The last two seasons were two of the best rookie classes in some time. The likes of Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine all entered the league. There’s also Jack Eichel, Artemi Panarin, Shayne Gostisbehere, Zach Werenski, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Matthew Tkachuk, and Sebastian Aho, who have all made their marks on the league. I could go on and on. You’d think that, with the past two seasons, this year’s class wouldn’t be able to top it. That’s where you are dead wrong. There are a ton of rookies that are playing big roles for their teams this season. Maybe it’s because more teams have to rely on younger talent because they are on cheaper contracts. Maybe it’s because the NHL has gotten faster, and younger players tend to be faster. It’s probably both of these reasons, but either way, the NHL is going through a youth movement, and it’s really exciting to watch. So, if you can grab any of these players, do it.
There is a high likelihood that Mathew Barzal, Brock Boeser, and Charlie McAvoy are already taken in your league. But I did want to mention them because they are all likely fighting for the Calder trophy. This is assuming they don’t get injured, of course. If you were able to draft any of them or pick them up on the free agent market early in the season, then you probably got a steal.
I’ve talked about Barzal before, but he has since picked it up immensely. He is one of the hottest players in the NHL right now. He currently has 47 points in 46 games. He recently had a span of 10 points in three games, including a five-point game against the Rangers. This was his second five-point night of the season, and he is the 13th player since the 2005-06 season to have multiple five-point games in a season. Only Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, and Evgeni Malkin have had more than two in a single season.
Barzal was the 16th overall pick in the 2015 draft. It’s been beaten to death at this point, but the Bruins, Oilers, and Penguins all could have picked Barzal in that draft. The Bruins had three consecutive draft picks right before the 16th pick. The pick that was used to select Barzal originally belonged to the Penguins, who traded that pick to the Oilers for Justin Schultz. The Oilers eventually traded that pick to the Islanders for Griffin Reinhart. Looking back at the draft often leads to hindsight bias. But it is a crazy thing to think that Barzal could have been on the same team as Patrice Bergeron, Connor McDavid, or Sidney Crosby. Even though Barzal was projected to go in the top 10, he somehow slipped. It was believed that his injury, which kept him out for a couple of months in the WHL, scared teams away. In fact, because Barzal was expected to go early in the draft, the Islanders didn’t even interview him. The Islanders didn’t even have a first-round pick. For years, New York did a terrible job of building around John Tavares. Now that Tavares is on his last year of his contract, the Islanders have a bunch of players, most notably Barzal, Josh Bailey, Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle, that might entice him to stay a couple of more years. However, if Tavares does sign with another team, Barzal has proven that he can be a franchise player.
Another franchise player that is emerging this year (who was also drafted in 2015) is Brock Boeser. Even though the Canucks haven’t been good for a while, this was the first year that they admitted to rebuilding. The Sedins are in their last years with the team, and there will be an influx of young players for the Canucks in the coming years. That said, they currently have Bo Horvat and Brock Boeser, who will be core members for the Canucks in the coming seasons.
Horvat injured his ankle in early December and is expected back in February. The Canucks weren’t expected to compete this season, but it is still sad to see Horvat get injured. In the meantime, Boeser has given the Canucks fanbase some hope. Boeser leads the Canucks in points with 40 in 42 games. Fifteen of those points have been in Horvat’s absence. Barzal has a lot of assists, but Boeser has a lot more goals. Boeser already has 22 goals and is on pace for 41. For reference, Auston Matthews had 40 goals last year. This 20-year-old Minnesota native is already becoming the face of the franchise and is one of the best goal scorers in the game. Boeser looks like a player a team can build around.
Barzal and Boeser will be spending the second half fighting for the Calder trophy. It goes without saying that they should be owned in every league, as they are likely to get 60 or more points each. There are a few other rookies who will be fighting for the third nomination. Charlie McAvoy of the Boston Bruins is getting the most buzz recently, as he has the most ice-time for a rookie with 22 minutes on average. McAvoy has 24 points in 42 games with 92 hits, as he is also not afraid to use his body. McAvoy has five assists in the last five games. Like the Canucks and Islanders, McAvoy fills a need that the Bruins have desperately wanted for the past couple of seasons — a two-way defenseman that could potentially replace Chara when he retires in a couple of years.
Some other rookies worth mentioning who could heat up even more in the second half:
Clayton Keller, who has 34 points in 46 games, still third in rookie scoring despite slowing down a bit. He has been the only bright spot to the Coyotes’ trainwreck of a season.
Nico Hischier has been a great two-way forward and has gone through some dry-spells. However, he still has 27 points in 43 games. He could have a great second half. The Devils also have Jesper Bratt, who has 29 points in 43 games, and Will Butcher, who has 26 points in 43 games. All three of these players have helped New Jersey take the next step as contenders.
The Bruins are one of the hottest teams in the league. Some of that credit goes to their rookies. I mentioned Charlie McAvoy, but Danton Heinen deserves recognition, too. Heinen is on the third line but is getting time on the power play. His future is unclear, but with 31 points in 39 games, he’s looking good so far. Also, Jake DeBrusk is another rookie who has been contributing for the Bruins. He has 24 points in 39 games while playing mostly on the second line. DeBrusk was one of the three picks the Bruins took in 2015, as mentioned earlier. Although the Bruins could have had Barzal and Boeser with those picks, it seems like DeBrusk might actually be a good player.
The Chicago Blackhawks have a tricky cap situation and are now beholden to playing young players on cheap contracts. Alex Debrincat and Nick Schmaltz have been the best Chicago has to offer. DeBrincat has 28 points in 48 games, while Schmaltz has 32 points in 41 games.
Mikhail Sergachev, who has 26 points in 44 games, will now be taking over the injured Victor Hedman’s responsibilities on the ice. Yanni Gourde, another Lightning rookie who has brought added depth to Tampa, has 30 points in 40 games.
Kyle Connor has 28 points in 40 games and has fit in well in Winnipeg’s top six. With Laine, Wheeler and Ehlers and now Connor, the Jets have the best wingers in the NHL. This is a good sign for the future.
Pierre-Luc Dubois (22 points in 46 games) has become the top-line center for the Blue Jackets. This has been big hole since Ryan Johansen was traded. It was kind of a surprise that the Jackets went with Dubois as the third overall pick in 2016, so it’s nice to see that he isn’t a complete bust.
Alex Kerfoot, who has 30 points in 40 games, has quietly taken over the second line center role since Matt Duchene was traded. Although Kerfoot doesn’t have a lot of shots, he is one of the reasons the Avalanche have been hot lately. He has turned into a pretty good playmaker.
Historically, rookies are known to be inconsistent. They are young and have to figure out how to play a full season and become a complete player. But all of these players have had their moments this season where you can tell they have figured things out. Teams will soon figure out how to better defend these rookies, and some of them may wear down as the season goes on. After all, the NCAA and the CHL play fewer than 82 games. Having said that, it’s hard to predict which rookies will have a late-season surge. There may even be a player not listed here.
In July, I wrote an article about the top 10 rookies to watch for, and you can see that I didn’t even have Barzal or Dubois in the top 10. I didn’t even have half of these guys in the honorable mentions. This just goes to show that rookies are hit and miss and can be low risk and high reward. The fantasy owners who picked up Brock Boeser, Charlie McAvoy or Mathew Barzal early in the season are pretty happy right now.