Over the month of December, Hockey’s Future’s staff was polled to see who they think the top NHL rookie of the month was. For the month of December, it was once again Edmonton Oilers star Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, though by a slim margin.
Many rookies, such as Luke Adam (BUF), appear to have hit a mid-season wall in terms of production, and have slid off the list. Meanwhile others, such as Jared Cowen (OTT) and Adam Henrique (NJ), seem to be gaining momentum as they continue to get acclimated to the NHL.
Nugent-Hopkins continues to lead all rookies in points though by a dwindling amount. In 12 games on the month, he managed two goals, six assists, and averaged around 19 minutes while playing top-line center duties for the Oilers. This is well off pace the 27 points in 26 games he had entering the month and a sign that he is either being played differently or hit a physical wall in terms of production. It also could simply be a reflection of the ghastly 3-9 record the Oilers posted in December. Regardless, any success the Oilers have this season seems to be tied directly to the production of their number one center.
To compound matters, the young center went down with an upper-body injury in a game against the Chicago Blackhawks, putting to question when he will come back and if it will be at full strength. For the sake of the season, hopefully it will be soon as the Oilers are already 12 points out of the eight playoff seed.
While Ryan Nugent-Hopkins may be coming back to earth, Devils center Adam Henrique has taken off. In 14 games in December, Henrique managed five goals and eight assists (almost doubling his totals on the season) while playing top-line minutes, often alongside star wingers Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk. Over that same 14 game span, the Devils managed a 9-5 record and vaulted themselves contention for not only the playoffs but also the Atlantic division lead.
Henrique has been arguably one of the most important players on the New Jersey roster. He has taken over 25 percent of the team’s faceoffs and has a winning percentage just below .500. He is one of the leaders on the teams in hits, has the most blocked shots of any forward by a landslide, plays on both special teams, and even has two short-handed goals.
Named the NHL’s rookie of the month, Henrique has surged as a Devils prospect and if he continues to produce on the top line, he could realistically overtake Nugent-Hopkins as the top rookie in the NHL, especially if the Oilers center is out of the lineup for any extended period of time.
After starting the month of December on a hot streak, posting a goal and six assists in seven games, Craig Smith has cooled down, managing only an assist in the next seven games, giving him eight points in 14 games this month. His offensive hot and cold spells are a microcosm of an offensively-challenged Nashville team though Smith has actually been one of their most consistently productive forwards.
As long as he remains healthy, Smith should break 50 points and flirt with the 20 goal mark. If he can find some chemistry with one of the Predators many underperforming forwards, then those numbers could realistically climb.
The Flyers have two rookie forwards with serious pedigree, both of whom were top 10 picks in the NHL draft. Neither of them are Matt Read. An undrafted 25-year-old rookie who graduated from Bemidji State in 2010-11, Read has outshined much more highly touted rookie teammates Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn, to the point where he is now a regular in the top six, playing with either center Claude Giroux or Danny Briere.
Read and impressive December, posting three goals and five assists through 14 games including a three point game on Dember 3rd against Phoenix. His ice time has fluctuated because of injuries to various teammates but he has consistently played a smart, two-way game. He has been such an effective two-way player his ability as a sniper has been overlooked. He’s second in goals scored by a rookie, fourth in shots on net, and third in shooting percentage among rookies who have played 25 games or more.
With four goals and five assists through 15 games, Cody Hodgson was one of the most statistically successful rookies through December. What makes it more impressive is he went through a four game pointless streak (the longest of his season), has played almost exclusively on the third or fourth line, often seeing less than 12 minutes a game, and is typically paired alongside forwards like Jannik Hansen, Andrew Ebbit, or Dale Weis.
There are many reasons to think Hodgson will continue to get better as the season goes continues. For one, he went into December with 11 points and finished the month with 20. He already has a two point game in January and recently has seen more powerplay time.
Gabriel Landeskog plays a well-rounded, offensively-minded game but it is his frequent, bone-jarring checks which have so far defined his rookie season. Among rookie forwards he is far and away the league-leader in hits and is among the top-20 in that category league-wide. He is also far and away the league-leader among shots on goal by a rookie and after being snake-bitten for much of the season, his offensive game finally turned around in the second half of December, where he managed seven points in eight games, often playing alongside Ryan O’Reilly on the second line. For the month, he managed three goals and six assists through 15 games.
Landeskog should surpass 40 point pace he is currently on, especially if him and the Avalanche are able to maintain the success they have experienced of late.
Cowen posted nine of his 11 points on the season in the month of December, many of which came in a four-point outing against Pittsburgh on the 16th. While significant, it is not the reason why he was one of the top rookies during the month of December. The primary reason is that since the end of November, Cowen has seen his ice time spike from around 16 minutes a game to consistently over 20, often playing as much as 25 minutes or more. The fact he turns 21 years old in January makes it all the more impressive.
The primary reason for his recent success is he has kept his game simple, getting the puck deep out of his zone and making life unpleasant for opposing players with strong physical play.
Another Senator rookie, Colin Greening has quietly established himself as an NHL caliber forward, similar in many regards to Flyers rookie Matt Read in that his ability to fill a variety of roles and positions overshadows his solid offensive contributions.
Greening has played all throughout the lineup this season though he seems to have finally settled into a role on the left wing with Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek. Through the month of December, he has two goals and five assists through 15 games, roughly the same pace he has maintained all season long. It his the other things he does on the ice that make him important to Ottawa’s offensive game. Greening is among the team leaders in hits (as well as among rookies in the NHL), plays the entire length of the ice, and a strong forechecker. He can also play every position at forward and is good at faceoffs.
Through 12 games, Adam Larsson managed five assists while continuing to provide a steady, two-way presence in the Devils top four. There is not really much to comment on in terms of his play, he excels at every aspect of the game yet no part of his game sticks out more than the other.
As his responsibilities increase, it will be interesting to see if Larsson hits the mid-season wall many first-year players do, particularly ones who are only 19 years old. Expect to the Devils to manage his ice time down the stretch to prevent that from happening, as he has been among their most durable and reliable defensemen all season.
Recalled because of injuries at the NHL level, power forward Zack Kassian proved in the month of December he is an NHL caliber forward. Playing in a third-line energy role, Kassian has been an aggressive, physical presence on the forecheck, using his hulking 6’3 frame to separate opponents from the puck. He has managed to do it while not taking too many trips to the penalty box either, significant considering on-ice discipline was an issue for him in juniors.
With Tyler Ennis and Ville Leino still on the IR, a spot for Kassian on the roster will be available for the foreseeable future. Still, as evidenced by a recent scratching, that spot is far from guaranteed.