The 2013-14 rookie class in the NHL is awfully exciting. Coming off what was considered one of the deepest and most talented drafts in the past decade, there will be a lot of teenage hockey players looking to make a big impact. It should make for a very wide open Calder Trophy race, which makes forecasting a winner for that award extremely difficult.
There are probably upward of 25 true rookies worth mentioning for this upcoming season, which makes for a really intriguing year. There are a few guys in this group that very well could be franchise-altering players if they meet their lofty projections, while others are simply ready to step into the NHL and help their teams. Either way, seeing so many youngsters come into the league really injects some extra enthusiasm for the coming year.
With so many quality players to pick from, I decided to break the best of the class into four categories. All rookies are not created equal and how their owner handles their development can be all over the map. Some are going to get called up and sent down throughout the year, while others are going to stick with the big club from opening night onward.
With that in mind, here's a look at some notable players with rookie eligibility (under the age of 26, with less than 25 NHL games under their belt) who could make some noise or at least some tough decisions for their teams this season.
Players listed in this category have the potential to be difference makers for their team, meaning they should play meaningful minutes and step into a more established role than your average rookie.
Nathan MacKinnon, Avalanche: The good news for the Avs is that they probably don't need MacKinnon to be a go-to producer, but that doesn't mean they won't want him to put up some serious points. Patrick Roy, who thrived as a junior coach in the same league that helped develop MacKinnon, is likely to let the big dog eat, so to speak. MacKinnon is ready to make an impact, but Avs fans should temper expectations to allow some time for the 18-year-old to adjust.
Danny DeKeyser, Red Wings: Though DeKeyser played a bit for the Red Wings last season, he's still considered a rookie. After signing as an unrestricted free agent upon the conclusion of his junior season at Western Michigan, DeKeyser showed he was ready for the NHL right away. It's not an easy jump from playing defense in college to logging a regular shift in the big leagues, but it was a mostly smooth transition for the 6-foot-3, 195-pound rearguard. The question now is if he's ready for the grind of an 82-game season. If he is, he could be a huge part of Detroit's defensive corps.
Seth Jones, Predators: David Poile nearly screamed when Jones fell to the Predators at No. 4 in June. His giddiness hasn't subsided as Jones has shown well in the preseason. He turns 19 the first week of the season, which means his NHL path is tougher to navigate. It's a tough position for a teenager to excel at, but Nashville has a history of developing top-end defensemen. Jones is likely to get a chance to play top-four minutes this year. The big defender is known for his unique story, being the Texas-born son of a former NBA player, but in scouting circles, it's his hockey sense that makes him a top prospect. Jones doesn't need to put up points to be effective, as he's also an elite defender. If he manages his transition, Nashville will be a tough team to score against this year.
Elias Lindholm, Hurricanes: In other years, Lindholm very well could have been a No. 1 pick. Instead, he fell to Carolina at No. 5 and the Canes were more than happy to take on this pro-ready Swede. Lindholm has been banged up throughout the preseason, however, which makes this projection a little risky. That said, the Hurricanes have a need at center, one that is expected to be filled by Lindholm as long as he is healthy. He's a solid two-way player and has some hockey smarts that should keep him available to Kirk Muller in a variety of situations. You don't normally want to play a rookie because you have to, but that may be where Carolina is right now. It'll be on Lindholm to take the ball and run with it.
Filip Forsberg, Predators: Well, someone is going to have to score in Nashville. A team that had a lot of trouble doing just that last season may get a big boost from the exciting Forsberg (no relation to Peter, by the way). Acquired in the trade that sent Martin Erat to Washington, Forsberg may have been undervalued by the Capitals. He has performed well in the preseason and has both the skill and physical strength to make a difference at the NHL level. The Preds are counting on it.
Aleksander Barkov, Panthers: The Panthers may have made the surprise pick in the top five with Barkov at No. 2 in June. But the big center has proven himself at the pro level and has shown the mix of size, strength, skill and hockey sense that makes him an ideal option at center. Barkov's play in Finland's top pro league, where he was one of the leading scorers for Tappara at just 17, is really encouraging, but Panthers fans should exercise caution in expecting immediate impact from the big forward. He was slowed by injuries at the end of last season and throughout the offseason. There's still plenty reason to be excited about what he can be in the near future.
Tyler Toffoli, Kings: After his 10-game stint in the regular season and another 12 in the postseason, Toffoli should have some high expectations on him coming into the year. Over those 22 games, he posted 11 points. He's a gifted offensive player who lit up the junior ranks while with the Ottawa 67s. That bit of NHL experience he got last year could go a long way in helping him play a more established role with the Kings. It should be interesting to see what he can do with a full season, if he gets the opportunity.
Players in this category are highly skilled players that very well could make a big impact for their club, but aren't as safe a bet as those listed above and some could even be loaned back to other leagues.
Valeri Nichushkin, Stars: He has been dazzling in preseason and has all the tools in the world to become a major contributor at the NHL level. After spending much of last season in the KHL, including a run to the league's championship series, Nichushkin is the most intriguing prospect coming into this year. What makes things a bit tricky with Nichushkin is if he does ever falter in the regular season. Dallas' options are limited in terms of how to handle him. They could keep him in Dallas or loan him back to the KHL's Dynamo Moscow. The fear of sending him back to the KHL could make for some tricky developmental decisions for Jim Nill and the Stars.
