25 Under 25: Ranking the Best Young Players in the NHL

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistMay 9, 2021

25 Under 25: Ranking the Best Young Players in the NHL

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    A quick look at this season's NHL stats reveals a number of players under the age of 25 sit among the league's top stars.

    Several, such as Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid and Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews, established themselves as superstars early in their respective careers. Others, such as New York Rangers defenseman Adam Fox and Colorado Avalanche blueliner Cale Makar, have emerged among the league's best within a short period of time.

    These young stars perform crucial roles with their clubs. Some, of course, have much larger responsibilities and value than others. Some are franchise players, some are rising stars and others are indispensable core pieces.

    Here's our ranking of the 25 best under-25 NHL players. Their value to their respective clubs and their overall performance factored into this compilation. We've excluded this year's rookie class, as they have only a small sample size compared to those on this list. Players must be under 25 as of May 10, 2021.

Nos. 25 to 21: Laine, Fiala, Necas, M. Tkachuk, Boeser

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    25. Patrik Laine, Columbus Blue Jackets

    Traded from the Winnipeg Jets to the Columbus Blue Jackets in January, Patrick Laine's endured the worst performance of his five-year NHL career. In 44 games with the Jackets, the 23-year-old winger managed 10 goals and 19 points. That's a far cry from the 30-plus goals in each of his first three seasons and the 30 he would have had last season had the COVID-19 pandemic not derailed the regular season.

    Laine's 44-goal sophomore campaign in 2017-18 showed what he's capable of. The 6'5", 210-pounder is a natural goal scorer with blazing speed but needs a good setup man. That's something he's lacking with the offensively anemic Blue Jackets. He must also develop his overall game to shake the label of being a one-dimensional player.


    24. Kevin Fiala, Minnesota Wild

    Acquired from the Nashville Predators at the 2019 NHL trade deadline, Kevin Fiala has fit in well with the Minnesota Wild. The 24-year-old's offensive skills have contributed to the Wild's rise this season among the NHL's best teams.

    A talented winger with game-breaking scoring skills, Fiala had 23 goals and 54 points in his first full season with the Wild. Consistency was an issue at times this season, but he's second in team scoring with 20 goals and 39 points and their leader with five game-winning goals.


    23. Martin Necas, Carolina Hurricanes

    Overshadowed by talented teammates Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov, Martin Necas served notice this season there's another skilled young forward on the Carolina Hurricanes. Following last season's promising 36-point performance, the 22-year-old sophomore has 41 points in 51 games and sits among their leading scorers.

    Blessed with speed and terrific playmaking abilities, the versatile Necas' ability to play center or on the wing gives the Hurricanes some flexibility among their top-two forward lines. He's settled in well on their second line alongside center Vincent Trocheck and winger Nino Niederreiter.


    22. Matthew Tkachuk, Calgary Flames

    This season was a disappointing one for the Calgary Flames, including Matthew Tkachuk. The 23-year-old winger was expected to take on more of a leadership role after tallying 77 points in 2018-19 and 61 points in 69 games last season. Instead, he's managed 34 points in 51 games as the Flames will miss the 2021 postseason.

    This year's effort, however, could be an aberration. When Tkachuk's on his game, the 6'2", 202-pounder is an aggressive scoring forward who drives opponents to distraction with his feisty physical style. While his stock may have tumbled a bit this season, he has the skills to stage a bounce-back performance in 2021-22.


    21. Brock Boeser, Vancouver Canucks

    Brock Boeser's performance was among the few bright spots in a miserable season for the Vancouver Canucks. After being waylaid by injuries through his first three NHL seasons, the 24-year-old right winger hasn't missed a game. He was also among the few Canucks who didn't end up on the COVID-19 protocol list in April.

    A talented scoring winger, Boeser is the Canucks scoring leader this season with 20 goals and 41 points in 48 games. Since 2017-18, he's their leader in total offense with 91 goals and 197 points. With good health going forward, he has the skills to reach between 70-80 points per season.

