Every year, the league’s rookies receive a ton of attention, and rightfully so. These are the players who are the future. Fans pay close attention to see if their team’s prized prospect will live up to expectations. We also love to see the occasional late-rounders and undrafted who find a way to break into the NHL. It’s fun to speculate on who will win the Calder, who will become the next star.
Less under the microscope it seems, are the players in their second year in the league. Some players experience a “sophomore slump” as opponents learn their tendencies and the player settles into life in the NHL without the sparkle of the first year (see Tomas Hertl). Others players coming off a successful rookie campaign, see their production spike, and lock themselves in as premier players for their club (such as Sean Monahan). Then, there are those who broke out so impressively to begin with, that to remain consistent is enough to satisfy expectations (Aaron Ekblad this season).
In this article I will briefly touch on 15 players who I think will have notable second seasons. Most of them I think will improve, but there are a couple I think will be susceptible to the slump a bit. This list admittedly leaves off many players worth talking about. I listed, at the end, all the players I considered, but ultimately I settled on these 15.
1: Connor McDavid – Edmonton Oilers
McDavid has to come first on this list. The expectations for this kid were, and are, through the roof. With nicknames like “Connor McJesus,” and people constantly mentioning him in the same breath as Wayne Gretzky years before he was even draft eligible, McDavid is held to the highest standards. After his injury, McDavid won the NHL’s rookie of the month three out of the six months it was awarded. He had 48 points in 45 games, and is being mentioned as a candidate for the Oiler’s captaincy. Even with the promising rookies in this year’s draft class, all eyes will surely be on McDavid again this year. In all likelihood, he will not disappoint.
2: Artemi Panarin – Chicago Blackhawks
Panarin was a great find for the Chicago Blackhawks. After marinating in the KHL, Panarin made the move over to the big league this year. He had an outstanding season playing with Patrick Kane and Artem Anisimov on the Hawks’ top line. WIth 77 points in 80 games, Panarin was the most consistent rookie this season, and earned himself the Calder Trophy for the effort. This is one player on the list that I think will slide a bit next year. Much of his success was due to that of his linemates, and Kane is not likely to replicate his 106 point season. That’s nothing against Kane or Panarin, but few players manage the production those two did. He will still be a great player for the Hawks, but look for Panarin to come back down to earth a bit this season.
3: Jack Eichel – Buffalo Sabres
Eichel had an outstanding rookie season, but did not make as much noise as the two players listed above. His 56 points in 81 games is nothing to scoff at, but I think there is much potential for Eichel to be even better. There were games where Eichel was dominant, but others when he was too little of a factor. As Buffalo surrounds him with more and more talent like Kyle Okposo, and as his role increases, I think Eichel’s production will steadily incline and he will rapidly become a dominant player in the league. As he further adjusts to the NHL schedule from the college schedule, those quiet games should become more and more infrequent.
4: Shayne Gostisbehere – Philadelphia Flyers
Shayne Gostisbehere exploded onto the scene this season. The Flyers’ third round pick in 2012 amassed 46 points in 64 games on the Flyers’ back end. Much of his popularity is due to his uncanny ability to finish games in 3-on-3 overtime, and the fact that his nickname can be written in emojis certainly doesn’t hurt. His advanced stats aren’t all that impressive, however, and I have the feeling that he will regress slightly next season. He still looks to be a big factor for the Flyers, but I don’t think we can expect him to score 50 plus points over a full season.
5: Dylan Larkin – Detroit Red Wings
I couldn’t decide whether Larkin was an obvious player to watch or not, but in the end, I included him here. Larkin got off to an amazing start this season, scoring in his debut and going on a tear throughout the first couple months of the season. He is incredibly fast, and has the ability to turn a game on his own if he decides he wants to. The long NHL season seems to have caught up with him, though, and he finished the year with 45 points in 80 games. The youngest player to crack the Red Wings’ lineup since Steve Yzerman, the Wings will need him to step into a larger role with the loss of Datsyuk and the aging of Zetterberg. It’s probable that Larkin may be a 60-65 point player next season and the Wings’ first-line center.
