With every new NHL season, there are new faces that the general public starts to learn more about. Everyone likes to talk about the league’s elite players and how good they are, but me? I like to scope out and project which players are ready to show the world that they are worthy of praise from people on Twitter for their play on the ice. Last year I did an article similar to this, and well, I certainly was not perfect; I think I did pretty well. 12 Young-ish Players to Watch This Year – Off the post sports. This year I’m hoping to do better. Looking at a combination of advanced stats, situation and just watching these players play, I’ve picked 5 players that I think will take significant steps this year and start to establish themselves as solid players in the league.
Filip Zadina is one of the more fascinating young players in the league. The dynamic winger put himself on the hockey world’s radar at the 2018 World Juniors, where he led the Czech Republic to a 4th place finish. Zadina scored 7 goals in 7 games, and that, along with a 47 goal season in the QMJHL, led to him being drafted 6th overall by the Red Wings in the 2018 draft. A few picks after Zadina was Quinn Hughes, who went to school at Michigan and is now a top defenceman in the NHL after only one season. The narrative around Zadina has definitely not been helped because he was picked over Hughes, and I think that he gets unfairly scrutinized partly due to who was drafted after him. Now, Zadina hasn’t exactly shown tons of promising signs in the 2 years since being drafted, but I think his play last season was a big step. Zadina’s advanced stats are not sparkling, to say the least, but there are many reasons for that. Mostly, he was a rookie winger playing on one of the worst teams of the decade. I mean, the Red Wings were truly terrible last season. He spent most of his time on the third line, but when he did play with players like Robby Fabbri and Dylan Larkin, you could see he belonged. Watching Zadina’s games in the NHL last season, what impressed me most was his tenaciousness on the puck and forechecking ability.
Watch as Zadina chips the puck in and gets after it, getting through a couple Jets players and stripping the defencemen (maybe getting away with a little hook, but play till whistle!). His hard work creates a goal, and I think he’s really worked on becoming less of a periphery player. He’s a really smooth skater and a smart player. He could be dangerous just using this chip and go play much more often. The best part of Zadina’s game is his shot. It’s been NHL ready since he was 18.
That’s Corey Crawford in net, and Zadina just picks the short-side corner with ease. There are not many players in the league that can do that. Crawford leaves just the smallest gap possible that only the puck could fit through, and Zadina finds it. With better linemates and more confidence, I think Zadina could hit the 20 goal plateau this season. Zadina needs to be better than he has been, and he has the talent to do so. He could be a crucial part of turning around the Red Wings on a team that desperately needs his goal-scoring.
Much has been about all the big moves that Vegas has made in the 3 years since they’ve been an organization, but the club deserves more praise for their under-the-radar signings as well. A perfect example of this is Zach Whitecloud. Vegas signed Whitecloud out of college as an undrafted free agent in 2018, and he looks like he will be an absolute player at the NHL level. Whitecloud has shown his ability to shut down opposing teams’ offensive attacks in a minimal sample size.
He is projected on Vegas’ third D pairing and considering he is a right-handed shot, it may be hard for him to move up on the right side as the two players in front of him are Shea Theodore and Alex Pietrangelo. But he has shown he is capable of playing the left side where Vegas is not as strong. His skating is solid, and he seems able to keep up with any forward of any speed. His offensive output is nothing to write home about, but on a team that scores plenty of goals, that shouldn’t be a huge issue, he can move the puck and make a first pass, and that’s all you need to be able to do on this Vegas’ team. Keep an eye out for his minutes this season; he may be playing 20 a night by the end of the year.
