7 Young NHL Players on the Verge of Becoming Stars Next Season
Every NHL season sees at least one promising young player blossom into a full-fledged star.
Carolina Hurricanes center Sebastian Aho and Vancouver Canucks center Elias Pettersson are two recent examples, quickly evolving into the top stars on their respective clubs. Boston Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy and Hurricanes winger Andrei Svechnikov could soon join their ranks.
Several factors will determine their development. Some have already shown potential while playing big-game minutes. Others will be expected to move up and take over bigger roles.
Here's a look at seven young players who are poised to become NHL stars in 2020-21.
Anthony Cirelli, Tampa Bay Lightning
Last season proved to be significant in the short but promising NHL career of Anthony Cirelli.
The center finished fourth among the voters for the Frank J. Selke Trophy that honors the NHL's top defensive forward. He picked up 13 first-place votes, two more than St. Louis Blues center (and 2019 Selke winner) Ryan O'Reilly, who finished third.
That was quite a leap forward for the 23-year-old during his second full campaign. He saw more playing time last season in all situations for the Lightning. That was also reflected in his offensive production, going from a respectable 39 points in 82 games as a rookie in 2018-19 to 44 points in 68 games last season.
Cirelli tied with Brayden Point for the Lightning lead in plus/minus with plus-28. He also led all their forwards in short-handed ice time (2:49) per game last season and was fourth among Bolts skaters in overtime ice time per game (1:11). That reflects the confidence head coach Jon Cooper has in his abilities during crucial situations.
Cirelli was a key component in the Lightning's march to the 2020 Stanley Cup. He will continue to improve and should remain a legitimate Selke Trophy candidate for the foreseeable future.
Rasmus Dahlin, Buffalo Sabres
The first overall pick in the 2018 draft, Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin was projected to become a star. Entering his third NHL season, the 20-year-old may be ready to assume that mantle.
With 44 points in 82 games in 2018-19, Dahlin became a finalist for the Calder Memorial Trophy given to the top rookie. He struggled early last season to adjust under new coach Ralph Krueger, and he also missed eight games to a concussion last fall and two with an upper-body injury in February. Nevertheless, Dahlin netted 40 points in 59 games to finish fourth among Sabres scorers.
The 6'3", 193-pound Swede remains a highly skilled all-around defenseman. With an added measure of maturity and two years of NHL action under his belt, he should be even better in 2020-21. He'll also benefit offensively from the club's offseason additions of forwards Taylor Hall and Eric Staal.
Dahlin's defensive game still needs some improvement, but he's learning under Krueger's coaching. A big season on his part could help propel the Sabres into playoff contention and put him among the league's top blueliners.
Adam Fox, New York Rangers
New York Rangers defenseman Adam Fox was overshadowed by the Colorado Avalanche's Cale Makar and Vancouver Canucks' Quinn Hughes among last season's rookie blueliners. Nevertheless, his performance was impressive.
With eight goals and 34 assists for 42 points, the 22-year-old Fox was third among rookie defensemen in points and fifth among all rookies. He also led all freshmen with a plus/minus of plus-22, tied with four others for first in game-winning goals (four), finished third in assists and was fifth in power-play points (13) even though he wasn't part of the Rangers' first power-play unit.
Fox proved himself as a mobile playmaking blueliner. He could end up challenging veteran Jacob Trouba for the first-pairing right-side position on the Rangers' defense corps.
Expectations will be higher for Fox in his sophomore season. If he handles the spotlight well and gains more confidence, big things could be in store for him in 2020-21.
Charlie McAvoy, Boston Bruins
A skilled two-way defenseman, Charlie McAvoy has steadily developed over the past three seasons into a valuable member of the Boston Bruins' blue line. Next season could propel him among the upper ranks of NHL rearguards. On Nov. 2, NBC Sports Boston's Nick Goss reported the NHL Network ranked McAvoy ninth on its list of the league's top 20 defensemen.
