November 30, 2009
If the NHL's 2009-10 freshman class was actually a freshman class, we'd have some players acing their exams on the fast-track to grad school, some players sleeping through class and some players who probably should have spent the semester backpacking through Europe instead of wasting their parents' money.
Here are 10 questions about the NHL's rookie crop so far this season; a deep and interesting collection of different talents that's made handicapping the Calder Trophy quite difficult ... even with John Tavares(notes) leading the scoring race.
With that in mind, the first question:
1. Has John Tavares of the New York Islanders exceeded expectations?
Depends on the expectations. I told FanHouse said before the season:
"I'm not convinced yet that Tavares will be one of those rookies that makes an immediate impact without a solid push from his linemates, a.k.a. someone who 'makes his linemates better.' So Tavares's success will be predicated on the play of guys like Sean Bergenheim(notes) and (my fantasy team-willing) Kyle Okposo(notes). Point prediction? Based on past No. 1s, less than Sidney (102) but more than Patrick Kane(notes) (72). I'd say in the 80-point range."
So through 27 games, I was right and potentially wrong about the NHL's leading rookie scorer.
Without the intrinsic chemistry he shares with breakout scoring star Matt Moulson(notes) (11 goals), Tavares wouldn't be on top of the leaderboard. As I predicted, a solid push from a linemate has elevated Tavares's game as a rookie; that's not to shortchange his turning Moulson into a potent threat, because there's no question Tavares deserves credit for it. I'm just holding off on acknowledging that Tavares has that unique gift for turning grunts into gold until we see him do it with a player who isn't also his Xbox buddy.
Where I was wrong, it appears, is in the points projection, which some considered rather high at the time. Tavares is on pace for about 64 points; should he win the Calder, it would be the lowest total for a forward since Chris Drury's(notes) 44 points in the trap year of 1998-99.
Has he exceeded expectations? If anything, he's simply met them. Which is good enough for the Islanders, we imagine.
2. Which rookie has meant the most to his team?
He's third in rookie scoring with 17 points in 27 games, even though he's been ice cold lately with 3 points in his last 10 games. Colorado's record in those 10 games: 2-5-3.
Colorado's record before that stretch: 12-3-2, with O'Reilly scoring 14 points.
O'Reilly and Matt Duchene(notes) (12 points in 27 games, although he's starting to show signs of life again) helped give this underdog the jolt it needed to blaze out of the gate. The Avs need it again as they start to slip in the standings.
3. Most surprising rookie stats, good news edition?
The point totals for Niclas Bergfors(notes) of the New Jersey Devils (16), Evander Kane(notes) of the Atlanta Thrashers (13) and Tom Wandell(notes) of the Dallas Stars (11). In the sense that one was viewed as a potential bust after a slow maturation process, one was drafted last summer and the other was probably on the radar for roughly a dozen hockey fans before the season, most of whom thought he was actually the GM of the Thrashers.
4. Most surprising rookie stat, bad news edition?
St. Louis Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo's(notes) minus-9 in 9 NHL games, and the fact that the team still hasn't committed to his status this season as pro.
5. Who has been the biggest rookie bust?
The 5 points in 24 games and the minus-6 don't begin to tell the story of how the 25-year-old Finnish rookie has torpedoed the Wings this season. He's been shuffled around the lineup, earning time with everyone from Henrik Zetterberg(notes) to Todd Bertuzzi(notes) to Kirk Maltby(notes).
Once thought of as a quintessential replacement for players that left during the summer, Leino's still looking for the right fit nearly two months into the season.
The good news, potentially: Zetterberg likes the way Leino's playing. The bad news, in reality: That doesn't change the fact that Leino has 1 goal in his last 20 games.
Defenseman Jason Demers of the San Jose Sharks was being chatted up as one of the League's top freshman D-men, with 13 points in 27 games and solid work on the blueline for the division leaders.
Until he was sent down to the AHL last week, that is.
Demers was sent down when Rob Blake(notes) came off the injured list. The NHL Sharks decided to go with six defenseman and kept Derek Joslin(notes) rather than Demers. He was 1-12-13 and plus-2 in 27 NHL games but had slipped a bit recently and was minus-5 in his last nine games. Demers played for San Jose in Edmonton on Friday night, then he and Benn Ferriero(notes) boarded an eastbound flight before dawn and did not arrive here until 15 minutes before game time last night.
