Youth and exuberance are slowly replacing age and experience when it comes to building a present-day NHL roster. It’s no longer a cliché to say that in the NHL, “30 is the new 40,” as nine of the top 13 scorers from 2018-19 were 25 years old or younger. Compare that to 2014 (three), 2010 (six) and 2004 (four) and you can see why general managers are scurrying to hand out multi-million dollar contract extensions to players before the ink on their entry-level deals is barely dry.
The players listed below belong to an elite group of performers who bear the responsibility of carrying the league to greater heights. They draw crowds, sell jerseys, dominate late-night highlights and stretch the history of their profession from common to legendary. Each player has shown their warts, but those shortcomings far outweigh their excitability, dynamism and most importantly, their production. Unlike previous generations, this crew is putting a new face to the NHL via a group effort, with the responsibilities rotating from player to player practically on a nightly basis.
NHL prospect rankings: Top 50 players in NHL pipelines for 2019-20
Although this ranking was generated with the help of some heavy analytics from invaluable resources like NaturalStatTrick.com and Hockey-Reference.com, gut feelings and general common sense also played a role.
Top 25 under 25
26. Honorable mentions
26. Nico Hischier, C, New Jersey Devils
27. Patrik Laine, RW, Winnipeg Jets
28. Zach Werenski, D, Columbus Blue Jackets
29. Brock Boeser, RW, Vancouver Canucks
30. Jack Hughes, C, New Jersey Devils
31. Kaapo Kakko, RW, New York Rangers
32. Andrei Svechnikov, RW, Carolina Hurricanes
33. Mikhail Sergachev, D, Tampa Bay Lightning
34. Carter Hart, G, Philadelphia Flyers
35. Brady Tkachuk, LW, Ottawa Senators
36. Juuse Saros, G, Nashville Predators
37. Travis Konecny, RW, Philadelphia Flyers
38. Colin White, C, Ottawa Senators
39. Alex Tuch, RW, Vegas Golden Knights
40. Kevin Labanc, RW, San Jose Sharks
41. Ivan Provorov, D, Philadelphia Flyers
42. Timo Meier, RW, San Jose Sharks
43. Noah Hanifin, D, Calgary Flames
44. Shea Theodore, D, Vegas Golden Knights
45. Darnell Nurse, D, Edmonton Oilers
46. Sam Reinhart, C, Buffalo Sabres
47. Jonathan Drouin, LW, Montreal Canadiens
48. Jakub Vrana, LW, Washington Capitals
25. Miro Heiskanen, Dallas Stars
Defenseman | Age: 20 | Drafted: 2017, third overall
2018-19 top 25 under 25 ranking: NR
A graceful skater who led all rookie defensemen with 12 goals, 182 shots and a whopping 23:07 minutes per game, Heiskanen produced one of the best first seasons of any Dallas rookie in franchise history and was narrowly edged by Buffalo’s Rasmus Dahlin as a Calder Trophy finalist by only eight percent of the votes. The aforementioned debate between he and Dahlin has the potential for an annual storyline line that should shift towards the Norris Trophy, possibly as early as this year. Only Boston’s Charlie McAvoy and Ottawa’s Thomas Chabot produced more individual high-danger scoring chances per 60 than Heiskanen’s 0.70 and his 0.68 rebound chances per 60 also was third among 25-and-under defensemen on this list.
24. Rasmus Dahlin, Buffalo Sabres
Defenseman | Age: 19 | Drafted: 2018, first overall
2018-19 top 25 under 25 ranking: honorable mention (34)
The most hyped defensive prospect in decades, Dahlin lived up to expectations by becoming only the third 18-year-old defenseman in NHL history to reach the 40-point mark. Much like his days in the Swedish Hockey League, he wowed crowds with his dipsy-doodling moves and end-to-end rushes, helping the Sabres improve their even-strength production by 32 goals from the season prior.
