The rookies competing for the 2005-06 Calder Trophy include some of the most talented and NHL-ready candidates in years. Fans will benefit from the influx of young talent and the race for postseason hardware should be the most intriguing the league has ever seen.
The NHL lockout meant that players who were scheduled to enter the league in the 2004-05 season gained an additional year of seasoning in the minor or European leagues. At the same time, the implementation of a salary cap has given rookies a chance to contribute on clubs looking to cut salaries and fill their rosters with inexpensive talent.
Hockey’s Future offers its prediction on the race for the 2006 Calder Trophy, based on voting amongst a committee of staff members:
1. Alexander Ovechkin, LW
Washington Capitals, 6’1, 212
Born: 09/17/85 Drafted: 1st overall, 2004
Largely overshadowed by the hype surrounding Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin should have plenty of motivation to turn heads this year. The 20-year-old winger would have been a frontrunner for the Calder during the unplayed 2004-05 season and possesses incredible offensive skills. Ovechkin has already represented Russia in several international tournaments and he’s produced consistently for the past two seasons in the Russian elite league.
Ovechkin is an excellent skater with great acceleration and he’s very tough to knock off the puck. The big Russian uses his size effectively in the corners and sees the ice well, enabling him to find open teammates when opposing defenders try to key in on him. Ovechkin doesn’t back down from physical battles and has a strong shot that he can get off quickly.
Ovechkin is one of few true weapons on a dismal Washington Capitals squad. Surrounded by aging grinders and unproven youngsters, he should see time in all game situations and will be the go-to guy in the Capitals lineup. Although he won’t be complimented by a bevy of talented teammates, Ovechkin has the skill and composure to challenge for the league lead in scoring and should contend for the rookie scoring title. He’s unquestionably the future of the Capitals franchise and possesses all the tools to become a perennial all-star in the National Hockey League.
2. Sidney Crosby, C
Pittsburgh Penguins, 5’11, 193
Born: 08/07/87 Drafted: 1st overall, 2005
Nobody has ever received the amount of fanfare or lofty expectations Sidney Crosby faces entering his rookie season. Any questions about Crosby’s immense talent were quickly dispatched witnessing 30 NHL general managers agonize during the summer’s NHL draft lottery proceedings. He’s expected to lead the Pittsburgh Penguins back to prominence, break scoring records, finish his career among the game’s all-time greats, and rekindle the popularity of the NHL in the United States.
Crosby is a sensational talent, and he’s already been compared to legends like Gretzky, Beliveau and Lemieux. It’s just hard to find any weaknesses in his game. Crosby is a very creative and intelligent playmaker, often handling the puck like a magician. Possessing the rare ability to score from anywhere on the ice, he’s equally skilled on the forehand or backhand. Crosby’s skating is exceptional, and teams were forced to triple-team him during last season’s Memorial Cup tournament in an attempt to slow him down.
Crosby is entering an ideal situation in Pittsburgh, surrounded by skilled veterans and the ultimate mentor in Mario Lemieux. Expected to line up alongside Mark Recchi and John LeClair, his skills are already world class and he’ll be one of the top draws in every building he enters this season. Crosby has displayed amazing maturity and composure dealing with the excessive media attention he’s received up to this point. His mental ability to adjust to the pressure and expectations of the NHL is the only question mark that remains.
3. Jeff Carter, C
Philadelphia Flyers, 6’3, 193
Born: 01/01/85Drafted: 11th overall, 2003
Jeff Carter has the offensive tools to make a huge impact this season for the Philadelphia Flyers. After four great seasons in the Ontario Hockey League, Carter showcased his incredible skills leading the Philadelphia Phantoms to an American Hockey League championship last year. The big center has plenty of international experience under his belt and appears primed to contend for the Calder Trophy this season.
Carter is a rare combination of size, speed and skill. Strong on faceoffs with excellent hand-eye coordination, he has the intangibles that make him a solid two-way player. Carter is creative in the offensive zone and has a strong work ethic that will contribute to his consistency at the NHL level. He also has a deceptive shot that he can get off quickly. A first round selection in 2003, Carter needs to add some strength and develop a physical edge to maximize his effectiveness at the center position.
Philadelphia is giving Carter every opportunity to succeed, and he’s currently slated to move to right wing and play on the first line alongside Peter Forsberg and Simon Gagne. With his all-around game and great intelligence Carter should cement his role on the Flyers top line and develop into a reliable contributor for years to come.
4. Kari Lehtonen, G
Atlanta Thrashers, 6’4, 205
Born: 11/16/83Drafted: 2nd overall, 2002
Lehtonen has been groomed for the starting job with the Atlanta Thrashers since his second overall selection in 2002 and he’s posted excellent numbers everywhere he’s played. Last season he lead the Chicago Wolves to the Calder Cup finals.