Hard to imagine he won't be back up with the Sharks at some point, with this demotion being the understandable kick in the rear some rookies need from time to time.
Two players that many felt would stick with the Vancouver Canucks and Toronto Maple Leafs respectively during the preseason, Hodgson and Kadri are having very different experiences in juniors. In the sense that one is playing, and one is not.
Cody Hodgson finally started skating with the Brampton Battalion last week and is now targeting a return to live action in early December. The highly touted Canucks' first-rounder has been off skates since late September owing to back issues and his health has caused a few anxious moments within the organization. Hodgson's return date is also interesting because the Canadian world junior camp is scheduled for mid-December in Regina.
Kadri, meanwhile, it tearing it up for the London Knights. From the LFPress.com, on Nov. 27:
Be it Toronto GM Brian Burke's London visit, the looming Canadian world junior camp or playing on a line with Phil McRae, Knights star Nazem Kadri has started lighting up the scoreboard. After a slow return to the OHL, No. 91 is riding a six-game point streak (four goals, 11 points) and that's not including his involvement in the Canada-Russia Subway Super Series. He scored a beauty short-handed effort against the Russians on Monday in Windsor, then buried the back-breaker in the Knights win at Kitchener on Tuesday.
A natural question: Should he have stayed with Toronto after an outstanding preseason, and would he have made a difference?
The latter point is speculation; the answer to the initial questions depends on whether one feels Kadri would have grown from the team's struggles (like James Neal(notes) did with Dallas last season) or if his enthusiasm would have been crushed by the Toronto media by this point in the season.
Because he's from Jersey. Next question.
Oh, you wanted more? The first factor is that the Philadelphia Flyers are immensely talented up front, no matter how much they underachieve with John Stevens behind the bench. When a rookie like van Riemsdyk can line up with Jeff Carter(notes) and Danny Briere(notes) (when healthy and/or no suspended), it's an advantage few other freshmen experience. Hence, 19 points in 21 games.
The other factor is that he's handling NHL life better than expected. We're talking about a player that hadn't been west of Kansas yet in his life, lacing up with a professional team for the first time. He's a fast learner about the demands of the gig, and it's not overwhelming him off the ice.
For all the talk that the Flyers locker room can be a less-than-mature place, van Riemsdyk is clearly getting some good guidance from his elders because his comfort level is beyond what it should be for a player with his experience.
9. Will a defenseman win the Calder?
That's the question Kevin Paul Dupont asked in the Boston Globe over the weekend, and without a forward running away with the scoring race (unless van Riemsdyk stays on this points-per-game pace) it's plausible that a D-man could be rookie of the year.
The question is: Which one?
Michael Del Zotto(notes) would appear to be the frontrunner because voters are going to be turgid over his 16 points in 26 games. That said, he's a minus-6 and only one defenseman has captured the Calder with a negative rating since the stat's inception: Denis Potvin in 1973-74 with a minus-16 for the Islanders.
Hedman's been about as good as expected: 7 points in 23 games, missing a few with a concussion, and second on the Lightning in average ice time with 23:15 per game. His offense is picking up a bit, and it'll need to in order to charm the pants off voters.
Myers is, at the moment, the more intriguing candidate. He's also second on his team in average ice time (21:46) but his offensive numbers have exceeded expectations: 13 points in 23 games. He's a plus-2 on a team that's pushing for the division lead. Assuming he doesn't hit a major bump, he's going to be in the mix for the trophy. Being 6-foot-8 and garnering comparisons to Zdeno Chara(notes) (as Harry Neale made to the Globe) doesn't hurt either.
We'll say this: It's going to be hard for a defenseman to win if Tavares finishes first in rookie scoring and the Islanders are anywhere near the playoff race.
Goalies, on the other hand ...
10. Will a goalie win the Calder?
Semyon Varlamov(notes) of the Washington Capitals is 10-1-2 with a 2.38 GAA and a .919 save percentage. His winning percentage is going to be absolutely sick by the end of the season, and his numbers could be even better if he's figured out how to prevent opponents from exploiting him on the glove side.
If Tavares finishes south of 70 points while Varlamov has a redonkulous record and the stats to match, the Calder should remain between the pipes for a second straight season. At least that's the thought here.