Before we get to 2014 on the calendar, I thought it would be a good time to look back on how rookies have fared so far this year.
The 2013 calendar year was a weird one in the NHL. The lockout of 2012-2013 meant that the season was shortened to 48 games. In a schedule like that, where the importance of every game is nearly doubled, it’s not easy for a rookie to just slot in and play his first year in the NHL. The lack of training camp, among other things, means it’s hard to get used to teammates and line mates in that kind of a schedule.
The start of the 2013-2014 campaign came just a little over two months after the end of the Stanley Cup Finals, a shortened offseason because the lockout forced it so. With names like Mackinnon, Jones, and Drouin going at the top of the draft, there was a lot of anticipation for a rookie boom in the NHL this year.
It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Rookies have a tough time in the NHL: Only Jeff Skinner and Patrick Kane have put up 60+ points (or a similar pace) as teenage rookies since 2008. The two players who were neck-and-neck for Rookie of the Year last year and each posted 31 points in 48 games (0.65 points/game), Jonathan Huberdeau and Nail Yakupov have 29 points in 75 combined games this year (0.39 points/game). The rookie points leader this year as of now, Tomas Hertl, suffered a knee injury and will be sidelined for at least a month.
That’s not to say there haven’t been impressive rookies this year, there have. You just need to look past point totals and look at the totality of their game. Here’s a quick glance at how two rookies who have had major impacts have fared this year.
Nathan MacKinnon (F-COL)
The number one overall pick from 2013 started the year on the third line for Colorado. Over his first 11 games, MacKinnon had more than 15 minutes of ice time twice. In the 25 games since October 27, MacKinnon has had fewer than 15 minutes just once. He’s played a bigger role on the team, and he’s earned it.
The Avalanche are using him in the right spots. MacKinnon has been playing against third line competition for most of the season, has been given good line mates to play with (his top three line mates have been O’Reilly, Landeskog and Duchene), and he’s slid into the top-six forwards on the power play in terms of ice time at over two minutes per game on the season, which was aided by the departure of Steve Downie and injury to Alex Tanguay.
Further to his situational use, MacKinnon isn’t really driving possession for the Avalanche, and that’s okay. As an 18-year-old rookie in the Western Conference, that would be a bit much to expect. He is, however, taking nearly three shots on goal per game, and shooting just under 8-percent. This means there is room for improvement in his goal totals going forward.
Just by the eye test, MacKinnon is going to be very special. It seems like an obvious statement, but you never really know how any prospect will pan out until you see them play against the best. His speed coming down the wing, his strength in the corners, his vision to find his teammates, these are all qualities we expected to see from him at some point but probably not to this level so early on. Watch MacKinnon receive a pass, look off the defender and rip this shot over Josh Harding’s shoulder. It’s something that 18-year-olds aren’t supposed to be able to do in the NHL, at least not making it look this easy (this is a reminder that he just turned 18 in September):
There is no doubt that he’s going to be elite very soon, and he’s going to be a lot of fun to watch with that group of good young players down in Denver.
Seth Jones (D-NSH)
It was a bit puzzling when Seth Jones fell to number four in the draft, seeing as the NHL Central Scouting had Jones as the top-ranked player going into the draft. This was the first time since 2007 that the number-1 ranked skater going into the draft wasn’t taken first overall, and only the second time that happened since the 2005 lockout (Kyle Turris, 2007, dropped to third overall after coming in first overall in Central Scouting rankings).
There’s not much to dislike about Jones’ game. The six-foot-four defenseman is extremely mobile, can close the gaps with oncoming players quickly, is a good puck mover, and can play any style that needs to be played: if the opponent is a quick-strike team, Jones has the ability to cover a lot of ground very quickly, if their opposition is more of a possession team, he’s already physically mature enough to handle most players.
His underlying numbers have been very impressive to start his career. Jones’ FenwickClose-percentage is 52.5-percent, playing on a team that is below 50-percent so far this year. Certainly, playing with one of the top defensive defensemen in the NHL in Shea Weber has helped his game quite a bit, but it’s not certain that Weber is the entire reason: Jones’ CorsiFor-percentage with-and-without Weber are pretty much the same. Presumably, this is because when he’s not with Weber, he’s playing a little easier competition. However, he’s still third among Nashville defensemen in Quality of Competition, meaning he’s still playing second pairing minutes in the Western Conference, which is a lot of stiff competition most nights.
You just don’t see Jones repeat the same mistakes very often, a testament to his great hockey sense. He’s seen less and less ice time as of late because despite his physical maturity and ability to handle players, the grind of an NHL schedule is a lot for any 18 or 19-year-old to handle, especially playing anywhere from 21-30 minutes a night, or more. There’s still a lot of talent in that big frame of his, as you can see on this give-and-go toe-drag snap-shot:
It’s easy to look at Jones’ minus-13 rating and assume he’s having a bad year. All you have to do is look down the list a bit and see Shea Weber at minus-10 to know that Nashville is an average team that is missing an all-world goaltender. In that sense, I read nothing into that plus/minus rating, and never usually do anyway.
The reality is both of these players are going to be elite at their positions for a long time. So will the others taken between them in the draft like Jonathan Drouin and Aleksander Barkov, they just haven’t shown it at the top level yet (though Drouin hasn’t even been given a chance).
The future is bright in the NHL, and it starts with these two guys.