It’s incredibly hard for a teenager to play in the NHL, and never more than a handful of them do. That said, the 2016 entry draft has several candidates to do so this year. Here we’ll take a look at the chances that a few of the league’s top prospects make their debuts sooner, rather than later.
- Auston Matthews – Matthews may be in the middle of a dispute with Leafs’ management over rookie bonuses, but a long-term holdout, which is rare for recently drafted players, is just about the only way he isn’t playing in the NHL next year. Matthews has the size to play in the league already, and has a year of playing with grown men in Switzerland under his belt. He also will be 19 when the season starts, rather than 18, because he was born right after the age cutoff. The last player to be selected first overall and not play in the NHL the next season was Erik Johnson, selected by the Blues in 2006. As a defenseman, Johnson was assumed to need longer to develop, and had already committed to playing college hockey.
- Patrick Laine – Laine is expected to be one of the better goal scorers in the NHL pretty quickly, and given that, similarly to Matthews, he played in a men’s pro league last year, and succeeded at the IIHF World Championships for Finland, it would be hard to say he isn’t ready. Laine should fit in well with a strong offensive group in Winnipeg that’s getting younger and better at the same time.
- Pierre-Luc Dubois – Dubois has a few advantages going for him. While his numbers don’t scream the type of player who hits the big leagues immediately, he’s already 6’3″ and over 200 lbs. He was also drafted by a Blue Jackets team that’s weak enough all over to provide very little competition, by a GM in Jarmo Kekalainen, who risked a lot of his reputation to select him over Jesse Puljujarvi and Matthew Tkachuk. Considering the speed with which he was signed, it’s easy to imagine him suiting up immediately.
- Jesse Puljujarvi – Puljujarvi was one of the big three going into the draft, and the fact that he fell to the Oilers at four made some wonder if they’d just won the lottery again. Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli told reporters that, if he can play, Puljujarvi gives them “more flexibility” in their search for a defenseman. Considering another winger, Taylor Hall, was traded for defenseman Adam Larsson three days later, it’s likely Chiarelli thinks he can play.
- Olli Juolevi – Generally, defensemen are given less opportunity to play in the NHL right away, or at least significant minutes. There’s good reason for this, since we have examples of highly drafted defensemen like Luke Schenn playing immediately, and being too overwhelmed too early to learn any more as a player. Juolevi’s opportunity mostly stems from the weakness on the Canucks back end. Since they are one of a number of teams to openly pursue balance between the left and right sides though, that means he’ll have to compete with Ben Hutton, coming off a solid rookie year, 2014 draft pick Nikita Tryamkin, and Luca Sbisa, whose contract may just be too big to put in the press box.
- Matthew Tkachuk – Another player that will be determined by circumstances. The Flames don’t have a lot of depth up front, but they also don’t have an absolutely glaring hole. They’ve got two players who are pretty much sure things, in Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, and then Sam Bennett looks to be on the brink. After that, there are some plugs, and there’s some guess work. Tkachuk is big enough to play right away, but he’ll likely only get a shot if he can force himself into a top six role.
- Mikhail Sergachev – Another defenseman whose team will certainly treat cautiously. Sergachev mostly makes the list because some have called him NHL ready, and he shares that same physical maturity with the other players list here. That said, he turned 18 the day after the draft, and he’d be fighting for the last defense spot with Mark Barberio and Greg Pateryn, meaning he won’t waltz onto the team. Sergachev had some short term misfortune being drafted highly by a team that was probably too good to be doing so, but long term, this is probably better for his development.