It feels like we may be nearing a changing of the guard in the NHL. The Sidney Crosby/Alexander Ovechkin generation continues to dominate, as it has for most of the last decade. But there's growing excitement over the next wave, one highlighted by the success of Team North America at the recent World Cup, and we're already getting a strong sense of what the future looks like.
So today, let's identify some of the most exciting young players in the league who'll be 21 or under as of opening night. (This isn't meant to be a comprehensive list of every good young prospect in the league, but just to save everyone time: If I left out your personal favorite player, it's because I hate them.) We'll look at what they are now, and what they might end up becoming. And we'll also look at their odds of actually reaching the top tier.
That last one may seem a bit odd—most of these guys are having an impact already, so aren't they all basically locks for stardom? You'd think so—but then you remember guys like Jim Carey, Jimmy Carson and Erik Johnson, and you remember that nothing in the NHL is inevitable. History tells us that some of these guys will end up falling short of the heights we all assume they'll hit. We just don't know who it will be... yet.
We'll divide our players into a few groups to keep everything straight. And we'll start at the top, with the guy everyone is chasing.
Group 1: Connor McDavid
Hell yes he gets his own group.Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers
His game: McDavid is a classic once-in-a-generation franchise player who can do just about everything. His skating, hockey sense and creativity are phenomenal, and he can generate offense with elite-level passing and shooting. But what really strikes you about his game is the speed—he just does everything faster than seems possible. If and when the Oilers can surround him with the sort of talent that can keep up, he'll be unstoppable.
His ceiling: We could say it's being the best player in the league, but that might actually be selling McDavid short. The question is how good he can be. Better than Crosby? In the Steve Yzerman/Joe Sakic zone? Maybe even the Wayne Gretzky/Mario Lemieux range (albeit with overall numbers watered down by the dead puck era)? At this point, nothing is off the table.
Superstar odds: 99%. Barring a significant injury, it's all but impossible to imagine McDavid not having a dominant career.
Group 2: The non-McDavid forwards
There was a time when it wasn't unusual to see young forwards playing big roles in the NHL. In the high-flying 80s, players like Lemieux, Dale Hawerchuk and even Carson put up 100-plus point seasons as teenagers, while guys like Gretzky and Yzerman were established first line players almost immediately. But as the game evolved and defensive systems took over, the learning curve for a young forward increased, and it became rare to see a young player excel without a few years of apprenticing first.
We've seen a bit of a shift back toward young players in recent years, partly thanks to teams realizing the importance of maximizing the value of entry-level deals. These five players aren't making anyone think of Lemieux or Yzerman just yet, but they've all established themselves as top six NHLers, and a few have already been all-stars.Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres
His game: The consolation prize of the 2015 lottery would have been the first overall pick in just about any other year, and he's the cornerstone of a Sabres rebuild that's been long and painful but could be about to pay off. He's big and smooth, and after dominating the college ranks he put up a very good rookie season in Buffalo last year.
His ceiling: He projects as a first-line center who could someday put up a point-per-game or better without hurting you defensively. There aren't many of those guys, and the few that exist tend to spend a lot of time in the Hart Trophy conversation.
Superstar odds: 90%. There's not quite a unanimous consensus that Eichel is destined for stardom—I've heard from a few smart people who think he'll top out at merely "very good" instead of truly great. But with one good NHL season already under his belt, Sabres fans have to feel pretty confident about what the future holds.