16. Parker Kelly (Reader Rank: 15, Last Year: 24)
The NHL is an incredibly difficult league; typically only the very best in the world, playing at the apex of their abilities, are able to parlay their skills into a lengthy career. There are, at any given time, a large number of NHL regulars who are virtually guaranteed jobs through a combination of their skills and physical attributes. Likely they have been at or near the top of every level of hockey they have ever played — they are the elite of the elite.
The rest of the league, and this is not an insignificant number of players, is made up of guys who are fighting for their spots almost every year. Some get a chance because they have a particular skillset their team needs, some get a chance by virtue of being 6”4 and playing defense, and some get a chance by so thoroughly out-working everyone else that you simply cannot deny them a spot. Parker Kelly is that last type of player: he is neither particularly skilled by NHL standards, nor particularly big, but he is undeniably putting maximum effort into every shift. If Kelly successfully carves out a lengthy NHL career, it will be because the league had no choice but to let him in.
Kelly took a big jump up our rankings this year to 16 from 24, which is unusual for a 23 year-old with a total of 13 points in 41 NHL games. It’s also a bit unusual for a 22 year old to go from AHL depth player to seemingly an NHL regular in the space of a season. For those who have followed Kelly’s career, the undrafted free agent’s continued propensity for outperforming expectations likely came as no surprise. All that he needs is to be given a chance and he’ll break the door down. Last season the Ottawa Senators went through some well-documented challenges icing a consistent group of forwards and Kelly took full advantage of the opportunity.
Certainly the franchise has come to have a fairly optimistic view of his potential, as he was signed to a two-year contract extension before last season began. Notably, the second year of the extension, which covers the 2023-24 season, is a one-way deal. Considering that Kelly had played exactly one NHL game at the time of the signing, and that he wasn’t exactly lighting up the AHL, that’s a heck of a vote of confidence.
DJ Smith has consistently had nice things to say about him. Here’s a clip that’s fairly typical of his views on Kelly (skip ahead to 1:35 for the Kelly comments). Most NHL coaches prize depth forwards who will work hard and play within their role. One of the last things you want to worry about as a bench boss is whether or not your fourth line winger is going to follow directions and give their 110%. Neither of those things is ever going to be a concern with Kelly.
Kelly’s likely to be a regular on the team’s fourth line next season, seemingly destined to form a rotation with Dylan Gambrell, Austin Watson, and Mark Kastelic. Certainly his speed would be a welcome addition to any combination of those four players. To have even made this far is a testament to Kelly’s perseverance and it’s very tempting to say that this is the limit of his potential; at some point you’ve maximized your abilities. With Kelly, it might be wise to hold off on making any definitive declarations about just where he might end up. He’s made a career out of forcing the issue.