Jonathan Drouin, Lightning: The super-skilled winger is in the right spot to put up some serious points. Drouin, however, is a bit undersized and will need to build some strength over time. His skills are definitely NHL-ready, but the Lightning haven't committed to keeping him on the roster for the full season. He should get the nine games before a 10th would start his contract clock. If the Lightning put him in a position to succeed with some protected ice and good linemates, he could find a way to stick and produce.
Tomas Hertl, Sharks: The Sharks are looking ahead to what should be a really strong season in the Pacific Division. Hertl could make for even more excitement. The Czech forward has played really well in the preseason and certainly has the skill and size to play in the NHL. He has not played much in North America, though, which means he very well could get sent to the AHL for some extra seasoning. He'll make it a tough decision, though. Hertl is the top prospect in a relatively week pipeline in San Jose, so the Sharks should be careful with how he's handled, but he has looked exceptional in preseason action.
Boone Jenner, Blue Jackets: The Blue Jackets could get a boost from the pro-ready Jenner. His style just seems to fit in the NHL and he's proving it in the preseason. After an 82-point season in his last year of junior hockey with the Oshawa Generals last year, he's ready for the next step. As a 20-year-old, he should be a little bit more ready for what's to come than some of his rookie counterparts, which makes him look good as a Calder candidate.
Something to prove
These are players that are likely to see a fair amount of playing time in the NHL, but will have to earn everything they get this year.
Mark Scheifele, Jets: No rookie has more to prove than Scheifele, who has had two tries to stick with the Jets, but hasn't proven ready. An offensive wizard in the OHL, Scheifele is showing glimpses of what he brings to the table in the preseason. The Jets kind of need him to be a contributor this year as they make the move to the Central Division. He'll almost certainly be on the roster for good this season, but he'll be judged by how much better he can make Winnipeg in the third season since they made him the first draft pick of the new Jets.
Ryan Murray, Blue Jackets: After missing most of last season with a severe shoulder injury, Murray has been a really strong performer in the preseason. The No. 2 pick of the 2011 NHL Draft very well could be a top-four defenseman this year for the Blue Jackets. He has offensive capabilities and has always been a very mature player for his age. That said, the Blue Jackets have little need to rush Murray. If he needs a little extra time in the AHL after his lost season last year, he should get it, but don't expect Columbus to be shy in giving him an honest shot this year.
Sven Baertschi, Flames: The Swiss dynamo is one of the great hopes for the Flames in what could be an awfully long season. Or at least at this stage of his career it should be. He has had a very sluggish preseason and is possibly looking at another trip to the AHL. The Flames can't afford much more patience with the awfully skilled forward, due to their needs. At 20 years old, he has the experience to be a contributor at the NHL level, but there are enough question marks to wonder if he can make much of an impact on one of the league's weaker teams.
Ryan Strome, Islanders: He has always been one of the elite offensive players in junior hockey, but now the fifth overall pick in 2011 has to find a way to make an impact at the NHL level. He may end up seeing time in the AHL to get his pro legs under him a bit more, but Strome has the skill to be a productive player in the bigs. If he can contribute in any way, the Islanders will be that much tougher offensively.
Should he stay or should he go?
These are players that have the goods to make it in the NHL, but whose teams should be especially careful with their development.
Sean Monahan, Flames: It looks as though Monahan is going to make the team. The big question, however, is should they burn the first year of his entry-level deal on what is almost certainly going to be a dismal season? It's a valid question, but here's another one: What's best for his development? Monahan has the physical frame and smarts to play at the NHL level. Going back to junior might not be the best thing for a guy who could probably benefit from the challenges of the NHL. It is easy to get caught up in the financials, as those cheap ELC years can be high on value for the teams that get the most out of their youngsters. However, if Monahan's development stalls out in junior, it won't make a lick of difference. He'll certainly get his nine games at least, but if he has the goods to stick with the Flames and his development looks to be better served in the NHL as opposed to the OHL, that's where he has to be.
Morgan Rielly, Maple Leafs: Optimism is high for the Leafs' star prospect and he could even start the season in Toronto. The big question is whether or not Toronto can give him enough minutes to justify keeping him around. The problem is that they would have to send him back to the WHL, where he toyed with the competition last year. There's always things guys with Rielly's style can work on before making the jump, so it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world to keep him in the WHL, especially with Toronto's cap crunch.
Jacob Trouba, Jets: The man-child defenseman for the Jets is looking like he should get a chance to play in the NHL this season. Just a year removed from an All-American performance as a true freshman at Michigan, Trouba is showing he is at the very least close to ready for the pro game. However, it's fair to wonder if he would be better served playing top-two minutes in the AHL as opposed to protected minutes in the NHL. Trouba has the physical attributes of an NHLer, but he's also a vital piece of Winnipeg's future. There's nothing wrong with caution here, unless there's enough ice to go around for Trouba at the NHL level.