Adjusting to the NHL is said to be the toughest thing for rookies, but the transition to the world’s top league hasn’t been all that difficult for these five youngsters.
When Evgeni Malkin made his NHL debut in 2006, the hope was that he’d be a great compliment to Sidney Crosby and fit in with the Pittsburgh Penguins’ attack. Of course, there was never any way to know whether that would be the case, even if Malkin was a highly touted second-overall pick in the 2004 draft.
But even in the Penguins’ wildest dreams, they couldn’t have expected the type of start Malkin had to his NHL career.
After scoring in his first career game — against Martin Brodeur, no less — Malkin went on to have a six-game goal-scoring streak, and it was 10 years ago today, on Nov. 1, 2006, Malkin officially tied a rookie record that had stood since the league’s inaugural season by scoring in his sixth consecutive game to start his career.
It’s the prolonged nature of Malkin’s successful start that makes it so impressive. There aren’t any players who have had a Malkin-esque run to start this season, but there are a number who’ve made an early impression with their play. You won’t find Auston Matthews or Patrik Laine on this list, however, as this is for those who’ve unexpectedly become the talk of the league early in the season.
5. William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs
With the excitement surrounding Matthews and the intrigue surrounding Mitch Marner, Nylander almost flew under the radar when it came time to start the campaign. Maybe it was because he had played in 22 games late in the 2015-16 campaign and produced well, posting six goals and 13 points, that most were interested in seeing what the players getting into their first career games could do.
For as well as Matthews, Marner and Co. have performed, though, Nylander’s play has been arguably the most remarkable. He was recognized as the NHL’s rookie of the month for October with four goals and seven points and only six players are on a better scoring pace than Nylander to start the season.
Will he maintain the near 40-goal, 100-point clip for the duration of the season? Almost assuredly not, but that he’s even producing at that rate right now is somewhat unexpected.
4. Travis Konecny, Philadelphia Flyers
Few would have pegged Konecny to make the Flyers roster to start the season, let alone play a regular role in the middle of the lineup. However, after turning heads during the preseason, the 19-year-old turned set the table for what has become a promising start to his rookie campaign.
He made the roster out of camp, and he’s suited up for every game this season while averaging second- and third-line minutes. Konecny has made the most of his opportunity, too, scoring one goal and seven points. Only Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek have been more productive to start the season.
Konecny can take a bit of credit for Voracek’s solid start, too, as he has skated primarily with Voracek and Sean Couturier to start the season. The trio has solid possession numbers while producing five even-strength goals for through 10 games.
3. Joel Eriksson Ek, Minnesota Wild
It wasn’t talent or lack of a roster spot that kept Eriksson Ek from starting the season in the Wild lineup. Rather, it was visa issues. But since getting the go-ahead to suit up in North America, Eriksson Ek has been mighty impressive for the Wild.
At just 19, he doesn’t have the full trust of Minnesota coach Bruce Boudreau, which can be seen in the limited minutes Eriksson Ek has played through the first five games of his career, but he’s definitely making his mark when he’s on the ice.
In his first career game, he found the back of the net in just 9:36 of ice time. He followed that up with a three-assist performance in less than nine minutes on ice during his third career NHL contest. The next night, he potted a goal in 11:14 of action, and he started to look like he’s maybe getting a slight promotion up the lineup when he took 12 minutes of ice time — a season high — against the Dallas Stars.
There’s a learning curve and he’ll need to continue to play strong at both ends to keep moving up the lineup, but five points in five games shows he’s capable of contributing when given the chance.
2. Brandon Carlo, Boston Bruins
The Bruins’ biggest issue heading into the campaign was on the back end. Carlo’s play doesn’t change that entirely, but it certainly alleviates some of the immediate pressure Boston GM Don Sweeney was feeling to find himself a top-four defenseman.
In his first game of the season, Carlo skated nearly 18 minutes and registered an assist, but coach Claude Julien saw something in the youngster that made him confident enough in the 19-year-old blueliner to give him some serious minutes alongside Zdeno Chara. Since the second game, Carlo has logged at least 21:58 in each game.
Like any young defenseman, Carlo is still going to need to go through somewhat of a learning curve, but if he keeps this up, the Bruins should be able to settle for a second-pairing defenseman instead of hunting for someone who can fill in on the top unit.
1. Zach Werenski, Columbus Blue Jackets
Werenski signed his first pro deal shortly after his 2015-16 season ended at University of Michigan, and he jumped right into the lineup with the Lake Erie Monsters. Werenski got acclimated to the league during a seven-game stint in the regular season, and then took over in the post-season with five goals and 14 points in 17 games. Guess that’s not too bad for a rookie AHL defender.
It was expected that Werenski would make the move to the NHL this season. What wasn’t expected, though, is that he’d become the talk of the Blue Jackets’ back end.
Seth Jones, David Savard and Jack Johnson all have their talents, sure, but Werenski has been nothing short of outstanding for Columbus. In seven games, his offensive talents have shone through with two goals and six points, but his defensive ability has also led notoriously tough coach John Tortorella to send Werenski out early and often. That’s why he’s averaging nearly 22 minutes per game.
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