The 1st overall draft choice in 2020, Lafreniere was the MVP of the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship, leading Canada to gold. The Rangers decided not to loan him to the Canadian team a month ago, but he was in the starting lineup for the Rangers’ first two games on 14 and 16 January, both against the Islanders. Lafreniere didn’t register a point, but he didn’t look out of place either.
The IIHF Directorate Best Forward at the just completed World Juniors, Stutzle joined the Ottawa Senators immediately after the tournament and was in the lineup for the team’s first two games, both against Toronto. He wasn’t a factor in the first game, on his 19th birthday, but in the second he scored a great goal to begin what will surely be a terrific NHL career.
Drafted 20th overall by Vancouver in 2019, Hoglander remained in the SHL for two more years, playing for Rogle Angelholm. This year, he made the Canucks roster and scored a goal in his first game, helping the team to a 5-3 win in Edmonton.
Drafted 39th overall by Washington in 2014, Vanecek played for years in the ECHL and AHL, no closer to the NHL than any long-lost minor leaguer. He had played for the Czechs at the 2014 U18 and 2015 and ’16 World Juniors, but that was it for his IIHF career so far. Vanecek was relentless, and this year he got a break when the Capitals’ new goalie, Henrik Lundqvist, had to take the year off because of heart surgery. That opened the door for the now 25-year-old, and he made the most of it. He made his NHL debut on 15 January, stopping 30 of 31 shots and leading the Caps to a 2-1 win over Buffalo. The season may be only a few days old, but Vanecek’s story is one of the early highlights.
There is no better hockey-player story than one involving an undrafted player. Suter was born in Zurich and played for Switzerland at all four levels of IIHF competition between 2013 and 2018, culminating with the 2018 Olympics. He played for the ZSC Lions Zurich in Switzerland’s National League for all these years, but he always had an eye to making the NHL. He tried out for the Ottawa Senators – and was released. Tried out for the Islanders – cut. Chicago signed him, but he continued to play at home until the Hawks recalled him for the belated start to the season. He made his debut on 13 January, playing 11:49 for the Hawks at age 24.
One of Canada’s best players at the just-completed World Juniors, Cozens flew straight from the IIHF bubble in Edmonton to Buffalo to join his NHL team. TSN had dubbed him “the workhorse from Whitehorse” during the WJC, and the 7th overall selection in 2019 didn’t disappoint. He earned an assist in his debut and took a regular shift for coach Ralph Krueger.
Konstantin Kurashev was a Russian player who ended his career playing and coaching in Switzerland. During this time he had a son, Philipp, who held both Russian and Swiss citizenship. Philipp was drafted 120th overall by Chicago in 2018. He played junior in Switzerland, then Quebec, then in the AHL for two seasons before making the rebuilding Hawks at training camp this year. He made his debut on 15 January, playing 13:51 of game time.
A proud graduate of the U.S. National Team Development Program, Miller was drafted 22nd overall by the New York Rangers in 2018. He played at the 2018 U18, and the World Juniors for two years after that, winning silver in 2019. After two years at the University of Wisconsin, he made the Rangers a few days ago. His debut came on 14 January in a 4-0 loss to cross-town rivals Islanders.
A first-round draft choice of New Jersey in 2018, Smith made his debut on 14 January against Boston, and what a start it was! His goal in the third period tied the game, 2-2, and although the Bruins won in overtime Smith played more than 17 minutes and was one of the best players on the ice.
Another feel-good story. Leonard made an impressive debut for San Jose on 14 January, recording two assists and helping the Sharks beat Arizona, 4-3, in a shootout. He didn’t take one of those shots at the end, but he played 13:14 and proved he belonged. This despite being drafted a lowly 182nd by the team three years ago at age 20 during his college career at UMass-Amherst.