During the first month of the 2011-12 NHL season, 89 rookies took at least one shift in an NHL game. The vast majority of those who did contribute, did so in a minor fashion, either as a temporary injury replacement or in some minor capacity. There were however several exceptions, namely 2011 draft picks Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who is playing at a point-per-game pace, and Adam Larsson, who is leading all rookies in ice time by almost three minutes.
Each month, Hockey’s Future will poll the staff on the top rookies in the NHL. Below are the results from October:
1. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, C – Edmonton Oilers
Drafted 1st overall (1st round) in 2011
It seems fitting the most recent top draft pick is the top rookie in the NHL. Flanked by 2010 first overall pick Taylor Hall on his left wing and several talented players on his right including Ales Hemsky and Jordan Eberle, Nugent-Hopkins has managed six goals and six assists in 13 games. His production has been consistent too, something that can be difficult for an 18-year-old rookie on a team amidst the tail-end of a rebuild. The season is still young, but if Nugent-Hopkins can maintain something close to his current scoring pace, he’ll be the first number one pick since Sidney Crosby to score 30 goals or more in his rookie season.
Centering Buffalo’s top line with Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville on his wings, Adam has been an integral part of whatever success the Sabres have had early in the season, as the team has struggled to find offense throughout their lineup. In 13 games to date, Adam has managed four goals and seven assists. Outside of the offense, Adam brings a very important element to the center position for the Sabres, size. Standing at 6’2 and north of 200 pounds, Adam casts an imposing presence on the ice. He’s not an overly physical player, but that has hardly hindered his effectiveness at the NHL level.
One of the key pieces acquired in the radical overhaul of the Flyers organization, it was not too much of a surprise to see Sean Couturier starting the season at the NHL level. Coming off back-to-back seasons of 96 points and already possessing an NHL frame, it made sense for the 18-year-old to step into the Flyers lineup right away. Nobody except for maybe the Flyers though could’ve expected him to be as solid defensively as he is. Couturier is currently second among all Flyers forwards in penalty killing minutes, averaging 3:30 a game, and has been strong on the forecheck. Centering their third line, he has also chipped in with some offense, potting five goals and three assists in 14 games.
Headed into the 2011 draft, Gabriel Landeskog was touted as the most NHL-ready player available. Now one month into the NHL regular season, he has only reinforced that sentiment. Averaging more ice time than all but one rookie forward, Landeksog has been deployed on the penalty kill, and throughout the top-nine in even-strength. He’s third among all rookies in hits with 30, and leads all rookies with 51 shots on net. Through 14 games he has four goals, three assists, and a plus-two. He started the season on a third line though has recently been playing left wing alongside Ryan O’Reilly and Daniel Winnik on the second line.
It’s considerably harder for a defenseman to get Calder consideration compared to a forward. It generally takes longer for them to figure things out at the NHL level and any offensive ability they may have does not immediately show up on the scoresheet. Then there are rare prospects like Adam Larsson who are able to not only play in the NHL right away, but at a high level, regularly seeing over 23 minutes a game. Incredibly, Larsson is just scratching the surface of his immense talent. As his confidence continues to grow, he will take more risks up ice, and start creating offense for the Devils from the back-end.
Smith started the 2011-12 season with a bang, managing two goals and two assists in his first two games. Making Smith’s offensive contribution (four goals, six assists in 13 games) even more significant is the fact the Preds top offensive players, Colin Wilson and Patrick Hornqvist, struggled to produce early on. Smith is currently centering the third-line unit with Jordan Tootoo on his left wing and Jerred Smithson on his right. However, his combination of hard work, offensive IQ, and soft hands assure he will be used throughout the lineup in a variety of roles.
Along with Sean Couturier, rookie forward Matt Read has figured greatly into the early success of the Flyers. His numbers are solid, with three goals and four assists, though four of those points were picked up in an October 18th match against the Ottawa Senators. What Read contributes more importantly than points is a sound two-way game, defensive acumen, and the ability to play anywhere throughout the lineup. He was recently missed a few games because of an upper-body injury suffered on October 29th, but should back in the lineup for the Flyers as soon as this weekend.
Blum joins a considerably long line of immensely talented defensemen to rise through the ranks of the Nashville Predators organization. Currently ranked fifth on the team with an average of 19:46 minutes per game, Blum has been strong defensively for the team, registering a team high 40 blocked shots and playing big minutes on the ninth ranked penalty kill in the league. A mobile, puck-moving defenseman, the biggest thing for Blum right now is to continue to gain confidence with the puck. As his confidence grows, he should be more active on the offensive side of the puck and add dramatically to his current stat line of one goal and two assists through 13 games.
Markstrom started the 2011-12 season on the NHL roster because of injuries to backup Scott Clemmensen. It was expected he would see one or two starts and potentially relief duties in case the kitchen got too hot for veteran starter Jose Theodore. Instead, Markstrom saw action in five games including four starts and one relief appearance. He managed 2.05 goals against average, a 2-2-1 record, and a .944 save percentage. Making his performance all the more impressive is the fact the Panthers own a porous defense that allows the third most shots in the league, and struggle to put the puck in the net.
With Clemmensen now healthy and coming off his AHL conditioning stint, Markstrom was re-assigned to San Antonio of the AHL. Given how well he performed at the NHL level, and how unlikely the Panthers are to make the playoffs, it seems like only a matter of time before Markstrom is handed the starting reigns in South Florida.
Hodgson has long been Vancouver’s top prospect and among the top prospects in the NHL. Back issues and a less than stellar rookie season at the AHL level however put into doubt whether or not he would ever realize his vast potential. Those concerns seem to at least be partially put to the rest now as Hodgson has been strong for the Canucks early in the season. The 21-year-old initially played second-line center minutes in the absence of Ryan Kesler, who was still recovering from off-season hip surgery, but has since been moved around the lineup, most recently spotted on the third line with Max Lapierre and David Booth. Through 15 games, Hodgson has three goals and four assists.
Other Rookies receiving votes (alphabetical order): Stephane Da Costa (OTT), Raphael Diaz (MTL), Justin Falk (MIN), Jake Gardiner (TOR), Ryan Johansen (CLB), Marc-Andre Gragnani (BUF), Colin Greening (OTT).