Selected 14th overall by the Bruins in the 2016 draft, McAvoy has three consecutive seasons with 28 or more points and a career plus/minus of plus-58. The 22-year-old finished last season with a team-leading time on ice per game of 23:10. He spent much of that time paired with longtime Bruins captain Zdeno Chara.
The departure of puck-moving Torey Krug to St. Louis and uncertainty over Chara's future with the Bruins will see McAvoy take on great blue-line responsibilities in 2020-21. He'll be logging more minutes, especially with the man advantage as he'll likely move onto the top power-play unit.
McAvoy is facing the most challenging campaign of his young NHL career. With three seasons under his belt, he has the experience and the all-around skills to handle the added responsibilities. 2020-21 could be the season he joins the long line of Bruins' stud defensemen.
Travis Konecny, Philadelphia Flyers
After showing promise during this first three NHL seasons, Travis Konecny enjoyed a breakout performance in 2020-21 for the Philadelphia Flyers. It could signal the 23-year-old winger is ready to move up among the NHL's top scorers.
Konecny tallied 24 goals for the third straight season but reached 61 points in 68 games for the first time following two seasons with 47 or more points. Had the regular season not been derailed by COVID-19, those totals would've been much higher. Nevertheless, he emerged as the Flyers' leading scorer and top power-play point producer.
In his season preview of Konecny on Nov. 6, The Athletic's Charlie O'Connor praised his improved offense and commended the winger on his two-way play. O'Connor acknowledged the decline in Konecny's production during the 2020 playoffs, attributing it in part to the unusual format of this year's playoffs and the long layoff beforehand.
Konecny has the skills to be an NHL scoring star and the ability to adjust and improve in the postseason. He could overtake 31-year-old Jakub Voracek on the Flyers' top line on a permanent basis. Given his development last season, he could become a regular 80-plus-point producer.
Andrei Svechnikov, Carolina Hurricanes
Selected second overall by the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2018 draft, Andrei Svechnikov displayed considerable potential as a scoring star with the Ontario Hockey League's Barrie Colts in 2017-18. The winger wasted little time carrying over those skills into the NHL.
Making his NHL debut in 2018-19 at age 18, Svechnikov finished fourth among the Hurricanes with 20 goals and sixth with 37 points in 82 games. He was also third among rookie scorers in goals and seventh in points.
Svechnikov made significant strides during his sophomore season. Skating primarily alongside center Sebastian Aho, he netted 24 goals and 37 assists for 61 points in 68 games to finish third among Carolina scorers. He was just as proficient in the 2020 playoffs, netting four goals and seven points in six games until sidelined by a leg injury.
Entering his third NHL season, the 20-year-old is primed to join the ranks of the NHL's young star forwards. With his offensive skills and his physical style, he'll continue to thrive on the Hurricanes' top line alongside Aho and winger Teuvo Teravainen.
Brady Tkachuk, Ottawa Senators
The rebuilding Ottawa Senators haven't had many bright spots over the past two seasons. Left wing Brady Tkachuk is one of them. Selected fourth overall in the 2018 draft, the son of former NHL power forward Keith Tkachuk is a chip off the old block.
Tkachuk made a solid debut with the Senators in 2018-19, finishing second among his teammates with 174 hits, third with 22 goals and fifth with 45 points. The 6'4", 212-pounder had a more impressive sophomore campaign, leading his club in points (44), shots (259), penalty minutes (106) and hits (303) in 68 games. Those stats would've been higher if not for COVID-19 terminating the regular season.
The 21-year-old should see a considerable improvement in his third NHL campaign. He's become the Senators' full-time first-line left wing and will take on more responsibilities with the young club. He'll be logging big-game minutes as his coaches increasingly rely on him for production, grit and leadership.
Tkachuk's offensive skills, underrated two-way play and aggressive physical style make him the Senators' top forward. He'll only get better as he and his teammates improve. With more depth on their roster for 2020-21, Tkachuk should take a big step toward superstardom.