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Season Preview

Top 16 rookies to watch this season

Toronto Maple Leafs could have three Calder Trophy candidates, including Auston Matthews

by Mike G. Morreale @mikemorrealeNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

The last time as many as two players from the same team were the top finalists for the Calder Trophy as the top rookie in the NHL was 2001-02, when forwards Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk of the Atlanta Thrashers finished first and second, respectively.

Could it happen again in 2016-17?

The Toronto Maple Leafs could as many as three top Calder candidates this season with forwards Auston Matthews, the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, Mitchell Marner and William Nylander.

One team has never produced three Calder finalists in the same season since the format was adopted in 1983. But Matthews, Marner (2015 draft, No. 4) and Nylander (2014, No. 8) have that level of talent.

"We love to skate, make plays, and hopefully we can play a type of style that transitions and turns over pucks to go the other way," Matthews told TSN.ca.

Video: TOR@MTL: Matthews beats Price with PPG

There will be a host of rookies this season garnering attention throughout the League. Here are 16 to watch in 2016-17 (listed alphabetically):

Sebastian Aho, RW, Carolina Hurricanes: Aho (5-foot-11, 172 pounds) had five goals and 14 points in seven games centering a line with Winnipeg Jets prospect Patrik Laine and Edmonton Oilers prospect Jesse Puljujarvi to help Finland to a gold medal at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship. He also played for Team Finland at the World Cup of Hockey 2016. Selected in the second round (No. 35) of the 2015 draft, Aho, 19, has elite playmaking skills and strength. Last season he had 20 goals and 45 points in 45 games for Karpat in Liiga, Finland's top league.

"I would think based on everything he's done, he's certainly penciled into our lineup, if not in pen," Hurricanes general manager Ron Francis said. "We have to be real careful in how we handle him and how we play him coming out of the gate, sort of let him find his way and feel his way through it, I think. He's going to be fine. We're looking at big picture more than the short term with him. We don't want to affect that big picture because he's going to be a good, good player for the Hurricanes for a long time."

Mathew Barzal, C, New York Islanders: Barzal (6-0, 182) was a late cut from training camp last season but appears ready to claim a spot in the Islanders lineup in 2016-17. He has been compared to Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux as a skilled forward capable of finding the open spaces on the ice and putting away his chances. Barzal, 19, (2015 draft, No. 16) had 27 goals and 88 points in 58 games for Seattle in the Western Hockey League in 2015-16. In three seasons with Seattle he has 199 points (53 goals, 146 assists) in 161 games, an average of 1.24 points per game.

The Islanders hope Barzal can be the second-line center to begin the season. That would allow Brock Nelson to shift to right wing on the top line with center John Tavares and left wing Andrew Ladd.

"As a rookie coming in everyone's so big and you've been watching these guys since you were 4 and 5 years old," Barzal said in August. "Am I intimidated? I don't think I'm intimidated, but it's different when you're playing against guys that are so good and guys you've been growing up idolizing.

Video: Season Preview: Calder Trophy Predictions

"When you go to the next level everyone is so big and strong. On the ice I've been working on my skating, working on my skill. My shot, for sure, that was an eye-opener at [training camp last year], seeing how hard everyone shoots. I was definitely lacking a little bit in that area so I worked on that a lot this summer."

Pavel Buchnevich, LW, New York Rangers: The addition of forwards Mika Zibanejad and Jimmy Vesey as well as an impressive training camp by Brandon Pirri might make it tough for Buchnevich (6-1, 176) to secure a top-six role at the start of the season, but the signs are there that Buchnevich, 21, has a promising future. How quickly he adapts to the North American game and smaller ice surface will be a big key to his development. Buchnevich (2013 draft, No. 75) increased his point total in each of his four seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League. He had 16 goals and 37 points in 58 games last season between Severstal Cherepovets and SKA St. Petersburg.

"He's going to be given every shot," Rangers director of player development Chris Drury said. "He's obviously played in a men's league over in Russia. He played in the KHL against older, faster, stronger guys. The culture change of coming here, not only a new style of hockey but living in a new country, the new language, is certainly real. But he is really committed to being here. He has been here all summer training. So he is doing all the right things."

Video: PHI@NYR: Buchnevich tips it past Neuvirth

Pierre-Luc Dubois, C, Columbus Blue Jackets: Dubois, the third pick of the 2016 draft, didn't play in the Blue Jackets' final two preseason games and isn't locked into an NHL roster spot yet. He could start the season in the NHL but in a depth role. Dubois, 18 is versatile enough to play any forward position but prefers center. He's big (6-2, 201), strong on his skates and isn't afraid to go to the tough areas of the ice. He had 42 goals and 99 points in 62 games with Cape Breton of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League last season.

"I'm obviously still growing mentally and physically, still working on improving all areas," Dubois said. "I added 40 pounds in the last three years and grew three inches, so I'm still learning how to use my body."

