Ranking the Top 10 Sophomores to Watch in the 2015-16 NHL Season

Carol Schram@pool88Featured ColumnistJuly 28, 2015

Ranking the Top 10 Sophomores to Watch in the 2015-16 NHL Season

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    Once a young player transitions from junior or minor hockey into the NHL, his next challenge is proving that he has what it takes to make an impact at his sport's top level over the long term.

    That's not always an easy task. Look at 2014 Calder Trophy winner Nathan MacKinnon, who slipped from 63 points and a plus-20 in his rookie season to 38 points and a minus-20 in his sophomore year.

    Last season, we saw a fascinating mix of rookies grab their share of the spotlight—whether it was a can't-miss prospect like No. 1 overall pick Aaron Ekblad, college underdog Johnny Gaudreau or out-of-nowhere phenom Mark Stone.

    Of the 197 skaters and 25 goaltenders who were part of the rookie class of 2014-15, this list spotlights the 10 who look best positioned to make a splash next season.

    In the Honorable Mention category, keep an eye on forwards Evgeny Kuznetsov of the Washington Capitals, the Boston Bruins' David Pastrnak, Mike Hoffman of the Ottawa Senators and the Carolina Hurricanes' Victor Rask. In the goal crease, Andrew "The Hamburglar" Hammond of Ottawa, Petr Mrazek of Detroit and Michael Hutchinson of Winnipeg should keep life interesting as they challenge their starters for their jobs.

    Some of the players on this list shone the minute they stepped into an NHL locker room, while others have taken a little longer to hit their stride.

    Which super sophomores do you think will live up to their billing in 2015-16?

10. Jonathan Drouin: Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    Age to Start 2015-16: 20

    2014-15 Stats: 70 GP, 4-28-32, plus-3

    Rookie Accomplishments:

    • tied for fifth with Kevin Hayes in rookie assists (28)
    • appeared in six playoff games, including three games in Stanley Cup Final

    Outlook for 2015-16: Though he was chosen third overall in the 2013 NHL draft, offensively gifted Jonathan Drouin hasn't made an easy transition to the NHL.

    Drouin's first season with the Tampa Bay Lighting got off to a rough start when he sustained a thumb injury in preseason that kept him from making his debut until October 20. It also ended on a down note when Drouin found himself in the press box for most of the Lightning's playoff run—he dressed for just six games and failed to record a postseason point.

    In July, Drouin told Dan Rosen of NHL.com that he has "a little chip on my shoulder training this summer and going into training camp."

    Drouin's general manager, Steve Yzerman, thinks his talented winger can go nowhere but up:

    "I try not to use clichés and this probably is a cliché, but adversity builds character," Yzerman said. "He handled a really difficult situation...He'll be better next year because his attitude is I'm going to make it no matter what and I'm going to be a good player no matter what. He's got the right attitude."

    Ice time's not easy to come by on a Tampa Bay team that's loaded with young talent. Expect to see an improved Drouin in the middle of the mix next season.

9. Bo Horvat: Vancouver Canucks

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Age to Start 2015-16: 20

    2014-15 Stats: 68 GP, 13-12-25, minus-8

    Rookie Accomplishments: 

    • finished 11th in Calder Trophy voting, per NHL.com
    • tied for first place in Vancouver Canucks playoff scoring with four points

    Outlook for 2015-16: Like Drouin, trustworthy center Bo Horvat's pro debut was delayed after he suffered a shoulder injury during the 2014 preseason. Once he joined the Vancouver Canucks in November, the then-19-year-old showed enough maturity in his game to earn a full year with Vancouver, rather than being sent back to the London Knights of the OHL for one final year of junior hockey.

    After a solid performance in his first NHL playoffs, expect to see Horvat play a bigger role down the middle with the Canucks next season.

8. Jake Allen: St. Louis Blues

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    Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

    Age to Start 2015-16: 25

    2014-15 Stats: 37 GP, 22-7-4, .913 save percentage, 2.28 goals-against average, four shutouts

    Rookie Accomplishments: 

    • finished 10th in Calder Trophy voting, per NHL.com
    • named to NHL All-Rookie Team, per NHL.com; Allen was also named to the All-Rookie team in 2012-13 after playing his first 15 NHL games
    • led all rookie goaltenders in wins (22) and shutouts (4)
    • established new St. Louis Blues team record for longest shutout sequence (184:38 from October 23 to November 6)

    Outlook for 2015-16: When he started all six playoff games last season, Jake Allen took the lead in the St. Louis Blues' seemingly never-ending horse race to determine a No. 1 goaltender.

