Five Surprise Opening Night Rookies

Cole Sillinger. Photo courtesy Sioux Falls Stampede.

The 2021-22 season is upon us and as always, NHL training camps provided plenty of surprises. Sometimes it doesn’t go well and you end up with a player such as Vitali Kravtsov reportedly asking for a trade, but often we get pleasant surprises, too. No matter how well we all prognosticate, there are always a couple of rookies who earn spots on the opening night roster that can be counted as unexpected, based on their age and experience beforehand.

This year was no exception to that maxim, so let’s celebrate those kids that pushed their way into the NHL. Now, these are far from the only youngsters to crack the lineup, but I wanted to go with the unexpected – Arthur Kaliyev made the Los Angeles Kings for example, but he’s coming off an excellent AHL season that pointed towards this. The same can be said for Winnipeg’s Cole Perfetti, who added a World Championship gold medal to his excellent AHL campaign last year. And out in Vancouver, we expected 20-year-old Vasili Podkolzin to make the Canucks after leaving the KHL. With that in mind, let’s get to the five.

Hendrix Lapierre, C, Washington: An injury-plagued draft year saw Lapierre slide down to the Caps at 22nd overall, but the franchise is looking pretty smart already after a healthy Lapierre dominated the QMJHL last season. He was even better in training camp, using his elite vision and playmaking skills to turn heads and with Nicklas Backstrom injured right now, the Caps needed a talented pivot to step up.

Cole Sillinger, C, Columbus: Spending much of training camp on a line with Patrik Laine and Jake Voracek, Sillinger’s quick ascent is a gift for the Blue Jackets, who were incredibly thin down the middle before. Sillinger is a sturdy, natural center who is jumping straight from the draft to the league after Columbus tabbed him with the 12th pick overall in 2021. Coming off a monster USHL season, too.

Jake Neighbours, LW, St. Louis: The definition of a kid that earned his way onto a roster, Neighbours is a battler who can complement elite linemates and really does play the game the way the Blues like it. But given how veteran a team St. Louis has and how much competition there was in camp, it wasn’t easy for him to stake his claim to a spot – and yet, he did it as a 19-year-old. Great for him, but tough news for the WHL’s Edmonton Oil Kings if he sticks for the whole year.

William Eklund, LW, San Jose: In Draft Preview, we had Eklund ranked fourth overall for 2021. He ended up sliding down a bit to San Jose at No. 7, but the Sharks knew exactly what kind of talent they got. Trustworthy, with great hockey sense and speed, Eklund is a coach’s dream and showed last year in Sweden that he was responsible far beyond his years. San Jose may be rebuilding, but it’s a feat for a kid who has never played in North America to jump straight from the draft to the NHL, beating out a number of older prospects in the process.

Mason McTavish, C, Anaheim: Yes, McTavish was drafted third overall in 2021, but let’s take a second to recall that he didn’t have an OHL season last year. McTavish eventually got to play in Switzerland and did very well, then ended his campaign with Canada’s gold-medal world under-18 team, but still; pretty impressive for a teen who missed a lot of development time. The physical, goal-scoring forward also hurt his ankle during camp, but that didn’t stop him from earning an opening night slot in Anaheim.