This 2015-16 season in the NHL is the year of the rookie more than it is anything else. Everyone knew this rookie class would be strong and exciting to watch, but few expected to see this much poise and production across the board. This all comes after Connor McDavid, the number one overall pick from the Erie Otters, missed almost 30 games due to injury. Luckily for fans, his fellow members of first year players more than made up for his absence.
While he has played only 21 games, McDavid is still the most talked about rookie in the league, especially if you live in Erie. The early comparisons to Gretzky and Crosby have already been made. His skating ability is amazing, and his stick-handling is rightfully compared to the great centers. In his short time in the NHL, McDavid has compiled 25 points for an average of 1.19 points per game, which is the highest among rookies. He has put on a show almost every game he has played, just as he did for the Otters. McDavid does need to get a bit stronger and surprisingly, can still improve on his passing, but once he does this, he will be one of the best overall players in this league.
Artemi Panarin of the Chicago Blackhawks leads all rookies and is 6th overall in the NHL in points with 54. While he has benefited from playing with the Hart Memorial Trophy frontrunner Patrick Kane there is no question that he possesses far more skill than typical rookies. While Panarin is older (24) than some of the other top rookies, he is still very relatively young and has plenty of time to grow in the best system in hockey. He has gone above and beyond filling in for key veterans Chicago lost in free agency, such as Patrick Sharp and Brad Richards. As the season goes on, he should only get better and will look to help bring yet another cup to the Windy City.
Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart of the Buffalo Sabres are a clear vision of what the Sabres will be for years down the road. Both have 17 goals and Eichel has 22 assists, giving him 39 points and putting him second in rookies behind Panarin. Reinhart, the second overall pick from the 2014 draft, has found his niche on this young Sabres team, as he can always find a way to get in front of the net and create traffic. Eichel, the second overall pick from this past draft has excelled in his playmaking ability and already looks like a growing superstar in this league. He currently ranks in the top 5 in pass completion percentage in the NHL. With these two young stars to build around, Buffalo has a brighter future than ever.
Panarin isn’t the only rookie skater on the league leaderboards. Detroit Red Wings center Dylan Larkin is tied for sixth in the NHL in plus/minus at +21 and has 19 goals, second among rookies behind Panarin. The Michigan native has been a pleasant surprise, as most people did not expect the 19 year old picked in the first round in 2014 would be this successful this early. The Red Wings have a unique balance of old veterans and young rising stars, but they do not need to look much farther than Larkin when picturing their future.
The next rising star is Shayne Gostisbehere of the Philladelphia Flyers. The third round (78th overall) pick from the 2012 draft has quietly been bringing life to an otherwise disappointing Flyer team. Gostisbehere leads all rookie defensemen with 32 points in only 38 games, and he has 18 power play points, which is good for 8th among NHL defensemen. He is currently riding an incredible 13-game point streak, which is the longest ever by a rookie defenseman. He becomes the first d-man to have a streak this long in 20 years. What Gotisbehere has done already in such a short sample size in remarkable, and it makes it even more interesting and exciting to see what he will do next.
There are also a couple of potential star goalies in this year’s rookie class. Josh Gibson of the Anaheim Ducks is currently third in the NHL in goals against average (2.10) and is tied for fourth in shutouts (4). The former second round pick got some good experience last year in the pros, but played few enough games to retain his rookie status. This season, he was named to his first All-Star game and is in serious contention for the Vezina Trophy if he keeps his hot streak up. Columbus Blue Jacket rookie goalie Joonas Korpisalo and Connor Hellebuyck of the Winnipeg Jets both have a higher save percentage than Gibson, while Mike Condon of the Montreal Canadiens leads all rookie netminders with 14 wins, but they all do not have as good of a support system around them. Still, all three are viewed as the future goalie for their respective franchises and make up one of the most impressive rookie classes in years.
It is clear these rookies are talented and can only get better, but just how good are they and how good can they be? There have been comparisons made to the 2005-06 class made up of Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin Henrik Lundqvist, Ryan Suter, Brent Seabrook, Ryan Miller, and others. The guys mentioned above have the potential to be as great as these veterans and future Hall of Famers, but it’s far too early to tell if the 2015-16 class will surpass them. Add in Sam Bennet, the number four overall pick in the 2014 draft made by the Calgary Flames and Max Domi and Anthony Dunclair of the Arizona Coyetes, and this class has a pretty good chance. McDavid, Eichel, and all the rest all have chance at stardom, and we all cannot wait to see what they can become.