The Not Quite as Obvious
6: Max Domi – Arizona Coyotes
Max Domi, to me, is an incredibly exciting player to watch. He has a lot of his father’s grit, with much more skill. He racked up 52 points in 81 games. I don’t think his production will increase too much next season, but as he matures, he may become a real leader for the Coyotes.
7: Matt Murray – Pittsburgh Penguins
What will Murray’s role be with the Penguins next season? After winning the starting job from Marc-Andre Fleury while Fleury was injured, Murray never looked back. The Penguins rode the hot play of the 22 year old netminder all the way to a Stanley Cup victory. Murray is a player to watch because I don’t know what his role will be. Is he ready to permanently take the #1 job from Fleury? If so, how does he handle the pressures of a full NHL season?
8: John Gibson – Anaheim Ducks
After a couple of years of hype and maturation, John Gibson stepped up for the Ducks this season when called upon. He earned himself a spot on the NHL’s All-Star roster, and the starting job in Anaheim. The Ducks traded away Frederik Anderson this off-season, officially declaring Gibson as their #1. I think he will be challenged under the load off a full season, and much of the Duck’s potential success may depend on how Gibson plays.
9: Robby Fabbri – St. Louis Blues
Fabbri is a player that I really like, and I cannot wait to see what he turns into. He had a good regular season, scoring 37 points in 72 games, but where he really exploded was in the playoffs. He picked up 15 points in 20 games, and some of the skill plays he made at full speed were stunning. If he can continue to play at the level he showed he can, look for Fabbri’s role to increase and his numbers to surge.
10: Sam Bennett – Calgary Flames
I went with Sam Bennett in this last spot for a couple of reasons. He had a successful first year with 36 points in 77 games for the Flames. As the #4 overall pick in 2014, the Flames no doubt expect Bennett to factor into the team’s success long-term. After a full season of adjusting the the NHL, and with some improvements made to the Flames’ roster, I think Bennett could be another player who really improves and impresses this season.
11: Radek Faksa – Dallas Stars and 12: Joonas Donskoi – San Jose Sharks
These two players make the list for their late season play and playoff performances. Faksa was the Stars’ first round draft choice in 2012. After a modest regular season, Faksa looked good in the playoffs. Donskoi had a similar season, although he scored significantly more points than Faksa. He had 36 points to Faksa’s 12. Both of these players are candidates to see their numbers and their roles increase this coming season.
13: Jaccob Slavin, Noah Hanifin, Brett Pesce – Carolina Hurricanes
I don’t know if this is really a “low-key” choice, and I couldn’t devote three separate spots to these players, so I cheated. Carolina has a young blue-line, and it is stacked. These three combined for 58 points on the back-end and played big minutes against top competition. Slavin is 22, Hanifin, 19, and Pesce is 21 years old. That’s a lot of very young talent. All three of these players had very good 2015-16 seasons, and no doubt earned themselves more playing time and responsibilities this coming season. These players should make up 3/4 of Carolina’s top four d-men.
14: William Nylander – Toronto Maple Leafs
This one may not be that low-key either, but I thought I had to mention Nylander as a player to watch. I assume he will earn a permanent spot on the Maple Leafs’ roster coming out of training camp after a very productive premier last season. Nylander oozes talent and will be a major piece of the Leafs’ new look and rebuild. How long will we have to wait to see him face his brother?
15: Conor Sheary – Pittsburgh Penguins
Last, but possibly not least, I tried to pick a player I thought was possibly a bit more off-the-radar. Players like Sheary added a ton of speed to the Penguins this year, and contributed in a large way to the Cup victory. If Sheary continues to play alongside Sidney Crosby, he could see his numbers increase dramatically over last year, where he scored 10 points in 44 regular season games, but also added 10 more in 23 playoff games.
Below I have included the full list of players that I narrowed down into the 15 above. There are no doubt some more names that I missed, and others who will come out of the blue.
The list: Viktor Arvidsson, John Gibson, Colton Parayko, Shayne Gostisbehere, Max Domi, Robby Fabbri, Jaccob Slavin – Noah Hanifin – Brett Pesce, Dylan Larkin, Joonas Donskoi, Radek Faksa, Conor Sheary, William Nylander, Sam Bennett, Nicolaj Ehlers, Jake Virtanen, Sam Reinhart, Anthony Duclair