Andy Mead/YCJ/Icon SMI)
Carolina forward Jeff Skinner won the Calder Trophy last season as the NHL’s top rookie due to his dynamic skating, lethal shot and a compete level well beyond that of most first-year pros, and certainly almost all 18-year-olds.
The Southeast Division is populated with several players of that ilk, led by top-flight snipers Steven Stamkos and Alexander Ovechkin. But 2011-12 has seen a shift in the other direction, with an influx of talented rookie blueliners into the division. While all three are unlikely to match Skinner and keep the Calder Trophy in the Southeast, their respective teams are nonetheless excited about the contributions they are already making.
Justin Faulk, D, Carolina Hurricanes — Last night, for the first time since December, the Hurricanes had Joni Pitkanen back in the lineup. But surprisingly, the team didn’t miss him all that much thanks to the emergence of Justin Faulk. Faulk is averaging just a second shy of 23 minutes a night and has become an all-situations performer for Carolina. He leads all rookie defensemen in goals (eight), power play goals (five) and average ice time. With Pitkanen back in the lineup, Faulk won’t have to carry such a heavy load, but his development into an everyday player bodes well for the team’s future.
Erik Gudbranson, D, Florida Panthers — Unlike Faulk, Gudbranson has been eased into the NHL. At 14:14 a night, he logs the fewest minutes of any Panthers defender and is playing mostly at even strength. Still, Florida has to be thrilled with Gudbranson’s progress. Just 20 years of age, he hasn’t yet grown into his 6’5 frame. But that hasn’t kept him from being physical: he leads the Panthers defensemen in hits (132) and his five fights this season are second to only Krys Barch on the team. But perhaps most importantly, Gudbranson has shown maturity beyond his years. He was scratched in early March after a poor line change led to a goal in the previous game, but he never complained and took his one-game benching in stride.
Dmitry Orlov, D, Washington Capitals — It didn’t take long for Orlov, a native of Russia who spent the majority of last season in the KHL, to adapt to North American hockey. After just 25 combined games in the regular season and playoffs with the AHL’s Hershey Bears at the end of last season, Orlov helped fill the void on the Capitals defense created by Mike Green’s lengthy injury. Orlov doesn’t have Faulk’s booming slapshot or Gudbranson’s intimidating size and edge, but he is probably the most creative of the three. He’s a smooth skater and excellent passer, and while his game in his own end needs some work — despite being a solid 210 pounds, he’s not nearly physical enough yet —on the whole he is way ahead of the curve in his development.
Southeast Division Notes
The Hurricanes won their fourth straight game with a 3-1 win over the Southeast-leading Panthers Wednesday. Joni Pitkanen, in his first game in more than three months, got the game-winning goal to help Carolina snap Florida’s five-game winning streak.
Florida remains five points ahead of the idle Capitals for the Southeast lead with 85 points, and both teams have nine games remaining. With the Sabres blanking Montreal, 3-0, the Hurricanes are five points behind two teams — Buffalo and Washington — for eighth in the Eastern Conference and one behind Winnipeg, who sits just above Carolina in 10th place.
Follow Cory Lavalette on Twitter at twitter.com/corylav