It seems we’ve spent most of the offseason talking about Jimmy Vesey and pondering which of his many suitors would ultimately be fortunate enough to add him to their ranks. That chase is finally over with the New York Rangers coming out on top in their efforts to land the prized UFA forward from Harvard. Whether or not Vesey performs up to the high expectations all of the summer hype would suggest remains to be seen, of course, but this saga serves as a reminder of just how much teams value young talent on entry-level deals.
With the salary cap – or in some cases, internal budgets – forcing teams to allow quality veteran pieces to depart each summer in search of a bigger pay day, teams need young players to step in and fill roles vacated by experienced players. The CBA limits how much a player can earn on their ELC thus allowing clubs more freedom to spend lavishly on star players as long as they have enough young talent to balance out their budgets. By virtue of his status as an UFA limited to signing an ELC, Vesey has understandably garnered an unusually high level of attention for a soon-to-be first year player but he won’t be the only rookie expected to make a near immediate impact with his team in 2016-17.
In a series of posts, Pro Hockey Rumors will profile first-year players who will have an opportunity to step in right away and fill a potentially critical role for their team. Today we start in the Metro Division. (Note: In an effort to keep these posts relatively short, some divisions may be covered in multiple posts).
Sebastian Aho (Carolina) – Aho was the Hurricanes second-round choice in the 2015 draft out of Finland and signed his ELC with the club in June. He led his Liiga team (Finland’s top professional league), Karpat, in scoring in 2015-16 tallying 20 goals and 45 points in 45 games. Aho also has achieved remarkable success representing his home country at both the 2016 IIHF World Championships and the 2016 World Juniors. He recorded seven points for the silver medal winning Finns at the World Championships while averaging two points per game – 14 in seven contests – in helping Finland win gold at the Juniors tournament.
It would seem given his performances on some of the biggest stages in the sport that Aho should be ready for the NHL game. Count Hurricanes GM Ron Francis among those who believe Aho can contribute in Carolina immediately.
“Sebastian is regarded as one of the top prospects in hockey and is ready to begin his North American career. He had a tremendous season as an 18-year-old playing against men in Finland’s top league, and was outstanding in international competitions including the recent World Championship. He will play an important role for the Hurricanes moving forward.”
Carolina’s depth chart on Roster Resource lists Aho as the team’s third right wing and given Francis’ quotes, it seems probable he will be given every opportunity to become a key contributor right out of the gate. The Hurricanes have an excellent young blue line but need help up front if they wish to challenge for the playoffs. Aho’s skills and playmaking abilities would be a welcome addition to Carolina’s forward ranks.
Oliver Bjorkstrand (Columbus) – Danish forward Oliver Bjorkstrand proved he was ready for a prime time role with the Blue Jackets during an impressive playoff run as a member of the Lake Erie Monsters, Columbus’ AHL affiliate. The Monsters lost just one game en route to winning a Calder Cup and Bjorkstrand helped pave the way tallying 10 postseason goals. He was even more prolific in the Calder Cup Finals scoring five times, with three proving to be of the game-winning variety.
His head coach with the Monsters, Jared Bednar, had this to say about Bjorkstrand:
“He has a will to win that’s unparalleled, and that’s why he has always been successful, no matter where he’s been.”
The Blue Jackets have several quality young players that will soon be ready to challenge for NHL roles but Bjorkstrand’s determination and recent postseason success should give him an advantage over his peers at cracking the Columbus lineup. Columbus could theoretically compete for a playoff spot, assuming a return to health and form from goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, along with an improved defense corps. Bjorkstrand should add more skilled depth to the forward group and he could enjoy a productive season if he finds chemistry with the right players.
Zach Werenski (Columbus) – Possibly joining Bjorkstrand in Columbus in time for the 2016-17 season is D Zach Werenski. Werenski, the team’s first round pick in 2015, eighth overall, played two seasons at the University of Michigan prior to signing his ELC last spring. He would see action in seven AHL regular season games, scoring one goal, before embarking on an excellent playoff run. In 17 postseason contests, Werenski tallied five goals and 14 points in helping the Monsters to the Calder Cup.
Werenski already boasts NHL size at 6-foot-2 and 209 pounds and adds tremendous skating ability as well as poise under pressure. Even after the addition of rising star Seth Jones via a mid-season trade with Nashville and the presence of Ryan Murray, Werenski has an excellent shot to break training camp with the big club. If Werenski develops as expected, the Blue Jackets could quickly transform their blue line from one of the league’s worst to one of the best in relatively short order.
Pavel Buchnevich (New York Rangers) – Vesey isn’t the only rookie the Rangers will likely be welcoming to the lineup for the 2016-17 season. Pavel Buchnevich, the team’s top prospect and a 2013 third round choice, elected to make the jump to North America and signed his ELC this past spring. While skating in the KHL, widely considered the second best league in the word behind the NHL, Buchnevich tallied a respectable 37 points in 58 regular season games.
To put those numbers in a bit of perspective, Rob Vollman in the Hockey Abstract has constructed a predictive chart to convert offensive numbers from one league to another based primarily on historical data involving players appearing in both leagues and how they’ve fared moving from one to the other. Buchnevich’s points-per-game ratio in the KHL projects to be roughly the equivalent of a 40-point campaign in the NHL based on Vollman’s chart. That’s pretty solid for a 20-year-old player.
The Rangers wouldn’t seem to need much of an offensive boost after finishing seventh in the NHL in goal scoring and returning much of their top-six forward talent – excepting of course the swap of Derick Brassard for Mika Zibanejad – but Alain Vigneault tends to use his third line as much or more than most NHL head coaches. That should allow for a rookie with the skill and ability of Buchnevich to earn quality ice time while also shielding him from the tougher match-ups.