Often times when high draft picks are thrown into the NHL as 18- or 19-year-olds, we’ll see these kids struggle off the bat as they adjust to the professional game. But if opening week is any indication, this won’t be a problem for this season’s batch of top rookies.
While third overall pick Jonathan Drouin was sent back to juniors after an underwhelming camp in Tampa, Nathan MacKinnon, Aleksander Barkov and Seth Jones — picked first, second and fourth this year, respectively — made their pro debuts this week, and all looked good in their first big NHL tests.
MacKinnon’s first game with the Avs wasn’t perfect — his face-off percentage (16.67) was brutal, and he mustered just one shot on goal — but he did earn two points that night: both being assists on Jamie McGinn tallies. His initial helper was particularly impressive, as he sent a backhand pass from behind the net to McGinn, who lit the lamp to give Colorado a 3-0 lead:
“Play-wise, I thought he was fantastic,” Avs coach Patrick Roy said of MacKinnon. “The first goal (he assisted), he made a great play to bring it in front and McGinn scored on that one. On the second one (he assisted), Parenteau did a super job going first in the corner, made a nice pass to him and there are not too many guys that can see a player from behind, and the play he made there—and he is 18 years old, let’s not forget that—was fantastic.”
Two aspects of MacKinnon’s play on Wednesday stuck out: his speed and on-ice awareness. We have heard quite a bit about his skating ability from scouts, coaches, execs, etc., but to see him blow past NHL competition was a treat, and an encouraging sign for Avs fans. As far as his awareness on the ice, I thought the vision he displayed was off the charts — especially when one considers his age. Both of his assists are fantastic examples of this.
“Unbelievable game and a lot of fun,” MacKinnon said to the Denver Post. “I was a little nervous at first, fighting it a little bit early on. … But I thought I was pretty solid.”
MacKinnon racked up 15:31 of ice time against Anaheim and appeared to mesh well on a line with McGinn and Parenteau. There’s some definite chemistry brewing in that group, and with an already-stacked collection of forwards in tow, the success of this trio could bring Colorado’s offense to new heights in 2013-14.
People in Florida can’t stop raving about Barkov, and when you watch tape of him from Thursday night it’s easy to see why. The kid may have a baby face, but he’s already built like an adult — and he uses his body about as well as any 18-year-old can.
Barkov looked like the strongest guy on the ice. What protection, strength, vision. He belongs here. Youngest player to score since 1967!
— Paige Lewis (@PaigeLewisFL) October 4, 2013
The Finnish winger was one of the Panthers’ best players in their opener, netting the tying goal with 9:28 left in the third period — helping the Cats to an eventual 4-2 win in Dallas. It wasn’t a pretty goal by any means, but his ability to stand strong in the crease was evident on this play, and it certainly paid off for the Florida rookie:
“That was a huge goal for us,” Tim Thomas said of Barkov’s mark, which made him the youngest goalscorer in the NHL since the 1967 expansion. “The character these guys are showing is awesome. This was a very important game for us to win. Guys made the sacrifices.”
There’s been a lot of discussion about Barkov getting time alongside fellow youngster Jonathan Huberdeau, and the two looked great together versus the Stars.
For now, the young pair can ease into their partnership with some help from Brad Boyes. This is only the start of the season, so if they fail to produce, the time may not be right to unite the two first round picks. However, with the opportunity presented, and the hard work both players have shown thus far, Huberdeau and Barkov should be poised to find success together in the coming season.
In total Barkov played 15:34, 2:15 of which was on the power play. His four shots were second to only Kris Versteeg (five).
Unlike MacKinnon and Barkov, Jones didn’t get on the score sheet in his debut; however, he looked very comfortable on Nashville’s blueline on Thursday, earning a plus-2 rating in 18:35 of ice time. His passes were crisp, his skating was fluid and he did a fine job getting the puck toward net.
“I felt good, I felt confident. I knew it was going to be fast out there and St. Louis likes to play a very fast game,” Jones, who was also celebrating his 19th birthday, told The Tennessean. “It felt good. I wasn’t really nervous before.”
The pairing of Jones and Mattias Ekholm was arguably Nashville’s best, though they did get softer minutes than the likes of Shea Weber, Roman Josi, Kevin Klein and Victor Bartley. The two were given ample opportunities on the man-advantage, as well, as Jones and Ekholm played 3:52 and 3:46 on the PP, respectively.
Here’s Jones’ best chance against St. Louis:
“It was a great screen from (Patric) Hornqvist. It couldn’t have been a better screen,” Jones said of the play. “He was right in [Halak's] face. Not sure how he saw that one.”
While few envisioned Jones would be paired with Ekholm when he was drafted back in June, they seemed to work together well on Thursday. By making them the bottom pairing, Barry Trotz can give the tougher minutes to the veterans and let the inexperienced D-men ease their way into the lineup.
Barkov and the Panthers will travel to St. Louis to play the Blues on Saturday, while MacKinnon and Jones will go toe-to-toe in Denver on Friday.