The NHL is a conveyor belt with every new season marking the arrival of a fresh crop of future stars. Rare talents can sometimes dominate the first time they touch NHL ice and never look back. For others, rookie seasons are meant for acclimation, learning and flashing high-end potential.
In 2022-23, there isn’t a Kirill Kaprizov, Cale Makar or Auston Matthews-type rookie talent demanding headlines around the league. Exciting youngsters are still, however, making an immediate impact, playing essential roles and establishing themselves as future franchise cornerstones. Here are 10 of the league’s most promising rookies, now that we’re roughly a quarter of the way into the season. This isn’t meant to be a breakdown of the Calder Trophy race necessarily, so keep that in mind.
Matty Beniers’ emergence as a top-six catalyst has catapulted the Seattle Kraken into legitimate playoff contention. You could see a performance like his coming a mile away. Beniers was electric in preseason and had a dazzling cameo down the stretch at the end of last season where he notched nine points in 10 games.
The 20-year-old center leads all rookies with 14 points in 19 games and has looked like Seattle’s best forward for some stretches, especially in October. Five of his six goals and 11 of the 14 points came at five-on-five which is always an encouraging sign. Beniers plays a high-tempo, determined style with great vision off the rush and clinical finishing around the net. He ranks second behind only Jordan Eberle in terms of his offensive zone carries rate among Kraken forwards, according to Corey Sznajder’s tracking data. Here’s one example of his playmaking on the counterattack.
Beniers has made a precocious all-around impact beyond just the point totals. He’s detail-oriented, wins battles and leverages his speed to make an assertive two-way impact. He ranks third among Kraken forwards in averaging 17:29 per game. He’s driven a healthy 52 percent expected goal share at five-on-five, according to Evolving-Hockey, which means he hasn’t been caved in defensively like a lot of young forwards.
Beniers has been a quick study in the faceoff dot, winning a 50 percent or greater share of draws in seven of his last 10 games after a rough start in the circle. That’s a meaningful improvement because coaches often hesitate to fully trust young centres until they’re competent in taking draws.
When it was announced that Robin Lehner would miss the 2022-23 season with hip surgery, many started to write off the Vegas Golden Knights as a top team. Vegas’ backup Laurent Brossoit was battling injury uncertainty of his own and that meant the club’s hopes would rest on the shoulders of Logan Thompson, a name that sounds like it’s auto-generated by EA Sports.
It’s time to put some respect on Thompson’s name.
Thompson hasn’t just been competent as the Golden Knights’ starter, he’s been rock solid. The journeyman 25-year-old netminder is sporting a .925 save percentage and is tied for second among all NHL goalies with 11 wins.
Of course, it’s helped that the environment in front of him has dramatically improved. Vegas’ blueline has gotten a shot in the arm from Alec Martinez’s healthy play and Alex Pietrangelo playing some of his best hockey and Bruce Cassidy’s arrival as head coach has significantly tightened the club’s defensive form. The Golden Knights are the fifth-best defensive team in the league this season according to Evolving-Hockey’s expected goals model.
Thompson, a rare right-handed catcher, has still saved six goals more than expected. He was solid for Vegas in 19 games down the stretch last season and is now establishing himself as a true No.1 goaltender.
Owen Power has been a two-way force on the Sabres’ blue line. Blessed with a massive six-foot-six frame and smooth skating, Power leads all rookies in ice time and is 29th among all NHL defensemen in averaging 23:31 per game. Don Granato had to lean on the young defender more than expected due to injuries, namely Mattias Samuelsson’s, which temporarily forced Power up onto the top pair alongside Rasmus Dahlin.
Power has crushed the heavy workload. The Sabres have earned 56 percent of five-on-five scoring chances with Power on the ice, which has translated to an impressive 22-16 goal differential. How is Power driving play so well?
One of his best assets is his outlet passing ability. Power ranks third among NHL defencemen in entry passes per game (passes that spring a teammate for a controlled offensive entry) per Stathletes.
Entry passes per game ?? pic.twitter.com/vQpSK38emV
— Meghan Chayka (@MeghanChayka) November 23, 2022
Here’s a great example of that where Power threaded the needle through a maze of Montreal sticks for a gorgeous entry pass that sparked a goal.
Power’s impressive play-driving results also stem from his ability in the offensive zone. He’s poised and intelligent with the puck at this point. He’s also able to use his skating and reach to pinch down the wall and break plays up to keep offensive zone possessions alive.
Power may not finish the season with huge point totals — he has nine points in 20 games — because Dahlin quarterbacks the top power-play unit. But his all-around impact has been immediate and authoritative.
Expectations for Jake Sanderson were high given his draft pedigree (No. 5 at the 2020 draft), dominant sophomore campaign at the University of North Dakota and the Senators’ desperate need for high-end talent on the blue line. Sanderson’s been everything Sens fans could have hoped for, emerging as a legitimate top-four stud and only getting better every game.
