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Six NHL rookies that are flying under the radar this season

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The NHL’s rookie class for the 2017-18 season is an impressive one with what is sure to be a tightly contested Calder Trophy race at the top.

Forwards Mathew Barzal (New York Islanders), Brock Boeser (Vancouver Canucks), and Clayton Keller (Arizona Coyotes), as well as defensemen Charlie McAvoy (Boston Bruins) and Mikhail Sergachev (Tampa Bay Lightning) are all making tremendous impacts for their teams this season and are clearly the cream of the crop when it comes to first-year players around the league.

One of them (most likely Barzal or Boeser) is going to take home the Calder Trophy this season.

But they are not the only rookies that are standing out this season.

Let’s take a look at five more whose performances have slid under the radar. None of these players will end up winning the rookie of the year award this season, but they have been key contributors to their teams so far and deserve some credit for it.

Danton Heinen, Boston Bruins

The Bruins are a really intriguing team in the East. They have three of the best forwards in the league at the top of their lineup, a goalie that is capable of carrying the team when he gets hot, and they have rebuilt their defense over the past couple of years. They are also getting a ton of contributions from rookies. McAvoy has already blossomed into a top-pairing defenseman, and Jake DeBrusk, a 2015 first-round pick, is currently on a 20-goal pace.

They also have Heinen, a 22-year-old forward that is getting his first full-time look in the NHL.

Currently he is fourth among all NHL rookies in scoring with 38 points, while his 0.82 point per game average is third behind only Barzal and Boeser.

He has been especially good on a line with veteran forward David Backes. When Backes and Heinen are on the ice together during 5-on-5 play the Bruins are controlling 60 percent of the shot attempts and outscoring teams by a 14-10 margin (via NaturalStatTrick).

Alexander Kerfoot, Colorado Avalanche

After choosing to not sign with the team that drafted him, the New Jersey Devils, Kerfoot became an unrestricted free agent this past summer and ended up landing an opportunity with the Colorado Avalanche. It has paid off immediately for everyone.

The Avalanche are in surprising contention for a playoff spot this season, even after trading Matt Duchene, thanks in large part to the breakout year from Nathan MacKinnon.

Another key contributor this season has been the 23-year-old Kerfoot.

In his debut season he’s already recorded 30 points in 40 games and has been one of the team’s top point producers.

The Avalanche have been a disaster on the ice in recent seasons, but they are exceeding expectations this season and their top-four scorers (MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog and Kerfoot) are all age 25 or younger. Landeskog is the only one of that quartet that is over the age 23. And they also still have 19-year-old Tyson Jost.

There is still a pretty good young core here to build around.

Yanni Gourde, Tampa Bay Lightning

The Lightning are looking absolutely terrifying this season — and for future seasons given their contract situations — with a bunch of superstars at the top of the lineup and a bunch of young, talented, cheap players sprinkled around them. We mentioned Sergachev up above as one of the Calder Trophy leaders, and they also have second-year forward Brayden Point lighting up the scoreboard (Point, by the way, is the third-leading scorer on the team).

Then there’s Yanni Gourde.

Gourde barely makes the rookie cut this season because he turned 26 in December and had played in 20 games a season ago, but by NHL rules he does still qualify as a rookie.

The Lightning have excelled in recent seasons by building around talented, undersized forwards that are capable of putting the puck in the net and Gourde is just the latest example. Listed at only 5-9, 172 pounds, Gourde is one of the smallest players in the league. Before getting his first real shot in the NHL he had been a productive player at pretty much every level of hockey that he played at.

He earned a regular spot with the Lightning this season and has proven to be a valuable addition. Along with his offensive production (14 goals, 16 assists in 44 games) he has also been a key contributor to their penalty kill.

Tristan Jarry, Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins weren’t expecting to need Jarry this season, but when the Antti Niemi experiment proved to be a failure their plans had to change a little. So far, he has been excellent as Matt Murray‘s backup and has filled in admirably for him while Murray has been away from the team dealing with a personal family matter. With Murray again away from the team following his father’s passing this week Jarry is going to get even more opportunities to play in the immediate future.

So far this season Jarry is 9-3-2 in his 15 appearances and has a .923 save percentage that is tops among rookie goaltenders (minimum 15 games played).

Kyle Connor, Winnipeg Jets

The Jets have become one of the NHL’s most dynamic offenses with Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, and Nikolaj Ehlers are all shining at the top of the lineup.

They also have 2015 first-round pick Kyle Connor starting to make an impact.

Connor is currently third among all rookie forwards in goals scored, but is second only to Boeser when it comes to goals per game.

He is currently on what would be a 30-goal pace over 82 games.

The Jets’ rebuild has been slow — painfully slow, and probably slower than it needed to be — but their patience and desire to build almost entirely from within is finally starting to be rewarded with this group of forwards.

If they can keep getting solid goaltending they are going to be a tough team to knock out of the playoffs.

Jesper Bratt, New Jersey Devils

The Devils are another team that is getting significant contributions from rookies this season.

Currently the Devils are in a playoff position in the Metropolitan Division and are looking to return to the postseason for the first time since 2011-12. Leading the way is a trio of rookies that are all among the team’s top-four scorers. Included in that group are No. 1 overall pick Nico Hischier and free agent signing Will Butcher.

