It’s a great time to be a young hockey player. Probably more so than ever before, as the NHL is seeing the average age of its players drop thanks to kids on entry-level contracts who are sticking with their clubs and earning roles with significant responsibility. Most teams have uniformly ditched the outdated philosophy that experience trumps puck skills, and the NHL’s headline grabbers are getting younger and younger by the year.
This trend isn’t limited only to North America. Sweden’s Elias Pettersson, drafted fifth overall in 2017 by Vancouver, was still a teenager last season when he was named the SHL’s Most Valuable Player, and defenseman Miro Heiskanen, the Stars’ top prospect, was one of the youngest players to be named best defenseman of Finland’s elite SM-Liiga.
They are two of dozens of teens and early 20-somethings who are on the cusp of leaving their imprint on a league that now is far more forgiving toward neophytes than in previous generations. A league-wide focus on speed and skill over size and strength is apparent for forwards and defenseman alike, and recent drafts have shown us that teams are more inclined to invest in players who know what to do with the puck rather than simply trying to stop the other team from controlling it.
Several youngsters expected to be NHL regulars in 2018-19 should have no problem exploiting this trend, with the aforementioned Pettersson at the forefront. Although his dizzying exploits with the puck are by no means unique among NHL rookie hopefuls, his destruction of adult-age competition in Sweden was historic — even more so than Rasmus Dahlin setting the SHL’s all-time scoring mark for 18-year-old defenders.
Pettersson not only broke Kent Nilsson’s 42-year-old junior scoring mark with 56 points in 44 games, but also led the league in scoring. These feats were accomplished in his first post-draft season, and surpassed junior-aged accomplishments of Hockey Hall of Famers Mats Sundin, Peter Forsberg and the Sedin Twins — the greats at the very top of the pantheon of Swedish-trained forwards.
So how do the others stack up? For starters, Buffalo prospect Casey Mittelstadt was the most dominant player at the last under-20 world junior hockey championship, and virtually single-handedly carried a weak Minnesota Gophers squad to win the team MVP award in his first NCAA season.
Although his production (30 points in 34 games) appears pedestrian, Mittelstadt led his team in points-per-game average (0.88) and by season’s end was playing on the top line and power-play unit. His decision late last season to leave college for the NHL appears to be the right choice, especially after he registered five points in his six games as a Sabre. The chemistry he had with Jack Eichel was evident from the onset, so pencil in Mittelstadt to be among the league’s top rookies scorers and help out Buffalo’s anemic power play.
Much like Pettersson, Carolina draftee Andrei Svechnikov had a season for the ages, at least from an analytical standpoint. Had he not missed time with a broken hand, the Russian sniper was on pace to score over 50 goals at even strength, thus giving him the highest goals-per-60 minutes of any Canadian Hockey League player in nearly 20 years. Throw in the likelihood that he will be playing a significant role for Carolina alongside their talented playmakers like Sebastian Aho, and you could see Svechnikov eclipse the 30-goal mark as an NHL freshman in 2018-19.
Dahlin, June’s No. 1 overall pick, also is expected to leave an imprint on the league at an early age. And why not? He’s proven time and again he can handle the intense pressure of playing under the spotlight for Sweden’s most popular club, in addition to logging big minutes as the season wore on. And playing on the same power play with the likes of Eichel and Mittelstadt should help his numbers look better than your average NHL rookie defender.
Yet still, defenders generally take a bit longer to get adjusted to the NHL, and in the last 55 years, only three teenage defensemen — Denis Potvin, Ray Bourque and Aaron Ekblad — won the Calder Trophy in their first post-draft season. That’s not to say Dahlin won’t contribute and likely out-produce most rookie rearguards. The chances are greater, however, that any of the aforementioned forwards will end up exceeding expectations and produce a Calder-winning season.
Below is a list of some of the best and brightest prospects you should expect to see in the NHL either this season or next. All of the players listed below are eligible for the NHL’s Calder Trophy, and those over the age of 26 or with more than 25 games of NHL experience were left out of Sporting News’ rankings.
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1. Elias Pettersson, W/C, Canucks
Age: 19 // Drafted: Fifth overall, 2017
This dynamic 19-year-old playmaker accomplished one of the greatest seasons in Swedish Hockey League history. Pettersson crushed the SHL’s junior scoring records and is expected to be Vancouver’s new face of the franchise.
2. Andrei Svechnikov, RW, Hurricanes
Age: 18 // Drafted: Second overall, 2018
A pure goal scorer in the mold of Ilya Kovalchuk and Patrik Laine, only Svechnikov is reliable in his own end. His physical and mental maturity complements an elite skill set that should help him be among the NHL’s goal-scoring leaders throughout his career.
