoffs, he showed management why they drafted him in the first round of 2007.
A born leader, Couture will be part of a solid foundation in San Jose for many years to come.
He has a great two-way game with good offensive upside. Although he’s a better playmaker than scorer at this point in his career, he has the potential to grow in both areas. Couture is smart, defensively responsible, and would probably be centering the second line already if it wasn’t for Joe Pavelski.
17. Tyler Ennis
Tyler Ennis only played 10 games last year and six more in the playoffs with the Buffalo Sabres, but he played so well that he will easily stick in the pros this season.
Ennis is part of the new wave of smallish and speedy NHLers, as the rules are tailored to let players like him shine.
Blessed with elite hockey intelligence, Ennis is able to make something out of nothing when the puck is on his stick. His elite-level speed and quickness make him a nightmare for opposing defenders, as he has the ability to make people look silly.
With a quick shot and a fiery edge to his game, he is always a threat when he’s on the ice. He might be small, but that won’t stop him from turning a lot of heads this year.
16. T.J. Oshie
T.J. Oshie is one of the bright young stars for the St Louis Blues and will look to improve on his point totals this upcoming season.
He has excellent offensive talent—especially puck-handling, skating, and playmaking. He's not afraid to play a physical game despite his size and plays with all-out effort every game.
With a little bit more consistency, he could take his game to the next level sooner than later.
15. Michael Grabner
Michael Grabner is a talented winger that comes with a lot of promise, but it is unknown if he can put it all together yet.
Without question, he will get a significant chance to prove himself, as he was traded from the stacked forward ranks in Vancouver to the offensively-challenged Panthers during the draft.
In Florida he should see a lot of ice time on the top two lines, where he is best-suited to display his great skating and goal-scoring abilities. He has a knack for the net, and his soft hands should get him at least 20 goals in 2010 (check out his hat trick here).
If given time in open space, he will punish opposing goaltenders, and if the space isn’t there, he’ll create it with his blazing speed. Before he cracks the top 10 on this list, though, he will need to improve his consistency and defensive zone coverage. Having said that, 30-plus goals isn’t out of the question.
14. Jamie Benn
As a rookie last year, Jamie Benn hit the 20-goal mark, and he looks to secure a top-six role in Dallas this season.
He is talented in many areas of his game and is a very versatile forward. His greatest attribute is his ability to put the puck in the net with his great shot and slick moves. Benn knows how to find space and put himself in a position to score goals.
While he wasn’t horrible defensively, he could improve in this aspect of the game and utilize his great size a little bit more. He can also play center, but due to his subpar face-off and passing skills, he is better suited to the wing. Nevertheless, he will be fun to watch as he continues to develop this season.
13. Niclas Bergfors
This young Swede was traded to Atlanta as part of the Ilya Kovalchuk trade last March. In retrospect, the Thrashers got an excellent young player who will be an important piece of their rebuilding plan.
New Jersey brought him along slowly, as he played almost four full seasons in the minors before his jump to the NHL.
He’s a slick player with great hockey intelligence and is strong at both ends of the ice. At times he is reluctant to get his nose dirty, but he is savvy enough to pick his spots.
12. Mikael Backlund
As Calgary’s best prospect, Mikael Backlund made his NHL debut last year and did not disappoint. This 2007 first round pick is expected to produce goals for an offensively-starved Flames squad in 2010.
His impeccable hockey sense and playmaking ability should provide the kind of spark this team needs. He is not a liability in his own end and has speed to burn.
Fans around the league will notice his elite passing ability and powerful shot almost every time he is on the ice. Like most young players he will need to add pounds to his frame and improve his consistency, but that will come with time. Backlund is one of the few bright spots on an otherwise uninspiring club.
11. Chris Stewart
Just missing the top 10 is Colorado’s Chris Stewart. This prototypical power forward is a key component of the Avalanche youth movement and broke out with 28 goals in 2009.
He has great size and strength, which helps open up a lot of space for his linemates.
For a player his size, he has great hands to go along with his top-notch work ethic. He’s an underrated passer and a very strong skater. He is the perfect complement for players such as Matt Duchene or Paul Stastny.
He should become part of the 30-goal club this season and might even hit 40 if some things go his way.
10. James Van Riemsdyk
In the Stanley Cup Final, JVR played opposite of Patrick Kane. Kane was the only player taken higher than JVR in the 2007 draft, but that is where their paths diverged. JVR stayed in university hockey for a couple years before he finally made the big jump to the big leagues last season.
The Flyers have been patient with him, and the only thing holding him back from more scoring opportunities was the great depth ahead of him. His upside is unlimited, and he has been working hard to gain strength in the offseason to better handle the rigors of a long, grinding NHL season.
His big frame is complemented nicely with good speed and impressive skill with the puck. Look for him to make big strides if he can secure a top-six winger spot.
9. Evander Kane
Evander Kane is one of the young, exciting power forwards of the NHL. After an up and down rookie season, Kane played well down the stretch and in the world championships.