    Even though he didn't deliver the Blues to the second round, Allen signed a new two-year contract on July 3 with an average annual value of $2.35 million, per GeneralFanager.com. That's just $135,000 a year less than the salary of his partner in crime, 30-year-old Brian Elliott.

    Louie Korac of NHL.com says Allen "is expected to continue to compete with veteran Brian Elliott for the No. 1 job" next season, and Allen says he's ready.

    "Me and [Elliott], we get along great. We push each other to be the best we can be. I'm sure we're going to do it again this year and have success doing it."

7. Kevin Hayes: New York Rangers

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Age to Start 2015-16: 23

    2014-15 Stats: 79 GP, 17-28-45, plus-15

    Rookie Accomplishments: 

    • finished seventh in Calder Trophy voting, per NHL.com
    • led NHL rookies in primary assists (25)
    • tied for third among rookies in plus-minus rating, at plus-15
    • ranked fifth among rookies in points with 45 points

    Projection for 2015-16: After being lured away from the Chicago Blackhawks as an unrestricted free agent out of college, hulking winger Kevin Hayes grew his game over the course of the regular season. He scored 28 of his 45 regular-season points in 35 games after February 1 and was a plus-12 over the same stretch.

    Hayes scored a crucial overtime game-winner for the New York Rangers in Game 4 of their first-round playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins and should become a more integral part of Alain Vigneault's forward corps next season.

6. Matt Dumba: Minnesota Wild

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    Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

    Age to Start 2015-16: 19

    2014-15 Stats: 58 GP, 8-8-16, plus-13

    Rookie Accomplishments: 

    • led all rookie defensemen in plus-minus at plus-13
    • tied with Ryan McDonagh with two playoff power-play goals, the most by any defenseman

    Outlook for 2014-15: Earlier this summer, I included Matt Dumba on my list of most-improved players for 2015-16. He got better as he went along during his rookie year and peaked in the playoffs. That should lead to more ice time, especially on the power play, in his sophomore season.

5. Mark Stone: Ottawa Senators

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    Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

    Age to Start 2015-16: 23

    2014-15 Stats: 80 GP, 28-36-64, plus-21

    Rookie Accomplishments: 

    • finished second in Calder Trophy voting, per NHL.com
    • named to All-Rookie Team, per NHL.com
    • tied with Johnny Gaudreau for first place in rookie scoring
    • led all rookies in plus-minus at plus-21
    • tied with Filip Forsberg for NHL rookie lead with six game-winning goals
    • tied with Ryan O'Reilly for NHL lead with 98 takeaways

    Outlook for 2015-16: Drafted in 2010, Mark Stone enjoyed brief cups of coffee with the Ottawa Senators during two previous seasons before establishing himself as an indispensable NHL talent in 2014-15.

    Stone's second half was extraordinary as the Senators bulldozed their way to a playoff spot. He posted 36 of his 64 points in 34 games after February 1 and was a plus-12, helping the Senators erase a deficit in the playoff race that reached as much as 14 points on February 10.

    After contributing seven goals in the Senators' last six regular-season games, Stone's scoring streak was stopped in Game 1 of the playoffs against the Montreal Canadiens after he suffered a fractured wrist at the hands of P.K. Subban, per Doug Harrison of CBC.ca.

    With more than five months off the ice to recover from his injury before next season begins, all eyes will be on Stone to see if he can start his second full NHL campaign as strongly as he finished the first.

4. Teuvo Teravainen: Chicago Blackhawks

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    Age to Start 2015-16: 21

    2014-15 Stats: 34 GP, 4-5-9, plus-4

    Rookie Accomplishments: 

    • won Stanley Cup with Chicago Blackhawks
    • tied with Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith for most game-winning goals by Blackhawks in playoffs (3)

    Projection for 2015-16: Teuvo Teravainen started his 2014-15 season in the AHL with the Rockford IceHogs before being recalled by the Chicago Blackhawks in January.

    His early contributions were unspectacular, but the lightning-fast Finn with tremendous puck sense clicked on a line with Antoine Vermette and Patrick Sharp, and proved to be an important component of Chicago's Stanley Cup win.

    With both those linemates gone, expect to see Teravainen return to his natural position at center next season, according to John Dietz of the Daily Herald.

    "In my mind right now I'm thinking (he'll play) center," coach Joel Quenneville said at the Blackhawks Convention in mid-July. "We like the way he progressed last year and projects this year."

    "Every year when I go to the next level, I start (at) winger," Teravainen added in the Dietz article. "The year after, I play center. That's the way it's always been. Now I know this league better and know what I'm capable of doing in this league. So the next step is to play center I think."

