Notable NHL Debuts
by Andrew Podnieks|16 OCT 2022
Slovakia’s first number-one draft pick had his NHL debut with the Montreal Canadiens.
photo: Andrea Cardin / HHOF-IIHF Images
The new NHL season has only just begun, but for these 13 players it is a year of promise and excitement as they made their NHL debuts. A debut, however, comes in all shapes and sizes. The first games for Juraj Slafkovsky and Shane Wright were a given. It was never a question of IF, only WHEN. But for others, the wait was much longer, and for three players who were never drafted, an NHL game was quite possibly never going to happen. Until it did.

Jurak Slafkovsky (SVK) – 1st overall 2022, Montreal
The biggest name to make his team at training camp, Slafkovsky was the MVP of the 2022 Olympics at age 17. Now 18, he made his debut against Toronto in a dramatic 4-3 win, but his contributions were slight – one shot in 10:34 of ice time. Whether he stays with the Habs all year remains to be seen.

Shane Wright (CAN)—4th overall 2022, Seattle
No one will soon forget the scowl he gave Montreal at the draft, and you can be sure the Kraken’s home game against the Habs on 6 December is one Wright circled as soon as he saw the team’s schedule. He made his debut against Anaheim, but like Slafkovsky was not a factor. Just 6:14 of ice time. 

Jake Sanderson (USA) – 5th overall 2020, Ottawa
The son of Geoff, Jake is a dual citizen of Canada and the U.S. but elected to join the USNTDP before going to college at North Dakota. He was part of the World Junior team of 21/22 that was cancelled but soon after played at the Olympics as a 19-year-old. After two years with the Fighting Hawks, he signed with the Senators and made his debut against Buffalo, playing a healthy 22:21 on the blue line.

Brandt Clarke (CAN) – 8th overall 2021, Los Angeles
Clarke’s Kings faced Wright’s Kraken in a game that was the first for both. Clarke had been part of Canada’s gold-medal team at the 2021 U18, capping a crazy season during covid. He started with the Barrie Colts in the OHL, but when the league shut down he moved to Slovakia to play. He is a big and mobile defender who could become a superstar in the league with a bit more time.

Kaiden Guhle (CAN) – 16th overall 2020, Montreal
Flying under the radar in Montreal with the arrival of Slafkovsky, Guhle played 22:34 against the Leafs, tops on the team, and was stellar on the team’s young blue line. He played five years in the WHL and won a silver medal with Canada at the 2021 World Juniors, and he was captain at the shortened 21/22 World Juniors for the two games the team played. An injury forced him to miss the U20s in August, but he recovered and had an impressive camp with the Habs last month.

Wyatt Johnston (CAN) – 23rd overall 2021, Dallas
The Toronto native made his NHL debut doubly memorable by scoring the team’s final goal in a 4-0 win last Thursday. The graduate of the Windsor Spitfires averaged nearly two points a game last year in the OHL, and he was a teammate of Brandt Clarke’s at the 2021 U18s.

Jakub Lauko (CZE) – 77th overall 2018, Boston
Lauko is a textbook example of patience. Sure, it took him four years from draft day to his NHL debut, but so what? He played in the Q and in the AHL after starting in the Czech Extraliga, but he now has an adult body and plenty of pro experience under his belt to handle the pressures of playing for the Bruins. 

Elmer Soderblom (SWE) – 159th overall 2019, Detroit
You could create a Stanley Cup-quality team out of Swedish players drafted by Detroit 100th overall or lower, and Soderblom is just another example of great scouting and patience. Developed through Frolunda, he helped Sweden win gold at the 2019 U18 and later played at the 2021 World Juniors. He scored in his first career NHL game, against Montreal, and at 6’8” (2.03m)/250 lbs. (113kg) he’s pretty easy to spot on ice.

Nils Aman (SWE) – 167th overall 2020, Colorado
Aman would like to think the Avs have made a mistake. They drafted him in 2020 but never signed him, and after two years he became a free agent, signing with Vancouver this past summer. But on a team with a rich history of Swedish players, and one which now boasts the Sedins among their staff, it’s no surprise Aman has been given a chance. He had an excellent training camp and earned his first NHL game, against Edmonton, on 12 October.

Cole Koepke (USA) – 183rd overall 2018, Tampa Bay
Slowly but surely, Koepke made his way from the USHL as a pre-NCAA teen to the NHL. He played three years at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, helping the team win a national championship as a freshman. Koepke turned pro in 2020 and was assigned to Tampa’s AHL affiliate in Syracuse, and made the Bolts at camp last week. He made his debut on 14 October versus Columbus.

Filip Roos (SWE) – undrafted
Unwanted by all 32 NHL teams on draft day for years, the 23-year-old Roos continued to play in Sweden with Skelleftea. The defenceman signed with Chicago as a free agent earlier this year, and has averaged 17 minutes a game so far in the very early stages of his career. A Grade A example of perseverance. 

Pavol Regenda (SVK) – undrafted
Regenda developed at home in Slovakia, and no one in North America paid him much attention at the 2019 World Juniors. But in 2022, his life changed. He was a star on the Olympic team that won an historic bronze medal, and a few months later showed even greater skill at the World Championship in Finland. As a result of these performances, Anaheim signed him to a two-year contract and he made his unlikely NHL debut on 12 October.

Arber Xhekaj (CAN) – undrafted
Finally! After 105 years, the NHL has a player whose surname begins with the letter X! (The IIHF already had Kazakh Georgi Xandopulo in 1998.) Xhekaj’s first name is also unusual, and he certainly needed a bit of luck to make the NHL this season, but luck is sometimes part of the deal. He had two things going for him that Montreal liked. First, he was a rough and tough customer who could give the team that vaunted sandpaper. Second, during camp, two defenders suffered injuries, making an immediate opening for the X-man. He made his debut alongside Slafkovsky and Guhle against the Leafs.