Lehtonen is very sound technically and his great size allows him to take up a lot of the net playing a butterfly style. Lehtonen has excellent quickness and he’s good at cutting down angles, leaving opposing forwards with very little net to shoot at. People rave about his composure, as it seems the bigger the game the better he performs. Lehtonen is never rattled by bad goals and seems to have the makeup of a reliable starting goaltender in the NHL.
Atlanta signed veteran Mike Dunham as insurance, but the starting job in Lehtonen’s to lose.
5. Thomas Vanek, W
Buffalo Sabres, 6’2, 207
Born: 01/19/84Drafted: 5th overall, 2003
Thomas Vanek is getting a lot of support as a dark horse for the Calder this season, and for good reason. After two great seasons with the University of Minnesota and an excellent campaign with the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League, Vanek will be a frequent contributor to scoresheets and highlight reels across North America this season. The 21-year-old winger is an incredible talent and he’s already established himself as the best player to ever come out of Austria.
Vanek is a natural goal scorer and makes the most of his solid frame to create scoring chances driving to the net. He has great hands and a long reach that enable him to corral rebounds in the slot. Vanek also has great offensive instincts and a rocket for a shot. His speed and excellent stickhandling skills make him a threat to score every time he steps on the ice.
After a strong showing in the preseason he’s expected to begin the year on the first line, playing with Chris Drury and J.P. Dumont. Vanek has the skills to develop into a superstar with the Sabres.
6. Dion Phaneuf, D
Calgary Flames, 6’2, 200
Born: 04/10/85Drafted: 9th overall, 2003
Dion Phaneuf has already developed a solid reputation for his bruising defensive coverage, excellent decision-making in his own end, and consistent offensive production. Phaneuf has been considered a can’t-miss prospect the past two seasons playing for the Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League and he finally has the opportunity to showcase his skills on the NHL stage this year. The 20-year-old defenseman is an exceptional all-around player and he’ll be a welcome addition to the Calgary Flames blue line this season.
Phaneuf employs a healthy mean streak that helped him intimidate opposing forwards in the WHL. He may not intimidate anyone at first, but he won’t back down from anyone. Phaneuf is a reliable defender and almost always makes the smart play in the defensive zone. He’s a dominant physical presence with a cannon from the point that he uses without hesitation.
Phaneuf has drawn many comparisons to Scott Stevens, something that has Flames fans salivating with anticipation for his NHL debut. Robyn Regehr will miss the first month of the season recovering from injury, so Phaneuf will be pressed into some big minutes for Calgary early on.
7. Ryan Getzlaf, C
Anaheim Mighty Ducks, 6’4, 210
Born: 05/10/85Drafted: 19th overall, 2003
After four years with the Calgary Hitmen of the WHL, Ryan Getzlaf is ready for primetime and he’s making the most of his opportunity with the Mighty Ducks. His development made veteran Steve Rucchin expendable during the offseason, prompting a trade to the New York Rangers. The towering center surprised more than a few people during the preseason, leading Anaheim in scoring and securing an NHL roster spot.
Getzlaf uses his great size to battle through traffic and create opportunities off the rush. He’s gritty enough to be effective in the corners and in front of the net. Getzlaf is very intelligent and often finds areas of the ice where he can get his great shot off without being blocked or tied up. He could get quicker, but he’s shown an impressive work ethic and developed his strength immensely since being drafted in 2003.
Taking up a spot on the second line, look for Getzlaf to employ a solid two-way game. He’ll continue to earn ice time as the season progresses.
8. Zach Parise, C
New Jersey Devils, 5’11, 185
Born: 07/28/84Drafted: 17th overall, 2003
Critics haven’t had much to say about Zach Parise since he was drafted 17th overall in 2003. He’s developed into a stellar prospect, leading the Americans at international tournaments and scoring consistently everywhere he’s played. The son of former NHLer J.P. Parise, the talented center is ready to take a huge step forward in his development and should see regular minutes this season with the New Jersey Devils.
Parise is equally adept as both a playmaker and scorer, thanks to his exceptional vision and anticipation. He’s blessed with excellent talent and he’s improved on it with a steady work ethic. Although slightly undersized, Parise is a great skater and very elusive carrying the puck into the offensive zone. With a nose for the net and a knack for reading and responding to the play, he could develop into an NHL all-star.
Parise fits in well with the New Jersey system because he’s capable offensively, but he’s also very reliable defensively. He’s part of the Devils long-term plans and should thrive this season in an organization tailor-made for his style of play.
9. Patrick O’Sullivan, C
Minnesota Wild, 6’0, 180
Born: 02/01/85Drafted: 56th overall, 2003
Patrick O’Sullivan put up big points from the moment he joined the Mississauga Ice Dogs of the Ontario Hockey League in 2001-02. He’s had to battle through adversity and setbacks throughout his career, slipping to the second round of the 2003 draft because of personal issues. However, his talent is unquestioned and he has developed into an intriguing and promising NHL prospect.