It didn’t take long for Dahlin to become the team’s go-to power-play quarterback, and his chemistry with the likes of Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner should bode well for the Sabres as they look to break a franchise-worst eight-year playoff drought. Tough call to make between Dahlin and Heiskanen, but the swift Swede holds the edge in several critical areas such as xGF%rel (4.29 to 1.91 in favor of Dahlin), GF% rel (7.58 to -1.74), points per 60 (0.94 to 0.85) and assists per 60 (0.77 to 0.54).
23. Pierre-Luc Dubois, Columbus Blue Jackets
Center | Age: 21 | Drafted: 2016, third overall
2018-19 top 25 under 25 ranking: NR
It was a tough call to make to choose this power forward over the likes of a more cerebral 200-foot forward like Hischier, but Dubois’ breakout 61-point season last year was more than just riding the coattails of elite linemates like Cam Atkinson and Artemi Panarin. His 5-on-5 numbers were excellent for a second-year forward, and his 2.22 points per 60 puts him in the upper half of those on this ranking.
Truth be told, though it helped that Dubois operated at 5-on-5 with an offensive-zone start percentage of 65 that 71 percent of his 61 points involved Atkinson or Panarin. Although we’re rewarding him from an eye test that revealed an unstoppable force that used his size, tenacity and quick thinking to expand the ice for his skilled linemates, the loss of Panarin may have a profound impact on Dubois’ point totals this season.
22. Vince Dunn, St. Louis Blues
Defenseman | Age: 22 | Drafted: 2015, 56th overall
2018-19 top 25 under 25 ranking: NR
A relative newcomer to the register of top young NHL performers, Dunn had an excellent regular season to solidify a depth role on the Blues’ backend in their Stanley Cup run. Playing mostly on the bottom pairing and the power play, Dunn was injured in the San Jose series but bounced back for the last four games against Boston in the Stanley Cup Final. Getting a ring was just the cherry on top for this offensive-minded blueliner, who at 5-on-5 finished second only to Chabot in points/60 (1.36), goals/60 (0.42) and shots/60 (5.66). Dunn’s usage was mostly sheltered (his 60.3 percent offensive-zone starts at 5-on-5 in the regular season jumped to 81 in the playoffs), yet the fact that he was given a leash of any length during a deep postseason drive indicates the Blues could be grooming him to replace Alex Pietrangelo as the team’s No. 1 defender.
21. Kyle Connor, Winnipeg Jets
Left wing | Age: 22 | Drafted: 2015, 17th overall
2018-19 top 25 under 25 ranking: NR
As if the Jets needed more offense from their forward ranks, Connor was one of three to hit the 30-goal mark by potting a career-best 34 tallies. He also set personal highs in assists (32), points (66), power-play goals (11), shots (227) and shot attempts (355). Although it helped to be surrounded with stat-producing studs like Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler, Connor is beginning to carve out his own reputation as not only a lethal scorer but one who contributes defensively as well.
After only recording 45 seconds of time on the penalty kill in all of 2017-18, Connor was used consistently while down a man this past season, where he averaged nearly a minute per game shorthanded. His 7.83 shots/60 at 5-on-5 places him ninth among his 25-and-under peers on this list, which is impressive when you consider he played only 14:12 per game. With a new long-term deal, the sky is the limit for this multi-dimensional winger.
NHL PREDICTIONS: Final standings, playing projections for 2019-20
20. Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders
Center | Age: 22 | Drafted: 2015, 16th overall
2018-19 top 25 under 25 ranking: 10
The sophomore jinx isn’t some made-up myth, and the up-and-down season delivered by New York’s dynamic playmaking center gave credence to the idea that a second time around the league is not as easy as the first. Still, Barzal’s drop in scoring from 85 points in 2018 to 62 last season didn’t hurt the Isles in the standings as they marched to a 103-point season and a first-round sweep of the Penguins. Barzal led the team in scoring but the loss of John Tavares last offseason made him the primary target of opposing top pairings — something he didn’t deal with as often during his Calder Trophy-winning campaign from two seasons ago. However, he remains the straw that stirs the drink on Long Island.
19. Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks
Left wing | Age: 21 | Drafted: 2016, 39th overall
2018-19 top 25 under 25 ranking: NR
One of the league’s top goal scorers from a season ago, DeBrincat is a shining example of why size doesn’t matter when it comes to burying the puck. Listed at 5-7, he scored 41 goals (T-6th in the NHL) but also joined teammate Patrick Kane to form the first Blackhawk duo to reach the 40-goal mark since Jeremy Roenick and Steve Larmer in 1990-91. More importantly, DeBrincat during 5-on-5 spent most of the season playing without Kane or Jonathan Toews and instead on a line with former Erie Otters linemate Dylan Strome; the duo clicked immediately. DeBrincat’s 1.29 goals/60 were second only to Auston Matthews among players 25 and under and his 0.54 rush attempts/60 tied for fifth.
18. Matthew Tkachuk, Flames
Left wing | Age: 21 | Drafted: 2016, sixth overall
2018-19 top 25 under 25 ranking: honorable mention (36)
One of the game’s most abrasive forwards, Tkachuk rewarded the Flames’ decision to give him more favorable zone starts by posting career-highs in goals (34), assists (43), points (77), shots (207) and shooting percentage (16.4). Always playing physical and looking to knock opponents off their game, Tkachuk was one of only five top-50 scorers to eclipse the century mark in hits (104). He also ranked in the top five in high-danger scoring chances/60 (4.32) and individual expected goals/60 (0.76). Additionally, his primary assists/60 took a sizable jump from 0.45 in 2017-18 to 0.83 last season.
17. Dylan Larkin, Red Wings
Center | Age: 23 | Drafted: 2014, 15th overall
2018-19 top 25 under 25 ranking: honorable mention (35)
Larkin continues to improve his individual production without enjoying any team success as Detroit missed the playoffs for a third-straight year. Last season, he registered his best season to date — a 32-goal, 73-point effort, with 58 of those points coming at even strength or shorthanded. Additionally, his 10.9 FF%rel (shots and misses relative to his teammates) was the highest in the league, and his 10.2 CF%rel (all shots) was second only to linemate Anthony Mantha.
16. Sean Monahan, Flames
Center | Age: 24 | Drafted: 2013, sixth overall
2018-19 top 25 under 25 ranking: 12
The NHL doesn’t hand out a “Most Underrated Player” award but if they did, you would have to figure Monahan would be a perennial finalist. A model of consistency, the Brampton, Ont. native registered career-best marks in goals (34), assists (48), points (82) and shot attempts (358) while also providing solid two-way play and winning 51.1 percent of his faceoffs last season. A look at the advanced numbers shows incredible production at 5-on-5 — fifth among all 25-and-under forwards on this list in points/60 (2.58), goals/60 (1.05) and primary assists/60 (1.11). Not only has he scored 27 goals or more in each of the last five seasons but since entering the league in 2013-14, Monahan’s 15.1 shooting percentage ranks sixth among forwards who have appeared in 400 or more games.
15. Charlie McAvoy, Bruins
Defenseman | Age: 21 | Drafted: 2016, 14th overall
2018-19 top 25 under 25 ranking: 24
Even in today’s NHL where the defensemen are getting both younger and smaller, it’s quite rare for a Stanley Cup contender to entrust a kid in his early 20’s with the most ice time in both the regular season and playoffs. In fact, since the league officially began tracking ice time in 1997-98, McAvoy is the only defenseman under 22 with over 40 playoff games played and averaging over 24 minutes a contest. Clearly, the Bruins consider the Long Island native to be Zdeno Chara’s heir apparent. His point production at 5-on-5, including an impressive 0.62 primary assists/60, likely means he’ll start seeing more time on Boston’s lethal power play.
