Ranking the 10 Best Players in the NHL Under 25 Right Now

Lyle Fitzsimmons@@fitzbitzFeatured ColumnistDecember 20, 2021

Ranking the 10 Best Players in the NHL Under 25 Right Now

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    Rest easy, hockey fans.

    The game is in good hands.

    Though generational NHL superstars like Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin are closer to the ends of their careers than the beginnings, the league's skill level won't plummet when they hang up their skates.

    A significant chunk of elite players are on the opposite side of the age scale. The reigning Art Ross, Hart and Norris trophy winners are all younger than 25.

    That contrast got the hockey writing types at B/R in a ranking mood, which resulted in a comprehensive list of the best players who've yet to celebrate birthday No. 25.

    We placed them in 10-to-1 order for your reading pleasure, based on their apparent skillsets, their achievements to this point and their ceilings going forward.

    Click through to see who wound up where and feel free to drop a comment or two to let us know what you think.

10. Miro Heiskanen, D, Dallas Stars

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    The Dallas Stars plucked Miro Heiskanen, then just 17, with the third overall pick in the 2017 draft, and the 6'1", 190-pound Finn has done nothing to disappoint.

    The skilled, puck-moving defenseman scored 12 goals and produced 33 points in 82 games as a rookie, becoming the second first-year player in franchise history to play in the All-Star Game.

    He ticked up to 35 points in year No. 2 and then had 26 more in 27 games as the Stars advanced to the Stanley Cup Final before losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Dallas made a long-term move on him a season later, locking Heiskanen up for eight seasons at $8.45 million apiece.

    He won't turn 23 until the summer after the 2021-22 season.

    "He's taken the next step," coach Rick Bowness said in October. "It's not just that, it's just dominance on the ice. You're seeing goals and you're seeing points and that's great. But man, you watch him defend. Watch him, if he's up, he breaks up plays coming back. He's just been dominant."

9. Kirill Kaprizov, LW, Minnesota Wild

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    John McCoy/Associated Press

    Where the Stars got immediate production from Heiskanen, the Wild had to wait.

    Though they chose Kirill Kaprizov in the fifth round in 2015, he didn't cross the Atlantic from Russia to Minnesota to show his stuff on NHL ice for five-plus years.

    Once he did, though, it was everything they'd hoped for and more.

    The sniper-like left wing arrived in the league for the 2020-21 season and instantly proved he belonged, scoring 27 goals with 51 points in 55 games to lead rookies in both stats and earn all but one of 100 first-place Calder Trophy votes.

    His addition propelled the Wild back into the playoffs, and they've continued the strong play this season with 40 points in 29 games.

    He's only 24, and he'll be in the fold for a while after signing a five-year, $45 million deal in September.

    "We knew he had skill, but he can make something out of nothing," Minnesota general manager Bill Guerin told ESPN in March. "What's surprised me the most is how competitive he is on things like loose pucks, and how strong he is. Honestly, he's fearless. He doesn't back down from anybody. I like that. I think that's a great quality in a young player."

8. Charlie McAvoy, D, Boston Bruins

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    Corey Sipkin/Associated Press

    It's hard to believe Charlie McAvoy is still so young.

    He'll turn 24 during the pre-Christmas week, but he's already in his fifth NHL season and is coming off a successful two-way 2020-21 campaign in which he finished fifth in Norris Trophy voting and was listed first on two ballots.

    Though the 14th overall pick in the 2016 draft hasn't played more than 67 games in a season, he's never produced fewer than 28 points. He had 30 points in 51 games last year while logging more than 20 minutes in all but two appearances and topping out at 30:16.

    He's another elite blueliner for a franchise that has dressed the likes of Bobby Orr, Brad Park and Ray Bourque. The Bruins signed him to an eight-year, $76 million extension in October that'll keep him in black and gold through 2030.

