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 and hearing 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 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.
Alexei Yemelin, Canadiens – With the Habs defense corps having lost Roman Hamrlik, James Wisniewski and Brent Sopel, there’s a spot available 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 suffered in a fight a few years back, but he’s now training in Brossard, getting acquainted with his new surroundings, and impressing prospective teammates, including Mathieu Darche, with his skating and dedication. Imagine: Yemelin and Subban on the same defence corps. That’s a lot of sandpaper. More: In le Journal de Montreal, Slava Malamud had a Q & A with Yemelin.
Brayden Schenn, Flyers — Penciled in as the Flyers’ third line centre, 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 wrote about Hodgson earlier this week.
Nino Niederreiter, Islanders – It’s possible that other Isles rookies, particularly centre Ryan Strome and defenceman Calvin de Haan, could make the club, but Niederreiter (who Mike Cammalleri slashed in a preseason game last year, earning a suspension — and here’s the video) 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 defenceman 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 development 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 defenceman 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 centres. 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.
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 last year, 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, a one-game team suspensions following a fight with his coach and was stripped of his alternate captaincy. He still had his best campaign statistically and is poised to join a Florida defence core that is much deeper this year with the additions of Brian Campbell and Ed Jovanovksi, two guys who could help mentor him — if he makes the team; as George Richards of The Miami Herald reported when he signed a three-year deal this summer. the Panthers currently have six defencemen signed to one-way contracts, and Gudbranson cannot play in the AHL because of his age. 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 — A number of observers have wondered if the Preds will take a step backwards this season, having lost Joel Ward, Cody Fransen, Steve Sullivan, Marcel Goc and Shane O’Brien. But the Preds always seem to find a way, and these four are examples of that way.
No team, it seems, is as good at producing young defencemen as Nashville. A Californian who started in roller hockey and became a first-rounder 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 with a plus-8. His average minutes jumped in the post-season from 17:45 to almost 19 a game and he was a 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 leadership award, OHL defenseman and player of the year, CHL defenseman and player of the year, top defenseman at the World Junior Championships) and he made is pro debut in the AHL playoffs. Another offensive d-man, he’s small by NHL standards (only 5-foot-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’ last junior campaign.
He’s Nashville’s first homegrown player but no NHLer has ever had the pedigree of Geoffrion, whose father Danny was a Hab, and whose grandfather Bernie and great grandfather Howie Morenz are both Hockey Hall of Famers and Canadiens legends, both their numbers 5 and 7 hanging from the rafters in the Bell Centre. Blake has already made a name for himself as the Hobey Baker Award winner as top U.S. collegian in 2010 and he scored six goals in his first 11 NHL games last season, including a hat trick against the Sabres, but then none the rest of the way. He can play centre 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
One of those who may fight Geoffrion for a spot in the middle is Craig Smith who, like Geoffrion, also played at Wisconsin. Drafted by the Preds in 2009, he planned on going back for his junior year in Madison until his performance at the World Championships last spring in Slovakia, in which he scored three goals and three assists in seven games and decided to turn pro. He skates and shoots like an NHLer and is confident with the puck. He can be a dynamic player and his Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves all he needs to demonstrate is 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-foot-3, 202 pounds, Caron is a big, fast winger in the typical Bruins mold. The Sayabec native 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 for Boston last season, then spent most of the year in Providence before traveling with the champions throughout the playoffs, 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 defence-first Coach Claude Julien. More on Caron and other potential B’s rookies from Douglas Flynn of NESN.
Zac Dalpe, Hurricanes – Jeff Skinner surprised the NHL last season in his Calder Trophy campaign and ‘Canes fans wonder if Dalpe can be a second consecutive top rookie. Combining a high level of skill with a strong work ethic, level of committment and coachable attitude, Dalpe can play either wing or centre; some projections have him slotted as Skinner’s center with Tuomo Ruuttu on the other wing, some have him on the right wing filling the void left when Erik Cole signed with Canadiens. He averaged nearly a point a game in the regular season and postseason for the ‘Canes 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 this duo 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 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 is for real.
Kruger is also versatile but probably best at centre, where he played on the fourth line late in the season and postseason for the Hawks, because of his excellent passing ability and hockey sense. Unlike Smith, he’s got both size and skill and has developed physically which has helped his game develop. GM Stan Bowman likened his hockey IQ to that of Dave Bolland after watching him during training camp last year, but Kruger returned to Sweden where he played well, leading his Swedish Elite League team Djurgarden in scoring. He joined Sweden’s World Championship squad after the playoffs, indicative of his elite talent. More: Here’s Bowman on Smith and Kruger in The Chicago Sun-Times.
Andrei Loktionov, Kings – Coming off of a season shortened by shoulder surgery in which he bounced between L.A. and AHL Manchester (where he averaged nearly a point a game for the Monarchs), Kings fans could see more of this developing high-skilled forward this year. But just where they’d see him is unknown. There’s some thought he might start as a wing for Jarred Stoll on the third line (Loktionov played some wing last year) but he’s projected as a centre and a Top 6 talent. It’s rather doubtful he’d dislodge Andrei 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, Loktianov 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-foot-10, 180 pounds) may become an issue, but he’s reportedly bulked up some in 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 compiling a strong 10-2-2 record with a sterling 1.79 average and a .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 goalies at the time but he returned to AHL Hersey to finish the season. He’s ticketed there again this year 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 year, he should be shortly 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 blueline veteran to mentor and stabilize them. But the Rangers have a different idea. They traded to get Erixon from Calgary (who drafted him in the 2009 first round but never signed him) and bring him to New York where his father Jan had been an excellent Rangers defensive forward. Born in the USA but trained in Sweden, he’s 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 their sliver medal men’s team at the World Championships, where he averaged almost 17 minutes and was a 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 the 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.