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The Calder Trophy winner will not come from the Central Division, nor is there a player who is even on the short list. But there are a handful of first-year players who have impacted veteran teams like the Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks and Nashville Predators.
Here are the three skaters who have enjoyed the finest rookie seasons among Central Division teams.
Craig Smith, C, Nashville Predators – It has been a tale of two seasons for Smith, who started his NHL career like a ball of fire. The 22-year-old, University of Wisconsin product scored his first career goal in his first career game and went on to post some impressive numbers in the season’s first three months. From January on however, it has been a different story for Smith. His point production [and playing time] began to tail off in January and then disappeared almost completely in February and March. In his past 20 games, Smith has just two goals and an assist, and has been a minus player in eight of those 20 games. With the players that Nashville brought in at the trade deadline and the upcoming addition of Alexander Radulov, Smith has seen a decrease in his ice-time and now must find different ways to contribute. Although he is having a tough go of it in the second half of his season, Smith has recorded 13 goals and 33 points in 69 games, very good numbers for a first year player who was a fourth-round draft pick.
Marcus Kruger, C, Chicago Blackhawks – A year ago, Kruger got his first taste of the NHL in just seven regular season games but had to grow up in a hurry when he was thrown into the fire in five of the club’s seven playoff games against Vancouver. The small but speedy center played well in some incredibly intense playoff action, and it was that fine showing that enabled him to stick with the Blackhawks on a full-time basis this year. In 64 games, Kruger has nine goals and 14 assists for 23 points and has been relied upon heavily at times when the team has had to deal with injuries to the likes of Patrick Sharp and Jonathan Toews. The 21-year-old Swede has been a reliable player at both ends of the ice for head coach Joel Quenneville and, like Craig Smith, is becoming an excellent draft-day steal (5th round, 149th overall in 2009).
Brendan Smith, D, Detroit Red Wings – Despite having appeared in just 14 games this season, the impressive play of Brendan Smith made it impossible not to include him on this list. Smith has arguably been NHL-ready for two years now, but like the Red Wings often (and successfully) do with young players, he has been allowed to develop and mature in the AHL. When Detroit’s blueline became decimated by injuries, Smith was called up to fill the void and has quickly shown his high ceiling as a young player. A tough defender with excellent size and strength, the 22-year-old also has had no trouble keeping up with the speed of the game and is an impressive combination of size and mobility. On top of his defensive attributes, Smith has proven to be very poised with the puck, and with one goal and six assists in 14 games, he is also providing some much needed offense from the back-end in the absence of Nick Lidstrom.
Central Divison Notes
Chicago Blackhawks – In another feisty affair with the Vancouver Canucks, Andrew Shaw's overtime goal lifted Chicago to their fifth straight win. Marian Hossa had the Blackhawks other goal to extend his point-streak to seven games. Hossa also set a personal milestone against Columbus on Tuesday night when he recorded his 900th career point.
Columbus Blue Jackets – Off until Friday, the Blue Jackets will hope that the switch to an Eastern Conference opponent will bring them some better fortune. Columbus will play a team from the East for the first time since February 26 when they host the red-hot Carolina Hurricanes on Friday night.
Detroit Red Wings – Detroit was able to pick up a point but dropped their sixth straight decision in a 2-1 overtime loss to the East-leading New York Rangers last night. The point was an important one, though, as it allowed the club to move one point up on both Nashville and Chicago for fourth in the West.
Nashville Predators – The Predators could have Alexander Radulov in the lineup for tonight’s showdown against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The newly re-acquired Russian star was re-introduced to the media on Wednesday and GM David Poile said he will travel with the team to Pittsburgh. “If they put me on the ice, I’m ready to play, I’m ready,” Radulov told Josh Cooper of The Tennessean.
St. Louis Blues – The Blues allowed four goals in regulation for the first time in 13 games in a 4-3 loss in Anaheim last night. Jaden Schwartz opened the scoring to make it 2-for-2 in his first two NHL games but Jason Blake’s goal at 14:06 of the third period staked the Ducks to the victory. St. Louis will be back at it again tonight hoping to avoid a rare losing-streak when they take on the Los Angeles Kings.