Nos. 20-16: DeBrincat, Sergachev, Svechnikov, B. Tkachuk, Hughes

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    20. Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks

    Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews remain the biggest stars on the Chicago Blackhawks. Alex DeBrincat, however, is garnering attention as a rising young scorer. While Kane is their leading scorer with 64 points in 54 games, the 23-year-old DeBrincat sits second with 52 points in 50 contests.

    Despite his diminutive stature, the 5'7", 165-pound DeBrincat has proved himself as a top-line forward. He can play all three forward positions and uses his quickness and creativity to generate quality scoring chances. Since 2017-18, he's second among Blackhawks scorers in total offense with 116 goals and 225 points and third in game-winning goals with 14.


    19. Mikhail Sergachev, Tampa Bay Lightning

    Mikhail Sergachev plays in the shadow of superstar defenseman Victor Hedman, but the 22-year-old continues to develop into a terrific all-around blueliner. He has 30 points in 54 games this season, sits third among Tampa Bay Lightning skaters in ice time per game (21:52) and tied for second with Hedman in blocked shots with 73.

    On any other club, Sergachev would be the regular left-side defenseman on the top pairing. Hedman and veteran Ryan McDonagh are ahead of him on the depth chart, but his constant improvement should see him challenge for more minutes in the near future.


    18. Andrei Svechnikov, Carolina Hurricanes

    Selected second overall by the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2018 NHL draft, Andrei Svechnikov made his debut that fall, going on to tally a respectable 20 goals and 37 points in 82 games. It was a promising sign of what was to come for the 6'2", 195-pound left winger.

    Svechnikov is among the reasons the Hurricanes rose to become a Stanley Cup contender. An excellent scoring winger, the 21-year-old's size and imaginative offensive skills make him a crucial part of the Hurricanes attack. He's second among their scorers in total goals over the past three seasons (59) and third in total points with 140.


    17. Brady Tkachuk, Ottawa Senators

    Older brother Matthew has garnered the most attention of the Tkachuk brothers since Brady joined the league with the rebuilding Ottawa Senators in 2018-19. While Matthew and his Calgary Flames have struggled this season, Brady is getting his share of the spotlight for his strong play and has the look of a future captain.

    Brady, 21, has emerged as a physical scoring force with the Senators. Since 2018-19, he's their leader in total goals (60), even-strength goals (49) and game-winners with nine. The 6'4", 212-pounder doesn't shy away from physical play, leading the Sens with 712 total hits.  


    16. Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks

    A talented puck-moving defenseman, Quinn Hughes of the Vancouver Canucks was runner-up for the Calder Memorial Trophy last season. He led all rookies with 45 assists and 53 points in 68 games and tied for third with Bo Horvat among Canucks scorers. The 21-year-old's mobility and offensive skills make him an invaluable scoring threat from the blue line.

    Hughes is experiencing some growing pains this season, sitting with a team-worst plus-minus of minus-24. However, that can be attributed to the Canucks' overall poor defensive game. His offensive game remains sound, with 35 points in 48 games while logging a team-leading 23:03 of ice time per game. He will improve and remain an important part of the Canucks future.

Nos. 15-11: Werenski, Connor, McAvoy, Barzal, Heiskanen

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    15. Zach Werenski, Columbus Blue Jackets

    Since his NHL debut five seasons ago, Zach Werenski has proved himself among the NHL's best offensive defensemen. The 23-year-old exceeded 40 points three times, forming a formidable blue-line tandem with Seth Jones for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

    Injuries limited Werenski to just 35 games this season, contributing to the Blue Jackets slide down the standings. Nevertheless, he finished with 20 points while his 24:22 of ice time per game still ranks second among Jackets' skaters. He'll remain a crucial part of their lineup as they attempt to rebound next season from a poor 2020-21 campaign.


    14. Kyle Connor, Winnipeg Jets

    Kyle Connor made a splash in his first full season with the Winnipeg Jets by tallying 31 goals and 57 points in 2017-18. A swift-skating left wing with solid offensive skills, he played his way on to the top line the following season alongside center Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler.

    An important part of the Jets core, Connor's been a model of consistency through most of his tenure in Winnipeg. Since 2017-18, the 24-year-old left winger is their leader with 125 goals, 86 even-strength tallies and 22 game-winners.