Patrik Laine, LW, Winnipeg Jets: Laine is expected to have an impact after leading Tappara to the Liiga championship and being named the league's playoff most valuable player after he had 10 goals and 15 points in 18 games. The No. 2 pick in the 2016 draft also was the MVP of the 2016 IIHF World Championship; he had seven goals and 12 points to help Finland win the silver medal. Laine (6-5, 206) has a fantastic one-timer from the left circle and will be a big asset on the power play.

Laine, 18, had minor knee surgery in June but recovered in time to play for Team Finland at the World Cup of Hockey 2016. He had 10 shots on goal and a minus-1 rating in three games. 

"Patrik is going to be able to do all those things he's always been able to do," Jets coach Paul Maurice said. "How long it takes him to do it, I don't know, but he's going to get a chance to play. He fits into what we're trying to do as a hockey team, so you'll live with some mistakes that are youth-generated. But he's a very special talent and I would not be surprised if he comes in and is able to finish and put up numbers. Of all the positions to join the NHL in, the wing is the most forgiving."

Mitchell Marner, C, Toronto Maple Leafs: Marner, 19, helped London of the Ontario Hockey League to the Memorial Cup championship last season two goals and 12 assists in four games. That came after he won the OHL MVP award for the regular season and playoffs. The 5-11, 160-pound forward has 96 goals and 301 points in three seasons (1.64 points per game) with London.

"Obviously he's a real gifted player," Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock said. "You don't do what he's been able to do without having a lot of hockey sense and ability to see the ice. For him and Matthews and these guys, once you get them with men and you start seeing them every day, then you'll be able to evaluate where they're at."

Marner told the Toronto Sun he feels he understands how Babcock wants him to play better this season.

"I want to make sure I'm playing well defensively and within the system," he said. "I feel more confident with the puck. [Last year] I was rushing everything and not really focusing on the game I play."

Michael Matheson, D, Florida Panthers: The No. 23 selection of the 2012 draft was a healthy scratch for the first game of the Eastern Conference First Round against the New York Islanders, but by the end of the Panthers' six-game series loss, Matheson, 22, was playing on the first defense pairing with Aaron Ekblad. He had one assist, eight shots on goal and a plus-1 rating in five playoff games.

Matheson (6-2, 192) then joined Canada for the 2016 IIHF World Championship and was named best defenseman at the tournament after he had two goals and six points in 10 games to help Canada win a gold medal.

"His skating ability is second to none," Panthers coach Gerard Gallant said. "He moves the puck. He skates the puck real well. He's going to be a real good hockey player for us for a long time, hopefully. We liked what we saw last year definitely, the two or three games he played, and then in the playoffs he did a great job for us."

Auston Matthews, C, Toronto Maple Leafs: Many expect Matthews (6-3, 216) eventually will fill a top-six role, although Babcock said during training camp he likely would begin the season centering the third line.

Matthews, 19, already has excelled against older competition. Last season he was fourth in National League A, the top league in Switzerland, with 24 goals and was second in voting for the league MVP award. He also led the U.S. in goals (six) and tied for the lead in points (nine) at the 2016 World Championship. And playing for Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey 2016, he was tied for third on the team with three points (two goals) in three games. Showcasing a blend of size, speed and skill, Matthews took 10 shots on goal at the tournament.

He looks forward to improving his game playing for Babcock.

"[Babcock] has been great," he said. "He's given me feedback on my on-ice sessions. His resume speaks for itself, and he's one of the most respected coaches in the League, so obviously he pays close attention to detail. He stressed some little things to me [in development camp in July] that can help me in the long- and short-term."

William Nylander, C, Toronto Maple Leafs: Nylander (5-11, 190) had six goals and 13 points in 22 games with the Maple Leafs last season. He also had 18 goals, 45 points and a plus-7 rating in 38 games for Toronto of the American Hockey League. Nylander, 20, has terrific speed and is difficult to knock off the puck. He could be considered a top-six forward for the Maple Leafs this season and could be the perfect candidate to play alongside Matthews.

"[His shot] is a weapon and he has an ability to make plays," Babcock told the Toronto Sun. "How much he loves the game and how much passion and competitiveness is going to determine how good he can be."

Video: TOR@BUF: William Nylander tips it in to make it 1-0

Ivan Provorov, D, Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers have several highly talented defense prospects, but Provorov (6-1, 201) tops the list. Playing for Brandon in the Western Hockey League last season, he led WHL defensemen in points (73) and was third in goals (21). His plus-64 rating led the league and was the best by a WHL defenseman since 2008-09 and he was named the best defenseman in the Canadian Hockey League. Provorov, 19, also had 13 points in 21 WHL playoff games to help Brandon win the league championship and advance to the Memorial Cup, and had eight assists in seven games as Russia won the silver medal at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship.

"He's really smart, he reads the game. [It's] really hard to play against him," said Flyers forward prospect Radel Fazleev (2014 draft, No. 168), who has played against Provorov with Calgary of the WHL the past two seasons and with him at the WJC. "He's a really good defender, good skater. You have to make almost an unreal play to beat him. If you go 1-on-1, if you make a play when he's on you, it's good for you. Just super hard to play against him."

