The Olympics have come and gone, the trade deadline has passed and the NHL is in the final stretch of the 2009-10 season. Many rookie players benefited from the break afforded to them during the Olympics and have returned to the ice with their batteries recharged, ready to be a key contributor as their team closes out the regular season. In some cases, these first-year players are preparing for their first taste of playoff hockey, or working hard to ensure that their team sees the post season. For others, the focus is on finishing the year on a high note as they begin to look toward next season.
Here are the results of the Hockey’s Future Staff Calder poll for the month of March.
1. Tyler Myers, D – Buffalo Sabres
6’8, 222 lbs. DOB: February 1, 1990
Drafted 12th overall (1st round) in 2008
With seven points and two games in hand separating Buffalo from the Ottawa Senators in the NHL standings, the Sabres have a solid chance at winning the Northeast Division for the second time since the lockout. Their 182 goals-against are the second least in the Eastern Conference and while much credit goes to their star netminder Ryan Miller, equal billing should be given to the defense in front of him, featuring Tyler Myers, a rookie who just recently turned 20, but is well on his way to becoming a star in his own right. Myers continues to be a workhorse on the blue line for the Sabres, leading all Buffalo players in average ice time, with a cushion of more than three minutes over the next player. But it is what Myers does with that time that is important. He’s currently third in rookie scoring with 42 points in 72 games, including 32 assists, which place him first among freshman players. Equally adept in his own zone, Myers’ 122 blocked shots lead both the Sabres and all rookies by a healthy margin. And this towering defenseman is just beginning to scratch the surface of his potential.
2. Matt Duchene, C – Colorado Avalanche
5’11, 200 lbs. DOB: January 16, 1991
Drafted 3rd overall (1st round) in 2009
Although the Colorado Avalanche have fallen back to earth compared to earlier in the season, they remain a solid bet to see the playoffs, something that may have not been expected of them at the beginning of the year. Currently in sixth place in the Western Conference, Colorado’s success has been fueled by strong contributions from a number of young players, including Matt Duchene. Continuing to lead all rookies in scoring with 23 goals and 50 points in 73 games, Duchene’s numbers place him third on the Avalanche. Continuing to improve as the season has gone on, Duchene is part of an extremely bright future for Colorado, one that is already paying off.
3. Jimmy Howard, G – Detroit Red Wings
6’0, 210 lbs. DOB: March 26, 1984
Drafted 64th overall (2nd round) in 2003
Howard was just five years old when the Detroit Red Wings last missed the playoffs in 1990 and he’s doing his best to make sure that doesn’t happen while he mans the pipes for the Winged Wheel this season. On a team that struggled with injuries for most of the season, Howard has been a stopgap for the Red Wings, keeping them within postseason reach. Leading all rookie netminders with a 30-15-9 record, Howard has posted a 2.29 goals-against average and a .924 save percentage. With key players like Johan Franzen, Valtteri Filppula and Niklas Kronwall healthy and back in the lineup, Detroit is charging up the NHL standings. Currently in the eighth spot in the Western Conference, the Red Wings have lost just three times since returning from the Olympic Break.
4. John Tavares, C – New York Islanders
6’0, 195 lbs. DOB: September 20, 1990
Drafted 1st overall (1st round) in 2009
The Olympic break appears to be just what the doctor ordered for John Tavares. Struggling after the calendar switched the 2010, with just a single goal to his name over a 24-game span that stretched back to Christmas, the first overall pick hit the ice with renewed energy to start the month of March. In the 11 games since the Olympic break, Tavares has four goals and nine points, enough to earn him a nod as one of the NHL’s ‘Stars of the Week’ in the middle of March. Unfortunately for the Islanders, their own struggles mirrored those of their star rookie and they currently find themselves 14th in the Eastern Conference, well back of playoff contention. The Islanders will look to continue to build around Tavares, who is tied for second in team scoring.
5. Niclas Bergfors, RW – Atlanta Thrashers
5’11, 195 lbs. DOB: March 7, 1987
Drafted 23rd overall (1st round) in 2005
One of the only rookies to be dealt during the 2009-10 season, Bergfors is finding new opportunity with the Atlanta Thrashers. Used as a jack of all trades while a member of the New Jersey Devils, filling in wherever he was needed, Bergfors has seen a healthy bump in ice time and a regular role in the top six in Atlanta. Averaging roughly a minute more per game, with that extra time coming almost exclusively on the power play, Bergfors has responded well to his new surroundings with seven goals and 13 points in 18 games with Atlanta. In total, the 23-year-old has 20 goals and 40 points in 72 games, which places him fifth on the team in scoring and fourth among NHL rookies.
