Roundtable: Which of the top 2017-18 rookies will go on to have the best career?
Greg Wyshynski, senior writer: Nico Hischier earned comparisons to Pavel Datsyuk heading into the 2017 NHL Draft, which isn’t entirely fair to the Swiss rookie, as Datsyuk had an otherworldly goal-scoring ability. But you could see strands of the Detroit Red Wings legend’s DNA in Hischier’s hockey genome during his rookie season with the New Jersey Devils, who drafted him first overall: last June The speed, the awareness and, most of all, his grand larceny of opposing players, relieving them of possession of the puck with frequency.
Hischier had 52 points in 82 regular-season games for the Devils this season, including 19 of his 20 goals at even strength. Sure, he had a zone-start disparity to the tune of 60 percent in the offensive zone, but that’s a function of playing with Taylor Hall. (And yeah, playing with Hall for the foreseeable future is a nice benefit as well.)
Hischier is only going to get better — and hopefully bigger, as he adds a bit more to that 19-year-old frame. Brock Boeser might score more goals. Mathew Barzal might have more points. Charlie McAvoy might continue his trajectory to become the next great Bruins defenseman. But Hischier has all the tools to become one of those two-way, 200-foot top line centers to whom Selke Trophies are handed.
Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: As the Chicago Blackhawks prepare for an eventual world without Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, I see them depending a lot on Alex DeBrincat for scoring. The 20-year-old winger quietly (because of the Blackhawks’ struggles) scored 28 goals this season. Though he exceeded even Chicago GM Stan Bowman’s expectations in Year 1, there’s a reason Chicago drafted DeBrincat: he just finds a way to score. (He posted 50-goal seasons at various levels in each of his four seasons before coming to the NHL.) We have already seen this postseason how important Hischier and McAvoy are to their respective teams. Meanwhile, Boeser may already be the next face of the Vancouver Canucks following the retirement of the Sedins.
My answer, however, is Barzal, the unequivocal Calder Trophy front-runner. Russ Farwell, the GM of Barzal’s junior team, the Seattle Thunderbirds, told me in January that, as he watched Barzal thrive with the New York Islanders from afar, the thing that impressed him most was that Barzal hadn’t changed his game at all — despite the significant talent jump from the WHL to NHL. Combine that confidence with pure talent and you have a recipe for a long and illustrious NHL career. Plus, everything you hear about Barzal is that he’s a true student of the game. The 20-year-old is poised for long term success.
Sachin Chandan, ESPN the Magazine researcher: My thought is that if you can play defense, you will last a long time in this league. McAvoy does that and more for the Bruins, as the 20-year-old defenseman his thrived in the role he’s been thrust into this season. McAvoy has been second on the team in minutes, and has a 55.7 shot-attempts percentage, best among NHL rookies this year. In his 22:09 of ice time, McAvoy has 412 offensive-zone starts and 328 defensive-zone starts, which means the Bruins are trusting him to dictate play at both ends. Building on this, McAvoy has seen significant power play and penalty kill time, a veteran stat line that I love because it shows he has developed enough to be a playmaker at every role. On that penalty kill, McAvoy shuts down shooting lanes on his side of the ice, and against the other team’s top power-play unit. Team captain Zdeno Chara is 40 now, and the Bruins may already have their blue line anchor for the next decade.
Chris Peters, NHL prospects columnist: Without taking anything away from Barzal’s sensational rookie season, and while also acknowledging the heightened expectations I have for his career, I think Clayton Keller of the Arizona Coyotes has the biggest boom potential of any of this year’s rookies. Boeser, McAvoy, Hischier et al obviously have a great opportunity to do something special in their careers. But I think Keller has the most potential to be his team’s offensive focal point, which is why — when all is said and done — he will be the real gem of this rookie class.
Keller had 65 points this season, second most among rookies. He went through the ups and downs many first-year players do, with a fluctuation in production. Part of that was because he was on a team that struggled. That said, the 2016 seventh overall pick showed how much he can flourish on his own through long stretches of the season thanks to his high-level puck skills and hockey sense. Keller, 19, is also year younger than the two players who likely will end up getting more Calder votes than he does — as they should. The list of teenage rookies to contribute at least 0.79 points per game over the last 20 years, as Keller did, is 10 players long.
The biggest reason why I think Keller ends up among the best in his class comes down to usage. He is going to be a top-line player. Keller is essentially the centerpiece of the Coyotes’ young core. He was the team’s MVP this year in a season that went off the rails a bit too quickly, but there is reason for optimism. The Coyotes were a middle-of-the-pack team for the 2018 portion of the season after goalie Antti Raanta finally got healthy. Keller was a key in that growth as well, with 29 points in his last 32 games. He is the Coyotes’ future at this point, which I think is going to give him more opportunities to put up bigger numbers down the road and help bring this team back to contender status.
The good news for the NHL and the rest of us is that every year now, multiple impact players enter the league. It has been a lot of fun to watch, and seeing this class grow will be no different. What a great time to be a hockey fan.