He has a great combination of skating ability and grit. He can accelerate on a dime with an even faster shot release that makes him a threat anywhere on the ice.
Once he improves his strength, this kid will be tough to contain. Atlanta is stacking its lineup with youth, and Kane is the shining star. Expect a big surge in production in 2010.
8. James Neal
James Neal is leading the next wave of big young forwards in the NHL. At 6'3", 205 pounds, he can hold his own in the physical department. He could still play with more aggression, but that part of his game should come with time.
Blessed with an amazing shot, he knows how to put the puck in the back of the net. There is not much he can’t do on the ice. Neal can shoot, score, pass, and play a two-way game.
He will be a great team leader for the Stars for years to come, as he has natural leadership ability. Opposing teams would be wise not to try to knock him off his game either, because Neal isn’t afraid to drop the gloves. Dallas struck gold with this second round pick.
7. Peter Regin
Coming out of nowhere in 2009 was Ottawa’s Peter Regin. He didn’t turn many heads for most of the season, but when it mattered most, this kid picked up his game to an elite level.
Regin carried this momentum into the playoffs and World Championships, where he was one of the best players on the ice on either team.
Touted as a playmaking center, Regin showed his ability to score as well (check out his sweet World Championships goal). He sees the ice incredibly well, and his soft hands make him the perfect center for sniping wingers.
Once he builds his strength a little more, this sophomore will be tough to stop. Look for him to make a serious splash in 2010.
6. Nikita Filatov
Nikita Filatov was perhaps one of the most anticipated rookies to see the ice last year, only to see his season cut short after 13 games. Many have made a big deal about his icy relationship with ex-head coach Ken Hitchcock, but in the end he will be better off for it.
While playing in the KHL, he gave more attention to his defensive game and has put on 10 pounds.
Coming back to Columbus as a more complete package, Filatov could very well be a Calder Trophy finalist in 2010. His explosive offensive talent should be on full display with the chance for top-six minutes. This is one exciting prospect.
5. Jakub Voracek
This highly skilled scoring winger is a key cog of the Blue Jackets' youth movement. He is an explosive skater with unlimited offensive creativity.
He also knows how to take care of his defensive responsibilities, which makes him a highly valuable two-way player. Columbus is hoping Brassard can live up to expectations to give Voracek a first-line centerman.
Voracek’s vision makes him a high-end playmaker, and his scoring touch should improve with time. Much like Filatov, he will benefit from Hitchcock’s firing. Look for him to play an essential offensive role for Columbus in 2010.
4. Claude Giroux
Debuting on the list at the fourth spot is Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux. This 22-year-old really broke out in the playoffs last year, as he was a key contributor in the march to the finals. He is supremely gifted offensively with great moves, scoring touch, and playmaking abilities.
A gritty player despite his size, Giroux is willing to get dirty to win a battle or make a play. The only thing holding his development back is the Flyers' depth at forward, but he will not need to wait long before he becomes a dynamic first-line winger in this league.
3. John Tavares
Coming in at the No. 3 spot is the No. 1 overall draft pick of the New York Islanders.
His rookie season was one of long streaks: good, then bad, and then good again. He topped his season off by playing very well in the World Championships in Germany.
Blessed with amazing hand-eye coordination and high hockey intelligence, Tavares is often in the right place at the right time. Expectations are sky-high for this youngster, and it’s unknown whether he will be able to live up to them or not because the biggest flaw to his game is his skating.
The other aspect he needs to work on is his defense, but he’s already made strides in this area.
Tavares also has an underrated grit and toughness to his game that should become more of his arsenal as he gets stronger. All eyes will be watching closely to see how he develops in his sophomore season.
2. Matt Duchene
This rookie of the year candidate manages to land in the runner-up spot despite being drafted behind John Tavares. It won’t be long until scouts re-evaluate that decision, and many already believe he has the higher upside.
One of the things that sets Duchene apart is his speed and skating ability. He is dangerous in any situation on the ice. He loves the game, and it shows with his fiery play.
He is getting comparisons with Steve Yzerman and Joe Sakic, but in time people will be comparing young players to him. His unique combination of offensive ability and defensive awareness makes him one of the best all-around rookies to hit the NHL in some time.
He loves to play in the clutch and isn’t afraid to make highlight-reel goals when the game is on the line (check out his shootout goal vs. the Canucks or his goal in the World Championships). It is not often you get a franchise player at No. 3 overall, but that’s what the Avalanche got in June of 2009.
1. Steven Stamkos
Easily the fastest-rising NHL star in the game today is lightning bolt Steven Stamkos. In only his second season, he is tying the likes of Sidney Crosby for the Rocket Richard Trophy and has put his name on the map to stay.
It is scary to think what this 20-year-old can do with some more experience in the league. He has top-level talent in most important areas: skating, shot release, playmaking, defensive responsibility, stickhandling, etc.
New GM Steve Yzerman is fortunate to have a franchise forward like him and will lead the way in the Tampa Bay rebuilding phase.
Some of the few things he needs to work on are his strength and face-off skills. Other than that, he is clearly among the top new faces of the NHL.