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12 more NHL rookies worth watching

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After a turbulent 2010-11, young defenseman Erik Gudbranson is poised to contribute to the new-look Panthers this season. (Susan Stocker/MCT Landov)

By Stu Hackel

We had so much fun looking at potential NHL rookies on Wednesday, we thought we’d finish today with another dozen.

Again, this second 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 another random compilation of names that we’ve been hearing and thinking about, players with a decent-to-excellent chance of making their teams coming out of training 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.

And here they are:

Erik Gudbranson, Panthers – He’s big and mobile, has all-around ability and could be a major shutdown force for years to come. Drafted third overall by the Panthers in 2010, he had an impressive camp and made the team, but couldn’t come to terms on a contract. He returned to Kingston of the OHL and had a rough season, including an eight-game league suspension and a one-game team suspension for a fight with his coach after which he was stripped of his alternate captaincy. But he still had his best season statistically and is poised to join a Florida defense corps that is much deeper with the additions of Brian Campbell and Ed Jovanovksi, two guys who could mentor him — if he makes the team, as George Richards of The Miami Herald reported when Gudbranson signed a three-year deal this summer. The Panthers currently have six defensemen signed to one-way contracts, and Gudbranson cannot play in the AHL because of his age (19). He could start the season with the Panthers, but still go back to Kingston after nine games.

Jonathon Blum, Ryan Ellis, Blake Geoffrion, and Craig Smith, Predators — Some observers have wondered if the Preds will take a step backwards this season, having lost Joel Ward, Cody Franson, Steve Sullivan, Marcel Goc and Shane O’Brien. But Nashville always seem to find a way, and these four kids are examples of that way.

No team, it seems, is as good at producing young defensemen as Nashville. A Californian who started in roller hockey and became a first-round pick in 2007, Blum remains Calder-eligible, having played only 23 regular season games last season. Regarded as an offensive defenseman with very good mobility, he earned a regular spot in the Preds’ lineup last February but didn’t just put up points. He also played a good defensive game, finishing plus-8. His average minutes jumped in the postseason from 17:45 to almost 19 per game and he was plus-2 in 12 playoff games, paired on the second unit with Kevin Klein. More: Blogger Jeremy K. Gover of Section 303 analyzes Blum and Klein.

A first rounder in 2010, Ellis is coming off a highly decorated season as team captain in Windsor (27 goals, 101 points, the OHL leaderhip award, OHL defenseman and player of the year honors, CHL defenseman and player of the year, top defenseman at the World Junior Championships). He made his pro debut in the AHL playoffs. Another offensive d-man, he’s small by NHL standards (only 5-10, 175 pounds) and that will be his biggest obstacle. But on a team that struggles to produce offense, it could be tough to keep him in Milwaukee. More: Josh Cooper of The Tennessean wrote this post on Ellis’s last junior campaign.

Geoffrion is Nashville’s first homegrown player, but no NHLer has ever had quite his pedigree. His father Danny was an NHLer, and his  grandfather Bernie and great-grandfather Howie Morenz are Hockey Hall of Famers. He’s already made a name for himself as the Hobey Baker Award winner in 2010 and he scored six goals in his first 11 NHL games last season, including a hat trick against the Sabres, but none the rest of the way. He can play center or left wing, and a good camp will help him cement a spot for the coming season. More: Geoffrion profiled by Harry Thompson in USA Hockey Magazine

Smith may fight Geoffrion for a spot in the middle. He too played at Wisconsin. Drafted by the Preds in 2009, Smith planned on going back for his junior year in Madison until he changed his mind after the World Championships last spring in Slovakia, at which he scored three goals and three assists in seven games and decided to turn pro. He skates and shoots like an NHLer, is confident with the puck, and can be a dynamic player. Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves says all Smith needs to demonstrate is that he can consistently get to the next gear. “I do believe he will play games for us this season,” Preds Coach Barry Trotz told Kevin Allen of USA Today. “I just don’t know whether it will be two, 22, 42, 62 or 82.”

Jordan Caron, Bruins — At 6-3, 202 pounds, Caron is a big, fast winger in the typical Bruins mold. He could be the beneficiary of Mark Recchi’s retirement and Michael Ryder’s departure, which opened up slots on the right side. A two-way player who projects as a checking line forward, he made the team out of training camp last season and played 23 games early on, then spent most of the year in Providence before traveling with the eventual Stanley Cup champions throughout the playoffs, but never getting into a game. A first-round pick in 2009, Caron’s understanding of play without the puck should put him in good stead with defense-first coach Claude Julien. More: Caron and other potential B’s rookies from Douglas Flynn of NESN.

