One of the most entertaining parts of the NHL preseason is tracking the progress of rookies around the league. Which prospects are ready to make the jump to hockey’s top level? Which ones still need more seasoning?
Over the last few years, it seems like more and more players are showing up at their first training camps looking NHL-ready and eager to make an immediate impact. Inexpensive entry-level contracts also make rookies appealing to clubs that are struggling to stay under the league’s salary cap.
Charting the courses of the game’s top prospects is thrilling. Watching sleepers emerge might be even better. Last year, 25-year-old Jordan Binnington came out of nowhere at midseason to establish himself as an NHL starter and Stanley Cup winner. Back in 2015, Russian free-agent import Artemi Panarin and third-rounder Shayne Gostisbehere were impressive enough in their first years to beat out Connor McDavid in Calder Trophy voting.
With preseason nearing its end and teams getting closer to making their final roster decisions, here’s a look at nine rookies to keep an eye on this year.
Stats are complete through September 25.
Cale Makar – D – Colorado Avalanche
Perhaps the top candidate for the Calder Trophy going into the season, the fourth-overall pick from the 2017 draft showed the hockey world why he was so highly regarded when he effortlessly jumped into the heat of battle in the NHL playoffs last spring.
In 10 games after turning pro following the end of his sophomore season at UMass Amherst, the smooth-skating defender averaged 17:22 of ice time per game and posted a goal and five assists.
With right-side defenseman Tyson Barrie now in Toronto, Makar is expected to play a big role on an emerging Avalanche team this season.
Alexandre Texier – C/LW – Columbus Blue Jackets
The Columbus Blue Jackets’ forward group was decimated when Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel all departed as unrestricted free agents. But the team has a gem coming up in Alexandre Texier.
The 20-year-old, drafted out of France in the second round in 2017, came to North America at the end of last season after two successful years in Finland’s top league. Under John Tortorella, Texier played a more limited role than Makar did in Colorado, but he impressed his coach enough to dress in eight of the Blue Jackets’ playoff games, where he contributed two goals and one assist.
Drafted as a center, Texier has gotten a preseason look in Panarin’s old spot, on left wing with Pierre-Luc Dubois and Cam Atkinson. If he starts the regular season there, he could end up among the top rookie scorers of the 2019-20 campaign.
Nick Suzuki – C/RW – Montreal Canadiens
Prospect Ryan Poehling made a splash by scoring a hat trick in his first career NHL game for Montreal at the end of last season. His quest for a roster spot with the big club this year has been complicated by eight days off the ice after he suffered a concussion in preseason action on September 18.
Poehling’s misfortune has helped open the door for Nick Suzuki, the 20-year-old first-rounder who came to the Canadiens a year ago as part of the return in the Max Pacioretty trade.
Suzuki has been an offensive wizard in junior hockey and has teamed up with quality linemates in a busy preseason, where he has shown he can handle the defensive workload required to succeed at the NHL level. In three games, he has three assists, and scored this GIF-worthy shootout goal.
After the Canadiens successfully integrated just-drafted Jesperi Kotkaniemi into their lineup last season, Suzuki may be the next rookie to get a chance to help spark Montreal’s return to playoff contention.
Jack Hughes – C – New Jersey Devils
Jack Hughes turned 18 in May and he’s listed at just 5’10” and 170 pounds on the New Jersey Devils’ website. But 2019’s first-overall draft pick has wasted no time showing that he can handle himself at the NHL level.
A skilled center, Hughes picked up three goals and an assist in his first two preseason contests — and was named first star both times.
In preseason, Devils’ coach John Hynes has primarily been deploying Hughes with veteran agitator Wayne Simmonds, who has decent hands of his own and can ensure that the rookie will get the time and space he needs. On the other wing, Nikita Gusev is too old for Calder consideration at 27 but his soft hands should also help drive offense for the Devils this season.
Kaapo Kakko – RW – New York Rangers
On the other side of the Hudson River, this year’s second-overall draft pick is generating nearly as much hype on Broadway with the retooled New York Rangers as Hughes is in New Jersey.
Kaapo Kakko is now listed at 6’3” and 199 pounds. Physically, he looks like he’s better-suited than Hughes to jump straight into the NHL grind.
An illness limited Kakko’s action at the Rangers’ prospect tournament and he has just one assist in his first two preseason games. Still, it looks like Rangers coach David Quinn is planning to insert the 18-year-old straight into his top six and use him with fellow new arrivals Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba on his first power-play unit.
Klim Kostin – C – St. Louis Blues
The St. Louis Blues aren’t looking to make many changes to their roster following their Stanley Cup win last June, but Russian winger Klim Kostin is forcing the team to take a long look at including him in the opening-night lineup.
Drafted 30th overall in 2017, the hulking forward hasn’t been a big point-producer during his two AHL seasons. But his six points in four preseason games lead all rookies through September 25, making him hard for the Blues brass to ignore.
Even if Kostin starts the year back in San Antonio, keep an eye on him as a possible mid-season call-up. As long as the team doesn’t swoon back to last place before he arrives, no one associated with the Blues would mind if Kostin turns out to be this year’s version of Jordan Binnington.
Rasmus Sandin – D – Toronto Maple Leafs
It used to take years for defensemen to hone their game to NHL standards. These days, more and more youngsters are showing that they have the skill and the poise to handle their responsibilities without long periods of seasoning. The Toronto Maple Leafs are thrilled that one of those players is their first-round draft pick from 2018.
Just 19, Rasmus Sandin has been effective enough through preseason that he’ll likely start the year on Toronto’s third pairing. Sandin’s entry-level salary with no bonus provisions is also just the ticket for a club that will need to do some serious manoeuvring to get its top-heavy roster under the salary cap by opening day.
Quinn Hughes – D – Vancouver Canucks
There’s a long road still ahead, but Quinn Hughes and his brother Jack have a chance to make history this season as the first brother combo in NHL history to be named finalists for the Calder Trophy.
One year older than Jack and drafted seventh overall in 2018, Quinn is a slick puck-moving defenseman who dazzled fans in Vancouver and collected three assists in his first five pro games at the end of last season.
After Elias Pettersson’s impressive NHL debut earned him the Calder in 2019 and Brock Boeser finished second in voting to Mathew Barzal one year earlier, the Canucks are on a roll with their rookies. It’s hoped that Hughes can use his vision and puck distribution skills to help vault Vancouver back to respectability this season after a four-year absence from the playoffs.
Cody Glass – C – Vegas Golden Knights
When the Vegas Golden Knights ran their first draft in 2017, it was assumed that the expansion club would build itself out over a few years around a foundation of its three first-round draft picks — Cody Glass (6th), Nick Suzuki (13th) and Erik Brannstrom (15th).
Two years later, all three are now pushing for NHL jobs. But trades have landed Suzuki in Montreal and Brannstrom in Ottawa, while the veteran-heavy Knights might not have room in their lineup for Glass.
Vegas is deep down the middle with William Karlsson, Paul Stastny and Cody Eakin set in their roles. They’re also in win-now mode — primed to take advantage of a weak Pacific Division and prove that their first-season run to the Stanley Cup Final was no fluke.
With three assists in three preseason games, Glass looks ready for NHL duty — even if it ends up being on the wing. Once he sticks with the big club, he’ll become the first player ever drafted and developed by the precocious Golden Knights organization.