Ranking the Best Sophomores in the 2017-18 NHL Season
For the top NHL rookies in any season, there is considerable pressure to follow up with strong sophomore campaigns. It's no different for last season's class, which includes such notables as Toronto Maple Leafs forwards Auston Matthews and William Nylander.
Both reflect the realities facing promising young stars in their second seasons. Some, such as Matthews, have picked up where they left off. Nylander, like several others, is having a tougher time matching last season's efforts. Then there are those who have improved, such as Detroit Red Wings right wing Anthony Mantha.
The following is a ranking of the best NHL sophomores thus far in 2017-18. Their statistics, performance and value to their respective clubs factored into this compilation. You can express your opinion on this topic in the comments section below.
Oliver Bjorkstrand, Columbus Blue Jackets
Appearing in just 26 games last season, the 22-year-old Oliver Bjorkstrand has earned a full-time roster spot in 2017-18. He sits second among the Columbus Blue Jackets' leading scorers, with 13 points in 22 games.
Christian Dvorak, Arizona Coyotes
Kevin Fiala, Nashville Predators
Kevin Fiala's shown no ill effects from the broken femur he suffered during the Nashville Predators' opening game of the second round of the 2017 playoffs. With 13 points in 20 games, the 21-year-old left wing is on pace for a 55-point performance.
Jake Guentzel, Pittsburgh Penguins
The goal-scoring leader of the 2017 playoffs, Jake Guentzel has struggled with consistency in his sophomore season. Still, the 23-year-old forward has eight goals and 13 points in 23 games. He's on pace for a 20-goal, 40-point output.
Mitchell Marner, Toronto Maple Leafs
Brandon Montour, Anaheim Ducks
The 23-year-old Brandon Montour appeared in just 27 regular-season games last season. Now entrenched as a top-four defenseman, he sits third among the Anaheim Ducks' leading scorers, with 13 points in 21 games.
Matt Murray, Pittsburgh Penguins
Matt Murray and his teammates are struggling to regain their Stanley Cup championship form. Despite his 2.88 goals-against average and .908 save percentage, the 23-year-old goalie ranks among the league leaders with 11 wins.
Ivan Provorov, Philadelphia Flyers
The Philadelphia Flyers are struggling this season, but the same can't be said for the 20-year-old Ivan Provorov. With 12 points in 22 games, he could exceed 40 points this season. That's ahead of last season's 30-point rookie performance.
Nick Schmaltz, Chicago Blackhawks
Nick Schmaltz showed promise as a rookie last season, netting 28 points in 61 games. Skating on the left wing with Patrick Kane and Artem Anisimov, the 21-year-old sophomore has 11 points in 17 games, putting him within reach of 50 points this season.
Brady Skjei, New York Rangers
After a solid 39-point rookie debut in 2016-17, Brady Skjei struggled earlier this season. Since being paired with Kevin Shattenkirk, however, the 23-year-old defenseman's performance has improved.
10. William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs
The son of former NHL forward Michael Nylander, William's 61 points in 2016-17 put him in a three-way tie with Nazem Kadri and fellow rookie Marner for third among Leafs scorers. He also tied for third with Marner among the league's rookie scorers. With 14 points in 23 games this season, he's on pace to exceed 50 points.
Nylander's production slumped in November, with just four points in 11 games. Given his playmaking skills and ability to play center or either wing, it's only a matter of time until he regains his scoring touch. Nylander remains an invaluable part of Toronto's future.
9. Pavel Buchnevich, New York Rangers
Back spasms and a conditioning stint in the minors limited New York Rangers right wing Pavel Buchnevich to just 41 games as a rookie last season. The 22-year-old Russian forward is off to a much better start in his sophomore campaign.
Buchnevich tallied 20 points in limited playing time last season. In 2017-18, however, he's shown significant improvement. In 22 games, he's tallied eight goals and eight assists for 16 points. That puts him on track for a 30-goal, 60-point output. He's also tied for third with J.T. Miller among the Rangers' scoring leaders.
Healthier and playing with growing confidence, Buchnevich is skating on New York's first line alongside center Mika Zibanejad and left winger Chris Kreider. With his speed and dazzling offensive skills, Buchnevich is blossoming into a dangerous scoring forward for the Blueshirts.
8. Matthew Tkachuk, Calgary Flames
The son of former NHL star Keith Tkachuk, left wing Matthew Tkachuk enjoyed a solid NHL debut in 2016-17 with the Calgary Flames. Having proved himself as a reliable top-six forward, the 19-year-old is fast becoming an invaluable part of the Flames' talent core.
With 13 goals and 48 points in 76 games last season, Tkachuk finished fifth among Flames scorers and sixth among the league's rookie scoring leaders. With 15 points in 20 games this season, he's third in scoring for Calgary and on pace to finish the season with 20 goals and 60 points.
A skilled playmaker, Tkachuk also doesn't shy away from the physical play. He can drive opponents to distraction with his aggressive style. His pesky offensive performances make Tkachuk tough to play against as well as an indispensable part of the Flames lineup.
7. Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes
Another disappointing season for the Carolina Hurricanes was somewhat offset by the promising play of rookie winger Sebastian Aho. In 2017-18, the 20-year-old sophomore is among their top performers.
Aho finished second last season among Hurricanes scorers, with 24 goals and 49 points in 82 games. He was also third among the league's rookie goal scorers and fifth in points. After 20 games this season, he leads the Hurricanes in assists, with 13, and sits second in points, with 18.