    While we watch Teravainen's two-way game develop at the NHL level, keep an eye out for another potential sophomore breakout on the Blackhawks. Acquired as part of the Brandon Saad trade, right wing Marko Dano showed tremendous skill in accumulating eight goals and 21 points in 35 games with the Columbus Blue Jackets last season.

3. Filip Forsberg: Nashville Predators

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    Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

    Age to Start 2015-16: 21

    2014-15 Stats: 82 GP, 26-37-63, plus-15

    Rookie Accomplishments: 

    • finished fourth in Calder Trophy voting, per NHL.com
    • named to NHL All-Rookie Team per NHL.com
    • set Nashville Predators rookie records for goals, assists and points
    • finished first among rookies in shots on goal (237), tied for first in game-winning goals (6) and tied for third in plus-minus (plus-15)
    • played in 2015 All-Star Game as an injury replacement, per NHL.com
    • his playoff hat trick in Game 5 of Round 1 against the Chicago Blackhawks was the first in Nashville Predators history, per theScore

    Outlook for 2015-16: Cast off by the Washington Capitals in a 2013 trade-deadline deal, Filip Forsberg came of age in 2014-15 under new Nashville Predators head coach Peter Laviolette.

    Looking like a virtual lock for the Calder Trophy during the early part of the season thanks to his 35 points in 36 games before New Year's, Forsberg's season dipped—along with the rest of his team—after the All-Star Break, leading him to be left off the list of finalists for rookie of the year.

    Undaunted, one day after he was snubbed, Forsberg threw down a hat trick in an elimination game against the Chicago Blackhawks, per Robby Stanley of NHL.com. Though the Predators ultimately fell to the eventual Stanley Cup champions in six games, Forsberg led all Nashville skaters with six points in six playoff games.

    His big-game hunger now fully revealed, expect Forsberg to continue making an impact in key situations in his second full NHL season.

2. Johnny Gaudreau: Calgary Flames

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    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

    Age to Start 2015-16: 22

    2014-15 Stats: 80 GP, 24-40-64, plus-11

    Rookie Accomplishments: 

    • finished third in Calder Trophy voting, per NHL.com
    • named to NHL All-Rookie Team, per NHL.com
    • tied with Mark Stone for first place in rookie scoring
    • led all rookies in power-play goals (8) and power-play points (21), and topped rookie forwards in average time on ice (17:43)
    • led all Flames in the playoffs with nine points in 11 games
    • played in NHL All-Star Game, per NHL.com

    Outlook for 2015-16: Johnny Hockey, come on down!

    Listed at 5'9" and 150 pounds, Johnny Gaudreau was deemed by many to be too small to play in the NHL. He was both durable and dazzling in his rookie season.

    Gaudreau might have changed the most minds about his suitability for the big-league game during the playoffs. He posted three points in the Calgary Flames' first-round elimination game against the Vancouver Canucks, then another three points in five games as the Flames fell to the hefty, intimidating Anaheim Ducks.

    Evoking memories of another undersized Calgary scoring star in Theoren Fleury, Gaudreau will continue to light up highlight reels in 2015-16.

1. Aaron Ekblad: Florida Panthers

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    Age to Start 2015-16: 19

    2014-15 Stats: 81 GP, 12-27-39, plus-12

    Rookie Accomplishments: 

    • won 2015 Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, per NHL.com
    • named to NHL All-Rookie Team, per NHL.com
    • set Florida Panthers records for a rookie defenseman for goals, assists and points
    • led Panthers in plus-minus at plus-12
    • finished two points off Bobby Orr's NHL record of 41 points by an 18-year-old rookie defenseman, set in 1966-67
    • played in 2015 All-Star Game as an injury replacement for Erik Johnson, per CBS Sports
    • won gold medal as part of Team Canada at 2015 IIHF World Championship

    Outlook for 2015-16: Though defensemen notoriously take longer to reach their full potential than their teammates up front, Aaron Ekblad had no trouble making the jump directly from the Barrie Colts of the OHL straight to the Florida Panthers last season.

    Ekblad led all Panthers defensemen in scoring and plus-minus as Florida improved by 25 points in the NHL standings and challenged for a playoff spot until late in the season. A gold medal with Team Canada at the World Championship was icing on the cake for his Calder Trophy-winning year.

    With his 6'4", 216-pound body and his ever-improving hockey sense, the sky's the limit for Ekblad as he continues his NHL journey next season.

    All stats courtesy of NHL.com.

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