Zac Dalpe, Hurricanes – Jeff Skinner surprised the NHL last season with his Calder Trophy campaign and ‘Canes fans wonder if Dalpe can be Carolina’s second consecutive rookie of the year. Combining a high level of skill with a strong work ethic, level of committment and coachable attitude, Dalpe can play either wing or center. Some projections have him slotted as Skinner’s center with Tuomo Ruuttu on the other wing, others have him on the right wing filling the void left by Erik Cole’s departure. Dalpe averaged nearly a point per game during the regular season and playoffs for the Carolina’s AHL club in Charlotte. Checkers assistant coach Geordie Kinnear had nothing but high praise for Dalpe in this story from his hometown paper, The Delhi (Ont.) News-Record.

Ben Smith and Marcus Kruger, Blackhawks – Chicago continues to rebuild after its post-Cup salary cap woes and these two kids could be part of that process. A great first round against the Canucks catapulted the gritty Smith, a former Boston College star, into the Chicago spotlight. A late draft pick in 2008, he isn’t big, nor is he super-gifted offensively, but he found himself playing with Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa in the postseason and they meshed quite well. His strength is his versatility — he can play any spot up front — and his strong skating allows him to get to open spots. He could ultimately be a good checker, but the Hawks will first want to see if his playoff magic was for real.

Kruger is also versatile, but probably best at center, where he played on the fourth line late in the season and playoffs for the Hawks, because of his excellent passing and hockey sense. Unlike Smith, he’s got both size and skill and has developed physically, which has helped his game grow. GM Stan Bowman likened Kruger’s hockey IQ to that of Dave Bolland after watching him during training camp last year, but Kruger returned to Sweden where he played well while leading his Swedish Elite League team, Djurgarden, in scoring. He joined Sweden’s World Championship squad after the playoffs, an indication of his elite talent. More: Here’s Bowman on Smith and Kruger in The Chicago Sun-Times.

Andrei Loktionov, Kings – After bouncing between LA and AHL Manchester (where he averaged nearly a point per game for the Monarchs) before his season was shortened by shoulder surgery, this developing high-skilled forward will likely be seen by Kings fans a lot more in 2011-12. But just where they’d see him is unknown. There’s some thought that he might start as a wing for Jarret Stoll on the third line — Loktionov played some wing last season – but he’s projected as a center and a Top 6 talent. It’s rather doubtful he’d dislodge Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards or Stoll. Of course, some top Kings forwards, namely Justin Williams and Simon Gagne, have histories of injuries, so he could move there if they don’t stay healthy and he makes the team. An excellent playmaker with loads of hockey smarts, Loktionov had a fairly good showing as a 20-year-old in 19 Kings games last season (3 goals, 4 assists). His lack of size (5-10, 180 pounds) may become an issue, but he’s reportedly bulked up a bit during the offseason. More: Here’s his Hockey’s Future page.

Braden Holtby, Capitals – Currently listed third on the Caps’ goalie depth chart, Holtby was in the same position last season when injuries brought him to Washington on a few occasions and, after a couple of shaky outings early on, he played 14 games and compiled a strong 10-2-2 record with a sterling 1.79 goals-against average and .934 save percentage. More of an athletic goalie than a technical one, Holtby has quick hands and handles the puck well. Some observers considered him the best of the team’s three young netminders, but he returned to AHL Hersey to finish the season. He’s ticketed there again so he can get regular work, but any injury or slippage by new Caps starter Tomas Vokoun or holdover Michal Neuvirth could bring the call. If he’s not a full-time NHLer this season, Holtby should be not long afterward. More: Blogger Ian Oldan of This Russian Machine Never Breaks linked to and transcribed a recent Holtby interview from Edmonton’s radio Team 1260.

Tim Erixon, Rangers – The Blueshirts have one of the youngest defense corps in the NHL and something of a need to get a veteran to mentor and stabilize it. But the Rangers have a different idea. They traded to get Erixon from Calgary (which drafted him in the first round in 2009 but never signed him) and bring him to New York where his father Jan had been an excellent defensive forward for the Rangers. Born in the USA, but trained in Sweden, Tim is coming off a good season as a 20-year-old for Skelleftea (5 goals, 24 points in 48 games). He also played for Sweden’s WJC team and sliver medal men’s team at the World Championships, where he averaged almost 17 minutes and was plus-2 with an assist in nine games. He’s poised and smart with the puck and can run the power play. Without the puck, he’s strong positionally, although not physical, and can play big minutes. Erixon is being penciled in for third pair duties. More: Blueshirt Banter blogger Russ Cohen on Erixon. P.S. His father wore Number 20 for the Rangers and that number isn’t currently taken.

  • Published On Aug 26, 2011
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