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When a young player comes into the NHL and makes a statement, it’s easy for the masses to believe he’s on track for a long, successful career. Look at Connor McDavid, who won the 2017 Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP in only his second season.
But the Edmonton Oilers man is the exception, not the rule—and even he had to deal with a healthy dose of adversity when he missed 37 games with a broken collarbone during his rookie year.
The league’s impressive young players all deal with ups and downs before it becomes clear whether they’re supernovas or lasting stars.
Here’s a look at six rookies who turned heads during the 2016-17 season but will face tougher roads during their sophomore seasons.
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Rookie performance: Jakob Chychrun dropped to the 16th spot in his draft year but was the only defenseman from his class to spend the full 2016-17 season in the NHL. He tallied 20 points in 68 games with the Arizona Coyotes, tied for sixth among all rookie blueliners.
The Coyotes did restrict Chychrun’s usage through the year. He averaged a relatively conservative 16:40 per game—20th among rookie defensemen who played at least 25 games. The 19-year-old was also healthy scratched 13 times during the season.
Analysis: The Coyotes were doing a good job of managing Chychrun’s role while easing him into the NHL, but his development suffered a setback in early August when he suffered a knee injury that required surgery, according to the team’s website. Per the announcement, his status won’t be updated until the Arizona training camp begins on September 14.
Outlook: Whether Chychrun’s surgery is major or minor, the timing is terrible. Most players get back on to the ice in August after a summer of workouts in the gym, so he’s missing out on valuable skating time he needs to properly prepare for his second NHL year.
Once he gets back into action, Chychrun’s development may be affected by the changes that have gone down in Glendale during the offseason. Trading Connor Murphy for Niklas Hjalmarsson dramatically changes the look of the Arizona blue line and new head coach Rick Tocchet may choose to deploy Chychrun differently from ousted bench boss Dave Tippett.
A graduate of the OHL’s Sarnia Sting who doesn’t turn 20 until next March, Chychrun is too young to be assigned to the AHL this season. He could do a 14-day conditioning assignment with the Tuscon Roadrunners when he comes back from his injury, but beyond that he’ll either stick with the big club or be reassigned to junior.
It looks like Chychrun faces plenty of uncertainty as he heads into his second NHL campaign.
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Rookie performance: A late bloomer, Los Angeles Kings defenseman Derek Forbort was drafted 15th overall back in 2010 but didn’t become a full-time NHL player until last season.
An early-season injury to Brayden McNabb moved Forbort up the depth chart. He ended up playing most of his season on the team’s top pairing with Drew Doughty and finished the year with 18 points.
Analysis: Forbort hasn’t been a big point producer at any level. At 6’4″ and 216 pounds, he’s more of a shutdown defender and is a good skater for his size.
The 25-year-old was able to elevate his game enough last season to make McNabb expendable in the expansion draft, but how much of that success was a result of being paired with Doughty, one of the league’s elite blueliners?
Outlook: Like Chychrun, Forbort will be working under a new head coach next season as John Stevens takes the reins. But he has been with the Kings organization since 2010, so he and Forbort do have a pre-existing relationship.
Forbort logged a substantial 20:06 of ice time per game last season, including significant time on the Kings’ penalty kill, which was fifth best in the league.
As Stevens strives to ignite the offense, Forbort could be shifted into a strictly defensive role, which could mean losing that prime spot on Doughty’s left side at 5-on-5.
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Rookie performance: After spending a year playing pro hockey in Switzerland, Auston Matthews was drafted first overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2016, then shattered all expectations.
Starting with a four-goal performance on opening night, the 19-year-old went on to win the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. His 40 goals and 69 points set new Leafs franchise records for rookies.
Analysis: Far from being a tentative newcomer, Matthews was ready to take on the challenges of NHL life from the first time he laced up his skates. He also showed a knack for clutch play—his eight game-winning goals tied him for fifth in the league.
Outlook: The Leafs’ progress in 2016-17 dramatically exceeded expectations. When that happens, some regression is almost inevitable.
Matthews will be playing next season with a long list of sophomore teammates including Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Connor Brown, Zach Hyman and Nikita Zaitsev. They will all be moving past the phase of wide-eyed wonder, recognizing that it’s tough to get to the NHL but even tougher to stay there.
The Leafs announced themselves as a team to be reckoned with when they made the playoffs last season, then raised eyebrows as they battled the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington Capitals through six tight first-round games—all decided by one goal, with four outcomes in overtime and one in double overtime.
After that performance, no team will take the Leafs lightly next season.
Also worth considering—Matthews was healthy as a horse in 2016-17, appearing in all 82 games with ice time that stayed reasonably consistent all year long. At some point he will suffer an injury or wear down from the constant pounding of the long NHL schedule. Don’t be surprised to see him go through a lull and possibly miss some games next season.
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Rookie performance: Goaltender Matt Murray played 13 regular-season games and won a Stanley Cup during the 2015-16 season, before his official rookie year even began.
Last year, the 23-year-old went 32-10-4 in 49 regular-season games with the Pittsburgh Penguins. A torn hamstring sidelined him for the early part of the playoffs, but he reclaimed the net midway through Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final.