    13. Charlie McAvoy, Boston Bruins

    Charlie McAvoy took over as the Boston Bruins' top defenseman following the offseason departures of veterans Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug. After three years of development, the 23-year-old emerged as a solid two-way blueliner.

    McAvoy is the leading scoring among Bruins defensemen with 28 points. He's also the club leader in ice time per game (24:00) and blocked shots (76). He's likely to garner consideration for the James Norris Memorial Trophy in the coming years as he thrives in his role.


    12. Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders

    Winner of the Calder Memorial Trophy in 2017-18, Mathew Barzal had big skates to fill entering his sophomore season, replacing departed franchise star John Tavares on the New York Islanders top line. He proved up to the challenge. Since 2018-19, the 23-year-old center has led the Islanders in scoring each season, amassing a total of 111 assists and 163 points.

    Barzal's quickness and superior playmaking abilities make him a first-rate offensive forward. He's played a big role in the Islanders' rise into a perennial playoff contender. He leads all forwards on his club in ice time per game (18:45). He also leads the club in power-play ice time (2:35) and takeaways with 26.


    11. Miro Heiskanen, Dallas Stars

    The Dallas Stars have something special in Miro Heiskanen. The 21-year-old defenseman plays with the maturity of a seasoned veteran, establishing himself as their top all-around blueliner. He led the Stars and all playoff defensemen with 26 points in 27 games to finish third among all postseason scorers during his club's run to the 2020 Stanley Cup Final.

    A skilled, swift-skating defenseman, Heiskanen is among the league leaders in ice time per game (24:58). His overall game suffered a bit this season, but that's to be expected given the difficulties the injury-ravaged Stars have faced. His youth and impressive skills ensure he'll remain among the league's top defensemen for a long time.

Nos. 10-6: Rantanen, Pettersson, Makar, Eichel, Fox

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    10. Mikko Rantanen, Colorado Avalanche

    It didn't take Mikko Rantanen long to become one of the Colorado Avalanche's top offensive stars following his NHL debut in 2016-17. Skating on the first line with superstar Nathan MacKinnon and captain Gabriel Landeskog, he reached or exceeded 84 points in 2017-18 and 2018-19. With 60 points in 48 games, the 23-year-old winger sits second this season among the Avalanche's leading scorers.

    Rantanen is a skilled goal-scorer and an exceptional playmaker with solid offensive instincts. The 6'4", 215-pounder skates well and can play all three forward positions. He's second among Colorado scorers since 2016-17 with 129 goals and 310 points, becoming an invaluable part of the Avs lineup.


    9. Elias Pettersson, Vancouver Canucks

    Sidelined since March 2 with an upper-body injury, it's been a difficult season for Elias Pettersson. The most crucial piece of the Vancouver Canucks attack, they have missed the 22-year-old center's contributions over the second half of this season.

    Despite this setback, Petterson remains among the NHL's most talented young players. Slender at 6'2" and 176 pounds, Pettersson is a gifted offensive star. Winner of the Calder Memorial Trophy in 2018-19, he leads the Canucks in totals points (153) over the past three seasons and is among their leaders in most offensive categories.


    8. Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche

    Cale Makar made the leap directly from the University of Massachusetts Amherst to the Colorado Avalanche during the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs. He followed that up by winning the Calder Memorial Trophy in 2019-20. Despite missing 12 games to upper-body injuries, the 22-year-old is fourth among the Avalanche's leading scorers with 41 points in 40 games and ninth among NHL defensemen.

    At 5'11" and 187 pounds, Makar isn't a physical force, but it's what he does with the puck that ranks him among the league's best. A superb skater with outstanding offensive skills, he's one of the best puck-moving defensemen in the league. Makar provides the Avalanche with a strong offensive presence on the blue line, especially on the power-play where he logs a team-leading 4:21 of ice time per game.


    7. Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres

    The Buffalo Sabres have been a mess throughout Jack Eichel's six NHL seasons, but he's not to blame for the woeful state of his club. Despite suffering a season-ending neck injury, the 24-year-old center's steady improvement over the course of his career speaks volumes to his exceptional talent.

