By Jason Chen, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
It’s never too early to think ahead. With the 2017-18 NHL regular season nearly finished, here are some players to keep in mind for next season and some to avoid. The league is flush with talent and all eyes should be on the new guard.
ON THE RISE
Brock Boeser, RW, Canucks
A back injury cut his season short but in the 62 games he played with the Canucks he was dynamite. Teams caught on pretty quickly that Boeser was their most dangerous scorer, but he still managed to score 29 goals and is arguably the league’s most dangerous player in the slot with his tremendous release. With the Sedin brothers retiring, Boeser will become the focal point of the offense in the future, and he’ll have plenty of help as the Canucks bring in some of their top prospects next season, including Jonathan Dahlen and Elias Pettersson.
Kyle Connor, LW, Jets
It was in the middle of Connor’s freshman season at Michigan when people realized he was ready for the NHL, and his 35 goals and 71 points in 38 games confirmed it. In his first full season with the Jets, Connor has scored 30 goals and 55 points, and earned the trust of Paul Maurice to play on the top line. His speed and skill make him a good fit on the team’s top line, and once he adds some strength and experience he could easily become a point-per-game player. Teammate Jack Roslovic, who was also taken in the first round in 2015, is also the real deal. The Jets are one of the most talented and complete teams in the league.
Pierre-Luc Dubois, C, Blue Jackets
He’s playing on the team’s first line against tough competition every night and still has the ability to score 20 goals. PLD is a cornerstone piece for the Jackets, and he’s earned the trust of the demanding John Tortorella, whose track record with young players has always been rather good. With linemate Artemi Panarin proving as good a playmaker as anyone, PLD’s being put on a path to success and running away with it. There are no other young centers who can threaten Dubois’ spot on the top line, and down the stretch he has routinely played 17-20 minutes per game.
Clayton Keller, LW, Coyotes
The puck’s like a magnet on his stick as he shimmies and dances around defenders, and in his first full season he’s already leading the team in points with 64 in 80 games. There will be times when Keller scores in spurts, but there’s no denying the Coyotes are using him as the centerpiece of the offense. Help is coming, too, with Dylan Strome and Nick Merkley arriving and Christian Dvorak and Christian Fischer ready to take another step.
Travis Konecny, RW, Flyers
Konecny has scored 34 points in his last 40 games heading into the final weekend, and if there was any doubt that it’s just because he gets to play next to Claude Giroux, you’d only need to see Konecny play. He’s scored some highlight-reel goals and plays a style the Bullies would be proud of, and he’s doing all this despite averaging 14:53 per game. It’s reasonable to expect he’ll get much more ice time next year after spending the early part of the season in the bottom six.
Mitchell Marner, RW, Maple Leafs
He’s scored 34 points in his last 28 games, excelling in a top-six role after playing on the fourth line at one point during the season. He’s a small but creative playmaker and together with William Nylander and Auston Matthews will form the pillars of the Leafs offense. He averaged just 15 minutes per game to start the season but climbed to 18:30 in March, and even though he plays on the second line and on the second power-play unit, his role will surely increase next season.
Brayden Point, C, Lightning
He’s quietly been one of the best players on one of the best teams in the league with 31 points and a plus-18 rating. His emergence as a capable No. 2 center has pushed Tyler Johnson down the depth chart and trails only Nikita Kucherov in ice time. Point scored more than 30 goals three consecutive seasons in the WHL and despite being undersized has no problems scoring in the NHL.
Erik Haula, C, Golden Knights
Haula was a bottom-six forward with a lot of speed and versatility with the Wild, but scoring was never a strong suit. His level of talent never really indicated that he was capable of scoring 29 goals, his shooting percentage is nearly five percentage points higher than his previous average, and the Knights have quite a few players who are really overachieving. It’s possible that everything’s just going right for them in their inaugural season, which means a crash back down to earth is possible next season.
William Karlsson, C, Golden Knights
I hate to pick on the Knights, but there’s just no way a shooting percentage above 20 percent is sustainable. After scoring 15 goals in 162 NHL games, Karlsson’s exploded for 43 goals (and counting) this season. He beats every eye test as a speedy, two-way forward with some skill, but he still doesn’t quite belong in the same conversation as Patrik Laine or Alex Ovechkin. There are just too many red flags to really believe in Karlsson after only one season.
Milan Lucic, LW, Oilers
At this rate it’s unlikely Lucic will ever score 30 goals again, and in arguably the worst season of his career it looks like he’ll never be a top-six winger the Oilers envisioned. He’s just too slow and cumbersome in a league that wants to play fast, and because he can’t get to his spots on the ice he can’t use his strength to create scoring chances. He’s never been a great shooter or a playmaker, which means his use is quite limited.
Vladislav Namestnikov, LW, Rangers
He went from playing with the top two scorers in the league to a rebuilding team asking him to play more defense, and it’s showed with just four points in 16 games with the Rangers. He’ll be an important piece of the Rangers roster next season, but his stats will suffer if he doesn’t play with elite scorers. Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil arguably have higher ceilings.
Rick Nash, LW, Bruins
This is the 13th season Nash has scored at least 20 goals, which is a great feat but also one that shows his age. The 33-year-old is a borderline second-line winger at best now and has not yet managed to stay healthy for an entire season since leaving Columbus. He’s shooting a lot less, too, so there will be fewer goals and more grinding in the future.
Alex Steen, LW, Blues
For the fourth consecutive season Steen’s point total has dipped, and for the third straight season his average ice time has also declined. At 34, Steen’s role with the Blues will keep diminishing and even though he remains a solid two-way veteran, his best offensive seasons are clearly in the rear-view mirror. He’s scored just four goals in his last 27 games and has not scored more than 20 goals in three seasons.