14. Elias Pettersson, Canucks
Center | Age: 20 | Drafted: 2017, fifth overall
2018-19 top 25 under 25 ranking: NR
Each year, there’s always one rookie who takes the league by storm in the early going, therefore cementing his stature as one of the game’s preeminent players. Pettersson is that and then some, and had it not been for a slight injury bug, he would have joined Artemi Panarin (2016) and Mathew Barzal (2018) as the only first-year players to reach the 70-point mark in the last 10 years.
The game’s reigning Calder Trophy winner also proved to be its most elusive, as Pettersson drew a league-best 1.73 penalties per 60. His impact on the Canucks cannot be understated and concerns over his lanky frame were quickly dismissed as he was named NHL Rookie of the Month in both October and December and represented the Canucks at the All-Star Game.
13. Jack Eichel, Sabres
Center | Age: 22 | Drafted: 2015, second overall
2018-19 top 25 under 25 ranking: 6
With four full seasons under his belt, Eichel’s post-draft resume is no longer measured solely by individual stats, as a career-best 82 points were dwarfed by the Sabres missing the playoffs for an eighth straight season. It certainly didn’t look like they were headed that way in late November when the Sabres owned the league’s best record. From that point forward, however, the team completely collapsed, albeit to no fault of their prized captain.
Even for a center with excellent playmaking abilities, Eichel remains one of the league’s most prolific shooters at 5-on-5, pumping a mind-numbing 10.43 shot attempts/60 and averaging a shooting percentage close to or above 10 percent in each of his four seasons. His ability to expand the ice also helped linemate Jeff Skinner score 40 goals, of which Eichel assisted on 21.
12. Thomas Chabot, Senators
Defenseman | Age: 22 | Drafted: 2015, 18th overall
2018-19 top 25 under 25 ranking: NR
It’s perfectly fine to question the top-10 ranking of a youngster with only one full season on a resume, especially when you consider those who were leapfrogged. But to say Chabot exploded onto the NHL scene can be considered the understatement of the decade. Not only did the 22-year-old blueliner lead all 25-and-under defensemen in all three critical traditional stat categories (14 goals, 41 assists, 55 points). But Chabot crushed it out of the park by finishing first in points/60 (1.48), goals/60 (0.44), high-danger scoring chances/60 (0.87), expected goals/60 (0.27) and shots/60 (6.01). Playing for a doormat may have allowed him to control the pace with autonomy during his 24:17 of ice time per game, but the Sens couldn’t be happier with the development of their defenseman who is the centerpiece of their rebuild.
11. Mikko Rantanen, Avalanche
Right wing | Age: 22 | Drafted: 2015, 10th overall
2018-19 top 25 under 25 ranking: 19
Much like Pastrnak, Rantanen owes a big chunk of his success to elite linemates, as Nathan MacKinnon and winger Gabriel Landeskog combined with Rantanen to form the line that accounted for 38 percent of Colorado’s total point production. Rantanen was a critical figure in that number, as he established career-best marks in goals (31), assists (56) and points (87) while tying for 10th league-wide with 33 power-play points. Unlike his European-born contemporary, however, Rantanen’s newly-signed contract was the second-richest of the offseason and his $9.25M annual cap hit makes him the third highest-paid member of the vaunted 2015 draft class.
10. Seth Jones, Blue Jackets
Defenseman | Age: 24 | Drafted: 2013, fourth overall
2018-19 top 25 under 25 ranking: 19
Although his numbers took a slight dip after a career year in 2017-18 and his stats from either a traditional or analytic standpoint may not be as gaudy as other young blueliners, Jones clearly is one of the game’s top two-way defenseman, with back-to-back seasons where he finished in the top 10 in Norris Trophy voting. The Jackets’ upset of Tampa in the first round of last year’s playoffs had Jones’s fingerprints all over it, as he was matched against Tampa’s top two lines while playing over 21 minutes a game at 5-on-5. It’s going to be interesting to see if the loss of the likes of Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene will impact his production, both with the man advantage and at even strength, but Jones certainly is up to the challenge of shouldering the lion’s share of tough matchups and late/close situations.
