Janet Eagleson, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
We’ve been spoiled by the caliber of NHL rookies in the last few years. In 2015, we had Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. Last year, we had Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine. But this year, you’ve probably heard the crop of talent just isn’t that good.
Wrong. Really, really wrong.
Now, it’s true that there wasn’t a generational talent in the 2016-17 NHL Entry Draft. But the depth of potential high-end talent in this year’s Calder class is really quite extraordinary. I had a hard time narrowing the field to just 10 guys.
The normal caveat applies – these players will make impacts if they make their respective teams. But most, if not all, of the 10 you see below are already penciled into regular roles. Ditto almost all of the honorable mentions, too.
These players are listed in order of their chances of making it onto the Calder ballot, from most to least likely. Barring injuries, of course. But any of these guys could surprise. And in big ways.
1. Clayton Keller, C/RW, Arizona Coyotes
Keller is arguably the best prospect in hockey. His offensive creativity is off the charts, and his agility and speed allow him to slip away from contact with cat-like ability. That’s a great trait for a 5-foot-10, sub-170-pound forward. He was electric in the NCAA in 2016-17, delivering 45 points in just 31 games. Keller is projected to start in the Coyotes’ top-six ranks and should make an impact almost immediately. Obviously, there will be peaks and valleys for him, given the sad state of his team and the inevitable fatigue that comes with the transition from college hockey. But Keller has a reputation as a Patrick Kane clone and could be among the NHL’s elite in a few short seasons.
2. Nico Hischier, C, New Jersey Devils
Hischier’s game is full of flash – his skating and offense are absolutely electric. But his two-way game and defensive conscience set him apart from most of this year’s rookie class. Hischier has drawn comparisons to Pavel Datsyuk, Joe Pavelski and Claude Giroux. That’s heady praise for the slight 18-year-old, but I’m not about to argue. The door is open in Jersey for him to step into a top-six role almost immediately, and he could find himself skating with Taylor Hall. Look out.
3. Charlie McAvoy, D, Boston Bruins
Defensemen rarely get a real sniff in their rookie season (let alone the first several years), but McAvoy is in a class of his own and could make a Zach Werenski-like impact in the Hub of Hockey in 2017-18. He stepped into the Boston lineup in last year’s playoffs and not only put up three points in six games, but looked every bit a 10-year veteran. McAvoy carried a heavy workload and didn’t skip a beat. At 19! He’s an absolute natural whose crisp passes, great reads and unflappable poise will push him up the lineup in his first NHL season. McAvoy will finish second behind only Torey Krug in offense from the Bruins’ blue line this season, and 40 points are a distinct possibility.
4. Thomas Chabot, D, Ottawa Senators
Chabot is an elite puck mover, and with Erik Karlsson out, the door is wide open in Ottawa for him to become the go-to man on the Sens’ blue line. He can skate, he makes perfect passes, and he shuts guys down, too. Now, the NHL is very different from juniors, but the 20-year-old Chabot has a chance to showcase his skills in the Sens’ aggressive system. His steady, unflappable approach could deliver an Aaron Ekblad-like rookie impact.
5. Nolan Patrick, C, Philadelphia Flyers
Patrick is a blue-chip pivot with size, speed and skill, and he’ll step into an immediate role in the Flyers’ top nine this season. Cripes, he might even settle in on the second line. Patrick has been compared to Eric Staal, and some scouts have said he’ll be Jonathan Toews lite. Expect some speed wobbles over the course of the season as adjusts to NHL life, but he’ll be well insulated on a team that looks poised to rebound dramatically in 2017-18.
6. Joel Eriksson Ek, C, Minnesota Wild
Eriksson Ek is already a well-rounded pivot with tantalizing offensive upside, and he’s penciled in as the Wild’s third-line center. He sits behind the oft-injured Mikko Koivu and aging Eric Staal, who isn’t likely to repeat his 65-point heroics of 2016-17. Eriksson Ek’s role and ice time will creep up quietly over the course of the season, and don’t be surprised if he starts to hop the boards in the top-six ranks after the calendar flips to 2018.
7. Tyson Jost, C/LW, Colorado Avalanche
Jost is the next Joe Sakic in Colorado. That’s Sakic the player, not Sakic the failed executive. He drives offense, drips of compete and leadership, and already has an excellent two-way game. The Matt Duchene era is about to end in the Mile High City, and Jost will be a big part of the answer. The only caveat? The Avs really only have a couple NHL-caliber defenders, and they’ll struggle to push the puck up to their forwards. Jost will need to generate his own offense; he can do that, and well, but he’s unlikely to match the productivity of the higher-ranked guys on this list.
8. Alex DeBrincat, RW, Chicago Blackhawks
DeBrincat is like a stick of dynamite – he can explode offensively at any time. He’s lightning fast with a rocket shot, and he’s not afraid to go into the dirty areas of the ice despite his 5-foot-7 frame. DeBrincat scored 65 goals and 127 points in 63 games with OHL Erie last season, adding another 38 points in 22 playoff games. The ‘Hawks could use some cap relief, and DeBrincat’s spectacular skills and entry-level contract could make him a cheap addition to one of the league’s best teams. He’ll be a fan fave and a media darling — and a very worthy fantasy pickup.
9. Kyle Connor, LW, Winnipeg Jets
Connor is a blue-chip prospect with Dylan Larkin-like speed who can deliver offense at warp speed. His offensive game, particularly his sniping, will soon have him and Patrick Laine among the best one-two left-wing punches in the NHL. Connor is slotted onto the third line to open this season, but he’ll press second-line winger Mathieu Perreault game in and game out. Coach Paul Maurice won’t be afraid to slot the kid up alongside Brian Little and Nikolaj Ehlers occasionally, and Connor’s speed will be a lethal force there. Watch camp carefully and be ready to pounce. He moves up this list to the top five if he wins that second-line role.
10. Jusse Saros, G, Nashville Predators
Saros is way under the rookie radar, but he might end up at the top if Pekka Rinne’s game continues going south. The talented Finn doesn’t fit the prototypical tall-and-lanky mold, but man, does he compete. The 5-foot-11 Saros has athleticism to spare, and he delivered a 2.35 GAA and .924 save percentage in 21 games last season. Playoff surge notwithstanding, Rinne is in decline, and Saros is just an injury away from a starting gig. A Calder nomination would come with that, too, especially with the best blue line in the West in front of him.
Brock Boeser, RW, Vancouver (stud who’d be in the top 10 if he wasn’t on the bubble); Pierre-Luc Dubois, C, Columbus (needs development time, but good enough to be a third-line NHL pivot now); Joshua Ho-Sang, RW, NY Islanders (sizzling speed and a shot to play alongside a stud); Mikhail Sergachev, D, Tampa Bay (the stud that got away from the Habs could be seeing top-four minutes by season’s end); Daniel Sprong, RW, Pittsburgh (elite skill and a shot to play alongside a stud); Dylan Strome, C, Arizona (second-line pivot responsibilities on a bad team will drag down first-year production); Colin White, C, Ottawa (busted wrist will keep him out for 6-to-8 weeks, taking away a sure gig).