The salary cap has forced NHL teams to give meaningful roles and playing time to young players, and that includes rookies with very little or no experience at the pro level.
As we get ready for the 2014-15 season, there are several rookies to watch during training camps and the preseason. Several of them, including Anaheim Ducks goaltender John Gibson, could play key roles in determining the playoff success of their respective teams.
Let’s take a look at four rookies under the most pressure in the upcoming NHL season.
John Gibson, Goaltender, Anaheim Ducks
Gibson burst onto the scene late in the 2013-14 regular season and went 3-0 with a .954 save percentage, a 1.33 goals against average and one shutout.
He didn’t play as well in the postseason, though, going 2-2 with a .919 save percentage and a 2.70 GAA. In Game 7 of Anaheim’s second-round series against the eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, Gibson allowed four goals on 18 shots and was pulled.
The future is now for the Ducks in net because Gibson will have a fantastic chance to win the starting job in training camp against Frederik Andersen. Gibson shows good poise in net, excellent athleticism and superb rebound control. He also has the tools needed to be an elite netminder, and the next challenge for him is to consistently play at a high level over the course of a full season on a team that’s expected to win the Stanley Cup.
Anaheim’s toughest roadblock to the Cup is the possibility of poor goaltending, and that will put Gibson under immense pressure.
Teuvo Teravainen, Center, Chicago Blackhawks
Teravainen arrived in Chicago to much fanfare last season, but he failed to take over the No. 2 center role, posting zero points in three games. The Blackhawks signed veteran center Brad Richards in the offseason, presumably to keep the No. 2 spot warm until Teravainen is ready.
Whenever Teravainen does make his next appearance in the Blackhawks’ lineup, he will be expected to provide speed, playmaking skill and goal scoring from the bottom six. There’s no question he’s an elite offensive talent. He just needs more experience against the best competition.
The Blackhawks could find themselves in a bit of a salary-cap crunch after next season, when the massive Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane extensions kick in, and one casualty might be veteran forward Patrick Sharp. The best-case scenario for Chicago is for Teravainen to develop into a legitimate NHLer before a decision on Sharp, or any other veteran, needs to be made.
Leon Draisaitl, Center, Edmonton Oilers
The Oilers lack center depth following the Sam Gagner trade, and that might force Draisaitl — the No. 3 overall pick in the 2014 NHL draft — into a top-six role even if he’s not ready.
The German forward has the size, hockey intelligence and defensive skills to play at the pro level right away, but asking him to play against top-six centers in a Western Conference full of superstars at the position would be a difficult challenge for an 18-year-old rookie.
If Draisaitl does make the team, he will be expected to perform at a high level because of Edmonton’s lack of elite center talent after Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and because the Oilers will need to score a lot of goals to make up for a blue line and goaltending group that ranked 30th in goals against last season.
Edmonton fans have watched their team pick in the top 10 of the draft in nearly every season since the team lost in the 2006 Stanley Cup Final. These people want a winner, and if Draisaitl disappoints in 2014-15, fans will be quick to lay blame.
Jonathan Drouin, Left Wing, Tampa Bay Lightning
Drouin is the preseason favorite to win the Calder Trophy. The No. 3 overall pick in the 2013 NHL draft has the potential to become one of the top five wingers in the NHL, and he should receive plenty of ice time and scoring opportunities in the likely event that superstar center Steven Stamkos begins the regular season as his linemate.
After failing to make the NHL roster last season, Drouin was sent back to the Halifax Mooseheads and finished the QMJHL playoffs with a league-high 41 points in 16 games. Drouin is the total package offensively — he’s a slick puck handler, displays a high hockey IQ, has a powerful and accurate shot, and flashes top-rate speed.
The Lightning haven’t done much to improve their forward group in the offseason besides re-signing veteran winger Ryan Callahan. Drouin has the high-end offensive talent to adequately replace former Lightning captain Martin St. Louis, who was a lock to score 20-plus goals for over a decade.
Tampa Bay will be expected to compete for an Eastern Conference title in 2014-15 after making substantial additions to its blue line, so there won’t be much patience among fans if Drouin struggles early.
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