The NHL has become a young man’s game. Much of that has to do with the salary cap and keeping a fresh pipeline of inexpensive players to fill roles at entry level deals. This is now the lifeblood of successful teams in the league.
Of course, many of those young players are highly touted prospects and the future face for many franchises. Here’s a look at 5 players 20 years-old or younger set to make their marks this upcoming season.
Lafrenière of the New York Rangers a top young star
There was a lot of hype when the New York Rangers won the NHL Draft Lottery to select Alexis Lafrenière first overall. Expectations were too high for the teen coming out of the QMJHL, who hadn’t played a hockey game in over 9 months due to the pandemic.
On February 20th, with Alexis having only one goal in 15 games TSN made comparisons to him with other first round busts like Nail Yakupov and Patrik Stefan. Not only was that unfair, it was ridiculous. Never were considerations like dealing with a pandemic, playing home and home series in the most brutal division in hockey ever properly weighed.
Lafrenière admitted that is wasn’t an easy season but really enjoyed the experience. “I think I’ve always been the same,” he told the press. “I’m just happy when guys have good games, when they make great plays. Just happy to be here for sure. And with the group we have, it’s always a lot of fun.”
He finished last year with 21 points in 56 games but managed 13 of those points in the final 25 games of the season. Lafrenière also scored 8 of his 12 goals in the team’s final 23 games.
On October 11th, Lafrenière will turn 20 years-old and start getting closer to the lofty expectations set for him. The top pick in 2020 will be entering his second season in the NHL and is being considered for one of the top two lines in New York.
Playing this season on the Rangers top line with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider will surely improve on last season’s numbers. With Pavel Buchnevich now in St. Louis, Lafrenière is also getting increased power play time.
Cole Caufield, Montreal Canadiens
The Montreal Canadiens ignored his diminutive size and drafted Cole Caufield in the 2019 Draft 15th overall. At 5-7 and just 162 lbs you can understand why teams shied away from the kid with a goal scorer’s touch.
So what did the 20 year-old from Wisconsin do when given the chance? What he always does – score goals.
His first NHL goal came in OT, and that clutch ability would show itself even more down the stretch. In 10 regular season games he scored 4 goals and 5 points. However, his performance under pressure in the playoffs is what has the Habs and their fans so excited. Cuafield rose to the challenge and scored 12 points in 20 postseason contests.
Caufield is going to play a huge role for Montreal this upcoming season as he will battle for a spot on the top two lines. While it may be awhile before he is consistently potting 30 or more goals a season, 20+ is within reach right now.
Trevor Zegras, Anaheim Ducks
This young man opened a lot of eyes with his play at the World Juniors helping Team USA capture Gold. Trevor Zegras played 24 games for the Ducks last season and scored 13 points. The 20 year-old looked like he belonged, it’s that simple.
So what can we expect from the former 9th overall pick in 2019? A lot more of the same, as he should be given more ice time than the 15:24 he averaged last season. The versatile forward can play center or wing, but I think his playmaking ability screams #1 center.
Anaheim’s future is bright as they’ve stockpiled some great young talent, but Zegras is by far their best. He’s destined to be a star.
Quinton Byfield, Los Angeles Kings
Big, strong, with good hands, and hockey smarts. That’s Quinton Byfield who the Kings selected second overall behind Lafrenière in the 2020 Draft. The 18 year-old only played 6 games for LA last season and picked up an assist.
This year, he’s expected to get a very long look at training camp and be given a great chance to center the third line. The Kings have Anze Kopitar and Phillip Danault to handle the bulk of the heavy lifting down the middle, thus allowing the 6-4 Byfield time to develop at the NHL level.
There’s no doubt in everyone’s mind that one day Byfield will replace Kopitar as the team’s #1 center. However, if he’s given enough ice time and PP opportunities, he could win the Calder Trophy in 2021-22.
Unfortunately, Byfield will start the season on the injured list but should soar once he returns.
Peyton Krebs, Vegas Golden Knights
The Golden Knights are hoping this is the year Peyton Krebs starts to shine in the NHL. He was selected 17th overall in the 2019 Draft as a center coming out of the WHL.
He saw very limited action last season getting into just 4 games for Vegas. The 20 year-old did indeed pick up an assist, but the team is expecting so much more out of him. What they need from Peyton is take command of either the second or third line this season as they desperately need production down the middle.
Can he do it at the NHL level is the big question. Last year he dominated the WHL with 43 points in just 24 games. In his five game stint with Vegas’ AHL affiliate he recorded five points.
Krebs has what it takes to play in the NHL and this season he will be given ample opportunity to prove it.