Murray’s official rookie season ended with a second Stanley Cup after he posted a 1.70 goals-against average and .937 save percentage in 11 postseason games.
Analysis: After his strong performance in the 2016 playoffs, Murray was trusted as Pittsburgh’s No. 1 netminder for the 2016-17 season, supplanting longtime incumbent Marc-Andre Fleury.
When June’s expansion draft necessitated a quick decision about the Penguins’ goaltending future, general manager Jim Rutherford opted for the younger Murray.
Fleury left Pittsburgh on a high note, with his third Stanley Cup. He was critical to keeping Pittsburgh’s playoff hopes alive while Murray was sidelined.
Murray’s hamstring injury hasn’t been his only issue during his brief pro career. As well as missing two games around the turn of the year with a lower-body injury, he suffered a broken hand during the 2016 World Cup of Hockey and dealt with a concussion near the end of the 2015-16 regular season.
Outlook: Murray has proved himself as a talented goaltender with nerves of steel, but his durability has been an issue and his role as a pure starter will be different next year, without Fleury to spell him off.
The Penguins made a frugal choice when they signed 33-year-old Antti Niemi to back up Murray next season, at a cap hit of just $700,000. The Finn won a Stanley Cup in 2010 and was a Vezina Trophy finalist in the 2012-13 season, but he’s coming off two tough seasons with the Dallas Stars.
This year, Murray will feel the pressure of being the undisputed No. 1 on the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions. Combined with the wear-and-tear on his wiry body as his workload increases, he’ll have a tough time improving on his rookie-season record.
As long as the Penguins make the playoffs, Murray will have the chance to erase talk of a sophomore slump if he can deliver another outstanding postseason performance.
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Rookie performance: An agitator of the highest order, Matthew Tkachuk had no trouble jumping from junior straight to the NHL after he was drafted sixth overall in June.
Playing primarily in a top-six role with linemates Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik, Tkachuk finished seventh in the league in rookie scoring with 48 points in 2016-17. He also led all rookies with 105 penalty minutes.
Analysis: Tkachuk’s playing style makes him stand out when he’s on the ice, but he averaged a relatively modest 14:39 per game last season—14th among rookie forwards with more than 25 games played. Of that, 2:01 per game came on the power play, where he collected 13 points.
Coach Glen Gulutzan may have been sheltering the rookie from certain game situations. The 19-year-old also took himself out of action with regularity thanks to all his penalties. Going forward, he’ll be treated as a repeat offender after he picked up his first career suspension in March with an elbow on Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings.
Outlook: When a rookie such as Tkachuk goes after a Norris Trophy winner like Doughty, the Department of Player Safety notices. So do players and fans. All of that puts a target on the teenager’s back going into the new season.
Now that he’s a known entity, Tkachuk will get a rougher ride from opponents. That will make it harder for him to find the time and space he needs to contribute offensively—and to set up in front of the net, where he does his best work.
The heavy play against him could leave Tkachuk dealing with injuries during his sophomore season. At best, he will need to battle that much harder to give himself opportunities to succeed.
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Rookie performance: Zach Werenski was a revelation for the Columbus Blue Jackets last season—a 19-year-old who had teased his tremendous potential when he joined the AHL’s Lake Erie Monsters for their run to the 2016 Calder Cup following one year of college at the University of Michigan.
He immediately became a fixture on the Columbus blue line. His 21 points with the man advantage ranked him in the top 10 in the entire league for power-play points by a defenseman.
With 78 games played, Werenski finished the year leading all rookie defensemen in points (47) and shots (188). He was named a finalist for the Calder Trophy and finished third in the voting.
Analysis: Ask Shayne Gostisbehere how tough it is to stay consistent as a power-play specialist. In his rookie year, the Philadelphia Flyers blueliner collected 46 points in 64 games and finished second in Calder Trophy voting. He dropped to 39 points in 76 games last season and was even healthy scratched for a few games.
Young players can use the element of surprise to make themselves successful on the power play. Their job gets much harder once opponents start figuring out how to defend them. In Werenski’s case, he scored 14 of his 21 power-play points last season before the end of December.
Werenski has better size and more of an all-round game than Gostisbehere, but it’s not unreasonable to think his point totals could drop now that every NHL team has seen his skill set firsthand.
Outlook: Earlier this month, I pegged Columbus as one of the teams that is doomed to disappoint next season, suggesting the Blue Jackets overachieved last year and that John Tortorella’s coaching style would grow stale before much longer. A slump by the team as a whole will impact Werenski’s play and make it tougher for him to shine.
Werenski’s also coming back to Columbus after recovering from a nasty facial injury he suffered when he was hit by a puck during Game 3 of the first round of the playoffs.
A mid-August photo from the Blue Jackets’ Twitter account shows just a small amount of residual scarring, but it remains to be seen if the injury will cause lingering after-effects—or if the incident will cause Werenski to change his fearless playing style in an effort to avoid a similar incident in future.
Long term, Werenski has what it takes to be a top NHL defenseman. He will take a step backward this season before continuing his ascent.
Stats from NHL.com. Contract information from CapFriendly.