Making the opening night roster is a big thing for any rookie, but impressing the NHL club in the first handful of games is of paramount importance for freshmen who want to stick around all season.
Rookies making the NHL straight out of training camp is rare, but the ability for their respective clubs to take an extended, nine-game regular season look at what a freshman player can bring to the lineup can sometimes help a youngster stick around.
There are the rare occurrences when a can’t-miss prospect — think players such as Connor McDavid — sticks around on the NHL roster come opening night with the knowledge that they’re not going anywhere. But unless you can bring something that a team otherwise doesn’t have or, in McDavid’s case, you happen to be arguably the most talented offensive player in the world not named Sidney Crosby, the nine-game tryout can be the best opportunity to prove that pre-season production or ability will translate to the regular season game.
There are a handful of first-year players who will look to make the jump this coming season, and here are 10 who will start their season on the opening night rosters and have the chance to stick around all year:
Pavel Zacha, C, New Jersey Devils
Zacha could have realistically been in the NHL during the 2015-16 season and it was somewhat surprising when he was sent back to the OHL. One would think that makes him a lock to come up and suit up for the Devils this season, and while he’s close, that doesn’t eliminate the chance he goes back to the OHL’s Sarnia Sting for another season.
Zacha has serious offensive skill and that’s something the Devils were lacking, but the injection of raw talent into the lineup from Taylor Hall makes the New Jersey offense interesting with the season approaching. Given that Zacha got eight games in for the Albany Devils, over which time he netted two goals and six points, it looks like he’s ready to produce in the big league. It’ll be up to him to prove it, though.
Mikhail Sergachev, D, Montreal Canadiens
The 19-year-old Russian rearguard was picked ninth-overall by the Canadiens in June, and already he’s flirting with a full-time jump to the NHL. It’s been an impressively fast adjustment to the North American game for Sergachev, and sticking around in the NHL long-term would be one of the more impressive feats among rookies.
Two seasons ago, Sergachev was playing in the Russian minor league, but after just one season with the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires — a campaign in which Sergachev notched 17 goals and 57 points in 67 games — he’s turning heads with the Canadiens.
In four games this pre-season, he has managed two assists while logging middle-pairing minutes, but he has really pushed Greg Pateryn and Zach Redmond for a spot on the roster. The injury to Jeff Petry, the extent of which isn’t yet known, could also help Sergachev stick around even longer than nine games.
Matthew Tkachuk, LW, Calgary Flames
In his first season in the OHL, Tkachuk showed the same toughness and willingness to mix it up that was the staple of his game with the U.S. National Team Development Program, and his scoring touch flourished with a dynamite offensive group in London. Tkachuk’s 30 goals and 107 points was among the OHL’s best totals, and he capped it off with a Memorial Cup win with the Knights.
Tkachuk is the perfect version of a young player Brian Burke would want to see in his organization, and Burke’s love of rough and tumble hockey probably helped Tkachuk get taken sixth overall in June by the Flames. But he hasn’t let the Flames down in the pre-season, and he’s been exactly what the team was hoping for.
In four games, Tkachuk has two goals, 10 shots and is playing middle-six minutes. If he can continue to contribute in that role and uses his 6-foot-2, 203-pound frame to show he can win some battles against top level competition, he has a great chance at staying with the Flames all year.
Pierre-Luc Dubois, LW, Columbus Blue Jackets
Dubois was the wild-card at the draft in June, leaping over presumptive third-overall pick Jesse Puljujarvi and being taken at the three-spot by the Blue Jackets. Here’s the thing, though: through four pre-season games, Columbus has yet to see the offensive punch that really convinces them Dubois is ready.
In four games, he has yet to find the score sheet, and while he was heralded more for his all-around game than anything, the Blue Jackets undoubtedly wanted to see some sort of offense out of their top draft pick before committing to bringing him into the NHL full-time this season.
The good news is that the nine-game tryout gives Columbus the chance for that extended look. His 42 goals and 99 points in the QMJHL were no mirage, and maybe Dubois just needs a game or two more than the pre-season can provide in order to hit his stride early in the season. The Blue Jackets don’t have to rush Dubois, so if he’s not ready after nine games, it won’t hurt much to send him back to the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles for more seasoning.
Travis Konecny, C, Philadelphia Flyers
Ask a Flyers fan about Konecny sticking around and you’re likely to hear about Ron Hextall’s hesitance to have a player stick around on a nine-game tryout. That hurts Konecny’s case. However, with Brayden Schenn suspended for three games to start the season as the result of a post-season incident against the Washington Capitals, maybe a three-game tryout is in the offing for Konecny.
