Young talent on ELC’s are often the life blood of successful organizations. With the cost for elite players approaching free agency rising to $8MM or more annually – think Sidney Crosby, Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Toews, etc. – teams need to constantly have young NHL-ready talent ready to plug in to replace veterans who are allowed to walk because they simply cost too much to fit under the salary cap.
On that note, we continue our series on rookies who both have a great chance to make their team at some point this year and the talent to make a significant impact. Today we move into the Western Conference’s Central Division.
Nick Schmaltz (Chicago) – Every year the Blackhawks find themselves precariously close to the salary cap ceiling and with significant holes on their roster. With roughly $49MM tied up in just eight players – four forwards, three defensemen and a goalie – Chicago has committed much of its salary cap space to their star players and have left precious little room with which to flesh out the rest of its roster. Every summer it seems the team is forced to move quality players due to cap reasons. Last year the team dealt Brandon Saad, who as a pending RFA was set to become quite expensive. This summer Chicago packaged talented young forward Teuvo Teravainen with Bryan Bickell to entice Carolina to take on the final season of the latter’s bloated contract. The downside of Chicago’s cap crunch is obvious; the upside though is that it gives young players like Schmaltz a great opportunity to make the Blackhawks and contribute right away.
Schmaltz was the Hawks first-round pick in the 2014 draft, 20th overall. He’s played the last two seasons at the University of North Dakota and was better than a point-per-game player in 2015-16. The loss of Teravainen along with the free agent departure of Andrew Ladd leaves two large vacancies on the Blackhawks roster and Schmaltz will be given every opportunity to fill one. With plenty of scoring talent around him, Schmaltz could produce solid offensive numbers right out of the gate.
Tyler Motte (Chicago) – If Schmaltz is likely to earn one open forward spot for the Hawks, Motte may well have the inside track on the second one. Like Schmaltz, Motte has gone the NCAA route, skating three seasons with the University of Michigan before turning pro. Motte, a 2013 fourth-rounder, had a terrific junior campaign in 2015-16, recording 32 goals and 56 points in 38 games for the Wolverines.
After turning pro, Motte saw action in a total of eight AHL contests with the Rockford IceHogs – five in the regular season and three more in the playoffs – scoring four goals and seven points. Motte, a C/LW by trade, has an excellent opportunity to earn a top-six role and could see plenty of ice time on a line with Toews or Patrick Kane. Currently, the Hawks list Artemi Panarin, last year’s Calder Trophy winner as the league’s top rookie, as a top-six LW. Joining him on the left side is Richard Panik – 25 goals in 181 career NHL games – and Andrew Desjardins – career high of eight goals in 2015-16. The shallow relatively depth on the port side should allow Motte a quality chance to make the team in a scoring line role.
Mikko Rantanen (Colorado) – The Avalanche used the 10th overall selection on the Finnish winger in the 2015 draft. Rantanen, just 19, offers a rare combination of NHL power forward size at 6-foot-3 and 212 pounds, along with top-shelf offensive skill. He made his MHL debut in 2015-16, going scoreless in nine games and recording a -7 plus-minus rating.
While plus-minus is generally considered a misleading stat, Rantanen’s -7 in just nine games does suggest the youngster could use more work in his own zone. That being said, many young players need to improve on the defensive end of the game and Rantanen is no different. Rantanen did have an excellent debut in the AHL, suiting up for 52 games with the San Antonio Rampage and contributing 60 points. It’s likely Rantanen sees significant action with the Avalanche this year as the talent is simply too hard to ignore.
Alex Tuch (Minnesota) – The Wild wouldn’t appear to have too many openings up front based on their team depth chart but if a talented player such as Tuch impresses at camp, he could force his way onto the roster sooner rather than later. Additionally, while Jordan Schroeder is currently listed as the team’s 4th line LW, the team did waive the four-year veteran this summer prior to re-signing him to a one-year, two-way deal. Waiving Schroeder was a curious move, and it’s been speculated it was done to reinforce the team’s position that the arbitration-eligible forward wasn’t worthy of a one-way deal. Given those circumstances, if Tuch proves to be the better player in camp, the Wild could easily find a spot for him.
Tuch has played the past two seasons in the NCAA with Boston College, appearing in 77 games with the Eagles and netting 32 goals along with 30 helpers. At 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, he would certainly add an imposing figure to the Wild’s forward ranks. Tuch is known as a physical player, not afraid to stand up for his teammates. He’s also a willing and able fore-checker and a solid skater. PHR has previously mentioned Tuch as a potential breakout rookie who could suit up for the Wild as soon as this season.
(All depth charts provided by Roster Resource)