Ten (plus) NHL Rookies to Watch

With Rookie Camps open now in many NHL cities and regular training camps ready to open soon, I thought it would be interesting to look at Ten Rookies who are looking to make their respective clubs and chase down the Calder Trophy. So lets begin the countdown.

Special Honourable Mention for Goalies: Jonas Enroth/Jonathan Bernier G, Buffalo/Los Angeles – These two goaltenders both got their feet wet in the NHL last season, however they both remain Calder eligible due to a lack of games played.  Despite both being extremely talented, I can’t name them as true Calder Contenders as they again project to be backup goalies, who will get very few games as they play behind workhorses Ryan Miller and Jonathan Quick respectively.  However I list them here, as both are but one injury away from taking over the number 1 job of their respective teams, and if this were to happen, they have the ability to steal games, and the Calder Trophy.

10. Erik Gudbranson, D, Florida Panthers – Gudbranson was the 3rd overall pick in the 2010 draft. He went to Panthers camp last year and made the team as an 18 year old. However he was unable to reach agreement with the Panthers on fair value for a contract. He went back to Kingston in the OHL where he played decent enough, but given the expectations you’d have to call his season a disappointment. Also was part of Canada’s 2011 Silver Medal World Junior team, and again was a bit disappointing at the tourney. Still though this kid has a ton of talent, and it would be stupid not to include him in this list. He’s got NHL size and is capable at both ends of the rink. His big point shot should eventually make him a fixture on the Panthers PP.

9. Jonathan Huberdeau, C/LW, Florida Panthers – Our 2nd Florida Panther, is also a 3rd overall Draft Pick. Huberdeau is an 18 year old taken in last June’s Entry Draft. At 6’3″ he has the height NHL teams look for but needs to bulk up slightly. Huberdeau has been a winner at every level and led his St. John’s Sea Dogs to the QMJHL title and the Memorial Cup. He was absolutely dominant in the playoffs, and was the runaway winner of the QMJHL Playoff MVP. He would go on to add the MVP in the Memorial Cup. He will be trying to make the Panthers as an 18 year old, and it will be interesting to watch him in training camp, as right now he’s probably 50/50 to be in the NHL this season. If he does make the team, this skilled playmaker has the offensive ability to be a Calder Contender.

8. Ryan Ellis, D, Nashville Predators – David Poile and the Predators’ staff seem to consistently churn out defensive prospects, and this year is no different. Ellis is the first of two Preds d-men to be featured in our list. The 2009 First Rounder is a 3 time member of Canada’s National World Junior Team.  He’s also a two time Memorial Cup winner with Windsor.  Ellis is undersized, as he’s very generously listed at 5’10” and this has raised questions about his ability to play in his own zone at the pro level.  However no one questions his offensive abilities.  A slick skater, with great puck handling ability, accurate passing skills and a hard shot, Ellis will eventually make his mark as a PP QB in the NHL.  His stats this season (and his Calder chances) might be hurt by being on such a deep team on defence, as he’ll surely start out behind Shea Weber and Ryan Suter in the PP pecking order, and will have to battle another talented Predators Rookie D-man for 2nd unit duty.

7. Nino Neiderreiter, RW/LW, New York Islanders – The number 5 overall pick in 2010, “El Nino” made the Islanders roster at the end of training camp last year.  He played the first 9 games, however he did not look ready for the NHL and so he was sent back to Portland.  The highest ever drafted Swiss player dominated in the WHL, scoring 70 points in only 55 games.  He was even better in the playoffs with 28 points in 21 games.  Neiderreiter looks like the total package as a power forward prospect, combining size, speed, net presence, a good shot, and soft hands.  I’m betting he sticks in the NHL this year and follows Michael Grabner as an Islander rookie making an impact.

6. Brayden Schenn, C, Philadelphia Flyers – Recently traded to the Philadelphia Flyers as part of the package for Mike Richards, big things are expected from Brayden Schenn.  Schenn started last year with the LA Kings, playing 8 games before being sent back to Junior hockey.  Schenn was quite simply too good for the WHL last year scoring 57 points in just 29 games for Portland.  He was also the star of Canada’s World Junior team challenging and tying or beating various team records held by names like Gretzky, and Lemieux, as well as former Flyers stars Gagne, and Lindros.  Schenn finished his season playing 7 games for Manchester in the AHL and scoring 7 points.  Schenn has ideal size and plays an excellent two way game for a 20 year old.   His defensive awareness will serve him well in trying to make the Flyers out of training camp, as it appears that Claude Giroux and Daniel Briere have the top 2 center spots locked up.  Starting out as a third liner will hurt Schenn’s chances to put up huge numbers, but the Flyers are a deep team, and he should still get some decent offensive wingers.  Of concern is the amount of overall ice time and PP time he will get this season, but of course, one injury could change all of that.

