Are this Year’s NHL Rookies Truly a Cut Above the Rest?

NHL Rookies 2016-17

Hockey fans know that something really good must’ve happened when an NHL player is trending on Twitter for a change. But on opening night for the Toronto Maple Leafs, Auston Matthews’ four-goal performance not only would dominate Twitter, but would seemingly reach every part of the sports world. Heck, they might’ve even covered it on (American) SportsCenter.

Luckily for the NHL and its fans, Matthews’ stellar rookie performance would only be the beginning of one of the league’s biggest storylines this year. That of a rookie scoring at a torrid pace. Joining Toronto’s Matthews in the conversation are Toronto’s Mitch Marner and William Nylander (jeez, Toronto); Columbus’s Zach Werenski; and Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine—the sharpshooter who sits 20th in the league in points. It seems like a rookie takeover, begging the question: are rookie numbers in 2016-17 truly unprecedented?

Let’s dive in by looking at the studs of last year. And, how they would fare until the end of December. It’s worth noting that Connor McDavid’s injury and Shayne Gostisbehere’s midseason call-up make their numbers irrelevant for this exercise. However, Calder winner Artemi Panarin fits the bill.

From the season’s start until the end of December, Panarin would light up the league for 34 points (11 goals, 23 assists). Comparing to current leaders Laine (30 points) and Matthews (28), Panarin holds the advantage. Though, there are some other factors to consider. For starters, he would develop more than certain North American prospects after coming from the KHL at age 24 rather than 18 (!) like Matthews and Laine would.

In addition, Panarin would have all-world winger Patrick Kane on his line, whose 26-game point streak in the first half of the season would undoubtedly benefit Panarin by association. In short, the numbers are certainly comparable and show that, at least in terms of the league leaders, this year doesn’t stray too far from the pack.

If we’re going to get a true sense of rookie performance, however, it’s not just the leaders who serve as indicators of overall trends. Thus, enter the “tier-two” rookies—for lack of a less condescending term for players who are better at hockey than I’ll ever be at most things.

Starting with last season, we’ll look at the top seven rookies at this point in the season:

NHL Rookies 2016-17

And now for where we stand this season:

NHL Rookies 2016-17

At this point last season, top rookies would be on pace for roughly 30 points. This season, we’re looking at a few more players on pace for 40+ points, an impressive benchmark. It shows that the numbers back up the energy around the league’s rookies, though not quite as much as we may expect. The upward trend doesn’t seem to be quite as groundbreaking as the conversation surrounding the league since Matthews’ start to the season.

Why the excitement, then? It’s likely rooted in the mere excitement of a new age of smaller and faster rookies. Not to take anything away from the 2000s, but players like Marner (170 pounds), Duclair (185), and Konecny (175) would come through the system with a much larger red flag due to their size. It’s not until recent years and success of players like Johnny Gaudreau that scouts and GMs would start to realize and value the asset of speed over size. If that doesn’t seem like enough to generate the excitement we’re seeing, just watch a few clips from Team North America at this summer’s World Cup of Hockey.

It’s my hope that, for the sake of scoring in the league, these numbers continue to rise to accompany this incoming speedy generation. However, it’s more important to simply sit back and enjoy a style of hockey with some much-needed grease on its wheels.

Statistics courtesy of NHL.com and www.hockey-reference.com.

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