If you haven’t noticed, the NHL’s rookie class for the 2013 season is sicker than Gwyneth Paltrow in “Contagion”.
There aren’t many silver linings to the lockout – unless you like merchandise discounts and eight games a week per team (so it seems) – but a significant one is how it prepped the Calder contenders ahead of their rookie seasons.
Justin Schultz found his swagger in becoming the Bobby Orr of the AHL for a few months. Vladimir Tarasenko had been percolating in the KHL for a bit, and was a point per game player before joining the St. Louis Blues. Other players had the AHL or Europe as a run-up to the season.
As a result, there are about eight rookies that seem primed for a run at that Calder this season. From the favorites thus far down to the outliers:
1. Vladimir Tarasenko, RW, St. Louis Blues
The Blues needed a self-starter offensively in Ken Hitchcock’s system, and Tarasenko seems like he’s going to be the solution. He’s a total package right now: Composed off the ice, some physical edge to his game on the ice and elite offensive skills in scoring eight points (4 goals, 4 assists) in six games. From Norm Sanders:
Tarasenko possesses elite skills, but also has the ability to place himself in the high-percentage scoring areas at the right times. He also has a ridiculously quick shot and a puck-bag full of move.
You know he has to be good if he’s (a) a Russian and (b) a rookie whose soul Hitchcock hasn’t yet crushed.
2. Justin Schultz, D, Edmonton Oilers
I’d put Schultz second for the Calder right now because we’re dealing with two layers of hype. First, the hype surrounding the Justin Schultz Derby that the Oilers managed to win. Second, the hype surrounding him having set AHL defenseman scoring records in the run-up to the NHL season.
So far, he’s the real deal: Five points in four games and playing 24:02 per game – including 4:55 on the power play on average. The Paul Coffey chatter gets a little uncomfortable from an expectations perspective, but the way he joins the rush it’s somewhat legit.
3. Cory Conacher, C, Tampa Bay Lightning
If you’re someone that believes the NHL’s top rookie point-getter deserves the Calder, then Conacher might have your inside track to the prize. He has seven points in five games, has been skating with Vinny Lecavalier and seeing spot time with Steven Stamkos and Marty St. Louis.
"The kid has unbelievable instincts. … It's crazy. I don't know how to describe it. He can make passes through opponents that are impossible. That's why we call him 'Honey Badger.' He can adapt to what's going on and play at a high rate of speed."
As Honey Badgers are wont to do.
4. Dougie Hamilton, D, Boston Bruins
Hamilton looks like the real deal, and the media has responded in kind, hyping this kid to the moon after three points in four games. There’s no question there’s something impressive about his poise and his abilities on the power play point. But let’s better judge a rookie defenseman when his coach doesn’t have the last change in three of the four games he’s played.
Sidenote: If Brian Burke were still around, we’d no doubt be hearing about how the lovefest over Hamilton is designed to give Phil Kessel "a sad" ...
5. Alex Galchenyuk, C, Montreal Canadiens
He’s not going to have Conacher’s points or the hype given to other Calder contenders, but we may look at Alex Galchenyuk’s rookie campaign as the most impressive of the bunch by the end of the season.
He’s tallied three points in four games, skating primarily with Brandon Prust and Brendan Gallagher (a fellow rookie), and isn’t getting the ice time (12:05) of other big-name rookies. But if he continues to impress offensively, how long until he’s back on the second line where he auditioned during the truncated training camp?
6. Jonathan Huberdeau, C, Florida Panthers
Would Huberdeau have stuck with the Panthers if they weren’t seriously battling injuries among the forwards and trailing the field in the Eastern Conference?
Tough call. But he’s got three points in five games and skating 15:49 per night, even if the line the Panthers expected to be quite good – Huberdeau, Peter Mueller and Alex Kovalev – was broken up due to injuries on the top line. Could be among the NHL's top rookie scorers by season's end.
7. Nail Yakupov, C, Edmonton Oilers
Yakupov has two goals in four games and one rather infamous goal celebration. He could be the leading scorer among rookies this season given the offensive talent on the Oilers; trouble is, with Schultz looking as good as he does, Yakupov might not be the best rookie on his own team this season. You can never count out a first overall pick in the Calder race – especially one with the star qualities of Nail.
8. Mikael Granlund, C, Minnesota Wild
In keeping this list to eight players, the last spot came down to Granlund and Matt Irwin, who is playing a ton of ice time (18:54) and has two points for the San Jose Sharks. The trouble for Irwin is that he has two defensemen ahead of him in the Calder watch, and it’s hard to imagine he’ll overcome Schultz’s points or Hamilton’s hype among the Eastern Conference voters.
Granlund, on the other hand, has a goal and an assist in five games for the Wild, who have him skating with Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Devin Setoguchi. If that line ever catches fire, Granlund could move up this list.
Plus, it's a beauty pageant in some ways, and Granlund has been known to capture a headline or two with his offensive flourishes – how many other rookies have their own Finnish postage stamps?
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Which rookies do you think have the best shot at the Calder? Remember: Cam Atkinson (27 games last season) and Damien Brunner (too old) aren’t eligible.