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 16-20, where you’ll find five of the NHL’s best overseas imports, a testament to their respective international federations and the fine-tuned development that’s taken hold there, particularly in Sweden and Finland.
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
20. Andrei Vasilevskiy, G, Lightning
Highest ranking: 10
Lowest ranking: NR
Accolades: Four years of NHL service; Vezina Trophy finalist (2017-18); All-Star (2017-18); two-time member of Russia’s IIHF World Championship team (2014, 2017)
Why he made SN’s list: Rare is the modern-age goaltending prospect with a first-round pedigree. Rarer still is one who lives up to the hype. Vasilevskiy, one of only three netminders drafted in the top 20 this decade, has made good on that potential, thanks in part to meticulous development by the Lightning. “The Big Cat” broke out in a big way in 2017-18 — his first season as a full-time starter — tying for the NHL lead in wins (44) with a career-high .920 save percentage. Despite a fatigue-induced slip in the second half, Vasilevskiy made the Vezina short list and held his own in the playoffs, bringing Tampa within one win of the Stanley Cup Final.
Future outlook: Vasilevskiy’s tale of two halves last season might plant some doubt about his credentials as an elite NHL goaltender. The big Russian was on track for historic numbers until Jan. 1, falling to Earth a bit with a .905 save percentage and an 19-12-2 record. But he still finished with an even-strength save percentage of .929, top five in the league, while playing the fourth-most minutes (no thanks to a patchwork backup tandem of Louis Domingue and Peter Budaj). Another strong start in 2018-19 — a year the Lightning are considered a favorite for the Cup — will have Vasilevskiy right back in the Vezina conversation.
19. Mikko Rantanen, RW, Avalanche
Highest ranking: 12
Lowest ranking: NR
Accolades: Two years of NHL service; All-Star (2017-18); three-time member of Finland’s IIHF World Championship team (2016, 2017, 2018)
Why he made SN’s list: Nathan MacKinnon’s right-hand man was equally responsible for helping the Avalanche perform one of the biggest year-over-year turnarounds in NHL history. After a strong 20-goal rookie campaign in 2016-17, Rantanen broke out last season to the tune of 29 goals and 84 points, forming one of the NHL’s best top-line duos alongside the Colorado captain. The 10th overall draft pick from 2015 represents the NHL’s new wave of high-scoring Finnish forwards, a class that also includes Patrik Laine, Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, Eeli Tolvanen and more.
Future outlook: In the last 25 years, only 14 players managed 84 points or more in a single season prior to their 22nd birthday. That places Rantanen in the company of such high-octane wingers Alex Ovechkin, Jaromir Jagr, Patrick Kane, et al, with room to grow.
18. Sebastian Aho, RW, Hurricanes
Highest ranking: 15
Lowest ranking: NR
Accolades: Two years of NHL service; three-time member of Finland’s IIHF World Championship team (2016, 2017, 2018)
Why he made SN’s list: Aho’s career got off to a fast start with 53 goals across his first two NHL seasons, including 29 in 2017-18 as the Hurricanes’ leading scorer (65 points) — all before turning 21. In fact, since 1990, only 27 other players crossed the 50-goal mark as a 20-year-old or younger. The 2015 second-round draft pick’s early emergence as a consistent scoring threat helped the Hurricanes move on from another one-time phenom, Jeff Skinner, this summer, officially ushering in the Aho era in Carolina.
Future outlook: With Aho, frequent linemate Teravainen, and 2018’s No. 2 overall pick Andrei Svechnikov in tow, there’s going to be a high potency in the Hurricanes’ offense for years to come. Aho was one goal shy of 30 last year. He’ll be counted on to exceed that level in his third full NHL season.
17. Hampus Lindholm, D, Ducks
Highest ranking: 9
Lowest ranking: NR
Accolades: Five years of NHL service; two-time All-Star (2015-16, 2016-17); member of Sweden’s IIHF World Championship (2018) and World Cup of Hockey (2016) teams
Why he made SN’s list: The case for Lindholm isn’t sexy. With 143 career points, he ranks … 47th among NHL defensemen since debuting five seasons ago. Factor in the injuries (he’s managed fewer than 70 games each of the last two seasons) and West Coast exposure, a majority of NHL fans haven’t seen him play much lately. But if they had, his inclusion here — and impact on the Ducks — is obvious. Lindholm regularly rates among the NHL’s best possession-driving defensemen across all situations. His 4.13 relative shot-attempt percentage is seventh among bluelines since 2013-14, and he elevates the possession game of literally every teammate who shares the ice.
Future outlook: The 2012 sixth-overall pick is criminally underrated (for reasons illustrated above). He’s not only one of the NHL’s top under-25 defenders, but should be considered among the best in the entire league. That’s sure to hold true for the rest of what’s expected to be a long and productive career.
16. William Nylander, RW, Maple Leafs
Highest ranking: 8
Lowest ranking: NR
Accolades: Three years of NHL service; member of Sweden’s IIHF World Championship team (2017)
Why he made SN’s list: With Toronto’s influx of young talent, Nylander for some reason is often forgotten or has his skills downplayed among the Leafs’ so-called “big three.” But he’s an incredibly smart player with a plus NHL shot, and is an incredibly productive piece on the power play. Many think it’s easy to play with an elite player (like Auston Matthews, his most frequent linemate) but there’s a certain skill and intelligence required to do it well, and Nylander fits that bill. He spaces the ice so well, and has a very deceptive release on his shot. Eight players in the NHL have at least two 60-point seasons through their age-22 season, and Nylander is on that list. In fact, all eight of those skaters made SN’s top 25 under 25.
Future outlook: It’s going to be interesting to see how Mike Babcock juggles his line combinations with John Tavares stacking Toronto’s forward group. Nylander, the most unheralded of the bunch, spent the majority of 2017-18 on Matthews’ wing and figures to be penciled in there once again, with Tavares pitchman Mitch Marner alongside the departed Islander. Nylander’s 32 assists at five-on-five tied for sixth in the NHL last season. It’s only logical to expect his overall point total to climb from back-to-back 61-point campaigns playing within one of the league’s deepest and most potent offensive attacks.
— Evan Sporer