Also helping Konecny will be the fact that he has been dynamite in limited minutes for the Flyers this pre-season. In five games, he’s picked up three goals and six points, and that’s while maintaining third- and fourth-line minutes.
It would have been hard to project that Konecny would be making the lineup this season, but he’s certainly making his case. But if Hextall doesn’t give him a nine-game tryout, one more season in the OHL certainly won’t hurt the 19-year-old’s development.
Lawson Crouse, LW, Arizona Coyotes
Traded to the Coyotes by the Florida Panthers, it wasn’t really expected Crouse would have to end up elsewhere in order to crack an NHL roster, but he has a real shot in Arizona. The Coyotes are young, fast and want to pack a lot of offensive punch, and Crouse brings a different element to the attack with his size and strength.
One thing helping Crouse will be that he has already gotten a small taste of the pro game. Beyond the chances to contribute during the seven pre-season games he has played, Crouse played two games with the AHL’s Portland Pirates, so he knows what to expect when he’s stepping in against top level competition.
Crouse’s production hasn’t quite been there — one assist in the pre-season — but finding some linemates he works well with could do wonders. That’s what the nine-game stint could be used for.
Jakob Chychrun, D, Arizona Coyotes
The surprising thing about Chychrun isn’t so much that he has a chance to make the NHL this coming season, but that he’s doing so as a mid-first-round selection. Many had him tabbed as a top-ten, and maybe even top five, pick in the draft.
However, after he fell down the board, the Coyotes took on the hefty Pavel Datsyuk contract from the Red Wings at the cost of Detroit handing over their 16th-overall pick, and now the 6-foot-2 blueliner has a shot at playing in Arizona on opening night. It’s not looking like he’ll play a small role, either.
In the games he has played in Arizona during the pre-season, Chychrun has had somewhat of a starring role on the back end. He’s logged second-pairing minutes and contributed an assist in his six games of action. He may have fell down the draft board, but a lot of teams could be regretting that if a regular season tryout with the Coyotes turns into a stellar rookie campaign.
Anthony Beauvillier, LW, New York Islanders
The Shawinigan Cataractes could be without their captain to start the season. In five games, Beauvillier has chipped in one goal and two points for the Islanders, but he’s looked good all over the ice. That he is getting the Islanders to give him a further look, especially over players such as Michael Dal Colle and Joshua Ho-Sang, is a testament to how well Beauvillier has played.
Like a number of the unexpected players sticking around on tryouts, there’s really nothing for the Islanders to lose in keeping Beauvillier around. If he excels during a nine-game stay, then New York has a new face in the lineup and someone who can aid the attack in the middle-six. If he doesn’t fare as well as they would have hoped, they simply ship him back to the QMJHL and hope his development continues in such a way that he’s ready come next season.
Matthew Barzal, LW, New York Islanders
Not only does Barzal stand a chance at making the roster, with the way he’s playing he could find himself in the top-six by the time a nine-game tryout is up. In five games, he has a goal and four points and has shown the offensive skill that made him a tantalizing 16th overall pick in 2015.
During the pre-season, Barzal has moved up and down the lineup, playing with everyone from Andrew Ladd to Alan Quine. Finding a fit is going to be important as he makes the transition, though, and the Islanders certainly don’t want to keep him around for him to simply watch from the press box.
If he fits, he fits as a third-liner with the chance to work his way up by the middle of the season. Otherwise, it might be best to let Barzal go back to the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds and put in one more full season of work in major junior.
Alexandre Fortin, C, Chicago Blackhawks
With Nick Schmaltz and Tyler Motte in training camp, it was expected that one of the two rookies coming out of the NCAA would be the young gun to really push for a long look on the Blackhawks roster. Instead, it’s Fortin, an undrafted center who came into camp on the hope he’d at least land a contract.
He’s done much more than sign with Chicago, though. Through the pre-season, Fortin’s mix of offensive and defensive ability has impressed, and the player who once looked like a long shot to even stick around to see the end of the pre-season might now be looking for a permanent stall in the Chicago dressing room.
Despite having two goals and three points in the pre-season, Fortin will need to do more than score to stick around with the Blackhawks. Two-way hockey will be a must, but if he can commit to playing well at both ends of the ice, the nine-game tryout might be not be the only NHL action Fortin sees this season.
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