Now that NHL training camps have officially kicked off throughout North America, one question that will continue to surface in the coming weeks is which of the first-round draft picks selected in June will ultimately have a significant impact with their team right now.
This year's draft was considered one of the deepest in recent memory and each of the 30 teams can rest assured that if their choice isn't producing this season, there should come a time down the road when his name is mentioned prominently in game roundups.
"Steven Stamkos is one of the more gifted goal scorers this League has ever seen and he's already been in the League five seasons," Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper told NHL.com. "But, as an 18-year-old No. 1 draft pick, even he didn't play every single game and it took some time before he started to take off."
At last count, there were 14 players selected in the first round of the 2013 draft signed to entry-level contracts. The list includes No. 1 Nathan MacKinnon (Colorado), No. 2 Aleksander Barkov (Florida), No. 3 Jonathan Drouin (Tampa Bay), No. 4 Seth Jones (Nashville), No. 5 Elias Lindholm (Carolina), No. 6 Sean Monahan (Calgary), No. 7 Darnell Nurse (Edmonton), No. 8 Rasmus Ristolainen (Buffalo), No. 9 Bo Horvat (Vancouver), No. 10 Valeri Nichushkin (Dallas), No. 12 Max Domi (Phoenix), No. 23 Andre Burakovsky (Capitals), No. 24 Hunter Shinkaruk (Vancouver), and No. 25 Michael McCarron (Montreal).
"I watched MacKinnon and Drouin and all the other picks, and I still think you have to temper expectations and let the talent eventually take over," Cooper said. "You just have to make sure you massage the mentality of these players and not rush them along."
It's very possible a few more will be signed during training camp. Most NHL scouts and general managers would have you believe their choice is NHL-ready and capable of having some sort of impact immediately, but that also depends on the current depth chart and those other prospects who have already earned valuable professional experience in the American Hockey League.
"The thing you have to remember is these players have been the best for so long in the leagues they've competed in and now they're entering a league where they're not the best," Cooper said. "That's an adjustment, no matter how old you are."
One of the more intriguing cases entering the 2013-14 season is whether or not Russian superstar Nichushkin is given an opportunity to shine in his first season. Many projected the 6-foot-4, 202-pound right wing to go among the top five at the draft. Instead, he dropped right into the lap of Stars first-year general manager Jim Nill.
"I think it's no secret, everybody had him as one of the top three players in the draft," Nill said. "If he was playing [Canadian junior hockey] somewhere in Moose Jaw or Peterborough, he probably would have been a top-three pick. There is risk with the Russian factor, everybody knows that. Where we were picking, he was a player we couldn't pass on. There was just too much there."
There's no denying the fact Nichushkin possesses the size, confidence and skills required to play in the NHL, but can he do it on a consistent basis and over an 82-game season? He was a sight to behold at the recent Traverse City Prospects Tournament in Michigan, posting three goals, a plus-3 rating, some big hits and generating a team-leading 16 shots in four tournament games for third-place Dallas.
Nichushkin made public his desire to play in North America in 2013-14. He terminated his contract with Moscow Dynamo of the Kontinental Hockey League in order to play in the NHL this season, but the one stipulation is that if he's not playing in the NHL, he will return to Dynamo.
Here are seven players chosen in the June draft who could possibly be spending more than a nine-game trial with their respective team to open the season:
1. Valeri Nichushkin, RW, Dallas: Nichushkin has proven everything he could in in the KHL and now it's time to showcase his skills among the best the world has to offer. Playing in his home country at the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship in Ufa, Russia, Nichushkin finished with two points and scored the winner 95 seconds into overtime in the bronze-medal game against Canada. At 6-foot-4, 202 pounds, the native of Chelyabinsk might be able to step in and contribute on a second-line role with possible linemates Rich Peverley and Ray Whitney, or a third-line role with Shawn Horcoff and Cody Eakin.
He'll also benefit from the addition of veteran defenseman Sergei Gonchar, who was signed to a two-year contract in June. Gonchar mentored a young Evgeni Malkin with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Gonchar and Nichushkin are both from Chelyabinsk.
