By Stu Hackel
Training camp is a time for new faces and few things excite fans more than their NHL team introducing a rookie into its lineup.
Long gone are the days when rookies were almost always eased in, forced to learn from a seat on the bench the rigorous man’s game that was hockey at its highest level and only seeing sporadic action. The NHL is now more of a younger man’s game, especially since post-lockout rules have put a premium on speed. Rookies more often earn important spots and are more easily integrated into the lineup.
Rookie camps and preseason rookie/prospect tournaments are fast approaching. The big one in Traverse City, MI, will include young hopefuls from eight NHL teams. A five-team tourney will be held in Penticton, BC. There’s also a four-team tourney in Oshawa, ON. So it’s a good time to focus on some of the potential first-year players whose names you may be hearing more frequently after the puck drops in earnest on Oct. 6.
This list is by no means comprehensive and the players are listed in no particular order. They aren’t necessarily favorites to win the Calder Trophy, although some will likely be in the discussion. It’s just a random compilation of names that we’ve been thinking about, players who we figure have a decent-to-excellent chance of making their teams coming out of camp. Some have already gotten lots of publicity, some aren’t well-known. Some played a bit last season, but still qualify as rookies (as Logan Couture and P.K. Subban did in 2010-11). Some haven’t been in the NHL yet, but hope to break in this season. Some may not make it. Some who are not discussed here will. But they’re all trying to win a job for 2011-12.
Brayden Schenn, Flyers – Penciled in as the Flyers’ third line center, no rookie may be under more scrutiny than the 6-foot-1, 195-pound brother of Luke who came over from the Kings with Wayne Simmonds and a draft pick in the Mike Richards deal. Schenn won’t be asked to take on Richards’ minutes or role as a leader just yet, but GM Paul Holmgren anointed him as something of a poster boy for the new-look Flyers while justifying the deal. Schenn has Richards’ competitiveness, but may not have his scoring touch. Still, he’s good with the puck and plays in all zones. He played eight games for the Kings last fall before bouncing between the AHL and junior hockey and dealing with a shoulder injury. He starred in the World Junior Tournament, where he was the top scorer and named MVP as well as Best Forward. More: James Mirtle of The Globe and Mail did a Q & A with Schenn earlier this month.
Cody Hodgson, Canucks – Vancouver fans have waited an eternity, it seems, to see the best of what Hodgson can offer since he was taken 10th overall in 2008. But injuries and a traffic jam at center have slowed his progress. But now, with Ryan Kesler and Manny Malhotra questionable to start the season, he may get his shot to shine. What Hodgson lacks in size (he’s listed as 6-feet, 185) he makes up for in skill and creativity. He’s also good without the puck, although his skating is considered just average. He played in eight regular season games and 12 playoff matches for the Canucks in 2010-11, but saw most of his action in the AHL, where his numbers weren’t great. Then again, he was recovering from a cracked orbital bone. More: Tony Gallagher of The Vancouver Province writes about Hodgson today.
Nino Niederreiter, Islanders – It’s possible that other Isles rookies, particularly center Ryan Strome and defenseman Calvin de Haan, could make the club, but Niederreiter probably has the best shot and is already being thought of as a top-six forward. Taken fifth overall in 2010, he’s a potentially explosive scoring winger who thrives in big situations. After nine games with the Isles last season, he went back to his WHL junior club in Portland where he scored 41 goals. In the playoffs, his 27 points were just one behind the top total as he helped lead the Winterhawks to the WHL final. More: Isles fan blog Lighthouse Hockey evaluates where Nino should play this season.
Gabriel Landeskog, Avalanche – Considered by some as the most NHL-ready player available in the 2011 Entry Draft, power forward Landeskog is already being considered as a first line leftwinger in Colorado, filling the gap in the team’s production that was created when the Avs dealt Chris Stewart to St. Louis for Erik Johnson last February. He’s more than a scorer, however. He passes well, works hard, plays a physical brand of hockey and has leadership capabilities. He was captain of his Kitchener OHL team last season, and while an ankle injury suffered while playing for Sweden at the World Junior Championships slowed him somewhat, he still averaged more than a point per game. More: Here’s Adrian Dater’s Denver Post story on the Avs drafting Landeskog, and Mike G. Morreale’s NHL.com piece written prior to the WJC.
