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Five from 2015 draft class looking to stick in NHL

by Mike G. Morreale

The beginning of the NHL season marks the start for several players chosen in the 2015 NHL Draft hoping to make a big first impression.

All eyes will be on the first two picks, center Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers and center Jack Eichel of the Buffalo Sabres, respectively.

McDavid and Eichel are expected to be with their teams the entire season, but that doesn't mean they won't experience some adversity along the way.

"There's no question both players are game-ready for NHL play and will be able to contribute," said Dan Marr, NHL Director of Central Scouting. "Each player has handled pressure and adversity remarkably well in the past and there's no doubt that they can handle playing in the NHL as 18- and 19-year-olds.

"As rookies they have yet to experience the physical grind that accompanies playing in the NHL and the learning curve of finding out exactly what it takes to maintain a consistent NHL level of play to stay in a lineup. Their development, support and approach have them well placed to succeed."

In addition to McDavid and Eichel, three other players selected in the 2015 draft are looking to stick with their teams all season: Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Noah Hanifin, Colorado Avalanche right wing Mikko Rantanen, and Pittsburgh Penguins right wing Daniel Sprong.

Defenseman Brendan Guhle, selected in the second round (No. 51) by the Sabres, was placed on injured reserve with an upper-body injury Tuesday.

Sprong, selected in the second round (No. 46) of the draft, might be the biggest surprise of the group. The 18-year-old hopes to become the first hockey player born in the Netherlands to play in the NHL since defenseman Ed Kea (Weesp, Netherlands). Kea played five seasons with the Atlanta Flames (1974-79) and four with the St. Louis Blues (1979-83).

Will Sprong be able to remain with the Penguins all season?

The Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NHL and the NHL Players' Association allows for a player to skate in nine games before his entry-level contract starts. If the player is returned to his junior team prior to playing a 10th game, the start of the contract is delayed by one season.

Junior players drafted from a Canadian Hockey League team are ineligible to play in the American Hockey League prior to their 20th birthday. An agreement in place between the NHL and CHL prohibits 18- and 19-year-olds from playing in the AHL.

There are also four players chosen in the 2014 draft trying to remain with their teams longer than the nine-game trial: Vancouver Canucks right wing Jake Virtanen (No. 6), Winnipeg Jets right wing Nikolaj Ehlers (No. 9), St. Louis Blues center Robby Fabbri (No. 21), and Vancouver Canucks center Jared McCann (No. 24).

Here's a look at the players from the 2015 draft class hoping to remain in the NHL all season, and their odds of doing it.

Connor McDavid, C, Edmonton Oilers

Drafted: First round (No. 1)

Projected outcome: Will remain with the Oilers all season

McDavid is expected to challenge for the Calder Trophy and could finish among the League's top-30 scorers in 2015-16. NBC Sports hockey analyst Pierre McGuire was asked for his thoughts on McDavid's greatest challenge in his first professional season.

"Bigger guys will try to take his speed away," McGuire said. "His one major asset is his elusiveness through the neutral zone, so bigger guys are going to be in his way and have a formalized plan to take his speed away. The other adjustment is where he scores a lot of his goals, because he's not shy. He's elusive down low coming over the half wall or coming from below the hash mark. He scored a ton there, especially his first couple years [with Erie of the Ontario Hockey League]. He's not going to get that much room to get there, so he's going to have to change.

"It's a little like [Steven] Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Stamkos used to score a lot from long range and he really changed his approach in being able to play give-and-go hockey and getting more to the net. It's not an easy thing to do."

Jack Eichel, C, Buffalo Sabres

Drafted: First round (No. 2)

Projected outcome: Will remain with the Sabres all season

Eichel also likely will be in the discussion of potential Calder candidates by season's end. He's expected to play in a top-six role for the Sabres and become an integral piece to their gradual climb in the standings.

"You're going up against the best players in the world, so there's always going to be that learning curve," NBC Sports hockey analyst Eddie Olczyk said of Eichel. "We saw the impact that Jack had all the way up and then obviously at Boston University [last season]. He's going to have an impact for sure right away, but there's going to be times when it's going to be a battle.

"You're going to need that guidance from your teammates and you're going to get it from the staff, but it comes with repetition and with being put out there in those situations. You're going to go to school and you're going to learn, but it's all about that process of becoming a pro. It's not just handling the practice and the games, because he's going to play a schedule that he's never had before and that's going to take its toll."

Noah Hanifin, D, Carolina Hurricanes

Drafted: First round (No. 5)

Projected outcome: Will remain with the Hurricanes all season

The Hurricanes were thrilled to select the 6-foot-3, 206-pound left-shot defender at their spot in the draft. NHL Central Scouting had Hanifin as the top-rated defenseman for the 2015 draft after an outstanding freshman season at Boston College. Because he was drafted out of college, Hanifin could be sent to their AHL affiliate in Charlotte at any point, but the belief here is that he will remain a part of the Hurricanes' defense corps.

"He's physically ready and able to play at the NHL level; his strength as a rookie is that he possesses a solid understanding of his position and has a mature hockey sense to be able to quickly read and react on the play and get the job done," Marr said. "Noah is a high-character, no-maintenance type player that coaches love. His game will continue to grow as he gains playing experience."

Mikko Rantanen, RW, Colorado Avalanche

Drafted: First round (No. 10)

Projected outcome: Will remain with the Avalanche all season

Rantanen joins Matt Duchene (2009), Gabriel Landeskog (2011) and Nathan MacKinnon (2013) as current Avalanche players who stuck in the NHL immediately after being drafted. Rantanen had played for TPS in Liiga, Finland's top professional league, for the past three seasons. He will play a top-nine role with the Avalanche as a rookie, and likely begin the season on a line with fellow Europeans Carl Soderberg (Sweden) and Borna Rendulic (Croatia). The Avalanche have three options to consider with Rantanen. He could remain with the Avalanche all season, be sent to their AHL affiliate, the San Antonio Rampage, or be returned to Finland. He's not eligible to play junior hockey because he's already a pro, having joined TPS in 2012 as a 16-year-old. If the Avalanche return him to Finland, he can't play in the NHL again this season.

"I am not all that surprised that Rantanen made the Avalanche out of training camp," said Goran Stubb, NHL Director of European Scouting. "He is a very mature young man, big and strong and an exceptional talent. He has good experience from senior hockey as he has already played against and with men for 108 games with TPS."

Daniel Sprong, RW, Pittsburgh Penguins

Drafted: Second round (No. 46)

Projected outcome: Will be returned to Charlottetown of QMJHL after nine-game trial

The 6-foot, 180-pound right-shot forward has been everything Randy Sexton, the Penguins' director of amateur scouting, expected. Sexton said after the draft he couldn't believe Sprong was available when the Penguins were picking in the second round. Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said Sprong has a lot of skill and can create plays, and his shot is considered NHL-ready. While the lower-body injury sustained by forward Pascal Dupuis, which is expected to keep him out 4-5 weeks, will give Sprong a greater chance to stick with the Penguins, he may need to further develop his 200-foot game before becoming an NHL regular.

"Sprong is a powerful skater with deceptive quickness who can generate offensive chances and it's not a surprise that he could earn a spot in the starting lineup," Marr said. "Only time will tell if he is truly physically and mentally ready to meet the challenges of playing in the NHL. It's on a talented Penguins lineup that he has to show that he can play and contribute at a pace to which his development will continue. If not, then it may be best for him to return to junior where he would be an impact player not only on his team but in the [QMJHL]."


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