The Calgary Flames didn’t have the season many expected them to last season, and that was largely down to the down years from Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau. One of the most prominent bright spots was the line of Mangiapane, Elias Lindholm and Matthew Tkachuk, which spent nearly 300 minutes together last season and had an xGF% of 56 percent. Mangiapane and Tkachuk specifically built up some good chemistry. The two played 650 minutes together and created 43 more high danger chances than they gave up. Mangiapane had a solid under the radar year last season and finished with 17 goals and 15 assists in 68 games. One of the reasons that he and Tkachuk mesh so well together is due to their forechecking. They continuously are putting the puck behind the D and pressuring them to make a mistake, and most times, they do. Mangiapane is also a really smart player, lots of his goals come from him getting into the right areas and then using his patience to outwait the goalie. He doesn’t have a particularly great shot, but you don’t need a great shot to score a lot of goals in the NHL. He’s one of Calgary’s more defensively responsible forwards and is crucial to their penalty kill.
To start camp, Mangiapane looks like he’ll be on the third line with Mikel Backlund and Sam Bennett, but it would not surprise me if he gets moved up in the line up early in the season. The Flames could and should look at moving Mangipane to play with Gaudreau. He could be the spark that Gaudreau needs to find his 18-19 season form where he put up 99 points. Gaudreau is a playmaker, and Mangiapane is a guy that loves to score goals. My bold prediction for Mangiapane is that he is in the top 3 in Flames scoring by season’s end.
Denis Gurianov is honestly just one of those players that makes hockey fun to watch. The guy is just a combination of blazing speed, size and a wicked shot. At 6’3 195LBS, he is noticeable whenever he’s on the ice, and when he gets the puck in space, you’re just never going to catch him.
I mean, Erik Cernak just has no chance here. Once Gurianov gets a step on you, you’re toast. It’s a good finish, too, sliding it through Vezina trophy winner Andrei Vasilevsky, but it doesn’t really show off how good his shot is.
These two goals, however, do. Gurianov’s bubble performance was quite incredible, but it wasn’t surprising. He finished with 9 goals and 8 assists in 27 games despite just playing 14 minutes a game! Even in the regular season, Gurianov managed 20 goals in 64 games, playing only 12 minutes a night. I struggle to find an answer as to why Dallas doesn’t play him and Roope Hintz more, but hopefully, that changes this season. He’s a first-round talent, picked 12th overall by Dallas in 2015, and he’s shown why they picked him that high.
When Gurianov was on the ice last season at 5 on 5, Dallas scored 28 goals and gave up 21; 13 of those 28 goals were Gurianov’s! A bump up in minutes and better linemates could really unlock this guy’s potential. With Tyler Seguin missing the whole season, the Stars will need guys like Gurianov, and he’s proven time and time again he is ready for a bigger role. Do not be surprised if Gurianov ends the year with the most goals on the Stars.
I think it’s safe to say that Rob Thomas has already kind of sort of broken out, but I think this could be his first All-Star calibre season. He will be the Blues’ second-line center and will play with Mike Hoffman on his wing, which alone should help his assist totals. Last year the former London Knight had the 4th most primary assists P/60 in the league. His passing is at a very high level right now, and if there is one thing Mike Hoffman knows how to do, it’s finish off nice passes. Thomas had the 5th highest WAR on the Blues last season and generally took a massive step in his all-around play.
His zone entries and exits are a considerable strength of his game, mostly due to a specific skill, keeping his head up. It’s drilled into you as a little kid, but it’s a very underrated skill. It’s more than just keeping your head up to make sure you don’t get drilled. It’s about knowing what’s around you and then deciding what the best course of action is. Thomas was 3rd on the Blues in takeaways, and he gets to learn about the art of takeaways from the master himself, Ryan O’Reilly. The two are similar players, and Thomas could certainly do worse than modelling his game after the 2019 Conn Smythe winner.
The Blues have an excellent hockey player in Thomas, and he should be given every opportunity to become a first-line centre. I would like to see him shoot the puck more because his shot is pretty lethal, but I can understand why he loves to dish it out as much as he does. For Thomas, he should just keep working on improving, and I think he’ll be a potential Selke candidate down the line and a perennial All-Star.