I’m sure you are all aware of Auston Matthews and his four-goal opener, and last year’s first-round pick of Connor McDavid, but there are many other young players drafted over the past few years who are already making an impact on the ice. On Wednesday night, the second overall pick in the 2016 Entry Draft, Patrik Laine, had a hat-trick, and topped it off with the overtime winner for the Winnipeg Jets.
I constantly hear from experts that the league is getting faster, and bigger. Well, that’s true. I’d bet any amount of money that a 18-year-old can skate faster than a 33-year-old. Coaches and trainers have these kids ready at such a young age, at least physically. Forty years ago in the NHL, 18-year-olds earned their stripes and weight in the minors, but now with the big money also comes big expectations and these kids are earning their stripes on the big clubs as cheaper, faster options instead of the 36-year-old journeyman.
The players below are on teams that are certainly headed in the right direction. In fact, some might have flown under the radar of your league mate, suggesting that you keep a watchful eye out.
Kyle Connor (LW, Winnipeg): Playing almost 16 minutes a game as a rookie, Connor is a huge part of Winnipeg's future. After breaking Paul Kariya’s NCAA freshman scoring record, Connor took his show to Winnipeg at the age of 20 and earned a spot on the Jets second line with Bryan Little and fellow super frosh Patrik Laine. The Jets are loaded with young talent and will be in the same boat Tampa Bay is right now, which is trying to figure out how to pay all these guys while keeping the team together to make multiple Cup runs. Now if they can unscrew this Jacob Trouba trade request and slash restricted free agency, it could make the Jets even stronger. Connor along with Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers and Trouba are cornerstones to a franchise turning that very corner, and possibly making the playoffs this year.
Leon Draisaitl (C, Edmonton): The third overall pick from the 2014 Entry Draft found his footing in the World Cup of Hockey last month, and has not stopped his aggressive style of play as of yet. After struggling over 37 games in his rookie year, Leon took huge strides forward in his first full season last year with 19 goals and 51 points, and he has started this season on fire. In many of my leagues, Draisaitl went undrafted, but after four games thus far, he is owned in all of them. Right now, the Oilers have Draisaitl centering the third line, but Leon is playing on the top power play unit. He was one of many “experts breakout” candidates this season, but with 51 points last campaign, Leon already broke out. He can and will top 60 points this year, so grab him now if he’s still available. With McDavid and Draisaitl down the middle and Jordan Eberle and Milan Lucic on the wings, Edmonton has talent to spare up front and Darnell Nurse on the back end. I like the way the Oilers are headed.
Sebastian Aho (RW, Carolina): This 19-year-old has a great chance to stay with the Canes after the nine-game tryout that many rookies go through, which pushes their rookie contracts back a year if they aren’t kept up with the big club. The second-round pick from Finland (2015) already has two helpers in three games, and along with the rest of his young teammates and management's savvy drafting, the Canes are looking at stocked cupboards for the long haul. Carolina won the Rookies Tournament up in Traverse City this year that is hosted by the Detroit Red Wings annually. Aho is one of the key pieces for the Hurricanes, not only for the future but for the present as well. He may be available for forward depth in many of your leagues.
William Nylander (C/LW, Toronto): After a 22-game successful sample to close out 2015--six goals and seven assists--Nylander is here to stay with the Leafs this year. Playing alongside Auston Matthews will help his cause, and along with Mitch Marner, the trio will grow and learn together. These three top draft picks are the future of the Leafs upcoming success. With four points in just three games, Nylander has NHL pedigree as his father played 16 seasons in the NHL (his brother is a prospect in the Sabres organization). This young Leaf was unowned in many leagues I drafted in as well, but after two assists on Matthews' four-goal night, he became a must-own. If Nylander gets between 30-40 points this year, it would be a great start. If he gets more, he will be in the running for the Calder Trophy as the league’s best rookie.