David Rundblad and Jared Cowen, Senators – It’s harder to break into the NHL as a defenseman than it is as a forward, but the Sens may have both of these guys on their blueline this season. And if they’re added to the corps with third year d-man Erik Karlsson, it will mean lots of youth back there. Hockey’s Future called Rundblad “possibly the best hockey player currently not playing in North America” last spring, which might explain why the Sens traded a first round pick to the Blues to get him at the 2010 Entry Draft. A strong skater, he’s got excellent puck skills, makes a very good first pass, and is projected as a top power play quarterback, which is reflected by his Swedish Elite League performance last season (50 points in 55 games as a 20-year-old). The defensive side of his game still needs work, however.
Cowen may lack Rundblad’s offensive dimension, but he’s an all-around talent with size (6-5, 228) who had a great spring: After scoring 14 points in 17 playoff games for WHL Spokane, he stepped into the AHL Binghamton Senators’ lineup and helped them win the Calder Cup, with four assists and a plus-6 rating in 10 games that impressed the Ottawa brass. It’s unclear if there’s room for both of these guys on the big club this season, but Hockey’s Future ranks them 1-2 among the Sens’ prospects.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Oilers – It’s hard to say whether June’s top pick in the Entry Draft will make the NHL this season. He was mighty impressive in Team Canada’s WJC tryout camp earlier this month, but he’s still on the smallish side (6-0, 175) and there is concern that he might wear down over the course of the long season playing against bigger, more mature competition. Oilers President Kevin Lowe and GM Steve Tambellini will have to evaluate Nugent-Hopkins’ NHL-readiness in training camp. Still, his talents are obvious. With his great vision, exceptional puck skills and defensive awareness, he’s projected to become a franchise player. But he may need another year in junior to bulk up for the big time. Or perhaps his exceptional hockey sense will prove to be the great equalizer. “The last skinny centre Edmonton had was pretty good,” Hockey Canada’s Kevin Prendergast told Canadian Press, referring, of course, to Wayne Gretzky. “It’s not going to affect this kid.”
Adam Larsson, Devils – Any player who is likened to Nicklas Lidstrom has lots to live up to, but most observers believe the comparison here is valid. The first defenseman drafted last June (fourth overall and a steal as he was ranked as the top European prospect). Some observers believed he’d be perfect in Edmonton, which was already stocked with young forwards, Larsson should be a cornerstone of the Devils’ on-the-fly rebuilding of their blueline. He’s smart, skilled, a strong skater, plays well positionally (Lidstrom’s forte) and adds a physical edge to his game. He’s also considered to be quite mature for an 18-year-old. (He turns 19 in November.) More: Here’s Rich Chere’s Newark Star-Ledger story on the Devils drafting Larsson.
Ryan Johansen, Blue Jackets – Picked fourth overall in 2010 and projected as a top all-around center, Johansen was returned to WHL Portland from the Jackets’ training camp last fall, but had a strong season with the Winterhawks, scoring 40 goals, adding 52 assists and leading all scorers in the WHL playoffs. You’d think that would be his ticket to the NHL, but when Columbus traded for Jeff Carter, it eased the need to fast-track Johansen as one of their top offensive centers. With veterans Antoine Vermette, Derick Brassard and Sami Pahlsson also in camp, Johansen will have to play his way on the team. More: Dan Olson of The Coquitlam Now, Johansen’s B.C. hometown paper, writes about how the 19-year-old is preparing for camp.
Alexei Yemelin, Canadiens – With the Habs defense corps having lost Roman Hamrlik, James Wisniewski and Brent Sopel, there might be a spot for Yemelin. Drafted in 2004 – ahead of Ryan Callahan and Johan Franzen – he’s now 25 and believes the time is right. He had career-high offensive numbers last season in the KHL, but that’s not his game. He’s a tough customer, a physical and gritty agitator in the Darius Kasparaitis mold, the type of player that Habs fans have cried for annually. Yemelin has been slowed by injuries, including a shattered face in a fight a few years back, but he’s now training in Montreal, getting acquainted with his new surroundings, and impressing prospective teammates with his skating and dedication. Imagine: Yemelin and Subban on the same defense corps. That’s a lot of sandpaper. More: In Le Journal de Montreal, Slava Malamud has a Q & A with Yemelin.
We’ll look at more rookies next time. The season is right around the corner.
…and for the rookies out there, here’s the newer version.