Top Rookies to Watch at Each Position in 2014-15 NHL Season

Carol SchramFeatured ColumnistJuly 30, 2014

Top Rookies to Watch at Each Position in 2014-15 NHL Season

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    One of the most exciting parts of each NHL season is a chance to assess the new faces. No matter what their age or their path to the big leagues, it's fascinating to see which players are able to most successfully fit their individual games into the NHL framework.

    Who are this year's potential top rookies?

    To qualify as a Calder Trophy candidate for the 2014-15 season, NHL.com explains that players must be under 26 as of September 15, 2014. Additionally, players are only allowed to have limited prior NHL experience—no more than 25 NHL games in any previous season or six games in two or more previous seasons.

    With those criteria in mind, here's a look at the three best prospects at each position for the upcoming campaign.

Left Wing

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    1. Jonathan Drouin: Tampa Bay Lightning

    In junior hockey, Jonathan Drouin rode shotgun beside Nathan MacKinnon during the Halifax Mooseheads' run to the 2013 Memorial Cup. Though he was chosen just two picks behind MacKinnon in the 2013 draft, Drouin was returned to Halifax for another season in junior in 2013-14 while MacKinnon went on to enjoy his first NHL playoffs and capture the 2014 Calder Trophy.

    The Mooseheads were eliminated by the Val d'Or Foreurs in the 2014 QMJHL playoffs, but Drouin dazzled, leading all playoff scorers with 41 points in just 16 games. Expect to see Drouin added to the Lightning's impressive arsenal of young forwards for the 2014-15 season.

     

    2. Johnny Gaudreau: Calgary Flames

    A fourth-round draft pick in 2011, Johnny Gaudreau has had a standout career at Boston College. He scored 80 points in 40 games in 2013-14 and received the Hobey Baker Award as the top player in NCAA men's hockey.

    Though he's listed at 5'9" and just 150 pounds, Gaudreau has started his NHL career on the right foot. After his college season ended, he played one game with the Calgary Flames in 2013-14, scoring against the Vancouver Canucks with his first and only shot on goal.

     

    3. Jiri Sekac: Montreal Canadiens

    One of the most tantalizing young free-agent prospects available this summer, 22-year-old Sekac has spent the last three years with Prague Lev of the KHL, where his game has rounded into NHL shape.

    Arpon Basu of NHL.com reports that Marc Bergevin is hoping that Sekac can contribute to the Canadiens in September:

    He's a young player with some talent and some upside. You try to project when you have young players like this, and he has a chance to play on the top three lines. I always say that players make decisions for us, but we have a young player with talent that can help us at that position. So we decided to take a chance on him.

    Sekac is listed as a left wing at NHL.com but a right wing on HockeyDB.com.

Center

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    1. Teuvo Teravainen: Chicago Blackhawks

    The Chicago Blackhawks have brought Teuvo Teravainen along slowly since selecting him 18th overall in 2012. The crafty Finn will be 20 by the time training camp begins in September and should be ready to show his stuff.

    Brad Richards will help shore up the center position after being signed as a free agent in July, but the 34-year-old has worn down in the later stages of the last couple of NHL seasons. Even if Teravainen starts his year with the Rockford IceHogs of the AHL, the 'Hawks will likely take advantage of his playmaking prowess before the year is out.

     

    2. Evgeny Kuznetsov: Washington Capitals

    Kuznetsov offered a preview of his immense skill set in 17 games with the Washington Capitals in 2013-14. He's a great skater with good hands and should be an exciting addition to a new-look Capitals lineup.

    New coach Barry Trotz told Dan Rosen of NHL.com that Kuznetsov's skill will pair nicely with a couple of aggressive wingers:

    I'm going to play him in the middle right through, and if you get some people who are pretty hard-driving guys on his wing he could be a great fit. That's why I'm hoping a guy like Wilson will be ready to do a lot of the heavy lifting and Kuznetsov can use his high skillset to make things happen.

     

    3. Sam Reinhart: Buffalo Sabres

    The second overall pick in the 2014 draft is looking to follow in the footsteps of last year's top center, Nathan MacKinnon, and make an immediate impact at the NHL level.

    Sam's older siblings, Max and Griffin, were both sent back to junior for two seasons after being drafted. Sam will have to show off his lauded "hockey IQ," per Chris Wescott of EdmontonOilers.com, in training camp if he hopes to stick with the Buffalo Sabres this fall.

Right Wing

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    1. Jesper Fast: New York Rangers

    What's not to like about a guy named Fast? Jesper was a depth pick in 210—157th overall—but has paid his dues with the New York Rangers' minor league affiliate. He got a look from Rangers coach Alain Vigneault for 11 regular-season and three playoff games in 2013-14.

    Sean Hartnett of CBS New York projects that Fast will beat out J.T. Miller for the Ranger's fourth-line job. Once he makes the lineup on a regular basis, it'll be up to him to make the most of the opportunities he's given.

     

    2. Anthony Mantha: Detroit Red Wings

    A stunning 2013-14 season with Val d'Or of the QMJHL and a Memorial Cup is not enough to guarantee super-scorer Anthony Mantha a spot on the Detroit Red Wings roster this fall. "If he's in the lineup it's because basically we think he's going to be a top six forward," Wings general manager Ken Holland told the Oakland Press. "I don't know [sic] we'd put him on the fourth line and play him eight minutes."

