Ranking the Top 10 Sophomores to Watch in the 2014-15 NHL Season

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistAugust 9, 2014

Ranking the Top 10 Sophomores to Watch in the 2014-15 NHL Season

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    Last season saw the NHL debut of a number of promising young players. Having proven themselves capable of competing in the big league, they will attempt to build upon their respective successes in their sophomore campaigns.

    The players on this list will face considerable scrutiny this season, far more than last season. Their biggest challenge is avoiding the dreaded sophomore slump. Expectations are much higher now for these young players. They're better known to their opponents, as well to fans and pundits. 

    While some will have little or no difficulty continuing their development, others could struggle under the glare of a significantly harsher spotlight. Not every player will progress at the same pace, and there could be setbacks and surprises along the way. 

    Here's a look at 10 NHL sophomores to keep an eye on this season. Regular season and playoff performance last season, anticipated roles with their respective clubs and other notable achievements are factored into this ranking.

    Unless otherwise indicated, all player statistics and news via NHL.com. Player salaries via CapGeek.com.

Honorable Mentions (Alphabetical by Last Name)

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    Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers. Selected second overall in the 2013 NHL Draft. Though hampered by injuries, the 18-year-old Barkov netted 24 points in 54 games. If Barkov can stay healthy, he should enjoy a solid sophomore campaign.

    Nick Bjugstad, Florida Panthers. His 38 points last season led the woeful Panthers in scoring. Bjugstad also finished fifth overall in rookie scoring. He should remain as the Panthers' second-line center this season.

    Danny DeKeyser, Detroit Red Wings. In his first full NHL season, the 24-year-old DeKeyser netted 23 points in 65 games, with a plus/minus of plus-10 while averaging over 21 minutes of ice time. He will likely be a second-pairing defenseman this season.

    Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks. The Hockey News' Ryan Kennedy reported Hertl was among the early favorites to win the 2014 Calder Trophy (25 points in his first 35 games) until a late-December knee injury sidelined him until the final two games of the regular season. Expect him to be among the Sharks' top-six forwards.

    Boone Jenner, Columbus Blue Jackets. Only 20 last season, Jenner tallied a respectable 29 points in 72 regular season games. He also collected five points in six postseason games. Could be ready to move full-time into a top-six winger role.

    Hampus Lindholm, Anaheim Ducks. The 20-year-old Lindholm registered 30 points in 78 games. He was second overall on the Ducks and among NHL rookies in plus/minus (plus-29). Lindholm should remain among the Ducks top-four blueliners. 

    Olli Maatta, Pittsburgh Penguins. Only 19, Maatta had a solid debut, collecting 29 points in 78 games. He was second among Penguins defensemen in scoring, blocked shots (112) and plus/minus (plus-8). With Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik having departed via free agency, Maatta could see more playing time this season. 

    Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets. Scheifele, 21, had 34 points in 63 games until sidelined by a season-ending knee injury. He will begin this season as the Jets' second-line center. 

    Tyler Toffoli, Los Angeles Kings. The 22-year-old Toffoli scored 29 points in 62 regular-season games. Came into his own during the 2014 NHL playoffs, with 14 points in 26 games. Given the success he and linemates Jeff Carter and Tanner Pearson enjoyed in the 2014 playoffs, expect Toffoli to remain on that line this season.

    Jacob Trouba, Winnipeg Jets. The young Jets defenseman rallied back from an early-season knee injury to tally 10 goals and 29 points in 65 games. He could move full time into a top defense-pairing role. 

10. Frederik Andersen, Anaheim Ducks

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    2013-14 statistics: 28 games played with a record of 20-5-0, a 2.29 goals-against average and .923 save percentage.

    Notable NHL rookie accomplishments: Led all NHL rookie goalies in wins and was second among Ducks' goaltenders in that category. Frederik Andersen supplanted Jonas Hiller as the Ducks starting goaltender. Played in seven playoff games, winning three of them.

    Outlook for 2014-15: Despite earning the starter's role last season, there's no certainty Andersen will still have that job when the season opens. The 24-year-old will have to fend off a challenge from the promising John Gibson.

9. Sean Monahan, Calgary Flames

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    2013-14 statistics: 75 games played, 22 goals, 12 assists, 34 points.

    Notable NHL rookie accomplishments: Sean Monahan was the first rookie forward to score 20 goals for the flames since Jarome Iginla in 1996-97. He scored the second-most goals for the Flames and was fourth among NHL rookies.

    Outlook for 2014-15: In February, Darren Haynes of The Canadian Press (via MetroNews.ca) reported that Monahan had quickly endeared himself to Flames fans. Expectations will be very high for the 19-year-old this season.

    Despite his promising debut, the Flames must be careful not to rush Monahan into a larger role. If developed at the right pace, Monahan could become their full-time second-line center by the season's end.

8. Alex Chiasson, Ottawa Senators

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    2013-14 statistics: 79 games played, 13 goals, 22 assists, 35 points.

    Notable NHL rookie accomplishments: Tied for second on the Dallas Stars and among NHL rookies in game-winning goals and finished seventh among rookie scorers. Became just the sixth player in NHL history to score nine goals in his first 10 NHL games since 1943-44.

    Outlook for 2014-15: Following his promising NHL debut with the Stars, Alex Chiasson was shipped to the Senators on July 1 as part of the return for veteran center Jason Spezza. He could start the season as the Senators second-line right wing.