Similar to Power, blue line injuries have thrown Sanderson into the fire. Sanderson has done everything for Ottawa in Chabot’s absence in the last five games. He’s logged 23:49 minutes of ice time, defended against top lines, quarterbacked the power play and contributed on the penalty kill.
Sanderson’s been a transition dynamo on both sides of the puck. The 20-year-old is an excellent skater who’s led the most controlled exits among Ottawa’s defencemen this season according to Sznajder’s data. He’s defended the rush like a seasoned pro, allowing controlled entries against at the lowest rate of all Senators blueliners per Sznajder.
Ottawa’s controlled 53.7 percent of five-on-five scoring chances with Sanderson on the ice, and outscored opponents 17-12. The rookie is advanced beyond his years with the puck and has looked like the club’s best defenseman this season. He’s second among rookies with nine assists through 19 games.
Sanderson’s 20:48 average ice time this season is almost three minutes fewer than Power, but the former has interestingly faced more difficult matchups against top forwards based on HockeyViz’s data.
Jack Quinn was snakebitten for a while but has finally been getting rewarded. Quinn’s now jumped up to nine points in 15 games. He’s begun to click especially well on a young guns line with Dylan Cozens and fellow rookie JJ Peterka.
The assertiveness Quinn has already shown as a play driver is impressive. He leads Sabres forwards in driving a 58 percent share of shot attempts and a monster 62.5 percent expected goal share. Quinn’s impact at tilting the ice has translated on the scoresheet with a 9-5 goals edge. That’s the key to the early success he and Peterka have found — they can create offence, yes, but the coaching staff doesn’t have to worry about whether they can be trusted from a two-way perspective.
Quinn’s offensive confidence is taking off as well. Check out the sweet, patient move he made to undress Jordan Binnington for his second goal on Wednesday night:
Jack Quinn does it all himself for a terrific end-of-the-game tally, Sabres up 6-1!#LetsGoBuffalo pic.twitter.com/PkKr6nnutX
— Hockey Daily 365 l NHL Highlights (@HockeyDaily365) November 24, 2022
The Edmonton Oilers don’t look quite right this season.
Head coach Jay Woodcroft helped Edmonton take a legitimate step forward in the second half of last season, evolving to build a consistent, sustainable infrastructure around Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl where the club could genuinely control play. The Oilers have regressed this season, especially defensively. Edmonton ranks 27th in the NHL in surrendering 33.8 shots against per 60 minutes at five-on-five. Only Arizona, Ottawa, Chicago, Columbus and Anaheim — teams that are either rebuilding or off to awful starts — are worse at shot suppression.
Those issues have been compounded by Jack Campbell’s early struggles.
Stuart Skinner’s excellent play in net is one of the only reasons (besides McDavid and Draisaitl) the Oilers have managed a respectable start. Skinner has posted a .921 save percentage in 10 appearances which is impressive considering how permissive the Oilers have been in front of him. He’s saved 6.5 goals above expected according to Evolving-Hockey’s model.
It feels like we’re on the cusp of a goalie controversy in Edmonton when Skinner’s brilliance is juxtaposed with Campbell’s disappointment.
Shane Pinto’s calling card has usually been his all-around impact rather than his high-end offensive output. That’s why it’s been a pleasant surprise to see him scoring a rookie-leading eight goals in 19 games, three more than the second-place Beniers. Pinto was initially slotted as the Senators’ third-line center behind Josh Norris and Tim Stützle, but Norris’ injury has created uncertainty down the middle.
The 2019 second-round pick has been most dangerous as a catch-and-release shooter when others have been able to set him up. He’s shown a quick, decisive release, thriving from the bumper spot on the power play in particular.
The speed on Shane Pinto’s one-timer on one knee though ?#GoSensGo pic.twitter.com/9eWiDIKxGZ
— Ottawa Senators (@Senators) October 15, 2022
Pinto’s slowed down since his blistering start with just four goals and no assists in 13 games since Norris’ absence, including just two in his last 10. That’s understandable, he wasn’t expected to be a top-six quality scorer, nor was he going to score on every third shot he took for the entire season. The good news is that he’s kept his shot rate up, leading all first years with 40 shots. Oh, and he’s already an ace in the face-off dot, winning 55.9 percent of his draws this season.
Ondrej Palat’s injury created a top-nine hole for the Devils, an opportunity that Fabian Zetterlund has seized and ran away with. The 23-year-old winger has scored 10 points in 15 games, spending most of his time on a line with Nico Hischier and Tomas Tatar, although he and Dawson Mercer flipped in the middle-six recently.
Zetterlund checks so many of the boxes that you look for in a complementary top-nine winger.
He’s fast closing on pucks and wins a lot of battles due to his jacked frame, a combination that makes him disruptive and annoying on the forecheck. From there, he’s a pretty strong finisher which is essential when you’re playing with high-end talent. Top players who draw defenders and create open ice for others need linemates like Zetterlund who can absolutely rip the puck when given a chance.