3. Rasmus Dahlin, LHD, Sabres
Age: 18 // Drafted: First overall, 2018
The most heralded defense prospect in over 40 years has the strength and compete level to complement his superior play with the puck. It may take a season or two to get into high gear, but there’s no reason to think Dahlin won’t be one of the game’s preeminent defenders for as long as he’s in the league.
4. Casey Mittelstadt, C, Sabres
Age: 19 // Drafted: Eighth overall, 2017
Putting up points has been pretty easy for Mittelstadt, who has Patrick Kane-like puck skills that should help Buffalo’s power play. His ability to be either a playmaker or finisher continues to keep opponents guessing.
5. Eeli Tolvanen, RW/LW, Predators
Age: 19 // Drafted: 30th overall, 2017
Tolvaven smashed the KHL’s junior scoring record after being inexcusably passed over until late in the first round of the 2017 draft.
6. Kirill Kaprizov, LW, Wild
Age: 21 // Drafted: 135th overall, 2015
One of the KHL’s top players seems quite comfortable playing there. But the lure of the NHL could mean bad news for opposing goalies.
7. Miro Heiskanen, LHD, Stars
Age: 19 // Drafted: Third overall, 2017
The best European defenseman not named Dahlin can play close to 30 minutes a game while showcasing his outstanding puck management skills and skating. He’s the most NHL-ready of any defense prospect in the league.
8. Filip Zadina, LW, Red Wings
Age: 18 // Drafted: Sixth overall, 2018
A top-notch goal scorer who plays with fire and tenacity in all three zones, Zadina has perennial 30-goal potential.
9. Conor Timmins, RHD, Avalanche
Age: 19 // Drafted: 32nd overall, 2017
Mature and poised defender was the key cog in Sault Ste Marie’s attack. Timmins is NHL ready and ridiculously smooth.
10. Adam Boqvist, RHD, Blackhawks
Age: 17 // Drafted: Eighth overall, 2018
A dynamic puck rusher with a blistering shot, Boqvist has all the tools necessary to put up points with regularity.
11. Dylan Strome, C, Coyotes
Age: 21 // Drafted: Third overall, 2015
It’s taken longer than expected, but Strome’s dominant AHL season should be enough to earmark him for Arizona’s top line within the next year or two.
12. Ryan Donato, C/W, Bruins
Age: 22 // Drafted: 56th overall, 2014
Donato capped off a brilliant season with an impressive nine points in 12 NHL games. Even a contending team as deep as the Bruins should find a way to make room for him in the top six.
13. Robert Thomas, C, Blues
Age: 19 // Drafted: 20th overall, 2017
Thomas was magnificent while leading Hamilton to the OHL crown and the Memorial Cup. His three-zone play, creativity and nonstop motor set him well above his major junior peers.
14. Martin Necas, C, Hurricanes
Age: 19 // Drafted: 12th overall, 2017
A natural center who has played like a savvy veteran in each of his two seasons in the elite Czech Extraliga. Necas has the size and top-end speed to make him one of the game’s most dangerous open-ice threats.
15. Cale Makar, RHD, Avalanche
Age: 19 // Drafted: Fourth overall, 2017
Explosive offensive defenseman who had a strong rookie season for a young Minutemen squad. Makar’s howitzer from the point gave collegiate goalies fits all season.
16. Kristian Vesalainen, LW, Jets
Age: 19 // Drafted: 24th overall, 2017
Vesalainen is a dangerous power forward thanks to his ability to make slick plays from in tight. He can outthink and outmuscle defenders trying to thwart his rushes to the cage.
17. Ilya Samsonov, G, Capitals
Age: 21 // Drafted: 22nd overall, 2015
Last year’s best goaltending prospect outside North America no longer is outside North America. Samsonov signed with the Capitals and will compete to become Braden Holtby’s backup in 2018-19.
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18. Anthony Cirelli, C, Lightning
Age: 21 // Drafted: 72nd overall, 2015
A tough two-way center who has a reputation for elevating his play when it matters most, Cirelli parlayed a fine rookie AHL season into a depth role for the Cup-contending Bolts.
19. Joel Farabee, LW, Flyers
Age: 18 // Drafted: 14th overall, 2018
You don’t need to interview a dozen NHL scouts to figure out why this dynamic two-way winger is destined for a successful NHL career. He drove the NTDP’s top line before 2019 draft prospect Jack Hughes arrived.
20. Filip Chytil, C, Rangers
Age: 18 // Drafted: 21st overall, 2017
One of the AHL’s youngest players turned out to be one of its best, as Chytil showcased his patience and creativity while making smart plays in all situations. He should be groomed to be the Rangers’ top-line center.