    The Ottawa Sun's Bruce Garrioch reports the 23-year-old is looking forward to playing in Ottawa. Still, Chiasson could find it challenging adjusting to his new club. 

7. Torey Krug, Boston Bruins

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    2013-14 statistics: 79 games played, 14 goals, 26 assists, 40 points.

    Notable NHL rookie accomplishments: Led all NHL rookies in power-play points (19). Tied for first on the Bruins in power-play points and led the Bruins in playoff points (10). Finished fourth in rookie scoring.

    Outlook for 2014-15: NESN.com's Nicolas Goss cited Torey Krug among the key weapons on the Bruins' power play. However, Boston.com's Evan Sporer doesn't believe Krug is ready to move up into a top-four defense-pairing role just yet.

    With Zdeno Chara, Dougie Hamilton, Dennis Seidenberg and Johnny Boychuk ahead of Krug on the Bruins' depth chart, he'll likely continue in a third-pairing role while seeing considerable power-play time.

6. Valeri Nichushkin, Dallas Stars

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    2013-14 statistics: 79 games played, 14 goals, 20 assists, 34 points.

    Notable NHL rookie accomplishments: Tied for fifth in rookie plus/minus (plus-20). Finished sixth on the Stars in points. Tallied two game-winning goals in the regular season.

    Outlook for 2014-15: At 6'4” and 205 pounds, Valeri Nichushkin has the size, skills and speed to become a game-breaking forward. The 19-year-old should continue to figure prominently in the Stars lineup this season. After moving up and down the lineup last season, Nichushkin should secure a full-time spot on either their first or second line this coming campaign.

5. Seth Jones, Nashville Predators

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    2013-14 statistics: 77 games played, six goals, 19 assists, 25 points.

    Notable NHL rookie accomplishments: 16 of his 25 points came at even strength. Jones also scored two game-winning goals and had three two-point games. Averaged more than 19 minutes of ice time per game.

    Outlook for 2014-15: Selected fourth overall in the 2013 entry draft, Seth Jones acquitted himself well in his rookie campaign. In June, The Tennessean's Josh Cooper reported that Peter Laviolette, the Predators' new bench boss, coached the 19-year-old at this year's World Championships and was impressed with his play.

    Cooper also reported that Jones has bulked up this summer, adding five pounds of muscle to now weigh 210 pounds. While Jones could one day become a top-two defenseman, he will likely skate on the Predators' second defense pairing this season.

4. Tyler Johnson, Tampa Bay Lightning

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    2013-14 statistics: 82 games played, 24 goals, 26 assists, 50 points.

    Notable NHL rookie accomplishments: Calder Trophy finalist for NHL rookie of the year. In April, The Score's Mike Dickson reported Tyler Johnson set a franchise record for most goals by a rookie in a single season. Finished third in 2014 NHL rookie scoring. Finished second on the Lightning in plus/minus (plus-23) and fifth in scoring.

    Outlook for 2014-15: Johnson re-signed a three-year, $10 million contract, which will only add to the pressure he'll face entering his sophomore campaign. Though the 24-year-old saw some first-line duty last season alongside fellow rookie Ondrej Palat, veteran centers Steven Stamkos and Valtteri Filppula have more experience. Johnson could start the season centering the Lightning's third line.

3. Chris Kreider, New York Rangers

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    2013-14 statistics: 66 games played, 17 goals, 20 assists, 37 points.

    Notable NHL rookie accomplishments: Led the Rangers in playoff power-play goals (3) and finished fifth on the Rangers in playoff scoring (13 points in 15 games). Chris Kreider was sixth in NHL rookie scoring last season.

    Outlook for 2014-15: Kreider avoided salary arbitration with the Rangers, re-signing a two-year, $4.95 million deal. The 23-year-old left wing was an offensive force for the Blueshirts during the playoffs. Given his size (6'3”, 226 pounds) and speed, Kreider has the tools to become a superb power forward. He should see action on the Rangers' top line this season.

2. Ondrej Palat, Tampa Bay Lightning

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    2013-14 statistics: 81 games played, 23 goals, 36 assists, 59 points.

    Notable NHL rookie accomplishments: Finalist for the 2014 Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year. Lead NHL rookies in plus/minus (plus-32) and finished second in NHL rookie scoring and among Lightning scorers.

    Outlook for 2014-15: In June, the Tampa Bay TimesJoe Smith reported Ondrej Palat has fully recovered from a late-season upper-body injury. Palat's performance last season earned him a new three-year, $10 million contract.

    That will only add to the pressure on the 23-year-old winger to meet heightened expectations this season. Palat proved himself capable of first-line minutes last season, but he could be challenged for that spot if the promising Jonathan Drouin makes the club this season. 

1. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche

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    2013-14 statistics: 82 games played, 24 goals, 39 assists, 63 points.

    Notable NHL rookie accomplishments: Won the 2014 Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year. Led all NHL rookies last season in points. Tied for the Avalanche playoff scoring lead with 10 points. Finished fourth among Avalanche scorers during the regular season.

    Outlook for 2014-15: Nathan MacKinnon, who turns 19 in September, is unquestionably a rising young NHL superstar. He will, however,  face considerable pressure to improve upon his Calder-winning debut campaign. Given his tremendous skills, though, he should avoid the dreaded sophomore slump.

    MacKinnon could center the Avs second line this season. He'll have to adjust to the absence of former linemate Paul Stastny, who this summer signed with the St. Louis Blues.