Jesse Puljujarvi, RW, Edmonton Oilers: The No. 4 pick of the 2016 draft can play a 200-foot game at a high tempo while creating scoring chances for himself and teammates. Last season Puljujarvi, 18, had five goals and seven points in four games to help Finland win the gold medal at the 2016 IIHF World Under-18 Championship. That followed the gold medal he helped Finland win at the 2016 WJC when he had five goals and 17 points in seven games to tie for the second-most ever by an under-18 player in the tournament, one behind Jaromir Jagr's 18 points for Czechoslovakia in 1990. Puljujarvi (6-4, 203) and center Connor McDavid working as linemates could lead to a successful season for the Oilers.

There's a chance Puljujarvi could start the season in Bakersfield (AHL) in order to gain some confidence on the smaller ice surface before eventually being recalled by the Oilers.

Dylan Strome, C, Arizona Coyotes: As captain for Erie of the Ontario Hockey League last season, Strome (6-3, 185) had 37 goals and 111 points in 56 games. The left-handed shot has improved his skating and has the offensive instincts to create space for himself. The hope in Arizona is Strome (2015 draft, No. 3) can make big contributions this season.

Strome, 19, and fellow prospect Christian Dvorak (2014 draft, No. 58) could earn spots on the roster to begin the season because there are openings at center.

"At the end of the day it's about winning a Stanley Cup, and hopefully we can be the guys that start it all up here," Strome told the Arizona Republic. "Homegrown centers are kind of hard to come by. I think you see the teams that have won the past few years, Chicago, Los Angeles, they all have the [Anze] Kopitars, the [Jonathan] Toews. You want to be the guy that's relied upon, and hopefully we can do that."

Matthew Tkachuk, LW, Calgary Flames: Tkachuk (6-2, 200), the No. 6 choice in the 2016 draft, hopes to join Sam Bennett and Sean Monahan as high first-round picks to make big impacts with the Flames as teenagers.

The son of five-time NHL all-star and U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer Keith Tkachuk, who played 18 seasons with the Winnipeg Jets, Phoenix Coyotes, St. Louis Blues and Atlanta Thrashers, had 30 goals, 77 assists and 107 points in 57 games for London last season. He also had 20 goals and 40 points in 18 OHL playoff games, and then scored the game-winning goal in the Memorial Cup championship game. Tkachuk, 18, formed good chemistry with linemates Troy Brouwer and Bennett during training camp.

"There's no question, right from the moment he's got here he's played hard every shift, every game," coach Glen Gulutzan told the Flames website. "He's certainly making it hard. You can see the talent in Matthew. He's a real good kid. He's a tenacious worker. He's serious about the game. Obviously it comes through the bloodlines. He's making it real tough."

Video: VAN@CGY: Tkachuk jams home rebound for PPG

Jimmy Vesey, LW, New York Rangers: The Rangers signed Vesey, 23, to a two-year, entry-level contract Aug. 19, and he was named the top rookie in training camp as chosen by the media. Vesey (6-3, 207) had 24 goals and 46 points in 33 games and won the 2016 Hobey Baker Award as the top NCAA player as a senior at Harvard University last season. He could step into a top-six role for the Rangers this season, possibly on a line centered by Mika Zibanejad or Derek Stepan.

He had a productive preseason for the Rangers and at no point did he look out of place.

"I think I am getting better as the games go on, and I just want to keep working on holding on to pucks down low," Vesey said. "I think I am doing all right with the pace. The other guys are just so much bigger and stronger down low, so there is not a lot of room to make plays down there. I have to absorb the initial check to find some space and I believe that's the biggest thing for me to work on going forward."

Zach Werenski, D, Columbus Blue Jackets: Werenski (6-2, 209) was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year at the University of Michigan and the best defenseman at the 2016 World Junior Championship for the bronze medal-winning United States.

"There's a very good chance he makes our team and makes our team better," Columbus general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said.

Werenski, 19, the eighth pick of the 2015 draft, played for Lake Erie (now Cleveland), the Blue Jackets' AHL affiliate after his college season ended. He had five goals and 14 points in 17 playoff games to help Lake Erie win the AHL championship. He could become a fixture in the Columbus lineup this season.

"He skates out of trouble," Blue Jackets assistant coach Brad Larsen said of Werenski. "He seems to make the right plays. He makes our power play better."

Pavel Zacha, C, New Jersey Devils: Zacha (6-3, 210) had two assists and a plus-4 rating in his NHL debut last season, April 9 against the Toronto Maple Leafs, and then had two goals and six points in eight AHL regular-season and playoff games before a hip pointer in the second round ended his season. Zacha, 19, was limited to off-ice workouts during development camp in July but was a full participant during an impressive training camp.

"You can see he does so many things well," said Patrik Elias, who played on Zacha's line in his first NHL game last season. "All those good players, at that age, are tremendously strong. He's one of the strongest guys in the weight room for the Devils. He just needs to experience and play the game, learn how the Devils want him to play. He needs to use his skills in the right situations and not put himself in danger because I know he's already had a couple injuries. He needs to learn pace, but his hockey sense will really benefit him."

Editor's note: Dubois was assigned to Cape Breton of the QMJHL on Wednesday.

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