Rising NHL Stars Most Likely to Develop into Franchise Cornerstones
In hockey, franchise cornerstones can come in different shapes and sizes. Skilled scorers, big-minute defensemen, rock-solid goaltenders and born leaders can all evolve into the types of players who ignite crowds, sell merchandise and become captain material someday.
Franchise cornerstones aren't always high draft picks, either. Think of players like Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom, a six-year captain and three-time Stanley Cup winner who was drafted in the third round in 1989, or 13-year captain Daniel Alfredsson of the Ottawa Senators, who was chosen in the sixth round in 1994.
Mark Giordano was an undrafted defenseman who has played his best hockey since being named captain of the Calgary Flames at the beginning of the 2013-14 season.
Who will be the next generation of players to make themselves unforgettable to fans of their franchises? I've defined "rising stars" as players whose NHL careers to date have been played on their entry-level contracts.
We've seen a significant sample of what they can do at the big league level but, for the most part, they're not yet established as top-line stars.
Here are the top 10 young guns who will leave a lasting impression on their teams and their fanbases. What other players from this group do you think might make a mark going forward?
All stats are from NHL.com.
10. Seth Jones, Nashville Predators
Age: 20 (turns 21 on October 3)
NHL Stats to Date: 2 seasons, 159 GP, 14-38-52, minus-20
Why He'll Be a Cornerstone: Because Shea Weber's now 30 years old.
Weber has been pretty durable through his career, but he went into the 2015 playoffs at less than 100 percent due to a nagging lower-body injury and was knocked out of action during the second game of the playoffs with a knee injury.
Weber has a whopping 11 seasons left on the mammoth 14-year back-diving contract he signed with the Philadelphia Flyers as a restricted free agent during the summer of 2012, per General Fanager, which the Nashville Predators matched.
As his minutes diminish and he misses more time due to injury, expect to see Jones pick up more and more of Weber's duties.
Jones is an outstanding athlete who took a big step forward as a responsible NHL defenseman in his second season with Nashville in 2014-15. The Preds have the luxury of bringing him along slowly and gradually transitioning him into Weber's role as their captain enters the twilight of his career.
9. Hampus Lindholm, Anaheim Ducks
NHL Stats to Date: 2 seasons, 156 GP, 13-51-64, plus-54
Why He'll Be a Cornerstone: With Erik Karlsson already a two-time Norris Trophy winner and captain of the Ottawa Senators at age 25 and Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning staking his claim as the next great Swedish defenseman at age 24, Hampus Lindholm of the Anaheim Ducks is set to follow in their footsteps.
The 6'3", 205-pound blueliner stepped straight into the NHL after being drafted sixth overall in 2013 and has already logged two solid seasons—and two playoff runs—with one of the best teams in the league.
Lindholm finished the 2014-15 regular season and playoffs ranked second on the Ducks in ice time, behind veteran Francois Beauchemin but ahead of both offensive star Sami Vatanen and another stellar young gun, 23-year-old Cam Fowler.
Impressive both offensively and defensively, Lindholm will be seen as a more and more valuable piece of the Anaheim blue line in the years to come.
8. Cam Talbot, Edmonton Oilers
NHL Stats to Date: 2 seasons, 57 GP, 33-15-5, 5 shutouts, .931 save percentage, 2.00 goals-against average
Why He'll Be a Cornerstone: Though Cam Talbot's already 28 years old, he has played just two seasons at the NHL level after coming up through college hockey in Huntsville, Alabama, of all unlikely places.
Since joining the New York Rangers as their backup in 2013-14, Talbot has proven to be the most impressive goaltender so far from a crop of late bloomers that has also included standouts Martin Jones, Michael Hutchinson, Andrew Hammond and Scott Darling.
With an impressive but limited NHL resume so far, Talbot will have his work cut out for him in Edmonton, attempting to stabilize a goal crease that has made mincemeat out of Ben Scrivens, Viktor Fasth, Ilya Bryzgalov and Devan Dubnyk, among others, over the past two seasons.
If Talbot can help right the ship in Oil Country, expect him to receive a big contract extension that will make him one of Edmonton's core players in the team's latest rebuild.
7. Brendan Gallagher, Montreal Canadiens
NHL Stats to Date: 3 seasons, 207 GP, 58-58-116, plus-32
Why He'll Be a Cornerstone: Despite being a fifth-round draft choice in 2010, undersized forward Brendan Gallagher has proven to be a scrappy competitor who's not afraid to go into the dirty areas—and who has endeared himself to the Montreal Canadiens fanbase.
Listed at 5'9", Gallagher's not as small as 5'6" Theoren Fleury or 5'8" Martin St. Louis, but he matches their determination while playing a responsible two-way style.
Along with 26-year-old P.K. Subban and Max Pacioretty and, of course, 28-year-old Carey Price, the Canadiens have a terrific core of young talent to build their team around.
6. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche
NHL Stats to Date: 2 seasons, 146 GP, 38-63-101, plus-13
Why He'll Be a Cornerstone: Chosen first overall in 2013, Nathan MacKinnon's first NHL season featured 24 goals, solid two-way play, a trip to the playoffs with the Colorado Avalanche and a Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.
