NHL Under the Radar: Checking in on rookies not named Connor Bedard

This week we dive into some rookie first impressions and a number of players who's fortunes could be changing soon.

Every week of the NHL season you can find a column here on everything happening around the NHL that may not be making headlines yet — but probably should be.

Connor Bedard is probably the most-covered story in the NHL right now.

So, in the first edition of a column looking at things quietly happening around the league, it's probably worth steering clear of the phenom.

That makes the first item on today's agenda examining the rookies who are being overshadowed by the generational talent:

Non-Bedard rookie first impressions

Logan Cooley may be Connor Bedard's greatest competitor in the Calder Trophy race (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Logan Cooley may be Connor Bedard's greatest competitor in the Calder Trophy race (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Logan Cooley

Stealing attention away from Bedard may be an impossibility now, but the player best equipped to do so as the season progresses is Cooley.

The former third-overall pick had a stellar preseason and managed two assists in his NHL debut, including this crafty no-look dish.

We haven't seen much of Cooley yet, but the first impression is positive and it seems like the Coyotes are using him wisely by deploying him on the second line and the first power-play unit — giving him room to avoid some hard matchups at 5v5 while he has plenty of time to get creative with the man advantage.

Luke Hughes

Hughes had a stellar cameo at the end of the 2022-23 season, leading to massive expectations for his first full campaign.

It's been a bit of a quiet start for the 20-year-old as he's skating with Brendan Smith at even strength and averaging less than 19 minutes per night through two games.

The Devils clearly have faith in what he can do on the power play, though as he's logged more than four minutes per game with the man advantage.

It's not surprising that New Jersey is being careful with such a young defenseman at 5v5, but Hughes was projected to be a top-four guy out of the gate. It will be interesting to track how his role develops.

Adam Fantilli

Fantilli made some headlines for the video the Columbus Blue Jackets released for his NHL debut, but on the ice his impact has been understated.

The 19-year-old averaged just under 15 minutes per night in his first two NHL games with limited time on the Blue Jackets' second power-play unit and no penalty-killing action. His first NHL point was an assist where he put the puck on net and Jake Bean banged it in.

None of this is remotely concerning, but it's clear that Columbus is easing Fantilli in, and he may take some time to carve out a bigger role.

Devon Levi

The Buffalo Sabres are counting on Levi to solidify their crease, and it's fair to say he hasn't done that yet with seven goals allowed in two games.

Buffalo's defensive performance against the New York Rangers in their season opener was rough all-around and it's tough to hang that loss on Levi. His outing on Saturday against the New York Islanders wasn't too bad, either, with deflections playing a role in two of his three goals against.

There's no reason to panic with Levi, but he could've done more to instill confidence out of the gate. Any goaltender can post an .881 save percentage over a two-game span, but Buffalo could certainly use a reassuring outing from the rookie.

Matt Coronato

Coronato could be a key part of the Calgary Flames' attempt to find more offense than they managed last season — and he showed off his deadly shot with his first NHL goal on Saturday.

The bad news for Coronato is that he's somehow a minus-6 through just two games despite starting 70% of his even-strength shifts in the offensive zone. There's plenty of flukiness in there, but the Flames have had a 24.88% expected goal share during his 5v5 minutes.

If he's going to help jumpstart the Flames offense, he'll need to spend less time chasing the puck around his own zone.

Brock Faber

Faber isn't as well known as some of the players above, but the defenseman has logged more ice time than any other rookie (22:58/game).

He's never been an offensive force at any level, but he's acquitted himself well in a massive role with the Minnesota Wild. Faber is playing on the team's first pair and top penalty-killing unit.

The Wild have a 52.63% shot share and 52.24 expected goal rate when Maple Grove, Minnesota native has taken the ice at 5v5 — well above their season averages of 42.71% and 43.15% — and Faber has already got his first NHL goal out of the way.

Playing a relatively quiet game for a Minnesota team that rarely makes headlines could keep Faber out of the spotlight, but he's off to a great start.