"I liked a lot of what I saw [at the Traverse City Tournament]," Dallas coach Lindy Ruff told NHL.com. "He had the puck a lot and made a lot of great plays. He skated well and, in some of the tight areas, he really competed hard. When you see someone that has the puck most of the time or comes up with the puck most of the time, it tells you that he's in on a lot of the action."
2. Nathan MacKinnon, C, Colorado: Avalanche coach Patrick Roy has publicly stated that the Memorial Cup most valuable player would begin the season on a third line with the likes of Jamie McGinn and Steve Downie. Whether he remains there is questionable, although the 6-foot, 182-pound right-handed center has excelled at every level throughout his career. MacKinnon's performance in the Memorial Cup last season was one for the ages, as he collected seven goals and 13 points in four games for the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
3. Jonathan Drouin, LW, Tampa Bay: The 2012-13 Canadian Hockey League player of the year could become the perfect complement for Stamkos and right wing Martin St. Louis on Tampa's top offensive unit. If Cooper would prefer to ease the 5-foot-10, 186-pound playmaker into the mix, he might opt to have Drouin play left wing on a line with free-agent signee Valtteri Filppula. However Cooper decides to use Drouin, there's no question the rookie from the Memorial Cup champion Mooseheads will bring Lightning fans out of their seats on more than a few occasions this campaign.
Cooper has not only been experimenting with Drouin on the top line alongside Stamkos and St. Louis during training camp, but has also used him at center.
4. Seth Jones, D, Nashville: He is the most NHL-ready of any defenseman taken in this year's draft and will surely spend some time alongside captain Shea Weber to open the season. The Predators were thrilled to announce Jones' name with the fourth pick. He was third among Western Hockey League defensemen in the 2013 playoffs with 15 points (five goals) in 21 games as his Portland Winterhawks captured the league championship and earned a trip to the Memorial Cup. He led all WHL rookie defenders with 56 points (14 goals) and a plus-46 rating in 61 games. Despite finishing as NHL Central Scouting's No. 1 rated North American prospect, he is listed fourth since young defensemen need more time to develop and raise their level of play at the NHL level.
5. Aleksander Barkov, C, Florida: After producing 21 goals with 27 assists in 53 games in the Finnish Elite League the past two seasons, there's nothing left for Barkov to prove in Europe. He was second on his team in scoring with 48 points, including 21 goals, in 53 games in 2012-13 to help Tappara finish second overall in the standings. The 6-3, 209-pound Finn could wind up becoming the team's second-line center behind Shawn Matthias. Barkov did undergo shoulder surgery in April and while he's cleared to play, the team might not want to push him too much in the preseason.
"One reason why we took him with the second overall pick is we thought he was going to have the ability to step right in," assistant general manager Mike Santos told the Miami Herald. "He's played in a men's league for the past two years."
6. Rasmus Ristolainen, D, Buffalo: Ristolainen makes no bones about the fact he feels ready to contribute for the Sabres this season. Sabres assistant general manager Kevin Devine admitted just prior to selecting the 6-4, 207-pound Finn that he's an NHL-ready defenseman. He began playing hockey as a five-year-old, but did not make the move from forward to defense until he was 12. He has patterned his heavy shot and physical play after the Predators' Weber, his childhood hockey idol. He could very well impress so much in training camp that the organization sees fit to keep him the entire season. If Ristolainen isn't a part of the Sabres' roster this season, there's a good chance he'll join the team's American Hockey League affiliate in Rochester. He also impressed during the Traverse City Tournament, pairing with fellow first-round pick (No. 16) Nikita Zadorov.
"He's a very mature defenseman for his age and will have every chance to compete for a roster spot in training camp," Sabres GM Darcy Regier said.
7. Sean Monahan, C, Calgary: A true leader in every sense, Monahan played for an Ottawa 67's team that won just 16 games in 2012-13 in the Ontario Hockey League. He somehow managed 31 goals and 78 points as the team's captain. The Flames are in transition following the departure of Jarome Iginla and Jay Bouwmeester, and still might be a year away from becoming a legitimate contender in the Western Conference again. That might be reason enough to have the 6-2, 187-pound left-handed shot as part of the turnover in Calgary, but the most likely scenario is management opts to return him to the Canadian Hockey League for one more year.
Then again, a solid training camp might make that easier said than done.
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mikemorrealeNHL
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