21. Sami Niku, LHD, Jets
Age: 21 // Drafted: 198th overall, 2015
Talk about the rich getting richer. Niku went from being Winnipeg’s seventh-round pick in 2015 to winning the AHL’s top defenseman award last year, in his rookie season no less.
22. Klim Kostin, RW, Blues
Age: 19 // Drafted: 31st overall, 2017
A rare Russian-trained forward who made the direct jump from the KHL to the AHL, Kostin is a teenage power winger with outstanding vision and a cannon for a shot who posted an impressive 28 points to finish sixth in Springfield scoring.
23. Henrik Borgstrom, C, Panthers
Age: 20 // Drafted: 23rd overall, 2016
A late bloomer who was a first-round pick in his second year of eligibility, Borgstrom was one of the NCAA’s top centers while at Denver and is expected to challenge for a top-nine role with the Panthers.
24. Joe Veleno, C, Red Wings
Age: 18 // Drafted: 30th overall, 2018
Veleno has elite speed, vision and two-way play, which were consistently downplayed all season. There’s a strong chance Veleno gets added to the list of previous late first rounders who could make teams regret passing on them.
25. Brady Tkachuk, LW, Senators
Age: 18 // Drafted: Fourth overall, 2018
Everybody keeps talking about Tkachuk’s grit, leadership and intangibles. But they best not forget how skilled with the puck he can be. Tkachuk has excellent vision and is far more creative than your average power forward.
26. Ty Smith, LHD, Devils
Age: 18 // Drafted: 17th overall, 2018
Go ahead and look it up: Smith is the best two-way defenseman the Devils have drafted since Scott Niedermayer. His elite vision and off-the-charts hockey sense are two things an up-tempo team like New Jersey needs on its blue line.
27. Ilya Sorokin, G, Islanders
Age: 22 // Drafted: 78th overall, 2014
Being the top-paid player on his KHL team, let alone their full-time starting goalie, is the biggest hurdle facing the Islanders in their attempts to lure Sorokin to the NHL. With goalie whisperer Mitch Korn on board, there’s no reason to think Sorokin isn’t destined for success after he decides to cross the pond.
28. Quinn Hughes, LHD, Canucks
Age: 18 // Drafted: Seventh overall, 2018
This likely is the lowest Hughes will ever fall in any ranking of any kind, as he’s beyond gifted and thinks the game one and two plays ahead of everyone else.
29. Oliver Wahlstrom, RW, Islanders
Age: 18 // Drafted: 11th overall, 2018
Sniping power winger whose spike in production alongside an elite playmaker like 2019 draft prospect Jack Hughes makes him an easy choice to flank Mathew Barzal for the next decade and beyond.
30. Thatcher Demko, G, Canucks
Age: 22 // Drafted: 36th overall, 2014
The Canucks are in desperate need of help in goal, and Demko is the best among the handful of quality netminding prospects in their pipeline. The Boston College product was one of the AHL’s top backstops last season.
31. Cody Glass, C, Golden Knights
Age: 19 // Drafted: Sixth overall, 2017
Portland’s crafty center may have to wait a few years before the Cup-contending Golden Knights can make room for him. Few teenage players epitomize the term “makes others around him better” more than Glass, who has posted a team-best 102 points last year.
32. Vitaly Kravtsov, RW, Rangers
Age: 18 // Drafted: Ninth overall, 2018
A phenomenal freshman season in the KHL was enough to convince the Rangers that this Russian dynamo should be the centerpiece of their rebuild. Kravtsov has electrifying puck skills and is deadly in open ice.
33. Gabe Vilardi, C/W, Kings
Age: 18 // Drafted: 11th overall, 2017
Vilardi delivered a monster half season in the OHL, his first as an unshackled top-line center. He averaged nearly two points per game and still hasn’t turned 19 years of age.
34. Carter Hart, G, Flyers
Age: 19 // Drafted: 48th overall, 2016
Calling any teenager the Flyers’ future goalie is one of hockey’s proverbial scarlet letters, so expectations need to be tempered. Nonetheless, Hart had an excellent WHL career and most certainly is ready to tackle a role in the AHL.
35. Alex Nedeljkovic, G, Hurricanes
Age: 22 // Drafted: 37th overall, 2014
The Hurricanes finally severed ties with Cam Ward after a dozen years as their starting goalie, and having Nedeljkovic in the pipeline made the process negotiable. He’s been stellar in the AHL and should continue to be groomed as Carolina’s future starter.
36. Jesperi Kotkaniemi, C/LW, Canadiens
Age: 18 // Drafted: Third overall, 2018
If there’s one kid who can handle the Montreal pressure cooker, it’s this likable Finnish playmaker, who capped off an impressive draft year by torching the competition at the under-18 world championships.