5. David Rundblad, D, Ottawa Senators – This Swedish defenceman has a ton of offensive upside.  Last year he had a record setting season in the Swedish Elite league posting 11 goals and 50 points in 55 games.  This was good for third overall in the league scoring race, and is basically unprecedented for a Swedish teenager on defence.  At 6’2″ Rundblad has the height necessary to play in the NHL, but he needs to add more muscle to a slight frame.  Rundblad is expected to make the Senators, and it will be interesting to see if he can develop chemistry with fellow youthful Swedish blueliner Erik Karlsson.  If he does, the offensive numbers needed to be a Calder Contender could follow.

4. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, C, Edmonton Oilers – This year’s first overall pick is a talented play making centre from the WHL’s Red Deer Rebels.  Adding to the Oilers youth movement, it is hoped that Nugent-Hopkins will develop into the #1 centre the Oilers need to compete in the tough Western Conference.   In watching him in the WHL its easy to the high end offensive potential this kid has.  Nugent-Hopkins has excellent hockey sense, and fantastic hands and passing ability in the offensive zone.  There is however a question that he may be too slight as an 18 year old to really handle the rigors of a long NHL season.  I have no doubt that he’ll be an impact player for the Oilers down the road, and he may very well end up having the best career of anyone on this list, however I worry that questions about his physical size, and lack of bulk will mean that his development may take time.  As such I’m not ready to put him among the top 3 contenders for the 2011-12 Calder Trophy.

3. Jonathan Blum, D, Nashville Predators – The oldest player on the list at 22 years old, the Predators have certainly been patient when it comes to developing their 2007 first round pick.  Blum remains Calder eligible, coming in just under the limit with 23 games played last season.  His solid play in the NHL playoffs was a revelation for the Predators after Francis Bouillion went down with injury and he was playing close to 20 minutes a night.  Blum is a 2 way defenceman with great skating and a solid first pass.  It won’t be a surprise to see him slide right in as a top 4 defenceman with the Predators, despite the fact they have a very deep defence.  The only question with Blum is the amount of PP time he will see stuck behind Weber and Suter, and fighting with fellow rookie Ryan Ellis for minutes.

2. Ryan Johanssen, C, Columbus Blue Jackets – The Jackets have been searching for an Number 1 Centre since they joined the league a little over a decade ago.  However with their recent trade for Jeff Carter, and with the development of Johanssen, the 2010 4th overall pick, they may soon have two.  Johanssen was the best player on a strong Portland Winterhawks team in the WHL last year scoring 92 points in 63 games.  He also had an excellent World Junior Tournament for Canada last year.  Johanssen can do it all bringing both goal scoring and play making talents to a quickly improving Blue Jackets team.  He should get plenty of ice time, and these minutes will be key in putting up the numbers necessary for a Calder bid.

1. Gabriel Landeskog, RW, Colorado Avalanche – The 2nd overall pick from this year’s entry draft looks to be physically ready for an NHL job, despite being only 18 years old.  Landeskog may not project to have the long term offensive upside of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, but Landeskog looks like the more NHL ready player.  Landeskog is extremely well rounded for an 18 year old, as he can do it all.  Landeskog can skate, score goals, set them up, drive the net hard, throw a big hit, play defense, block shots, and is even a decent fighter when necessary.  This Swedish born prospect is also a natural born leader becoming both the youngest, and first European captain in Kitchener Rangers history.  Often compared to another former Rangers Captain, Mike Richards; Landeskog is coming into an ideal situation where he will immediately play on a line with either Paul Stastny or Matt Duchene.  For this reason Landeskog is my pick as the early favorite in the Calder Watch.

Honourable Mention skaters: Mikael Granlund, C, Minnesota Wild;  Marc-Andre Gragniani, D, Buffalo Sabres; Blake Geoffrion, RW/C, Nashville Predators; Ryan Strome, C, New York Islanders; Zac Dalpe, C, Carolina Hurricanes; Adam Larsson, D, New Jersey Devils; Alexei Emelin, D, Montreal Canadiens; Tim Erixon, D, New York Rangers; Jeremy Morin, RW/LW, Chicago Blackhawks; Brendan Smith, D, Detroit Red Wings; Scott Glennie RW/C, Dallas Stars; Brett Connolly, LW, Tampa Bay Lightning; Tomas Tatar, C, Detroit Red Wings; Anton Lander, C, Edmonton Oilers; Andrei Loktionov, C/LW, Los Angeles Kings; Sean Couturier, C, Philadelphia Flyers; Eric Tangradi, LW, Pittsburgh Penguins;  Mark Schiefele, C, Winnipeg Jets;

And thats the Last Word on this year’s NHL Rookie Watch.

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