Following a slow start of just five points in his first 10 games, Aho's gone on a tear of late, with 10 points in five games between Nov. 13 and Nov. 22. That surge in production helped Carolina win four straight games and rise toward a wild-card berth in the Eastern Conference.
6. Mikko Rantanen, Colorado Avalanche
Right wing Mikko Rantanen's play was among the few brights spots in an otherwise miserable 2016-17 season for the Colorado Avalanche. And the 21-year-old forward is playing a vital part in his club's improvement this season.
In his first full NHL season, Rantanen had 20 goals and 38 points in 75 games. He was the Avs' leading goal scorer and tied for fifth in goals among rookies. He's showing no signs of a sophomore slump in 2017-18. With 19 points in 20 games, he's second on Colorado and on pace for a 70-point season.
Rantanen is a first-line player with the Avalanche, enjoying solid chemistry with center Nathan MacKinnon. With five goals and 10 points on the power play, he's given the Avs some much-needed scoring punch with the man advantage. Thanks in part to Rantanen's play, Colorado is jockeying for a playoff berth in the Western Conference.
5. Anthony Mantha, Detroit Red Wings
Mantha struggled at times during his rookie season with the Detroit Red Wings. He spent the first month in the minors, was benched several times following his call-up and missed the final five games of 2016-17 with a fractured finger. Twenty-two games into this season, however, the 23-year-old right wing ranks among the NHL's top sophomores.
Despite Mantha's rookie difficulties, he finished with a respectable 17 goals and 36 points in 60 games. This season, he's on pace to exceed those totals by a wide margin. With 10 goals and 19 points, he's Detroit's leading goal scorer and sits second in points.
The 6'5", 225-pound Mantha skates well for a big man and uses his size to generate scoring chances. His consistency and defensive play have also improved. Mantha's performance is a big reason why the rebuilding Red Wings are in the mix for a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference.
4. Patrik Laine, Winnipeg Jets
Patrik Laine made an impressive debut with the Winnipeg Jets in 2016-17. With 36 goals and 64 points, he led the Jets in goal scoring, finished second among rookie scorers and was runner-up for the Calder Memorial Trophy. After a slow start to his sophomore season, the 19-year-old left wing is once again a serious scoring threat.
Despite Laine's solid rookie numbers, consistency was an issue last season. In the opening month of 2017-18, that streakiness continued to plague him. In 11 games through October, he had four goals and two assists for six points, with all those coming in just five games.
Laine quickly rebounded and regained his confidence in November, shooting more to create scoring opportunities. He's tallied points in nine of his past 10 games, with seven goals and three assists. He's tied for the team goal-scoring lead (11) with Mark Scheifele. If he maintains his consistency, he could be on track for a 40-goal performance.
3. Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning
Injuries ravaged the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2016-17, preventing them from reaching the playoffs. However, the situation provided an opening for young center Brayden Point to crack the lineup on a full-time basis. The 21-year-old Point is now their second-line center.
Though small by NHL standards, the 5'10", 166-pound Point netted 18 goals and 40 points in 68 games last season. He finished sixth among Lightning scorers and eighth among the rookie scoring leaders. Twenty-one games into 2017-18, Point has nine goals and 21 points, sitting tied for third among the Lightning's leading scorers with Vladislav Namestnikov.
Despite his size, Point plays a solid two-way game. On Nov. 17, Joe Smith of the Tampa Bay Times praised the young center's two-way abilities, singling out the trio of Point, Ondrej Palat and Yanni Gourde as the Lightning's most complete line. Though overshadowed by superstar teammates Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, Point has also played a prominent role in the Lightning's dominant start this season.
2. Zach Werenski, Columbus Blue Jackets
Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Zach Werenski had an impressive NHL debut in 2016-17, finishing third in the voting for the Calder Memorial Trophy. The 20-year-old rearguard has avoided a sophomore slump, continuing to shine as a top-pairing blueliner this season.
With 11 goals and 47 points in 78 games last term, Werenski was the Jackets' highest-scoring defenseman and finished seventh among rookies. Twenty-two games into 2017-18, he has six goals and 12 points. That puts him on track to reach 20 goals and 50 points by season's end. He's also tied with Seth Jones for third among Columbus scorers.
For such a young defenseman, Werenski displays considerable poise and puck-moving abilities. He's had little difficulty adjusting to the NHL pace, quickly becoming a vital part of the Jackets defense corps.
1. Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs
Matthews won the Calder Memorial Trophy as the NHL's top rookie in 2016-17. With 40 goals and 69 points, he led the Leafs and all NHL rookies in scoring. He has continued to establish himself among the league's elite talent in 2017-18.
Despite missing four games to injury, the 20-year-old Matthews has 12 goals and 21 points in 19 games. He's the Leafs leader once again in both categories and ranks among the league's leading goal scorers. At that rate of production, Matthews could reach the vaunted 50-goal plateau by season's end.
Matthews is unquestionably a franchise player and a rising superstar in the NHL. He's shown no difficulty adjusting to the big league pace, proving difficult for opposing players to contain. Thanks to his efforts, Toronto went from non-contender in 2015-16 to a playoff club last season. The best is yet to come for this dynamic young star.
Standings and player stats (as of Nov. 22, 2017) via NHL.com.