37. Philippe Myers, RHD, Flyers
Age: 21 // Drafted: UDFA
A smothering defender with a massive wingspan and excellent mobility, Myers has been a rock for Philadelphia’s minor league affiliate in Lehigh Valley and should be challenging for a full-time NHL role this season.
38. Noah Dobson, RHD, Islanders
Age: 18 // Drafted: 12th overall, 2018
Carrying the defense corps of a Memorial Cup champion wasn’t enough to get this smothering puck mover drafted in the top 10. But Dobson is exactly what the Islanders needed, albeit a few years from him having a profound impact on how well they defend as a team.
39. Evan Bouchard, RHD, Oilers
Age: 18 // Drafted: 10th overall, 2018
There are several reasons to explain why the Oilers’ power play (with Connor McDavid, no less) was one of the league’s worst, with one of them being the lack of a bona fide quarterback. Bouchard was drafted with the intent to one day fill that role, which may happen as early as this season.
40. Troy Terry, RW/C, Ducks
Age: 20 // Drafted: 148th overall, 2015
Terry has a well-earned reputation for being a clutch player and winner, which made his selection to the U.S. Olympic Team far from surprising. He can fill a variety of roles, but he also has an advanced brain that makes him a coach’s primary option to help accomplish any mission.
41. Tim Liljegren, RHD, Maple Leafs
Age: 19 // Drafted: 17th overall, 2017
An unfortunate bout with mononucleosis during his draft year knocked this Swedish puck rusher off the top of most draft rankings, and the Maple Leafs couldn’t be happier for that happening. Liljegren had a bumpy rookie season in the AHL, but his skating and timing are back to where they were before he got sick.
42. Kailer Yamamoto, RW, Oilers
Age: 19 // Drafted: 22nd overall, 2017
Few wingers at any level have Yamamoto’s vision and creativity, and he’s never been the type of winger to rely on anyone to create time and space for him.
43. Morgan Frost, C, Flyers
Age: 19 // Drafted: 27th overall, 2017
The top scorer for last year’s best regular-season team in the entire CHL is the most talented center in the Flyers’ deep system. He’s capable of putting up points and is deadly on the power play.
44. Erik Brannstrom, LHD, Golden Knights
Age: 18 // Drafted: 15th overall, 2017
An on-ice general who dictates the tempo of shifts with regularity, Brannstrom makes up for a lack of length by using his thick frame and leg drive to separate bigger forwards from the puck.
45. Barrett Hayton, C, Coyotes
Age: 18 // Drafted: Fifth overall, 2018
Hayton was able to distinguish himself as a consistent performer in all three zones as Sault Ste Marie advanced deep into the OHL playoffs. He owns a deadly shot and is an exceptional penalty killer.
46. Jordan Greenway, RW, Wild
Age: 21 // Drafted: 50th overall, 2015
Drafted as a role player on a deep NTDP squad, Greenway has blossomed into a real leader who uses his massive wingspan and balance to possess the puck from the duration of his shifts. Luke Kunin’s knee injury opens the door for Greenway to surpass him on the depth chart.
47. Owen Tippett, RW, Panthers
Age: 19 // Drafted: 10th overall, 2017
Speed and power are what helps Tippett make his money from the wing, and his blistering shot from any angle has goalies heading for the hills.
48. Jordan Kyrou, RW, Blues
Age: 20 // Drafted: 35th overall, 2016
The reigning OHL MVP has the wheels and finishing ability that any team would want from its flankers. International tournaments aside, Kyrou needs to learn how to elevate his game in big moments.
49. Igor Shestyorkin, G, Rangers
Age: 22 // Drafted: 118th overall, 2014
It’s not going to be easy to find a replacement for Henrik Lundqvist, but this Russian-trained phenom the last few seasons has been one of the KHL’s top netminders. To be fair, he’s played for a stacked SKA team, so it’s still a mystery how he’ll perform with a shaky defense corps before him.
50. Aleksi Heponiemi, RW, Panthers
Age: 19 // Drafted: 40th overall, 2017
This Finnish playmaker’s 90 assists for Swift Current was the highest single-season total of any WHLer in the last 20 years. Heponiemi is wiry and needs to fill out more, but his stickhandling and vision are at an elite level.
Steve Kournianos is the founder of TheDraftAnalyst.com, a blog dedicated to the NHL Draft. He is a former prospects writer for ESPN.com and worked briefly for the Associated Press and McKeen’s Hockey. He also covered the Boston Bruins, the AHL and Hockey East for SportsTicker, and was a minor league baseball editor for Howe SportsData.