NHL top 25 under 25: Ranking hockey's best young stars (11-15)

NHL top 25 players under 25 (SN illustration)

Sporting News’ NHL top 25 players under 25 series is a project to identify and celebrate the very best young talent in hockey. A 10-person panel of SN NHL experts submitted ballots ranking players 1-25, forming a composite list. For a detailed explanation on voting criteria and the indexing process, read on here. 

The NHL’s youth movement is in full swing.

More than ever, the league’s youngest players double as its most vibrant, marketable stars — and there are plenty. Such an embarrassment of riches is on full display in Sporting News’ NHL 25 under 25 series, a comprehensive ranking of the best NHL players under the age of 25 heading into the 2018-19 season.

Between Aug. 20-24, we’ll reveal our picks in increments of five, counting down from No. 25 to No. 1. Today’s installment covers 11-15, including two of the five defensemen ranked in SN’s top 25, and three forwards who will be facing the spotlight in 2017-18 for different reasons.

SN 25 under 25 schedule:

Monday, Aug. 20: 21-25
Tuesday, Aug. 21: 16-20
Wednesday, Aug. 22: 11-15
Thursday, Aug. 23: 6-10
Friday, Aug. 24: 1-5 + honorable mentions


15. Aaron Ekblad, D, Panthers

Age: 22
Highest ranking: 9
Lowest ranking: NR

Accolades: Four years of NHL service; Calder Trophy winner (2014-15); three-time All-Star (2014-15, 2015-16, 2017-18); two-time member of Canada’s IIHF World Championship team (2015, 2018); member of Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey (2016)

Why he made SN’s list: The perceptions around Aaron Ekblad have varied in the four years since he was taken with the No. 1 overall pick at the 2014 draft. By some measures, he’s not even the best defenseman on his own team. But a strong 2017-18 restored some faith in his stock as a franchise-caliber talent. Ekblad scored a career-high 16 goals and averaged 23:23 on ice, nearly two minutes greater than in his previous three seasons. Twenty-seven of his 38 points came at even strength.

Future outlook: Ekblad may never become the dominant superstar blueliner his draft position implies he should be. He remains, at just 22, a critical component to Florida’s ever-impressive young core, which will continue to grow together. 


14. Zach Werenski, D, Blue Jackets

Age: 21
Highest ranking: 9
Lowest ranking: NR

Accolades: Two years of NHL service; All Star (2016-17); Calder Trophy finalist (2016-17) 

Why he made SN’s list: Werenski took the NHL by storm as a rookie in 2016-17 — one of the best seasons by a 19-year-old defensemen the NHL has seen in some time — unfortunately overshadowed in the Calder discussion by Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine. He’s one of hockey’s brightest “rovers,” meaning his offensive potency is on par with defensive ability — both accentuated by high-end skating and smarts. Werenski’s way ahead of the curve two years into his NHL career.

Future outlook: Werenski and partner Seth Jones create arguably the NHL’s most dynamic defense duo. That both are under 25 and poised to dominate together for years to come is almost unfair to other less fortunate NHL teams. Werenski himself saw a drop in power-play production in 2017-18 (as did Columbus as a team), so expect his point total to jump back up into the 40s this season.


13. Mitch Marner, RW, Maple Leafs

Age: 21
Highest ranking: 12
Lowest ranking: NR

Accolades: Two years of NHL service; member of Canada’s IIHF World Championship team (2017)

Why he made SN’s list: Watching a Marner shift can be like great theater. There’s an arch to it, from his wherewithal to go back on pucks in the defensive zone, to building up speed when goes north up ice, to the ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ he produces when cutting around a defenseman, to what he eventually does with the puck in the penultimate moment. 

Future outlook: Marner is a wildly entertaining player to watch with all the foot speed and puck skills in the world. He’s a perfect example of where the NHL is trending, and he has all the tools to be successful for a very long time.

— Evan Sporer


12. Sean Monahan, C, Flames

Age: 24
Highest ranking: 11
Lowest ranking: 25

Accolades: Five years of NHL service; member of Canada’s IIHF World Championship team (2014)

Why he made SN’s list: Somehow, Monahan regularly flies under the radar when thinking about the NHL’s best overall two-way talents. Maybe it’s because he’s turned in five seasons already — reaching 20 goals and/or 60 points year in, year out. And yet, he’s never been an All-Star, let alone enter the discussion for major award consideration. The 2013 sixth overall draft pick set a new career high for points (64) in 2017-18 and tied his best goal output (31). He was a unanimous pick in the top 25 across our panel.

Future outlook: Much of Monahan’s success gets credited to flashier linemate Johnny Gaudreau, who’s regarded as true possession driver on the Flames’ top line. The truth is, they complement one another nicely. Gaudreau graduated this 25-under-25 list last year and there aren’t many one-two punches better than this one.


11. Leon Draisaitl, C, Oilers

Age: 22
Highest ranking: 6
Lowest ranking: 24

Accolades: Four years of NHL service; All-Star (2016-17); four-time member of Germany’s IIHF World Championship team (2014, 2016, 2017, 2018)

Why he made SN’s list: The biggest question mark surrounding Draisaitl is where he’ll play in the Oilers’ lineup for years to come. He’s hit the 70-point plateau each of the past two seasons, most of his time spent on Connor McDavid’s wing. McDavid had a hand in 37 of Draisaitl’s 73 points in 2017-18 (53 percent), about the same as two years ago, when the duo guided the Oilers to the playoffs. 

Future outlook: Draisaitl has been a different (see: less productive) player when centering his own line, though the Oilers also haven’t saddled him with requisite talent. It’s clear though that, at his worst, Draisaitl is still a very skilled, top-end NHL forward with tons of finishing ability and a terror to corral in the offensive zone.

— Evan Sporer