    Since his debut in 2015-16, Eichel's led the Sabres with 139 goals, 216 assists and 355 points with a 0.95 points per game average and 25 game-winning goals. Those are impressive numbers considering the absence of a decent supporting cast throughout his career in Buffalo.


    6. Adam Fox, New York Rangers

    It usually takes several seasons for an NHL defenseman to blossom into a top-pairing role. Adam Fox, however, is an exception to the rule. In just two pro seasons since leaving Harvard University, the 23-year-old has become the New York Rangers' No. 1 blueliner. He's on his way to becoming a future winner of the James Norris Memorial Trophy as the league's top defenseman.

    Fox followed up last season's 42-point rookie performance with a 47-point effort in 54 games as a sophomore. He's among the Rangers' top scorers and leads all NHL defensemen. He's also the Blueshirts' leader in ice time per game (24:42) and blocked shots (98) and is second in takeaways with 36.

Nos. 5-1: Marner, Pastrnak, Aho, Matthews, McDavid

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    5. Mitchell Marner, Toronto Maple Leafs

    Making his NHL debut in the same season as Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner quickly established himself as a star in his own right with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He and Matthews form one of the best one-two offensive punches in the NHL. With 66 points in 53 games, the 24-year-old right wing is his club's points leader and third among the league's top scorers this season.

    While Marner lacks Matthews' size and goal-scoring elan, the 6'0", 175-pounder is among the league's best wingers. He's a slick playmaker as well as a skillful two-way forward. He's generated more points over the past five seasons (357) than anyone else on the Leafs.


    4. David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins

    One of the NHL's top snipers, Boston Bruins right wing David Pastrnak last season shared the Maurice Richard Trophy with Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, as they each finished the season with 48 goals. The 24-year-old Bruin sits fifth in total goals since 2016-17. He's dangerous with the man advantage, sitting second during that period with 66 power-play goals.

    A natural goal scorer with considerable speed and agility, Pastrnak is the trigger man on the Bruins top line with center Patrice Bergeron and left winger Brad Marchand. He missed the opening weeks of the season recovering from hip surgery but is scoring at a point-per-game clip with 46 points in as many games.


    3. Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes

    The straw that stirs the drink for the Carolina Hurricanes, Sebastian Aho is an outstanding playmaker and a superb skater. The 23-year-old center has led his club over the past three seasons with 92 goals, 206 points and 1.01 points per game average. His special teams play during this period is impressive, leading the Hurricanes with 59 power-play points and 13 shorthanded points.

    The Hurricanes' rise into a potential Stanley Cup contender coincides with Aho's emergence as their first-line center. He and Svechnikov provide an exciting offensive punch that has turned this once-moribund franchise into one of the league's top teams.


    2. Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs

    Winner of the Calder Memorial Trophy in 2016-17, Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will soon be bringing home another major NHL award. With 40 goals this season, the 23-year-old center is poised to win his first Maurice Richard Trophy as the NHL's leading goal scorer. He's the prime reason the Leafs are among the NHL's top teams.

    Few players in the league possess Matthews' dominating scoring ability. His 198 goals over the past five seasons are second only to Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin's 205 goals. Blessed with a quick, hard shot and sound offensive skills, the 6'3", 220-pounder could soon take over from the aging Ovechkin as the perennial favorite to win the Richard Trophy.


    1. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers

    In his sixth NHL season, Connor McDavid is the face of the NHL. The 24-year-old Edmonton Oilers captain has won the Art Ross Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award twice (2016-17 and 2017-18) and the Hart Memorial Trophy in 2016-17. With an astonishing 100 points in just 53 games, the center is assured of winning the Art Ross this season and will be the favorite to take home the Hart and Lindsay honors.

    No one in the league can match McDavid's ability to pull off dazzling plays at high speed. He has the ability to seize control of a game with his impressive offensive skills. The Oilers captain is the prime reason his club will secure a playoff berth this season. He leads all scorers since 2015-16 with 372 assists, 565 points and a points-per-game average of 1.40. 


    Player stats (as of May 8, 2021) via NHL.com.


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