    Mantha's MVP season in the high-scoring QMJHL has raised the stock of the Wings' 20th overall pick from 2013, who turns 20 in September and will be eligible for an AHL assignment. Even if Mantha starts the season in the minors, he could get the call to arms if Detroit's injury woes continue as they have in past seasons.

     

    3. Brett Ritchie: Dallas Stars

    After a Calder Cup-winning season with the AHL's Texas Stars in 2013-14, Brett Ritchie is poised to make the jump to the NHL. The 21-year old is a prototypical power forward at 6'3" and 220 pounds and was chosen 44th overall in 2011.

    With his big body, Ritchie has been brought along slowly. Since SportsDay Stars beat writer Mike Heika suggested on July 10 that "the contracts do not favor Ritchie starting in the NHL," watch for Ritchie to take advantage of an injury opening to make his mark in Dallas in 2014-15.

Defense

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    1. Aaron Ekblad: Florida Panthers

    The Florida Panthers' first-overall pick in 2014 is a prodigy whose physical capacities extend well beyond his 18 years.

    Though it's no easy transition for defensemen, Alain Poupart of NHL.com reports that Ekblad will be given every opportunity to jump straight into the NHL in the fall. For his part, Ekblad continues to demonstrate the work ethic that has fueled his success to this point, saying he needs to "work on everything":

    Skating is one of the things I focus on the most considering it's a fast-paced game in the NHL and that's what I need to work on the most. ... Any time you can get a little bit stronger, it's really important. I want to get a little bit stronger, upper and lower body. The full realm of my game needs to get better before I can play in the NHL.

     

    2. Adam Clendening: Chicago Blackhawks

    Since the Chicago Blackhawks stepped up to dynasty level in the NHL, there hasn't been much room for new players to join the blue line. Nick Leddy has been the only prospect who has managed to crack the core of the defensive lineup over the last four seasons.

    With the 'Hawks under pressure to slide below the salary-cap ceiling before October, Elliotte Friedman of CBC has suggested that Leddy might be moved. Friedman specifically mentions that 21-year-old Adam Clendening is the heir apparent once space has been cleared.

    Johnny Oduya is the other defenseman whose name keeps cropped up in Blackhawks trade rumours, according to Sportsnet's John Shannon (via the Edmonton Journal).

    Clendening was drafted in the second round in 2011 and is an offensive force from the back end. He has logged two impressive seasons with Rockford of the AHL—with nine goals and 46 points in 2012-13, then 12 goals and 59 points in 2013-14.

     

    3. Darnell Nurse: Edmonton Oilers

    Now a 19-year-old who will be sent back to junior if he can't crack the Edmonton Oilers lineup, Darnell Nurse has packed on nearly 15 pounds since his 2013 draft day, according to Joanne Ireland of the Edmonton Journal.

    Edmonton added defensive veterans Nikita Nikitin and Mark Fayne to their roster this summer, increasing competition for the youngsters looking to join the Oilers blue line. Nurse should have the edge based on his pedigree, his draft position and his newly acquired ferocity.

Goal

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    1. John Gibson: Anaheim Ducks

    John Gibson's ascent to No. 1 status with the Anaheim Ducks is so certain, the team said goodbye to both Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth by the end of the 2013-14 season.

    Gibson started his NHL career perfectly with a shutout in his first-ever game last April against the Vancouver Canucks. He was also perfect when called upon to make his first playoff start against the Los Angeles Kings but ultimately couldn't squeeze out a series win against the eventual Stanley Cup Champions. That's a lot to ask from a raw, then-20-year-old rookie.

    With a standout junior and minor league career and a World Junior Championship gold medal from 2013, expect Gibson to dazzle as he takes to the ice for the Ducks this fall for his true rookie season.

     

    2. Jake Allen: St. Louis Blues

    During an impressive 15-game injury-relief stretch in 2012-13, Jake Allen announced himself as the St. Louis Blues' goaltender of the future. Trapped behind Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott on the depth chart, Allen spent the entire 2013-14 season with Peoria of the AHL but is finally poised to get a real NHL shot next season.

    Soon to turn 24, Allen should have all the seasoning he needs to put his best game forward. Blues fans will be squarely behind him after having been disappointed by the performance of trade-deadline acquisition Ryan Miller.

     

    3. Andrei Vasilevskiy: Tampa Bay Lightning

    Or is the Lightning's top goaltending prospect Latvian sensation Kristers Gudlevskis? Either way, Tampa Bay is well-positioned in net if starter Ben Bishop is injured or free-agent signing Evgeni Nabokov shows signs of faltering in his backup role.

    After an astonishing performance at the Olympics in Sochi, Gudlevskis stepped up for the Lightning down the stretch of the 2013-14 season while they dealt with Bishop's injury and erratic play from Anders Lindback.

    That doesn't change the fact that 2012 first-rounder Vasilevskiy is believed to be the more highly touted prospect. He's a medalist from three IIHF World Junior Championships and backed up Sergei Bobrovsky when Russia took the gold at the 2014 senior world championship, but he will be playing in North America for the first time after two seasons with Ufa of the KHL.

    Expect to see Vasilevskiy and Gudlevskis both start the season in the AHL. They'll be battling to be the first call-up when they're needed by the Lightning.

     

    Biographical and statistical information courtesy of NHL.com and HockeyDB.com.