With the NHL season passing its halfway point, a clear division has been established among the 2010 class of first-year players. A select handful of rookies have been able to make the jump to the big leagues smoothly and successfully. They’ve learned the ropes quickly, meshed with teammates and have been a welcome addition to their team’s roster.
The transition has not been as fluid for others, as the gruelling season continues to drag on and consistency becomes their biggest enemy. As fewer and fewer games remain in the year and the playoff chase continues to tighten, now is the time for some of the league’s top rookies to prove that they can be counted on when the game is on the line.
Still leading all rookies in scoring, Tavares’ first year is going through its first rough patch. His 16 goals continue to be the most by a rookie this season and his 29 points in 47 games are tied for top among freshmen, but everything is not as rosy as it was a month ago. Since December 14th, a period of 15 games, the forward has posted just a single goal and a single assist. This dried-up production is well off the pace that saw him rocket to the rookie scoring lead early on and quickly show why the Islanders chose him first overall in the 2009 draft. Despite Tavares’ personal woes, the Islanders remain in the playoff hunt, but they’ll need more from the 18-year-old if they are going to solidify a post-season berth.
As the season continues, both the Buffalo Sabres and Myers continue to improve. Already an impact player at both ends of the ice, Myers has continued to see his ice time increase. He now leads both the Sabres and all NHL rookies. Playing more than 25 minutes a game on eight different occasions since the beginning of December, Myers is a force for the Sabres. Seeing equal time on both special-teams units, Myers is also proving to be no slouch offensively; his 26 points in 44 games are fifth among all rookies and fourth on his team. Not a bad start for a 19-year-old.
The third name called in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, Duchene lagged behind the two players selected before him to start the season. He was even over-shadowed as teammate and fellow first-year player, Ryan O’Reilly, jumped to an early rookie scoring lead. But the NHL season is a marathon, not a sprint. After he posted just 10 points in his first 25 games, Duchene has tallied 19 points in his last 22 games. Rocketing up the scoring race, the 18-year-old is now tied with Tavares for the rookie scoring lead. Although the Colorado Avalanche have cooled off from their hot start, their future is promising.
Injuries throughout the Devils forward corps have forced Bergfors to fill a jack-of-all-trades role for the top team in the Eastern Conference. Shuffling constantly through the line-up has seen the 22-year-old play almost 20 minutes some nights and fewer than 12 on other occasions. Despite these continuous changes, Bergfors has responded well to his first full season in the NHL. Not only does he sit fourth on the Devils in scoring, but he is also tied for third among NHL rookies with 13 goals and 27 points in 44 games.
Taking advantage of opportunities as they present themselves has to be considered vanRiemsdyk’s calling card. Not only do his five game-winning goals place him tied for third in the NHL, but he was able to fill in admirably when sniper Simon Gagne missed a significant chunk of the first half of the season due to injury. Unfortunately for vanRiemsdyk, he slowed down considerably after his early success with the increased role, including a nasty stretch from late November until early January when he posted just a goal and an assist over the course of 21 games. With the Flyers’ fortunes changing for the better in recent games, vanRiemsdyk is tied for third among rookies with 10 goals and 27 points in 42 games.
From the end of November through to mid-December, the Tampa Bay Lightning struggled through a 2-9-2 stretch. As the team looked for ways to win, Hedman saw his ice time drop slightly. Since then, Tampa Bay has posted a record of 7-3-1 and continues to be within striking distance of a playoff spot. Despite recently turning 19, Hedman has been relied upon to fill a big role for the Lightning. Second on both the team and among rookies in the league in average ice time, the Swede has also shown some increased offensive aptitude recently, with five of his 14 points coming in the past 11 games.
Cooling off substantially after a hot start that catapulted to the top of the rookie scoring race, O’Reilly has settled into an important role with the Avalanche. Although he has just one point in his last 23 games, the 18-year-old is counted on as one of the team’s top penalty-killing forwards alongside fellow rookie T.J. Galiardi. Even if his offensive production is well off the pace he opened his season with, O’Reilly has five goals and 18 points in 47 games for the Avs.
Sharing time with the defending Vezina trophy winner is an unenviable position for any goaltender, but Rask is pushing incumbent Tim Thomas for every minute of ice time. His play speaks for itself: Rask is currently second in the league in both goals-against-average (1.92) and save percentage (.933). His record is similarly impeccable, going 10-4-2 with two shutouts. With Thomas and Rask competing for starts, the Bruins have come out the winner. So far this year, Boston has allowed the fourth fewest goals against in the league.
Thanks to a handful of lower-body injuries, Semyon Varlamov hasn’t faced a shot for the Washington Capitals since December 7th. Thought to be on the road to recovery when he was assigned to the Capitals AHL affiliate in Hershey at the beginning of the month for conditioning, Varlamov is back on the shelf after aggravating the injury. Despite these setbacks, he remains one of the NHL’s top rookies, thanks to a sterling 12-1-2 record as well as a 2.21 GAA and a .924 save percentage. When Varlamov left the Capitals, they were first in the Eastern Conference. Now third in the conference, they haven’t fallen too far from that top perch, but needs to get their 21-year-old goaltender healthy and back between the pipes for the stretch run.
After struggling at the start of the season, the Detroit Red Wings turned to 25-year-old Howard. Spending the past four seasons in the minors, Howard finally appears ready to take the reins in Motor City. Slowly, but surely, the Red Wings have found themselves climbing in the standings and Howard’s 2.21 GAA as well as his .926 save percentage is a big reason why. Leading all rookie goaltenders in wins with 16, the former University of Maine star is now Detroit’s go-to guy between the pipes. Howard’s play will have a lot to do in whether or not the Red Wings’ consecutive playoff streak (stretching back to 1990) does not come to an end.
Other rookies receiving votes (alphabetical order): Artem Anisimov (NYR), Jamie Benn (DAL), Michael Del Zotto (NYR), Jason Demers (SJ), Cody Franson (NSH), T.J. Galiardi (COL), Evander Kane (ATL), Scott Parse (LAK), Peter Regin (OTT), Dan Sexton (ANA)