The 5 Most Intriguing NHL Players Nobody's Watching
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because there’s more to the game than goal scoring.
By Matt Foley
The start of the NHL season has been a fan-friendly affair, with scoring at a record pace across the league and the early playoff race beginning to take form. Too soon to be talking playoffs? Hardly, because just two weeks ago, hockey’s first significant mile marker hit. Since the 2005-2006 season, teams slotted for postseason on the eve of Thanksgiving have finished the season that way over 75 percent of the time.
A number of talented teams — cough, New York Rangers, cough — are hoping to rebound from a brutally disappointing start, and surprise performers like the league’s first-year expansion franchise, the Las Vegas Golden Knights, will need to sustain their fast start for a shot at history. Las Vegas won eight of its first nine games, the best start of any expansion club in NHL history. The Golden Knights already have had a five-game winning streak, tying the NHL record for longest winning streak by a team in its inaugural season, and they’ve done so with a wildly inefficient — albeit effective — rotation of goalies. Over 26 games, the Knights have started four different goaltenders.
Off the Strip, plenty more story lines are unfolding. Young stars like Auston Matthews, Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel have resumed their quest to dominate the league, while the familiar cast of the last decade’s dominant captains look to maintain control. Exhibit A: Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins, who’ve so far avoided a Stanley Cup hangover en route to a 15-10-3 start. But drop down a layer and you’ll discover a plethora of teams and players to watch. These athletes may dictate the ultimate course this season takes.
Clayton Keller, Arizona Coyotes
Through two months of the season, the race for the Calder Trophy — awarded to the NHL’s Rookie of the Year — is Keller’s to lose. With nine goals in his first 16 games, Keller’s career started hot. The Patrick Kane clone has slowed down slightly, and is stuck on a bad Coyotes team with only seven victories through 30 contests, but he has still been Arizona’s most productive player with 23 points (11 goals, 12 assists) to date. The NHL’s desert-dwelling franchise will be built around Keller, just 19, for years to come.
Ivan Provorov, Philadelphia Flyers
Provorov, 20, has become the best Philadelphia defenseman since Chris Pronger. The seventh overall draft pick in 2015, Provorov was named the Flyers outstanding defenseman as a rookie last season. Through 27 games this year, he has recorded 13 points (4 goals, 9 assists), 55 hits and is now the leader of an incredibly young Philadelphia blue line. It looks like only a matter of time before Provorov develops into a perennial All-Star defenseman. At 9-11-7, Philadelphia has been competitive enough to compete in the Metropolitan Divsion. Can the young Russian build a future title contender on Broad Street?
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers
You’ve likely heard tales of Edmonton’s 20-year-old center, Connor McDavid, aka the next Wayne Gretzky and savior of the Oilers franchise. But obscured by McDavid’s monstrous shadow, Leon Draisaitl is quietly becoming one of the game’s top centers too. This summer, Edmonton recognized him as such, locking up the 22-year-old with an eight-year deal. Draisaitl and McDavid are a deadly combination when sharing the ice, but the best prospect for team success seems to be splitting them up on separate lines — much like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Draisaitl missed five games in October with a concussion, but since returning he’s pushed his point total to 19 (7 goals, 12 assists), including a 3-assist night against Dallas. But at 11-14-2, the Oilers’ playoff hopes are already slipping away. McDavid is the face of the franchise, but look to Draisaitl to take the next step for any hope of postseason play in Edmonton.
Pavel Buchnevich, New York Rangers
One year removed from a rookie season that saw the Russian forward relegated to the press box and minor league affiliate at various times, Bucknevich has cemented himself as a force to be reckoned with in New York. After a slow start to the season, the Blueshirts have bounced back, aided in no small part by Buchnevich’s assertive play. Through 26 games (New York is 14-10-2), the forward has logged 20 points (9 goals, 11 assists) and has far outshined the Rangers’ assumed golden boy, Jimmy Vesey.
Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks
Prior to this season, DeBrincat, 19, was a goal-scoring legend in the Ontario Hockey League. Through three seasons from 2014-17, the rookie found the back of the net a whopping 167 times. Now Chicago wants DeBrincat to do more than just score goals. With 19 points (11 goals, 8 assists) through 27 games, including his first NHL hat trick on November 27, DeBrincat has announced himself as a contender in the rookie scoring race, but the most telling fact seems to be coach Joel Quenneville’s trust in the young player. DeBrincat has recently been called on as the third forward on a front line featuring Chicago captain Jonathan Toews and Richard Panik. Typically, this line draws the toughest defensive assignment, but Quenneville seems confident that the young rookie is up for the challenge. Chicago drafted a goal scorer, but this season may show that they’ve developed something more.