In order to have the opportunity to make an impact as a rookie in the NHL, a player typically must earn a job in training camp – beating out veteran options along the way – and find a way to translate his talents to the ice at the highest level in the world. It’s not often youngsters with little to no NHL experience are guaranteed a role with the big league team but there are exceptions of course. Today we examine four rookies who might find themselves in a position to affect his team’s on-ice fortunes. Two are virtually assured regular playing time while the others will have to impress their teams before seeing any ice time in the NHL this season.
Esa Lindell and Stephen Johns (Dallas) – With the Stars moving on this summer from three of the club’s regular blue liners – Kris Russell, Jason Demers and Alex Goligoski – Dallas certainly has spots up for competition with Lindell and Johns considered front-runners for those jobs. Both players offer good size – Lindell is 6-foot-3, 215 pounds and Johns is 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds – but bring differing skill sets to the table otherwise.
Lindell is a skilled offensive defender who tallied 14 goals and 42 points while playing 73 games for the Texas Stars of the AHL. The 22-year-old blue liner was Dallas’ third-round pick, chosen 74th overall, in the 2012 draft. After two-plus seasons playing in Finland, Lindell made his North American debut in 2014-15, skating in 5 contests with the Stars AHL affiliate. Lindell also saw his first taste of NHL action with four appearances for the Stars. He is currently slotted as the team’s third LD, behind veterans Dan Hamhuis and Johnny Oduya.
Johns is a more physical blue liner who averaged more hits per game than any other Stars player. He wrapped up his four-year collegiate career with Notre Dame scoring 15 goals and 57 points in 162 NCAA contests. Johns made his pro debut with the Rockford IceHogs, the Chicago Blackhawks AHL affiliate, in 2013-14 and scored five points in eight games. He would return to Rockford the following campaign and recorded four goals and 21 points in 51 contests.
The Blackhawks packaged Johns with Patrick Sharp in a deal with the Stars that returned Ryan Garbutt and Trevor Daley to Chicago. Johns made 55 AHL appearances with Texas and another 14 with Dallas in the regular season. He also saw action in 13 postseason contests with the Stars. Presuming head coach Lindy Ruff will split his two rookies up, the right-handed Johns stands a good chance to get plenty of work opposite either Hamhuis or Oduya in the Stars top-four this season.
Kevin Fiala (Nashville) – Predators GM David Poile held off on adding a top-six forward at the 2016 trade deadline because he was under the impression – mistaken in hindsight – that Jimmy Vesey would sign with the team in time to contribute down the stretch and into the playoffs. As we all know, Vesey had different ideas and elected to wait until August 16th when he would reach unrestricted free agency before choosing his first professional employer. That hole also went unfilled this summer giving a glimmer of hope that Fiala, with an impressive training camp, can break camp with the team and seize a top-six role.
Fiala was Nashville’s first-round selection in 2014 out of the Swiss league and is said to have game-breaking offensive potential. Because he is a native of Switzerland and played his junior hockey in Europe, Fiala was able to be assigned to the AHL once under contract with the Predators. As such, Fiala has already accumulated 99 AHL regular season games and has another six with the Predators. After a slow start, Fiala rebounded last season tallying 50 points in 66 games with the Milwaukee Admirals.
The Predators could choose to get the 19-year-old Fiala more minor league seasoning to further develop his game. Fiala seems to understand that it may take time before he earns a regular role with Nashville but with the Predators on the lookout for more offense, they could elect to give the youngster a chance to show if he can contribute this season.
Ivan Barbashev (St. Louis) – Unlike last season when they successfully integrated LW Robby Fabbri and D Colton Parayko into the lineup, the Blues may simply not have an opening this year for a rookie. The Blues addressed the loss of free agents David Backes and Troy Brouwer by signing David Perron. They also expect Vladimir Sobotka to make his return from the KHL and to fill a regular spot in the lineup. However, even though the odds are probably against it, if the Blues do go to the rookie well at some point this season, expect Ivan Barbashev to be a top contender for the promotion.
Barbashev played his junior hockey for Moncton in the QMJHL and tallied a solid 68 points in 48 games during his draft year. St. Louis would use their second-round pick in 2014 on Barbashev and the skilled winger enjoyed a tremendous 2014-15 campaign with Moncton, potting 45 goals and recording 95 points in 57 games. Barbashev made his pro debut in 2015-16, skating in 65 contests and scoring 28 points for the Chicago Wolves in the AHL.
Barbashev, who doesn’t turn 21 until December, would probably be better off returning to Chicago for another season, giving him the opportunity to fine tune his game further before assuming a regular spot with the Blues. A 28-point campaign in the AHL for a first-year pro isn’t bad but it’s not close to what Barbashev’s talent level suggests he is capable of. More seasoning would likely be a huge benefit for the youngster. But if a need arises, the Blues could turn to the talented young winger to add some skill and offense to the lineup.