KIDS: Goal scoring is a mindset. Check out Zetterlund from NJD on this play. THIS IS A GOAL SCORING MENTALITY.
He gets to open ice and then watch his body language. He’s low, ready to bomb away, and DEMANDS the puck from his teammate. If you want to score, this is mentality. pic.twitter.com/jMykOffbho
— The Hockey Think Tank (@HockeyThinkTank) October 31, 2022
I’d be careful reading into his off-the-charts amazing underlying numbers. He’s been put in a tremendous position to succeed next to Hischier who’s an elite two-way driver on a Devils roster that’s already throttling opponents possession-wise. With that said, Zetterlund’s robust physical game and ability to excel in the dirty areas is a necessary ingredient for a Devils lineup that was criticized last season for being too easy to push to the perimeter.
A fourth-round pick from 2019, Matias Maccelli has 11 points in 17 games. Maccelli’s emergence didn’t totally come out of left field as he dominated in the AHL with 57 points in 47 games as a 21-year-old last season. Still, he was barely on anyone’s radar, perhaps because his 23-game NHL cameo in 2021-22 was lackluster.
This time, the creative, undersized winger has been a bright spot for the Coyotes. Maccelli’s a pure playmaker thanks to how elusive he is in tight spaces and the high-end vision and processing he demonstrates.
Look at the assist below, for example. Maccelli receives the puck at the point and instantly knows he wants to feed Juuso Valimaki at the backdoor. He looks in Valimaki’s direction, loads the puck back and lifts his leg, all to sell the pass. The defender bites to take the lane away, Maccelli explodes to his left to create separation for a new passing lane and feeds Valimaki for the goal anyway. It’s very impressive deception and timing.
Seven of Maccelli’s 11 points have come on the power play. There’s tangible improvement with his puck management and defensive commitment compared to last season but there’s still plenty of work required to bolster his even-strength impact.
10. Kent Johnson, Columbus Blue Jackets
Is it time to free Kent Johnson? Johnson’s scored nine points in 16 games despite averaging less than 13 minutes per game and playing on the wing instead of his natural position, centre. The fifth pick in 2021 has moved up to the top power-play unit but ranks 10th among regular Blue Jackets forwards in five-on-five ice time.
Brad Larsen doesn’t think Johnson’s ready for the defensive responsibilities of a larger role. The concerns are understandable. Johnson has room to improve with his board battles, overall strength and decision-making with the puck. But Johnson looks like he could break out offensively if unleashed which could give a spark to the spiralling Blue Jackets.
Johnson has the most electric offensive skill set of this rookie class. He has lightning-quick hands, excellent playmaking vision and elite edge work.
Kent Johnson’s skating is such a treat to watch. Showing great edge work and confidence in his NHL debut pic.twitter.com/O0VwNZmO4M
— Harman Dayal (@harmandayal2) April 14, 2022
There’s zero doubt that he’s going to be a top-line force one day. The transition doesn’t have to happen now, but the Blue Jackets need to chart a plan for Johnson to move back to center given the club’s lack of scoring punch down the middle.
Cole Perfetti: Perfetti looked a clear-cut above his peers at the Penticton Young Stars prospect tournament in the fall. The polish, attention to defensive detail and smoothness he showed allowed him to effortlessly control play at both ends every time he stepped on the ice. He was rewarded with a top-six opportunity alongside Blake Wheeler and Pierre-Luc Dubois in training camp and hasn’t looked back since.
Perfetti’s speed is lacking a touch which doesn’t always mesh with Dubois, but he’s leaned on his intelligence and quick reads to make an impact in the offensive zone. The 20-year-old winger has registered nine points in 17 games. He’s worked diligently away from the puck which is why he’s retained this consistent top-six opportunity that other rookies aren’t trusted to get. Perfetti’s high work rate has also been a catalyst for sick plays like this.
Mason McTavish: McTavish hasn’t received the kind of lucrative, big-minutes opportunity that Trevor Zegras did as a rookie. That makes the nine points he’s notched in 19 games more impressive. He’s growing into a more substantial role recently, however, as he’s moved up to the Ducks’ top power-play unit.
JJ Peterka: Like Quinn, Peterka’s been a crucial middle-six cog with his secondary scoring ability and play driving.
Jordan Harris and Kaiden Guhle: Both Canadiens’ young defenders were thrust into big minutes roles due to injuries. Guhle’s been a physical beast and chipped in with eight points. He’s been caved in defensively but that’s understandable given the arduous workload and the fact that he was partnered with David Savard earlier in the season, who was really struggling. Harris has quietly driven positive shot, expected goal and actual goal differentials at five-on-five.
Calen Addison: Addison has room to improve defensively and round out his game, but he’s chipped in with 10 points in 19 games from the back end.
Ice time and analytics data accurate prior to Nov 23’s games.
(Top photo of Owen Power: Dan Hamilton / USA Today)