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First-rounders prominent on opening-night rosters

by Adam Kimelman /

Many experts called the 2013 NHL Draft one of the deepest, most talent-rich groups in a decade. So it's not much of a surprise that eight members of that draft class have made their respective team's opening-night rosters.

Among those staying are five of the first players picked and seven of the first 10.

"I think there was a realistic chance that a number of those kids would be able to go and make their teams at the start of training camp," Director of NHL Central Scouting Dan Marr told "I think they all had a legitimate shot at making their teams out of training camp. The players nowadays are far more prepared for that opportunity to make a team at training camp. It's not a surprise. It's a credit to the kids, it's a credit to the teams where they've been playing and developing."


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While Marr wouldn't call defensemen Seth Jones of the Nashville Predators and Rasmus Ristolainen of the Buffalo Sabres making their teams a surprise, he said anytime a defender can make an NHL team as a teenager, it's an impressive feat.

"I think everyone agrees when they sit back and think about it, it's really tough for a defenseman to crack an NHL lineup as an 18- or 19-year-old," Marr said. "So it really impresses me when a player can go in and do that. They're more prepared for that, and one of the big things is they're more physically prepared."

Jones, Central Scouting's top-rated player in its final ranking of North American skaters for the 2013 NHL Draft, slipped to the Predators with the fourth pick. The 6-foot-4, 205-pounder was a minus-4 with seven shots on goal in five preseason games, but Predators general manager David Poile said Jones' NHL hopes this season are based as much on his off-ice maturity as his on-ice performance.

"We had our development camp in Nashville, and I talked to his parents and his adviser," Poile told USA Today, "and they wanted to know how it went for Seth as a hockey player, and I said that wasn't important to me. What was important to me was how he handled himself -- his maturity and his respect level for his situation, [coping] with the pressure of being a top pick. And to me, for an 18-year-old, this is the most mature young man I've ever worked with. And that's a big statement for me to make after all of these years."

Ristolainen had an assist and a minus-2 rating in five games, but the 6-4, 219-pounder impressed with his poise and physical play, both his ability to dish it out and handle it when the opposition challenged him.

During a preseason game against the Carolina Hurricanes, Ristolainen put a big hit on Hurricanes forward Nathan Gerbe, and when Hurricanes forward Kevin Westgarth tried to return the favor, Ristolainen shrugged it off.

"He's a solid defender," Mike Weber, who was Ristolainen's defense partner during the preseason, told the team's website. "He plays beyond his years. He's an 18-year-old man-child, so it's exciting to play with him."

Ristolainen's teammate, Nikita Zadorov, will make the Sabres' roster, but will start the season on injured reserve after injuring a finger on his left hand blocking a shot during a preseason game Sept. 27 and is expected to miss two weeks. Prior to his injury, he had a goal and a plus-4 rating in four games.

The injury gives the Sabres time to make a decision on whether to keep Zadorov or return him to his junior team, the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League.

"We don't have to keep him," Sabres coach Ron Rolston said. "Will we keep him? We have to discuss that. It's two weeks. We could have him here and he could be working out on the ice because it's not obviously lower body, so we still have to determine that."

It's no surprise Nathan MacKinnon, the first player picked in June, is sticking with the Colorado Avalanche. The first pick in every draft since 2007 has stuck with his team, and in most cases that player has performed well -- the top pick in the past two drafts (Nail Yakupov, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins) has at least tied for the lead in rookie scoring, and it's happened three times since then, with a fourth (John Tavares in 2009-10) finishing one point behind the leader.

MacKinnon has been slowed by a hip issue during training camp, part of the reason he only played in three preseason games, but got an "outstanding" from coach Patrick Roy for his play in the team's final preseason game.

"He was skating well, he was moving the puck well," Roy said. "I thought that was a really good line with [Jamie] McGinn and [PA] Parenteau. I thought they had a lot of good chances, which is great for us."

Also starting in the NHL will be Aleksander Barkov, taken No. 2 by the Florida Panthers. He had two assists in four preseason games, but also is working his way back from his own injury -- April surgery to repair a shoulder problem.

However, he's played well enough that he could start the season centering the team's top line, flanked by Jonathan Huberdeau, last season's Calder Trophy winner.

"I think he is more ready to play in the NHL, although it will be a different style than he's used to," Huberdeau told the Miami Herald. "I think the best thing he can do is not put too much pressure on himself. He's a good guy and I'm going to help him as much as I can. But I think he's fine. I've seen him at practice. He has a lot of skill."

Sean Monahan, taken No. 6 by Calgary, also could slot in as his team's top center. The 6-2, 185-pounder had two goals and an assist in five preseason games, and tied for the team lead with 12 shots on goal.

"In some quick plays you see that he's an 18-year-old kid," Flames coach Bob Hartley told the Calgary Herald. "He gets caught, sometimes, out of position. But still, the hockey smarts and the poise that he shows, for an 18-year-old kid, that's pretty impressive. After every game, if you weigh in maybe the rookie mistakes that he makes versus the great plays that maybe an 18-year-old kid shouldn't make in this League, it's pretty impressive. We're very happy with Sean."

Elias Lindholm, taken by the Carolina Hurricanes with the fifth pick, was a lock to make the team since the summer, when general manager Jim Rutherford said during the team's rookie camp, "The opportunity is there for him to start with the Hurricanes. I will be shocked if he doesn't based on all of the reports we have and what I've seen."

An injury limited Lindholm to one preseason game, but his skill and versatility -- he can play center or right wing -- will keep him with the team.

"He doesn't have to light it up from Day 1," Rutherford said. "We all know that with a healthy team we have a good team going into camp, and he can just be part of that and go along at his own pace. But based on the experience he has, I don't think it's going to take him very long to fit into our team."

Another player who could jell immediately with his team is Dallas Stars forward Valeri Nichushkin, the 10th pick. The 6-4, 205-pound Russian-born right wing scored three goals in six preseason games.

"All you do is evaluate all he has brought so far," Stars coach Lindy Ruff said in an interview with Dallas radio station 1310 AM The Ticket. "I think he's handled himself really well. … He's been able to handle a load, which is pretty impressive for a young man. I like his awareness and his respect for the game away from the puck, which is really important. If you can't put a young player on the ice in key situations, it becomes tough to play him. But he's been an easy guy to play."

Making the opening-night roster is just one part of the process for any player. The next step is whether they can stay there. Teenage prospects get nine games to show they belong in the NHL for the entire season. Players can be returned to their junior team at any point in the season, but once they play their 10th game, their rookie contract goes into effect.

"If history tells us, teams do another reassessment after they get their nine games in to see if that's really the place where they want to have the player continue their development," Marr said.

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