Ah, rookies. So full of promise and potential, offering teasing glimpses of the stardom and success that surely lies ahead. It doesn’t always work out that way, of course, but try to keep an optimistic mindset as we look at the NHL’s 10 leading rookies through the first month-plus of 2019-20:
Only six rookie goalies have seen action in 2019-20, and Vancouver’s Thatcher Demko can stake a claim as the best first-year netminder thus far with a scintillating save percentage through five starts. His 1.99 goals-against average also leads all rookie goalies. In fact, the 23-year-old Demko has the second-best GAA and and fourth-best save percentage in the league, rookies and veterans alike.
The goals-per-60-minutes stat could be considered somewhat irrelevant because nobody, of course, plays all 60 minutes in a game. On the other hand, it’s a window to see who’s delivering the most scoring punch in the time they’re allotted. And it turns out, the most potent-per-minute rookie scorer is none other than Dallas’ Denis Gurianov, who – after you do the math on four goals in 13 games at 11:52 per outing – comes in with a 1.56 goals per 60. Pittsburgh’s Sam Lafferty ranks second at 1.34, followed by Buffalo’s Victor Olofsson at 1.30 (more on him shortly). Not the names you were expecting, perhaps, but New Jersey’s Jack Hughes (1.01) and the Rangers’ Kaapo Kakko (0.85) both managed to ranked in the top 10 at fifth and eighth, respectively.
While Columbus’ Elvis Merzlikins and New Jersey’s Mackenzie Blackwood entered the 2019-20 season looking like the best bets as rookie stoppers, it is Washington’s Ilya Samsonov who has collected the most wins so far among freshmen netminders. Samsonov (5-1-0, 2.38 GAA, .915 save percentage) has outplayed Capitals incumbent Braden Holtby (7-1-3, 3.36 GAA, .895 save percentage) through the early portion of the NHL schedule. The 22-year-old Samsonov, whom the Caps drafted 22nd overall in 2015, is giving every indication that he can take over from Holtby – perhaps as soon as next season, with Holtby potentially leaving D.C. as a UFA in the summer.
OK, back to Victor Olofsson. The 24-year-old Sabres winger, a seventh-round pick in 2014, continues to lead NHL rookies in goals, but his six tallies all came in his first seven games – and all on the power play – as he hasn’t found the back of the net in his past nine outings. Still, six goals and 11 points in 16 games from a player who was picked 181st overall is a pretty good payoff. The Sabres certainly like what they see – they’re giving Olofsson nearly 17-and-a-half minutes of ice time per game, which is more than any other rookie forward.
Colorado’s Cale Makar came into 2019-20 as a popular pick for the Calder Trophy, and he has not disappointed. The savvy, mobile, puck-rushing defenseman has 15 points in 16 games to lead all rookies in scoring, including the most assists (13) and tied for the rookie lead in power-play points (eight). Rasmus Dahlin had 44 points for Buffalo last season, while Dion Phaneuf, with 49 points in 2005-06, is the NHL’s highest-scoring rookie defenseman in the past 20 years. Barring injury, Makar’s a lock to blow past those totals.
It’s a bit of a surprise to see Edmonton defenseman Ethan Bear as the rookie leader in average ice time, ahead of higher-profile blueliners such as Makar (19:15) and Vancouver’s Quinn Hughes (19:30). Bear, 22, was a fifth-round pick (124th overall) in 2014 and a bubble candidate to make the team out of training camp, but he’s seen his role increase as the season has progressed. He played just 15:33 in the season opener and was below 20 minutes in four of Edmonton’s first five games. Since then, he’s played 20-plus minutes in 12 of 13 games, including a season-high 26:48 against Washington on Oct. 24, while seeing time on the top pairing with Darnell Nurse.
Montreal defenseman Cale Fleury and Toronto winger Trevor Moore have been the most physical rookies, delivering 36 hits apiece, though Fleury has done so in 11 games compared to Moore’s 17 appearances. Another Leafs rookie, winger Dmytro Timashov, sits in third with 34 hits.
Toronto appears to have an enviable all-around talent in Ilya Mikheyev. The 25-year-old right winger, signed as a free agent after spending the past four seasons in the KHL, leads all rookies with 41 shots in 17 games. But that’s not all. He also has the best plus/minus among first-year players (plus-7) and leads in shorthanded ice time per game (2:31), which says a lot about the trust that Leafs coach Mike Babcock already has in Mikheyev. Oh yeah, he’s also tied for second among rookies in goals (four) and points (11).
Blake Lizotte isn’t exactly a big-name rookie – at 5-foot-7 and 172 pounds, he’s not big at all — but let’s give the L.A. Kings kid some credit. First-year players are notoriously weak when it comes to faceoffs, yet the undersized 21-year-old free agent out St. Cloud State is holding his own in the circle with a 55.5-percent winning percentage. Lizotte trails Ottawa’s J.C. Beaudin (58.1 percent), but the Senators rookie has seen just seven NHL games and 43 faceoffs compared to 16 and 117 for Lizotte. Only New Jersey’s Jack Hughes (179) and Anaheim’s Sam Steel (126) have taken more draws, and both the Devils center (43.6 percent) and Ducks pivot (51.6 percent) have some work to do to catch Lizotte in the dot.
While Demko and Samsonov battle for “best rookie goalie” bragging rights, New Jersey’s Mackenzie Blackwood has been the busiest young netminder, facing 268 shots in 10 games (nine starts). After going winless in his first three decisions for the slow-starting Devils, Blackwood has won four of his past seven starts, in the process becoming the only rookie goalie to record a shutout.
Want more in-depth features, analysis and an All-Access pass to the latest content? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.