4. (5) Jack Eichel, C, Buffalo Sabres
Drafted in the first round (2nd overall) in 2015
The Buffalo Sabres, like Edmonton, are looking to turn things around after years of struggling. Jack Eichel, who was taken one spot after McDavid in the 2015 NHL Draft, has labored with many of the same expectations as his Oilers’ counterpart. To this point he has met many of those expectations.
An offensively-inclined forward who is constantly looking to create scoring chances, Eichel’s two-way game remains a work in progress as evidenced by his -16 rating. But his technical skills and offensive instincts compare favorably with other young forwards in the game, and he is the type of player opposing fans will pay to see play.
In 81 games for the Sabres, Eichel scored 24 goals and 32 assists, with eight goals coming on the power play.
The 19-year-old’s all-around game should only improve as he gains experience, and as Buffalo continues to upgrade the talent in the Sabres’ lineup.
Larkin, who like Eichel stepped directly from college hockey to the NHL after one season, had the good fortune to join a veteran Detroit lineup that was used to winning.
But few predicted him taking off right from the start the way he did and being such an impact player in his first season. One of two rookies selected to participate in the NHL’s All-Star festivities along with Anaheim goalie John Gibson, Larkin frequently skated on the top line for the Red Wings before hitting a wall late in the season.
In 80 regular season games, the former University of Michigan forward scored 23 goals with 22 assists and was +11 with 34 penalty minutes. The 19-year-old was not as effective in the playoffs, scoring one goal and finishing -2 with 18 penalty minutes while averaging 14:28 minutes of ice time in the five-game series against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
With a full year of experience — and an off-season to continue training and developing physically — Larkin should be much better prepared for the rigors of a long season in 2016-17.
6. (6) Max Domi, LW, Arizona Coyotes
Drafted in the first round (12th overall) in 2013
Max Domi, like McDavid and Eichel, stepped into the lineup for a team that has not been a factor in the playoffs in recent years. With former Arizona GM Don Maloney determined to build the team through youth, the former London Knight is the cornerstone to the Coyotes’ future plans.
Frequently playing on the team’s top line, Domi was Arizona’s best forward on many nights — both making highlight reel offensive plays and playing with a physical edge to his game.
After struggling some in January, recording points in just two of eleven games during one midseason stretch (though he did have a hat trick in a game against the Oilers on January 12th), Domi put up points consistently over the final two months. That production came despite the fact that Arizona was for all intents and purposes eliminated from the playoffs.
Playing in 81 of 82 games for the Coyotes — missing his only game when he received a one-game suspension for instigating a fight against Anaheim’s Ryan Garbutt — Domi scored 18 goals with 34 assists and was +3 with 72 penalty minutes, averaging 16:22 minutes of ice time.
7. (NR) John Gibson, G, Anaheim Ducks
Drafted in the second round (39th overall) in 2011
John Gibson has been one of the more anticipated goaltending prospects in recent years, creating a buzz while playing in USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program and later in his OHL days with the Kitchener Rangers. With a string of talented goalies in the Ducks organization, he has had to bide his time, appearing in three regular season games and four playoff contests with Anaheim in 2013-14 but then spending most of last season in the AHL with the Norfolk Admirals.
After beginning the season in the AHL with new Ducks’ affiliate San Diego, the 22-year-old Pittsburgh native finally got his opportunity when he was recalled in November. Partnering with veteran Frederik Andersen, Gibson proved to be more than NHL-ready.
In 40 regular season games, he was 21-13-3 with four shutouts and had a 2.07 goals-against average and .920 save percentage.
Gibson’s play earned him the starting nod in the Ducks’ first round playoff series against the Nashville Predators. After two Nashville wins he was replaced by Andersen for Game 3, but his success this season suggests big things in the future.
8. (7) Colton Parayko, D, St. Louis Blues
Drafted in the third round (86th overall) in 2012
When Aaron Ekblad won the Calder Trophy last season, it marked just the third time a defenseman had won the award since the Islanders’ Bryan Berard won the trophy in 1996-97. The last time defensemen won the award in back-to-back years goes all the way back to the early 1960’s, so history is not on Colton Parayko’s side.
While players like McDavid, Eichel and Panarin were expected to be in the mix for the award, few would have mentioned Parayko’s name. But that doesn’t lessen the impact the 22-year-old has made and the importance of his contributions to the Blues’ success.
Largely unknown to many scouts when he was drafted out of the Alberta Junior Hockey League in 2012, Parayko made the Blues out of training camp after captaining Alaska-Fairbanks last season, and has been a fixture in the lineup.
His role increased early in the season when Shattenkirk was out with an injury, but even with both Shattenkirk and Pietrangelo in the lineup Parayko has contributed at both ends for the Blues.
In 79 regular season games, Parayko scored nine goals with 24 assists, posting the aforementioned +28 rating. He averaged 19:23 minutes of ice time and had 29 penalty minutes. Parayko has scored two goals with two assists in eight playoff games while posting a -1 rating with two penalty minutes, and has averaged 21 minutes of ice time per game.
9. (8) Sam Reinhart, C/W, Buffalo Sabres
Drafted in the first round (2nd overall) in 2014
Drafted one year before Eichel, Sam Reinhart was sent back to Kootenay for another year of junior hockey in 2014-15 — a move that allowed him to skate with Domi and Duclair on Canada’s gold medal-winning U20 team at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship.
An intelligent, two-way player who is not overly abrasive, Reinhart displayed some offensive chops while showing an ability to both find openings in the offensive end and makes the players around him better. He is still maturing physically, and should become even more dangerous as he adds strength and adapts to the pace and combativeness at the NHL level.
Reinhart scored 23 goals with 19 assists and was -8 in 79 games for Buffalo, averaging 16:50 minutes of ice time.
10. (NR) Anthony Duclair, LW, Arizona Coyotes
Drafted in the third round (80th overall) in 2013 by the New York Rangers
Obtained by the Arizona Coyotes in March of 2015 when the Rangers felt the need to add defenseman Keith Yandle for a possible Stanley Cup run, Anthony Duclair has all the makings of a future star.
After appearing in 18 games with New York last season before heading to the World Juniors, he was third on the Coyotes this season with 20 goals in 81 games, trailing only veteran Shane Doan (28) and Ekman-Larson (21). The highly-skilled Duclair was especially dangerous on the power play, where he scored eight goals.
Like Domi, Duclair plays with a chip on his shoulder at times and will mix things up in tight spaces. In addition to scoring 20 goals, Duclair had 24 assists and was +12 with 49 penalty minutes while averaging 14:22 minutes of ice time.
While the Coyotes do not always get the media attention of other NHL clubs, there is a nice group of young forwards steadily maturing in the desert. More help could be on the way when players like Ryan MacInnis, Brendan Perlini and Dylan Strome start working their way into the lineup.
Others receiving votes (in order): Nikolaj Ehlers, LW, Winnipeg Jets; Chris Bigras, D, Colorado Avalanche; Mike Reilly, D, Minnesota Wild; Jaccob Slavin, D, Carolina Hurricanes; Robby Fabbri, C, St. Louis Blues.
Follow Tony Piscotta on Twitter via @Piscottas_Way