It should not be much of a surprise that Hischier has played well and made an immediate impact. That is what you hope — and expect — from a No. 1 overall pick. Butcher has been outstanding and is currently the team’s top possession player.

The biggest surprise out of the group, though, might be 19-year-old Jesper Bratt, a sixth-round pick by the Devils in 2016.

Through the Devils’ first 42 games, Bratt is second on the team in scoring, is seventh among all rookies, and is playing close to two minutes on the penalty kill per night … as a 19-year-old rookie.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Elvis thrives: Merzlikins is on fire for Blue Jackets

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Elvis Merzlikins advanced a bold goal lately: to be more than just a funny name. He is leaving opponents all shook  up absolutely red-hot for the Columbus Blue Jackets right now.

Elvis absolutely hound-dogged shut out the New Jersey Devils in Columbus’ 5-0 on Saturday, and that 41-save performance was far from his first standout evening. Merzlikins generated three shutouts in his last four games, allowing just two goals overall. The Blue Jackets won all four of those games.

(OK, this post includes enough cheesy Elvis jokes … arguably.)

During seven appearances between October and November, the 25-year-old goalie languished with sub-.900 save percentages. Since then, he’s started to take off.

Some “too perfect” moments for Elvis Merzlikins and the Blue Jackets

Maybe Merzlikins made a New Year’s Eve resolution to dominate? Perhaps it was because Elvis asked reporters to leave him alone? Merzlikins suffered only two losses since Dec. 31, winning eight of 10 games.

The lights-out play already makes the story endearing, but there are notes of the surreal. Consider a few facts about his hot streak:

“That’s what you like about him. He’s strong mentally,” Tortorella said after the Jan. 11 Vegas shutout, via Rob Mixer of First Ohio Battery. “He’s a piece of work as far as his personality, which I like. A lot of things have been thrown at him here…but he’s handled himself really well. I’m happy for him.”

  • Merzlikins ended up making it back-to-back shutouts, as he also blanked the Bruins with a 34-save shutout. His three shutouts have upped the ante each time: first 27 saves, then 34, then 41 against the Devils on Saturday.

Tortorella deserves ample credit for creating a cocoon for his goalies, of course.

Regardless, Merzlikins is playing a big role in helping the Blue Jackets stay in the East wild-card races. Here’s hoping that our jokes rise up the charts or we might just need to leave the building.

(Sorry. I’m so, so sorry.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Hat trick helps Ovechkin pass Lemieux, tie Yzerman for ninth on NHL goals list

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An historic week for Alex Ovechkin was capped off with a hat trick Saturday afternoon during a 6-4 win over the Islanders. His three goals pushes him past Mario Lemieux and into ninth place with 692, tying him with Steve Yzerman.

Ovechkin opened the scoring and then passed Mario Lemieux for 10th all-time in the third period as the Capitals mounted their comeback. He ended his day with an empty-netter to seal the win and tie Yzerman. The Islanders led 4-1 entering the third period.

Powered by two consecutive hat tricks, Ovechkin has eight goals in his last three games and 10 in his previous six.

That’s now three consecutive multi-goal games for Ovechkin, the first time he’s done that in his career. Earlier this week he not only passed Teemu Selanne for 11th on the all-time goals list but also hit the 30-goal mark for the 15th time in his career. He, along with Jaromir Jagr and Mike Gartner, are the only players to ever record 15 consecutive 30-goal seasons.

With three goals Saturday — the third time he’s recorded hat tricks in consecutive games — Ovechkin now has 34 on the season as he eyes a ninth 50-goal season. His hat trick was the 26th of his NHL career, tying him with Maurice Richard for eighth all-time.

Next in Ovechkin’s sights? Mark Messier, who finished with 694 goals in his career.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Stars’ Stephen Johns activated after missing almost 22 months

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Dallas Stars activated Stephen Johns before their game Saturday night in Minnesota, clearing the way for the defenseman’s first game in almost 22 months.

Forward Radek Faksa was placed on injured reserve to make room for Johns on the active roster.

Johns has been out since late in the 2017-18 season because of post-traumatic headaches. The Stars have said the condition isn’t related to concussions.

The 27-year-old Johns hasn’t played since March 29, 2018, at the Wild. It was the last of a career-high 75 games in his third NHL season. Johns missed the last five games that year before sitting out all of last season as headaches persisted.

He played two games on a conditioning assignment with the Texas Stars of the AHL before rejoining Dallas on Thursday.

The return of Johns could coincide with the Stars’ first game without defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The 20-year-old standout left Thursday’s loss to Buffalo with an upper-body injury.

Johns made his debut for Dallas late in the 2014-15 season and played in all 13 of the team’s playoff games as a rookie. He has 13 goals, 15 assists and 306 blocked shots in 150 career regular-season games.

Panthers down another goalie, injured Driedger to miss weeks

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SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — Florida goalie Chris Driedger will miss several weeks with what’s believed to be a groin injury, the latest health issue at that position for the Panthers.

The Panthers announced the diagnosis Saturday, calling it a lower-body injury.

Driedger was hurt midway through the first period of the Panthers’ 4-3 win over the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday. He is 5-2-0 in nine appearances for Florida this season, with a 2.48 GAA.

The Panthers have also been without goalie Sergei Bobrovsky for much of January while he recovers from an upper-body injury.

Florida begins a stretch of six consecutive road games Saturday in Detroit. That six-game run also includes the All-Star break and the Panthers’ bye week.