The Red Wings are looking good out of the gate

The Red Wings are 1-1-0 this season, but Detroit deserves credit for a solid start. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
The Red Wings are 1-1-0 this season, but Detroit deserves credit for a solid start. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

There was reasonable skepticism about the Red Wings entering the season as the team continued to add veterans who were solid, but not needle movers. Detroit has a mountain to climb in the difficult Atlantic Division, and their core doesn't seem to measure up to its competitors' top players.

All of that remains true a couple games into the schedule, but the Red Wings deserve some credit for how they've looked early.

Detroit is 1-1-0, but it's faced a tough schedule of the New Jersey Devils and Tampa Bay Lightning — and arguably outplayed both.

The Red Wings have outshot their opponents 63-41 at 5v5 with a solid 56.01% expected goal rate. The new team's new additions are also making a significant impact as six of the team's nine goals have come from players who weren't with the team last season.

Alex DeBrincat headlines that group with three markers, and he seems likely to elevate a power play that ranked 17th in the NHL in 2022-23.

While it wouldn't be wise to bet on these Red Wings to win the Stanley Cup, they look capable of exceeding modest expectations in the early going.

Juuso Pärssinen getting his shot

Juuso Parssinen is running with an early-season opportunity. (Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images)
Juuso Parssinen is running with an early-season opportunity. (Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images)

Parssinen is about as anonymous a player as you're going to find as a former 210th overall pick who's never scored more than 10 goals in any professional season.

The 22-year-old was surprisingly effective as a rookie last season with 25 points in 45 games, and a moment or two flashing surprising top-end skill.

As a result, the Nashville Predators decided to give him a whirl on their first line to open 2023-24 and they've been rewarded so far.

Parssinen scored in the first two games of the season — albeit with one coming on the empty net — and alongside Ryan O'Reilly and Filip Forsberg, the Predators top unit has been extremely dangerous, outshooting opponents 12 to 4 at 5v5.

One of Nashville's greatest weaknesses entering 2023-24 appeared to be a lack of top-end offensive talent. With O'Reilly rising to the challenge of a big role, and Parssinen surprisingly early, the prognosis there could be better than expected.

Jets unleash Gabriel Villardi 

Gabriel Vilardi will have a chance to produce with the Winnipeg Jets. (Derek Leung/Getty Images)

Vilardi has one assist in two games with the Winnipeg Jets, but it seems like big things are coming for the former Los Angeles King.

The 24-year-old has skated 21:04 and 20:35 in his first two games with his new team, both marks he never exceeded in four years with the Kings. In those contests, he fired off nine shots and posted possession numbers among the best in the NHL.


While those numbers come from a two-game sample, it's clear that Vilardi is dangerous alongside Kyle Connor and Mark Scheifele on Winnipeg's first line.

The former 11th overall pick has been an efficient scorer in his brief NHL career with a 16.6 shooting percentage in his four years with Los Angeles.

If that carries over to a role where he's seeing far more ice time alongside offensively-gifted linemates, the goals could come in bunches for Vilardi.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson returns to prominence

Oliver Ekman-Larsson is playing a massive role with the Florida Panthers. (Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports)
Oliver Ekman-Larsson is playing a massive role with the Florida Panthers. (Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports)

Four months ago the Vancouver Canucks determined that Ekman-Larsson's two years with the team were so underwhelming that they were going to buy him out even though that meant paying him at least $2.12 million in each of the next six seasons after 2023-24.

That dead money includes two campaigns (2025-26 and 2026-27) when Ekman Larsson will be compensated $4.76 million not to play for the Canucks.

Vancouver cutting bait on OEL so early in his contract with the team was an indication that the team felt his play had declined significantly since he left the Arizona Coyotes. The modest one-year $2.25 million deal he landed with the Florida Panthers was another clue the league was skeptical of what the 32-year-old had to offer.

Since arriving in Florida, Ekman-Larsson has thrived in a massive role. The defenseman currently ranks third in the NHL in average ice time per game (26:24) while quarterbacking the top power play and killing penalties.

The veteran Swede has yet to register a point, but his possession numbers are strong as the Panthers have had more than their share of shots (54.17%) and expected goals (53.12%) at 5v5 when he's on the ice despite his high defensive-zone start rate (57.1%).

Ekman-Larsson will be bumped down the pecking order when Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour return from injuries, but he's holding his own with a massive workload — an outcome that didn't seem likely based on his work in Vancouver.