9. Sebastian Aho, Hurricanes
Center | Age: 22 | Drafted: 2015, 35th overall
2018-19 top 25 under 25 ranking: 18
Of all the notable under-25 star forwards who occupy this list, Aho ranks among the biggest bargains, as the front-loaded offer sheet he signed with Montreal was matched by Carolina, thus landing him with a reasonable annual cap hit of $8.454M. Aho was the driving force behind a Carolina offense that blitzed opponents to a tune of a league-best 2822 shots and posted the NHL’s highest high-danger scoring-chance percentage (57.3 percent at 5-on-5). His team-leading 83 points (30 goals, 53 assists) were the most by a Hurricane since Ray Whitney in 2007, and 27 of his 30 tallies were scored at even strength (23) or while shorthanded (4).
8. Leon Draisaitl, Oilers
Left wing | Age: 23 | Drafted: 2014, third overall
2018-19 top 25 under 25 ranking: 11
The towering German-born forward potted 50 goals to became the first Oiler to reach that mark in 32 years, plus he finished fourth in league scoring with 105 points and registered an NHL-best 21.6 percent shooting percentage. Playing with McDavid certainly helped, but it’s doubtful the Oilers improved from dead last on the power play in 2018 to ninth without Draisaitl making the most of his opportunities near the net. His ability to contribute beyond the low slot makes him an ideal fit on McDavid’s flank, but at a minimum, he’ll need to come close to duplicating his production in order to avoid being labeled a one-year wonder.
7. David Pastrnak, Bruins
Right wing | Age: 23 | Drafted: 2014, 25th overall
2018-19 top 25 under 25 ranking: 7
It certainly doesn’t hurt playing alongside a perennial Hart Trophy candidate like Brad Marchand and a defensive stalwart like Patrice Bergeron, but Pastrnak already has carved out his own reputation as one of the game’s deadliest scoring threats. He’s hit the 70-point mark in three straight campaigns before turning 23, including a career-best 38 goals and 81 points in only 66 games a season ago. His production on the power play is a significant part of his game, but Pastrnak also was deadly at 5-on-5, placing second among players on this list in goals/60 (1.27) and fourth in shots/60 (9.31), while his 0.95 shot attempts off the rush/60 topped them all. Lastly, with an annual cap hit of $6.67M, Pastrnak remains one of the game’s best values.
6. Brayden Point, Lightning
Center | Age: 23 | Drafted: 2014, 79th overall
2018-19 top 25 under 25 ranking: 25
Much like Marner, Point after last season was a restricted free agent and big-time scorer who hit the 90-point mark on a loaded team. His 41 goals tied him with MacKinnon and McDavid (among others) for sixth in the NHL, and his 1.32 primary assists per 60 at 5-on-5 were second only to Marner among players under 25 and fourth in the entire league. Additionally, Point was third among his peers in both assists per 60 (1.75) and high-danger scoring chances per 60 (4.97) and fourth in expected goals per 60 (0.86). The 23-year-old center and the Lightning came to terms on a three-year deal with an annual cap hit of $6.75M, which allows the Bolts to continue to ice another elite roster around him.
Is he worth a Marner-esque AAV of over $10.8 million? The numbers — both traditional and advanced — say yes, but Florida’s income tax situation and Tampa’s penchant for post-entry level contract bridge deals before committing long term helped lower Point’s eventual AAV to seven digits rather than eight.
5. Mitch Marner, Maple Leafs
Right wing | Age: 22 | Drafted: 2015, fourth overall
2018-19 top 25 under 25 ranking: 13
The surging Maple Leafs have one of the league’s most thorough analytics departments, and there’s a good bet Marner’s ridiculous advanced numbers at 5-on-5 played a critical role in GM Kyle Dubas agreeing to give his prized winger a six-year, $65M extension. Although 50 of his 94 points involved center John Tavares, the youngster from Markham, Ont. led his 25-and-under peers in points per 60 (2.87), assists per 60 (2.08) and primary assists per 60 (1.78).