MacKinnon slumped last season and missed the last 18 games of the regular season with a fractured foot, but he recovered in time to post nine points in 10 games in Team Canada's gold medal-winning effort at the 2015 World Championships.
The pair worked together at Crosby's hockey school, served up double doubles at a Tim Horton's coffee shop and donated their winnings from the World Championships to the Cole Harbour Hockey Association.
Adding those lessons in leadership to MacKinnon's already-excellent skill set, he's putting the pieces together to become an NHL leader and franchise cornerstone himself before too long.
5. Brandon Saad, Columbus Blue Jackets
NHL Stats to Date: 4 seasons, 208 GP, 52-74-126, plus-44
Why He'll Be a Cornerstone: Though Brandon Saad appeared in two regular-season and two playoff games with the Chicago Blackhawks after his junior hockey season ended in 2011-12, I'm including him in this slideshow because his three-year entry-level contract just concluded at the end of the 2014-15 season.
Saad's need for a new contract was the catalyst for the Blackhawks' trade of their restricted free agent before he was signed to a predatory offer sheet by another team.
His introduction to the NHL may have been charmed, with Stanley Cup wins in 2013 and 2015, but Saad is also entering a good situation with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Thanks to his new six-year contract with a cap hit of $6 million a season, Saad is the second highest paid player on the Jackets—behind ace goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and just ahead of Brandon Dubinsky and captain Nick Foligno, according to General Fanager.
Once they got through all their injury issues last season, the Blue Jackets lit up the last stretch of the regular season, going 15-1-1 over their final month. Columbus is riding plenty of positive momentum into 2015-16.
Saad is a proven winner who's walking into a high-profile role on a young team. If the Jackets climb back into the playoff picture as expected, he'll quickly cement his position as a franchise cornerstone in Columbus.
4. Ondrej Palat, Tampa Bay Lightning
NHL Stats to Date: 3 seasons, 170 GP, 41-85-126, plus-68
Why He'll Be a Cornerstone: Tyler Johnson has gotten the lion's share of the attention on Jon Cooper's "Triplets" line with the Tampa Bay Lightning, but Ondrej Palat looks like he's more likely to develop into a true franchise cornerstone.
While Johnson has great offensive instincts, Palat is the defensive conscience of one of the most interesting lines in hockey but doesn't compromise his ability to put up points.
Palat and Johnson are currently both on identical contracts that will make them restricted free agents after the 2016-17 season, with cap hits of $3.33 million each according to General Fanager.
They're both good players and are linked to each other almost as tightly as the Sedin twins, but Palat's impressive skill set should give him more bargaining power when the next set of negotiations rolls around.
3. Sean Monahan, Calgary Flames
Age: 20 (turns 21 on Oct. 12)
NHL Stats to Date: 2 seasons, 156 GP, 53-43-96, minus-12
Why He'll Be a Cornerstone: Drafted sixth overall in 2014, Sean Monahan jumped straight into the NHL with 22 goals in his rookie season, then he followed up with a 31-goal sophomore campaign as the anchor of the Calgary Flames' first line between Jiri Hudler and Johnny Gaudreau.
Monahan showed impressive two-way responsibility for his age as the Calgary Flames surprised with a 20-point improvement in the standings and a trip to the second round of the playoffs in 2014-15.
Calgary captain Mark Giordano has one year left on his current deal and signed a six-year contract extension on Aug. 25, according to General Fanager.
It's a long way to project forward, but if the situation stays relatively static in Calgary and Giordano plays out that entire contract with the Flames, a 28-year-old Monahan should be ready to take over the "C" to start the 2022-23 season.
2. Aaron Ekblad, Florida Panthers
NHL Stats to Date: 1 season, 81 GP, 12-27-39, plus-12
Why He'll Be a Cornerstone: He's still a teenager, but Aaron Ekblad looks, sounds and plays like a seasoned veteran—defying the traditional belief that defensemen need time to mature before they can be effective in the NHL.
Despite an offseason concussion that limited his training heading into his debut season, Ekblad made the Florida Panthers out of training camp.
Appearing in 81 games, he obliterated the Panthers' rookie defenseman scoring records previously held by Ed Jovanovski, finished second on the team in ice time behind Brian Campbell and captured the 2015 Calder Trophy as the NHL's best first-year player.
For an encore at season's end, Ekblad traveled to the Czech Republic to help anchor Team Canada to a gold medal at the 2015 World Championships.
If Ekblad can avoid a sophomore slump, his play should help push the Panthers back into playoff contention in the Eastern Conference next season.
1. Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues
NHL Stats to Date: 3 seasons, 179 GP, 66-69-135, plus-48
Why He'll Be a Cornerstone: A Russian sniper whose one-on-one moves bring back memories of Pavel Bure, Vladimir Tarasenko was anointed as a cornerstone of the deep St. Louis Blues roster when he was signed to a new eight-year, $60 million contract on July 7, according to General Fanager.
Tarasenko's $7.5 million cap hit makes him the Blues' highest-paid player next season, ahead of Paul Stastny, Alex Pietrangelo and Alexander Steen.
After finishing in a four-way tie for fifth place in the 2014-15 scoring race with 37 goals, the next step for Tarasenko is to set his sights on the lofty production of his countryman and five-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner Alex Ovechkin.