    Boston coach Bruce Cassidy told TSN 1200 Ottawa last month (h/t NESN.com):

    "He's a hard player, he'll be physical when need be. He has a fuse and when he gets upset he'll drive through, that part of the game has always been solid. Puck moving has always been there since Day 1. I think when you describe that type of player — that can play on the penalty kill, play on the power play, add points, play in the last minute, be physical — to me that's the definition of an all-around guy. I think he suits that, he's still a young guy, he's only going to get better."

7. Quinn Hughes, D, Vancouver Canucks

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    At the corner of prodigious production and unlimited potential, you'll find Quinn Hughes.

    The 22-year-old is one of the premier offensive defensemen in the league thanks to a pair of seasons in which he combined for 94 points in 124 games for the Canucks. He has validated his seventh overall selection in the 2018 draft and earned a second-place finish in 2020 Calder Trophy voting.

    His 38 assists in 2020-21 were tied for third among blueliners, and his 41 points were good for 10th. He's kept it going through a difficult start to 2021-22, producing 26 points in 30 games while posting a plus-9 rating and 12 points on the power play.

    The points and assists numbers are fourth and second this season, respectively, and he's thrived in the fast-moving, attacking style employed by Vancouver coach Bruce Boudreau, who arrived two weeks ago.

    He signed a six-year, $47.1 million extension in October, 11 days before he turned 22.

    "For a guy his size that can play 27-28 minutes—hard minutes—a night," Boudreau said, "it's pretty awe-inspiring."

6. Adam Fox, D, New York Rangers

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    Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

    Hard to believe Adam Fox is with his third NHL organization.

    Now that he's played two full seasons, been named a first-team All-Star and won a Norris Trophy before turning 24, it's hard to believe the Calgary Flames and Carolina Hurricanes don't have regret.

    The Flames drafted Fox in 2016 and sent him to Carolina in a 2018 deal that included Dougie Hamilton.

    Ten months later, the Hurricanes sent Fox to the New York Rangers for two draft picks.

    All Fox did last season was produce five goals, 42 assists and 47 points—ranking first and second in the latter two categories among blueliners—and he's got 31 points through 30 games in 2021-22.

    Given his age, his best days might still be ahead of him. And thanks to the seven-year, $66.5 million pact he signed in November, many of them ought to occur in the world's most famous arena.

    His U.S. developmental program coach, Danton Cole, marveled at his ability, telling the New York Post:

    "He would make a pass or a play where you're like, 'How in the world did he pull that off?' But then he was so casual about it. Most guys, some of the plays he would make, they'd be celebrating and all that, but for him, it's just another shift, an 'I do that every shift.'

    "He had that abundance of popularity on the team and he would throw out a jab every once in a while or say something, and when he would the guys would say, 'That's just so Foxy.'"

5. Mathew Barzal, C, New York Islanders

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    Jim McIsaac/Associated Press

    If you like your hockey skillful and exciting, Mathew Barzal is your guy.

    He's among the elder statesmen on this list given that he'll turn 25 in May, but he began making an impact not long after the New York Islanders made him pick No. 16 in the 2015 draft.

    He was a full-time NHLer within two years and produced better than a point per game across his rookie season in 2017-18, finishing with 85 points in 82 games and winning the Calder Trophy.

    Barzal led the Islanders in scoring again the following season and helped them earn a first-round playoff series win. The two seasons since have seen the team climb to the postseason final four before consecutive losses to the eventual champion Tampa Bay Lightning.

    "Just like it does for any other team that has a dynamic young man up front, [Barzal's offense] gives you more balance," coach Barry Trotz said last year, per The Score. "It makes you more dangerous. It makes you a deeper hockey club."

4. Sebastian Aho, C, Carolina Hurricanes

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    They don't all have to be first-round picks.

    Carolina's Sebastian Aho was available to every NHL team in the 2015 draft, but he didn't come off the board until the Hurricanes made him the fifth selection in the second round, 35th overall.
    He's produced like a guy picked a few dozen slots earlier.

