6 Young NHL Players Trending Toward Becoming All-Stars Next Season

Franklin Steele@SteeleOnIceFeatured Columnist IIIApril 11, 2022

6 Young NHL Players Trending Toward Becoming All-Stars Next Season

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    Youth is the bastion of hope for even the most haphazard of NHL franchises. At this time of year, non-playoff teams are looking to the future, wondering how their top young players will develop and just how far said skaters will be able to take them further down the road.

    Meanwhile, squads that have punched their tickets to the postseason are looking to see how their youngsters respond to the higher intensity and brighter lights. Some thrive under pressure. Others, not so much.

    With every draft pick, there is the dream of landing the next Kirill Kaprizov, Cale Makar or Igor Shesterkin—players who can instill Stanley Cup aspirations in just one breakout season.

    Not everyone can reach those heights, but that doesn't mean there aren't numerous skaters around the NHL who could play at an All-Star level throughout their respective primes. Today, we're going to shine the spotlight on some of these players, identify what makes them so special and predict what they will mean to their franchises moving forward.

    For our purposes, young means under the age of 23. It's arbitrary, but it seems like a solid number to stick with. Just using the Calder Trophy rules here would force us to count out some skaters who, frankly, we just don't want to.

    Also, since we're trying to identify All-Star-caliber talent who haven't made that roster, players who have already appeared in an All-Star Game won't be eligible, either. Playing in the rookie portion of that contest will not prohibit a place on this list, though.

    This group isn't all-encompassing, either, so feel free to make arguments for your favorite young players who haven't yet appeared in an All-Star Game in the comments.

Trevor Zegras, Anaheim Ducks

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    Take a good, long look at the future face of the NHL—at least when it comes to more casual fans who only keep up with the league via highlights and clips on Instagram. Trevor Zegras of the Anaheim Ducks is the kind of player your non-hockey-watching friends will text you about to ask one simple question: "Who the hell is this kid?" after seeing one of his many internet-breaking clips.

    The 21-year-old is a spotlight magnet, capable of making plays at high speeds during games that most people wouldn't even try in practice. He's getting under the skin of dour former coaches like John Tortorella with his highlight-reel skills and is frustrating old-school types like Jay Beagle, who would prefer hockey players behave like robots instead of human beings.

    So you know he's doing something right.

    Zegras speaks his mind—he called the Beagle cross-check "embarrassing"—and could conceivably take up every spot on a goals-of-the-season list. And he's just getting started in Anaheim. Here's hoping the NHL doesn't find a way to squeeze the joy out of him before his microphone has the same wattage as Connor McDavid's or Auston Matthews'.

    The league has a way of zapping the levity out of players like Zegras. We have a feeling that the New York native won't be going away quietly, and he figures to be an All-Star staple for the next decade-plus. As long as he doesn't get blindsided for doing something silly like scoring a cool goal, that is.

Cole Sillinger, Columbus Blue Jackets

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    If Zegras and his flashy style of play aren't your cup of tea, then Cole Sillinger should be. If he played in a market like New York or Chicago, everyone would know all about this teenage center.

    He's been gritty and reliable and has hung tough during the grind of a regular season.

    The Columbus Blue Jackets are almost never on national broadcasts and virtually never make big headlines unless they are trading their best players to, well, New York or Chicago.

    What Sillinger has done on a poor team this season is miraculous. Where most 18-year-olds who enter the league are asked to play bottom-six minutes while learning about life as a pro, Columbus hasn't needed to do that with the Ohio native.

    He's been the youngest skater in the NHL all season and has played arguably the toughest role in the sport—top-six center—for a majority of it. He's seeing the McDavids and Matthews and Patrice Bergerons of the world on a nightly basis and is holding his own, all things considered.

    His offense has been solid, and based on how he played prior to being drafted, his defense will get there. As the Blue Jackets get reinforcements from their prospect pipeline, the roster ought to improve, and Sillinger is the kind of skater who should thrive alongside more talented linemates.

    The center has a few All-Star Games in his future and could be poised for a breakout in 2022-23.

Moritz Seider, Detroit Red Wings

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    If there is a role that's tougher to fill as a young player than center, it's defense. What Sillinger has been doing in Columbus is impressive, but Moritz Seider has established himself as the Detroit Red Wings' No. 1 defenseman during his age-20 season. That's bananas and generally does not happen.

