Here's our weekly look at the fortunes of some of the game's brightest young stars. Behold, the holiday edition of the under-24 player rankings.
The former No. 2 overall pick of the exceptional 2013 draft is well off his pace of a year ago, when he led the Panthers to the Atlantic Division crown with 28 goals, including eight game winners. And the dysfunctional Panthers have been a disaster on and off the ice this season. But Barkov, 21, has started to find his groove, with four goals and four assists in his past six games. The Cats still sit outside the playoff bubble and they'll need more of the same from Barkov moving forward if they're going to make a second-half push.
I recently had a chance to chat with Drouin, the player selected one spot after Barkov in that 2013 draft. I was impressed with Drouin's candor about the past year, during which he demanded a trade and temporarily left the Lightning organization last season. He's back on good terms with the team, but Tampa Bay is struggling with injuries to several top players, including captain Steven Stamkos, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov. And now netminder Ben Bishop is lost for the next month or so, which means it's time for others in the talented Tampa Bay lineup to step forward.
Cue Mr. Drouin, who has helped fill the offensive void with six goals and three assists in his past six games. He has helped a depleted Bolts power play; three of those goals came with the man advantage. The Lightning, like their Florida cousins, remain outside the playoff picture -- but it's not for lack of contributions from Drouin, a 21-year-old Montreal native.
At one point last month, Saad had just one goal in an 11-game span -- even as the Blue Jackets were starting to rise through the standings. But the former Chicago Blackhawks winger (he was selected 43rd overall in 2011 and won two Stanley Cups with Chicago) has been on fire of late, helping the Blue Jackets hold on to their surprising perch atop the Metropolitan Division and Eastern Conference standings. Saad, 24, has eight goals in his last 13 games, and the fact all but one have come at even strength illustrates the kind of youthful depth that has made Columbus so dangerous.
The former first-round pick (he was selected 22nd overall in 2012) has seen lots of ups and downs in his short NHL career -- including time spent recovering from illness and injury. And, of course, a Stanley Cup championship last June. Maatta, 22, has been healthy this season and has become an important shutdown cog on the Penguins' blue line; he is one second off the team lead for short-handed time on the ice per game. But the offensive flair that was present earlier in his career has gone into hibernation, as Maatta has zero goals and just two assists in 34 games this season.
It's crunch time for the former 14th overall pick in the 2012 draft. Head coach Dan Bylsma's confidence in Girgensons (and the center's confidence in himself) has seemed to wane as the season has moved along. Lots of Sabres have struggled to score, but Girgensons, 22, has had trouble creating chances, registering just 50 shots on goal in 32 games -- and eight of those came in a recent three-game stretch. The talented Latvian has just two goals and five points for a Buffalo team that seems destined to finish outside the playoffs yet again; it'll be interesting to see how much patience the Sabres have with Girgensons.
The Flyers, for the second consecutive season, are defying skeptics who believed they were too young to win consistently. Philadelphia recently strung together 10 wins in a row, but it is also showing signs of the inevitable growing pains that happen when so many young players take on big responsibilities at the NHL level.
After a torrid start, Konecny has hit a dry spell, going 21 games without a goal. The 24th overall pick in 2015 is still getting chances -- his 76 shots rank fifth on the Flyers -- and sophomore head coach Dave Hakstol seems to have loads of confidence in his young charges. So it seems like it will just be a matter of time before Konecny, 19, breaks out.
Young guns showdown
Here's a tasty little Pacific Division clash on the first night of hockey after the annual holiday break in the NHL schedule. The Ducks are hot on the heels of the division-leading Sharks, and have been paced in large part by Rakell. The 23-year-old leads the team with 14 goals in just 24 games after the start of his season was delayed by contract issues and injury. He's in a three-game slide with no points, but Rakell and his nose for the net -- he leads the team with 11 even-strength goals -- will be key to the Ducks' long-term hopes.
Labanc, who was selected 171st overall in 2014 and led the Ontario Hockey League in scoring last season, has been held without a point in five consecutive games. But the 21-year-old made an immediate impact after being called up from the AHL in November, with points in five of eight games. He looks like another late-round gem for the Sharks. Plus, this matchup allows us to say that you can, indeed, take that to "Labanc." Happy holidays, everyone.