On a team with a plethora of ups and downs all season long, James vanRiemsdyk‘s first year in the NHL has mirrored the team. After a strong start, the long, grinding NHL season seems to be taking a toll on the former NCAA star. Although his 14 goals and 33 points place him seventh among NHL rookies, the 20-year-old’s play has fallen off over the course of the second half. With just a single goal coming in the first game back from the Olympic break, vanRiemsdyk is currently embroiled in a 12-game slump without a point. He has also seen his ice time dip as the Flyers continue to struggle with injuries and try to find a combination that can provide consistent results. Currently seventh in the Eastern Conference, Philadelphia needs to be better to ensure they make it to the postseason.
7. Victor Hedman, D – Tampa Bay Lightning
6’6, 230 lbs. DOB: December 18, 1990
Drafted 2nd overall (1st round) in 2009
The Tampa Bay Lightning may not be relying on their young 19-year-old as much as they were earlier in the season, but that doesn’t discredit his role with the organization. Averaging just less than 19 minutes per games in ice time since the Olympic Break, Victor Hedman still sees his ice time creep up above 20 minutes in some games but overall, that’s well below the 21-minute season average he currently has. In any case, Hedman has been able to provide an immediate impact on the Lightning blue line, including filling key roles on special teams. Hedman’s four goals and 19 points, with just one point since the Olympic break, may not be as impressive as the rest of the top rookies this season in the NHL but his steady play in his own end makes him a valuable part of Tampa’s future.
8. T.J. Galiardi, LW – Colorado Avalanche
6’2", 190 lbs. DOB: April 22, 1988
Drafted 55th overall (2nd round) in 2007
When the Avalanche take a penalty, it is usually T.J. Galiardi who gets the tap on the shoulder to kill it. The fact that the team is entrusting a first-year player with such an important role is just an indication of how strong the 21-year-old’s play has been this year. Galiardi leads all Avalanche forwards in average shorthanded minutes per game as well as placing atop all NHL rookies in time on the penalty kill. He also leads all rookies in short-handed points with four. That isn’t to say that Galiardi is a one-trick pony for Colorado. In 63 games this season, he has 13 goals and 36 points, placing him sixth on the team in scoring and fifth among all rookies.
The de facto starting goaltender for the Boston Bruins, Tuukka Rask has performed a task that most thought to be impossible: wrestling time away from the incumbent Vezina trophy winner, teammate Tim Thomas. With Thomas struggling to recreate his 2008-09 season heroics, Rask’s stat line speaks for itself. Both his 2.02 goals-against average and his .930 save percentage place him atop all goaltenders and his 17-10-4 record is second best among rookie netminders. The Bruins have struggled to put the puck in the net all season long and are currently last in the league in goals scored. As such, they are forced to rely on their defense to win games for them. With a slim hold on the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, Rask’s play down the stretch could dictate whether there is postseason hockey in Beantown this spring or not. The recent injury to star center Marc Savard makes the Bruins that much more dependent on their defense.
A power-play weapon for the New York Rangers all season long, the 19-year-old Del Zotto is being counted on to continue to produce as the Blueshirts battle for a post-season berth. With 21 of his 32 points and four of his nine goals coming with the man advantage, Del Zotto’s contributions are a key part of the Rangers power play, which is ranked 15th in the league with a 18.4 percent effectiveness. Currently 10th in the league and seven points out of a playoff spot, the Rangers need more from their roster to garner a playoff spot. Del Zotto’s -22 plus/minus rating places his last among his Ranger teammates and all the first-year players in the league, an indication that the problems in New York are just as much in the defensive zone as they are up front. Although rookies like Del Zotto indicate a bright future for the Big Apple, the fate of this season may be slipping away.
Other rookies receiving votes (in alphabetical order): Artem Anisimov (NYR), Jamie Benn (DAL), Tyler Bozak (TOR), Cody Franson (NSH), Evander Kane (ATL), Erik Karlsson (OTT), Dmitry Kulikov (FLA), Andrew MacDonald (NYI), Cal O’Reilly (NSH), Ryan O’Reilly (COL), Scott Parse (LAK), Peter Regin (OTT), Rob Schremp (NYI), Semen Varlamov (WSH), Ryan Wilson (COL)