    Aho scored 24 goals as a rookie in 2016-17 and never fell below that number in four subsequent seasons, topping out at 38 in 2019-20 and helping Carolina return to the NHL's elite.

    The 24-year-old has continued the prolific pace in 2021-22, logging 15 goals and 17 assists in 26 games.

    A dozen short-handed goals are evidence of his two-way skill set.

    "When I was 17, my first real year with the pro team, I just realized I can play against men and got some confidence out of it," he told NHL.com in October. "At a [World Junior Championship] tournament, you are literally seeing the best players in the world at your age. Just like, little step by step, you go next level and you say, 'I can play here.' You gain more confidence."

3. Mitch Marner, RW, Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Peter Power/Associated Press

    Like Barzal before him, Toronto's Mitch Marner is one of the older guys on the list.

    He'll be 25 on May 5.

    But also like Barzal, his toolbox is among those hockey fans have to see to believe.

    An elite playmaker and two-way winger with the Maple Leafs, Marner was drafted fourth overall in a loaded 2015 draft and had 130 points across his first two NHL seasons before graduating to a point-per-game level in each of his last three.

    His assist (47) and point (67) totals were each good for fourth in the league in 2020-21, and only Edmonton's Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid surpassed him in both categories.

    Teammate John Tavares told the New York Times in 2019 that Marner's ability to see the game sets him apart.

    "He just reads the game so well, not just with the puck, but without it, that he's able to anticipate plays," Tavares said.

2. Cale Makar, D, Colorado Avalanche

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Don't let the baby face fool you.

    Cale Makar, even at 23, is a man among men in the NHL.

    Picked fourth overall in the 2017 draft, he debuted in the league as a precocious 20-year-old and ended that inaugural season with a Calder Trophy on his mantel.

    He was the only defenseman in the league to produce a point per game in 2020-21, just his second season, and finished second to Fox in Norris Trophy voting while getting 31 first-place votes.

    To suggest the 5'11", 187-pounder will finish his career with a Norris or two is hardly hyperbolic.

    Did we mention his career rate of 0.974 points per game (through November) is fifth-best in NHL history for defensemen, trailing Bobby Orr, Paul Coffey, Denis Potvin and Ray Bourque?

    They're all in the Hall of Fame. And if you ask Avs coach Jared Bednar, Makar will be too.

    Bednar told the Denver Post last month:

    "He's as good as anyone I've ever seen. ... He's a special player and he's hitting his stride, playing well and I think there's an element to it where he's shooting the puck more and there's an element to it where he's recognizing what teams are giving him and he's moving into the right areas and making plays. I think he's done a really nice job here recently, tonight especially, either distributing the puck when he should or shooting it when he should. Those decisions lead to good offensive-zone time, offensive-zone chances. He's an elite player."

1. Connor McDavid, C, Edmonton Oilers

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    You've heard of point-per-game players.

    Edmonton's Connor McDavid, though, seemed more interested last season in pursuing a far bigger quarry.

    No. 97 had a 2020-21 season for the ages, scoring 105 points in 56 games, leading all players by 21 points.

    The clip of 1.875 points per game was the best of the 21st century and the 23rd-best in history.

    The other-worldly performance yielded his third Art Ross Trophy and second Hart Trophy in six years since he was picked first overall in 2015, not to mention another Ted Lindsay Award (his third), which goes to the league's most outstanding player as voted by his peers in the NHL Players' Association.

    And he's only 24. For at least a few more weeks.

    Wow. Just wow.

    "McDavid isn't dominating the NHL any more. He is lording over it. He can do what he wants, when he wants," wrote Cathal Kelly of the Globe and Mail. "He has risen so high that his opponents no longer feel shame when he beats them single-handed. They've gotten to that weird place where they feel half-honored that he just handed them their heads.

    "That is total mastery."