Six young NHL players making noise early in 2017-18 season


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USA TODAY Sports asked NHL players to sketch their team logos at NHL/NHLPA media tour in New York on Sept. 7. Here are the results.
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Sonny Milano was drafted in the first round by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2014 because he can make dazzling plays and he’s playing for them now because he has learned when to turn off that instinct to be fancy.

“Instead of looking for the flashy play, he’s making the right play,” Columbus general manager Jarmo Kekalainen told USA TODAY Sports. “When the flashy play is there to be made, he can make it.”

Milano, 21, has netted four goals in his first three games this season to provide scoring depth to a Blue Jackets team with big expectations. The Blue Jackets acquired Artemi Panarin to give the team a dynamic offensive presence, and Milano is showing he can be another player with the ability to ignite an offense with a memorable play.

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“But you have to look for the right opportunity for those plays,” Kekalainen said. “That’s the big change this season … sometimes he makes the simple little chip and just puts the puck in the right area.”

As the NHL gets younger, we are accustomed to seeing high draft picks jump directly from the junior ranks to the NHL. But Milano earned his way to the NHL by spending 127 games in the American Hockey League.

Kekalainen said the Blue Jackets encourage players not to be afraid to make mistakes. “But you have to be smart about it,” he said.

That’s been Milano since training camp. Kekalainen said the Oyster Bay, N.Y., winger has been among the team’s best forwards since then.

“The NHL is about proving yourself over and over again,” Kekalainen said. “But that’s what I give him a lot of credit for. He’s been very, very hungry. He’s making sure that he is not going unnoticed.”

Here are a list of other 24-and-under NHLers who have grabbed the spotlight in the first week of the NHL season:

Defenseman Mike Matheson (Florida Panthers): The recent eight-year, $39 million contract extension speaks to the value the organization places on Matheson, a 23-year-old playing in his second full season. Among the team’s defenseman, he’s third in minutes played.

Although Aaron Ekblad and Keith Yandle are currently the offensive catalysts on the blue line, Matheson has the skill to expand his offensive role over time.

Center Brayden Point (Tampa Bay Lightning):  The 21-year-old established last season — with 40 points in 68 games — that he can be a significant contributor. Thus far, he’s the team’s leading scorer (three goals and seven points in three games) and has more shifts per game than every forward, including Steven Stamkos. Point is blossoming into a star.

Left wing Nail Yakupov (Colorado Avalanche): At 24, the 2012 No. 1 overall draft pick is showing early signs he has finally figured out how he can be effective.

Now playing with Matt Duchene, Yakupov has three goals and five points in four games to help the Avalanche to a 3-1-0 start. He has 11 shots on goal. Last season he totaled three goals on 35 shots with nine points in 40 games for the St. Louis Blues. He owned a plus-minus of -91 over his first 292 NHL games, but he’s +6 with Colorado. It’s too early to know whether Yakupov can sustain this level of play.

Defenseman Will Butcher (New Jersey Devils):  The signing of college free agents hasn’t always produced favorable results. But the Devils appear to have found a prize in Butcher, a smallish puck mover from the University of Denver.

Heavily recruited by many teams, Butcher, 22, picked the Devils and stepped smoothly into the lineup. He’s contributed five assists to their 3-0-0 start. “He’s a smart player,” Devils general manager Ray Shero said.

He played 16:18 in the Devils’ last game and looks comfortable in his new role.

Right wing Jesper Bratt (Devils): Sixteen months ago, Bratt was drafted 162nd overall, the sixth round, meaning he was far from a lock to ever play in the NHL.

But when Shero watched Bratt play in a rookie tournament in Buffalo this summer he told coach John Hynes that the 19-year-old may force the Devils to let him play this season. He was that impressive.

Nothing changed in training camp and now Bratt leads the Devils with six points in three games. His game is mature for a player his age.

“Veteran players know who’s good and they know he’s good,” Shero said.

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