    By taking on this role so early in his career, the recently turned 21-year-old is flirting with the level of a Makar or reigning Norris Trophy winner Adam Fox. Ahead of his draft year, the book on 2019's No. 6 pick was that he would be more than capable in his own zone but that he might not have the offensive instincts to be elite.

    Those concerns have been assuaged this season. Seider's offensive impact has been capital-E Elite, with his contributions seeing Dom Luszczyszyn and Shayna Goldman of The Athletic's analytical model rating him as a "star," and his play in his own end has been as steady as ever. Detroit is still several pieces away from contending, but having an anchor in the 6'4", 203-pound reverse hit machine on the back end bodes well for its future.

    It might be too soon to use the L-word in Detroit regarding Seider—that's Lidstrom, not love, by the way—but the Red Wings have a perennial All-Star in the German.

Cole Caufield, Montreal Canadiens

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    There's a growing notion that if Martin St. Louis had been head coach of the Montreal Canadiens all season, Cole Caufield would be in the running for the Calder Trophy. Former bench boss Dominique Ducharme didn't lean on the rookie during his time behind the Habs bench.

    St. Louis hasn't been nearly as shy about rolling out Caufield in all situations, and the difference in the 21-year-old's game has been dramatic. As Jack Todd of the Montreal Gazette recently wrote: "Dominique Ducharme owes Cole Caufield a Calder Trophy."

    It's easy to see why Todd would feel this way.

    In 30 games under Ducharme, 2019's 15th pick scored just one goal and added seven assists. He was a minus-15 and was finishing 1.4 percent of his shots. St. Louis was hired Feb. 9, and Caufield immediately looked like a different player.

    He scored in his first game under the new bench boss and has been arguably the most effective rookie in the NHL since. Caufield now has 30 points (17 of them goals).

    This is the forward who was the Calder Trophy favorite entering 2021-22, per the Sporting News' Jackie Spiegel. He isn't going to win the award, but it is clear that those hopes weren't misplaced. Caufield is the future in Montreal, and he will be a multiple-time All-Star before his days are done.

Jason Robertson, Dallas Stars

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    How has Jason Robertson not been an All-Star yet? 

    The 22-year-old has established himself as a play-driving force for the Dallas Stars and is part of one of the most important lines in the NHL alongside Roope Hintz and Joe Pavelski. They are a top-20 line among those who have spent more than 250 minutes together, per MoneyPuck.com, and this team wouldn't be pushing for a postseason berth if it weren't for Roberson and Co.

    The California native isn't just good for a young player; he's one of the most effective skaters in the league. His defensive impact doesn't lag behind what he does on offense, and he's a Mark Stone-cliber two-way wing.

    Through the lens of GSVA, Robertson's defensive play has been markedly better than Stone's this season, per Luszczyszyn and Goldman. Injuries have held back the Vegas Golden Knights forward, but this is indicative of just how outstanding Robertson is in all three zones.

    Not only does he have All-Star Games in his future, but Robertson is also a budding yearly Selke Trophy candidate and has to be in contention for the Most Slept-On Player in the NHL award that we made up just now. The Stars have a bright future as long as this second-round steal continues to play at this level.

Quinton Byfield, Los Angeles Kings

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    The first five players on this list have all already established themselves as high-end producers. They will need to prove that they can remain so, but that comes with time. From Zegras to Robertson, though, they have all played important roles for their clubs.

    Quinton Byfield is in a different boat with the Los Angeles Kings. His season was derailed before it even got started when he fractured his ankle during the preseason. The former second overall pick didn't make his 2021-22 regular-season debut until Jan. 20.

    It's tough enough to manage the rigors of a full NHL campaign as a teenager. Joining a club three months in is another thing entirely.

    Byfield has been utilized mostly as a depth player for the Kings, but that is by design. He's learning from an all-time great in Anze Kopitar, and free-agent acquisition Phillip Danault skates on the second line, allowing the pivot to get reps on the third unit.

    All the pieces are there for Byfield to become an All-Star next season, though. Standing 6'5" and weighing in at 220 pounds at age 19, the physical tools are in place for him to be a wrecking ball in the offensive zone.

    This is the kind of player who is going to net a hat trick one random night, and he will never stop scoring after that.