Notable recent NHL debuts
by Andrew Podnieks|15 JAN 2022
Swiss defenceman Janis Moser was drafted with 21 by the Arizona Coyotes after performing at the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.
photo: Chris Tanouye / HHOF-IIHF Images
We are not even at the halfway point of the NHL season and already more than 100 players have appeared in an NHL game for the first time. The record is 209, and that came in 2005/06, after the lockout, when there was a massive turnover in NHL player personnel. Of the 106 so far this year, an astounding 47 are European (44.3 %), and of those 47 some 13 are Swedish and 11 Russian, the largest representation from the continent. The record in that category is 65, in 2000/01, when the league added two new teams. That number is also very much in jeopardy of being eclipsed this season.

Some notable debuts in recent weeks include the following young stars:

Hugo Alnefelt – debut date 30 December 2021
A goalie with Sweden at the 2019 U18, and World Juniors the next two years, Alnefelt was drafted by Tampa Bay in the 3rd round soon after he led his team to gold at the U18. He promptly returned to Sweden to continue playing for his club team, HV71, but last summer he signed his first contract with the Lightning and was assigned to the team’s AHL affiliate in Syracuse. Then, just around Christmastime, both Tampa Bay goalies, Andrei Vasilevski and Brian Elliott, came down with COVID-19 and had to be isolated. Alnefelt and Maxime Lagace were both recalled, and in his second game Lagace had a rough outing. Alnefelt came in, but surrendered three goals on just ten shots during a 9-3 pasting by Florida. 

Philip Broberg – debut date 20 November 2021
A teammate of Alnefelt during that monumental U18 win in 2019, Broberg also played the U20 that year. He was selected a lofty 8th overall by Edmonton at that same 2019 draft. The big defender played in three World Junior Championships, winning bronze in 2020. He played the next two seasons with Skelleftea before moving to the AHL at the start of this 2021/22 season. In his debut, he earned one assist late in the first period in a 5-2 win over Chicago. 

Jack Drury – debut date 16 December 2021
The son of Ted Drury, Jack was drafted by Carolina 42nd overall in 2018 before he started a college career at Harvard. Because of the pandemic, he made the highly unusual decision to leave NCAA hockey to play in Sweden. Not only did he have a successful year overseas, but because of his relative proximity to Riga, where the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship was played, he was named to the team by USA Hockey. He then helped the Americans to a bronze medal. At the start of this year he played in the AHL with Chicago before being called up for his debut. He scored a goal in his first game and his second before being sent down again, a pretty special and rare beginning in the league.

Jayden Halbgewachs – debut date 16 December 2021
At 5’8”/173 cm, Halbgewachs wasn’t going to impress with his brawn, but he also didn’t impress much with his skill either when NHL teams had the chance to select him. The Saskatchewan native was passed over in the NHL draft and signed by San Jose as a free agent in late 2017, a season in which he scored 70 goals in 72 games with Moose Jaw in the WHL. The Sharks assigned him to their AHL team, and it was there he played all of three seasons and the start of this one. But when the league re-introduced the taxi squad to deal with ever-greater numbers of players being isolated for COVID-19, Halbewachs got his chance. He played 16:44 and incurred one minor penalty in a 5-2 loss to Vancouver. 

Alexander Holtz – debut date 5 November 2021
Holtz was not only an important member of Sweden’s 2019 U18 gold but also the next year’s bronze-medal team at the World Juniors. He was subsequently drafted 7th overall by New Jersey but returned to his domestic club team, Djurgarden Stockholm, for the 2020/21 season, during which time he played at the 2021 World Juniors as well. After coming to North America for this season and starting in the AHL, Holtz was recalled in early November and made his debut for the Devils in a 3-2 overtime loss to Los Angeles. 

Hendrix Lapierre – debut date 13 October 2021
Lapierre has had a rocky start to his career, compounded by concussions, vertebrae issues which caused headaches, and the pandemic, all of which collectively kept him off the ice for much of two years. But the Washington Capitals liked what little they saw of him and drafted him 22nd overall in 2020, and he made the team at training camp last October on his own merits. He scored a goal in his first career game, a 5-1 home win over the Rangers, but after six games he was returned to the Q, where he had been the first overall selection at the 2018 junior draft. 

Janis Moser – debut date 15 December 2021
A lifelong member of the EHC Biel development system in Switzerland, Moser wasn’t drafted until he was 21. Arizona selected him 60th overall just last year after watching him at the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. Previously he had played at one U18, two World Juniors, and the 2019 Worlds as well. He started the 2021/22 season with Tucson, the Coyotes’ AHL affiliate, but as the club struggled and looked for ways to improve, it recalled Moser, and he made his NHL debut just before Christmas. The defender had an impressive 18:56 of ice time in a 3-2 home loss, but he has two goals in four games played to date.

J.J. Peterka – debut date 29 December 2021
Ask any of his teammates and they’ll tell you Peterka is one of the most determined players around. That’s what the Buffalo Sabres saw in him when they took him 34th overall in the 2020 draft. He played at the World Juniors in 2020 and again a year later when he led the team to the quarter-finals, and he also played at the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Riga. Peterka moved to North America last fall and started with Rochester in the AHL, and he got into his first NHL game just before the end of the year. He’ll be 20 later in January, but his is a career just in its beginning. 

Kristian Reichel – debut date 19 December 2021
Yes, he’s the son of IIHF Hall of Famer Robert. But that pedigree has gotten him only so far. As a teen, he played for Litvinov in the Czech Republic, but then he moved to Canada and tried a year of junior, with Red Deer, in the WHL. But he was never drafted, and signed his first pro contract with the Manitoba Moose of the AHL, where he has established himself over the last four years. The parent club Winnipeg Jets called him up for a game on 19 December, and he played less than five minutes in the game. He was recalled again on 2nd January, and scored his first goal, earning another game two nights later. Reichel had played at the 2016 U18 and the World Juniors the next two seasons, but he is now 23 years old and finally getting a chance to truly follow in his father’s footsteps.

Zach Sawchenko – debut date 2 January 2022
Perhaps the best story of the season so far as it pertains to NHL debuts. Sawchenko is a 24-year-old goalie, but if you look at his resume not much about it suggests this guy was on track to play in the NHL. Yet he kept playing, kept believing, kept trying to get better to get noticed. Well, it worked. He played four years in Moose Jaw and was never drafted, so he moved on to Plan B, which was to get an education, at the University of Alberta, by no means the standard route to the NHL. From there he landed in the ECHL, and worked his way up to the AHL, at which time San Jose signed him to an entry-level contract last April. The Sharks recalled him, and he was backup to James Reimer on 2 January, in a game against Pittsburgh. Lo and behold, the Pens jumped into a 6-1 lead, prompting a goalie change for the second period. The Sharks mounted a comeback, and Sawchenko allowed only one goal on 21 shots he faced, but Pittsburgh held on for a wild 8-5 victory. Sawchenko is now an NHL goalie for all time.