His 68 assists overall were second only to McDavid. A developing aspect of Marner’s game is his two-way play and he was used extensively on the penalty kill in 2018-19 after playing less than 14 shorthanded minutes the two previous seasons combined. He wasn’t his usual stellar self in the first-round playoff loss to Boston (4 points in 7 games), but Marner otherwise is one of game’s brightest stars regardless of age.
4. Auston Matthews, Maple Leafs
Center | Age: 22 | Drafted: 2016, first overall
2018-19 top 25 under 25 ranking: 3
If there was any doubt who the Maple Leafs consider to be their franchise player, look no further than his five-year, $58 million deal that made this Arizona native the league’s highest-paid player after McDavid after only two full seasons since going first overall in the 2016 draft. His 73 points in 68 games (37 goals, 36 assists) need to be put in the proper context, as he led his 25-and-under peers at 5-on-5 in goals per 60 (1.35) and expected goals per 60 (1.06), as well as finished second in both high-danger scoring chances per 60 (5.06) and shots per 60 (10.29).
To go a step further, Matthews, unlike teammate Mitch Marner, did not have the benefit of playing with elite talent away from the power play, and 53 of his 73 points came at even strength, with Marner and John Tavares figuring in only four times. The key, of course, is for Matthews to stay healthy — he’s missed 34 games combined over the last two seasons. Offseason legal issues notwithstanding, Matthews has more than lived up to expectations.
THE LINEUP: Storylines, milestones for NHL Week 2
3. Aleksander Barkov, Panthers
Center | Age: 24 | Drafted: 2013, second overall
2018-19 top 25 under 25 ranking: 4
Much like the 2013 draft counterpart Nathan MacKinnon, Barkov has improved in all facets of the game and has cemented his status as one of the game’s must-see stars. He’s finished in the top six in Selke Trophy voting for best defensive forward in three of the last four years. However, when looking at his advanced numbers, one must consider how abhorrently bad Florida’s goaltending was a season ago.
His career-best 96 points not only set a single-season franchise record, but he was the first Panther to place in the top-10 in league scoring since Pavel Bure in 2000-01. Barkov’s impact on the defensive side of things has helped Florida operate one of the league’s better penalty-killing units, and he was the only forward among top-30 scorers to play over two minutes per game while shorthanded.
2. Nathan MacKinnon, Avalanche
Center | Age: 24 | Drafted: 2013, first overall
2018-19 top 25 under 25 ranking: 2
A dynamic center who scored a career-best 99 points and led the league with 365 shots, MacKinnon spearheaded Colorado’s drive during a wire-to-wire assault on NHL goalies. His 41 goals among the 25-and-under crowd were second only to Draisaitl, and linemates Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog each posted seasons of 75 points or more. Centering the game’s most dangerous line has its perks from a statistical standpoint, as do a whopping 4-plus minutes of power-play time a game.
But MacKinnon is the clear heart-and-soul leader of the upstart Avalanche, who last season won their first playoff series in 11 years and came within a Game 7 win of advancing to the Western Conference finals. He’s finished second and sixth in Hart Trophy voting the last two seasons, and there’s no reason to think he won’t be at or near the top of the list this year, especially if Colorado meets expectations and challenges for the Cup.
1. Connor McDavid, Oilers
Center | Age: 22 | Drafted: 2015, first overall
2018-19 top 25 under 25 ranking: 1
The best player in the world already has a pair of scoring titles and three consecutive first all-star team selections — all before the age of 23. McDavid has yet to achieve the postseason success Sidney Crosby enjoyed in his first four years in the league, but that’s more on the Oilers than it is on their captain.
He led the NHL with 75 assists, and his rate of 1.23 primary assists per 60 at 5-on-5 was third behind Mitch Marner and Brayden Point, although Connor didn’t have the luxury of the superior supporting cast they enjoyed. Half of the 50 goals linemate Leon Draisaitl scored were via McDavid primary assists, and part of the explanation can be a lightning-quick stick that created an average of 3.92 takeaways per 60, good for third overall in the NHL.
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