O’Sullivan is an exceptional goal scorer, with great accuracy and a quick release. He has also developed his playmaking skills to the point where opposing teams have to respect the shot and the pass equally. O’Sullivan is a natural leader and thrives under pressure. An excellent skater, he loves to stickhandle and can often create scoring chances from unlikely situations.
O’Sullivan was assigned to the Houston Aeros of the AHL after suffering a shoulder injury in the preseason. He should be the first in line for a call-up, and assuming that happens quickly, contend for the Calder.
10. Mikko Koivu, C
Minnesota Wild, 6’2, 205
Born: 03/12/83Drafted: 6th overall, 2001
Mikko Koivu should be ready to fill a regular NHL shift after a solid season with the Houston Aeros of the AHL last year. The younger brother of Montreal Canadiens center Saku Koivu has proven to be a reliable two-way center and he’ll be given every opportunity to succeed with the Minnesota Wild this season.
Koivu has excellent vision and displays the patience common among the game’s best playmakers. He’s a crafty passer and he’s always looking to put the puck on a teammates stick in scoring position. The big Finn looks to pass first because his scoring ability isn’t great. Once criticized for being a weak skater, he’s improved this area of his game dramatically and should fit in well with the speed wingers in the NHL. Koivu is a force in the faceoff circle, making him a valuable player where puck possession is increasingly important to a team’s success.
The Minnesota Wild expect big things from Koivu this season, and he should fill a spot on the third line. He could see additional ice time as he adjusts to the speed and physicality of the NHL. While Koivu is on the long, not on the shortlist of Calder contenders, he could factor into the voting if he can see some time on one of Minnesota’s scoring lines.
Other players to keep an eye on:
Mike Richards, C
Philadelphia Flyers, 6’0, 192
Born: 02/11/85Drafted: 24th overall, 2003
Mike Richards, like teammate Jeff Carter, stood out for the Philadelphia Phantoms during last season’s AHL championship playoff drive. He brings his experience as captain of Canada’s gold medal World Junior Championship team to the Philadelphia Flyers this season. Richards is a very intelligent center and brings a competitive fire to the rink every night. Tenacious on the forecheck, he often relies on hard work and tenacity to create scoring chances. Richards is sitting behind some considerable talent on the Flyers depth chart, but he should get the opportunity to contribute in limited time this season.
Marek Svatos, RW
Colorado Avalanche, 5’9, 187
Born: 06/17/82Drafted: 227th overall, 2001
The lowest drafted player on this list, Marek Svatos made a name for himself with a great performance for the Colorado Avalanche during the 2004 NHL playoffs. With the departures of Peter Forsberg, Chris Gratton, Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne, Svatos will find himself playing a top-six forward role with the Avalanche this season. A speedy winger with great creativity and a rocket for a shot, he should put up decent numbers playing alongside some talented players. Undersized, if Svatos can avoid injury he could surprise a lot of people and post some great numbers for Colorado.
Ryan Suter, D
Nashville Predators, 6’1, 195
Born: 01/21/85Drafted: 7th overall, 2003
After an excellent career at the University of Wisconsin and a solid AHL campaign last season, Ryan Suter should get a shot at regular NHL action with the Nashville Predators this year. An incredibly talented offensive defenseman, Suter will bolster the Predators blue line and he’s expected to develop into an all-star defenseman. Suter is a good skater, providing a rare combination of mobility and toughness. He’s drawn obvious comparisons to his uncle, legendary defenseman Gary Suter, and he’s cut from the some mold. If he gets regular power play minutes with the Predators he could make some noise in the Calder race.
Henrik Lundqvist, G
New York Rangers, 6’1, 192
Born: 03/02/82Drafted: 205th overall, 2000
Henrik Lundqvist is currently locked in a battle with Kevin Weekes for playing time with the New York Rangers. The 23-year-old Swede has posted exceptional numbers over the past three seasons in the Swedish elite league. Lundqvist is incredibly poised and he’s establishing himself as Sweden’s top netminder. A seventh round pick in the 2000 draft, he has amazingly quick reflexes, reads the play well, and rarely gets caught out of position. If Weekes falters at all, Lundqvist will provide the Rangers with reliable goaltending and could move into contention for the Calder.
Niklas Kronwall, D
Detroit Red Wings, 6’0, 192
Born: 01/12/81Drafted: 29th overall, 2000
Niklas Kronwall was in the running to win the Calder in 2003-04 before a broken leg took him out of the running. He was a strong contender for the Calder again entering the preseason after taking home defenseman of the year honors with Grand Rapids of the AHL last year. Unfortunately, Kronwall suffered a serious knee injury during a preseason game and he’ll miss the majority of the season. The 24-year-old defenseman has excellent offensive skills and hockey sense. If he can overcome the injuries woes that have plagued his career he could develop into a reliable offensive defenseman at the NHL level.
Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.