Hockey’s Future 2013 Calder Poll Preview

By Tony Piscotta

Vladimir Tarasenko - St. Louis Blues

Photo: St. Louis Blues rookie Vladimir Tarasenko, who is ranked second in HF's prospect rankings, is off to a fine start in his NHL career, making him a leading candidate for NHL Rookie of the Year (courtesy of Danny Murphy/Icon SMI)

With the end of the lockout and the abbreviated 48-game season, the opportunities for NHL rookies to make an impression is somewhat limited. Many of the top teams, such as the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, head into the season with their lineups virtually intact from the 2011-12 season.

Others — such as the Philadelphia Flyers and New Jersey Devils — are using injuries to top players as an opportunity to give their first round choices from the 2012 NHL Draft limited ice time to get a taste of the NHL before sending those players back to their CHL junior teams.

Realistically, there are a dozen or so rookies who can be considered legitimate Calder Trophy candidates.  Here is a division-by-division look at some of the front-runners.

PACIFIC DIVISION

The only "rookie" currently on the Kings roster is 23-year-old defenseman Jake Muzzin. Muzzin played 11 games with the Kings two years ago but spent the 2012-13 season in the AHL with Manchester. Should the Kings struggle offensively, as they did a year ago (the Stanley Cup winners were one of two teams to score less than 200 goals), they might recall 20-year-old forward Tyler Toffoli. Toffoli is in his first pro season with Manchester after topping the 100-point mark for the OHL's Ottawa 67's in 2010-11 and 2011-12.

Like the Kings, neither the Ducks, Sharks, Stars nor Coyotes appear to have top candidates for the Calder Trophy.

For Anaheim, forward Emerson Etem has 10 goals with one assist in 37 games for Norfolk but is still in the AHL. Finnish defenseman Sami Vatanen was leading Norfolk's defensemen with 21 points in 32 games but is still recovering from a foot injury suffered in a January 6th game with the Admirals.

One of a handful of rookie defensemen seeing regular action as the season starts, San Jose's Matt Irwin, a third-year pro, has fit in well with veteran Brent Burns out due to an injury. Dallas has a pair of first-year pros who played college hockey last season in Reilly Smith (Miami) and Alex Chiasson (Boston University). Smith is currently in a limited role for the Stars while Chiasson is still with the AHL's Texas Stars. Goalie Mark Visentin appears to be the top prospect for Phoenix's AHL affiliate, San Antonio, but veteran Mike Smith is the Coyotes' starter after an impressive playoff run last season.

NORTHWEST DIVISION

Last year's Calder Trophy race came down to two players from this division – eventual winner Gabriel Landeskog of the Colorado Avalanche and the Edmonton Oilers' Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. While Colorado defenseman Tyson Barrie is among the second tier of candidates this year, the Oilers have a pair of players that can be considered front-runners.

Justin Schultz, signed as a free agent by the Oilers following his junior year at Wisconsin last spring, had 48 points in 34 AHL games with Oklahoma City during the lockout and is being counted on to be a big part of the Oilers' defense corps. Nail Yakupov, the first player selected in the 2012 NHL Draft, is a 19-year-old who was the captain for Russia's bronze medal-winning team at the 2013 U-20 World Junior Championship. He played 22 games in the KHL during the lockout and should fit right in with Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and the other young Oilers forwards.

The free agent signings of Ryan Suter and Zach Parise received most of the attention in Minnesota in the off-season but the Wild also have some interesting youngsters. Finnish 20-year-old Mikael Granlund was signed to a three-year contract in May, 2012, and was scoring at a point-per-game pace for the AHL's Houston Aeros before suffering an ankle injury. Granlund has since returned to action to begin the NHL season with the Wild. A dominant player in Finland's SM-Liiga who has already gained experience with the Finnish national team, Granlund is expected to be an impact player for years to come.

In addition to Granlund, Aeros' forwards Jason Zucker, Charlie Coyle, and Zack Phillips were all scorers at either the junior or NCAA level and could put up Calder-like numbers if recalled. 18-year-old defenseman Matt Dumba is another high profile prospect who was with the Wild as the season opened, but he may return to the WHL's Red Deer Rebels.

Swiss forward Sven Baertschi had 94 points for Portland last year and was one of the top scorers in the WHL playoffs. The 20-year-old had 18 points in 21 games for Calgary affiliate Abbotsford during the lockout before suffering a neck injury, but he has returned to action to start the NHL season with Calgary. Baertschi is expected to be a big part of the Flames offensive attack in the future.

The only rookie on Vancouver's roster at this time is 28-year-old Steve Pinizzotto who is too old to qualify for the Calder Trophy. Niklas Jensen, the Canucks' first round pick in 2011, will remain in Sweden this season while 18-year-old Brendan Gaunce, the 2012 first round pick, is in his third season with the Belleville Bulls.

CENTRAL DIVISION

An early favorite for the Calder Trophy, 21-year-old Russian forward Vladimir Tarasenko had five points in the first two games of the season for the Blues. Tarasenko scored 14 goals with 17 assists in 31 games for St. Petersburg SKA prior to the lockout and his NHL arrival has been much-anticipated since he was selected by St. Louis with the 16th overall pick in the 2010 NHL Draft.

Chicago Blackhawks' 20-year-old Brandon Saad appeared in four NHL games last season following his final season with the OHL's Saginaw Spirit. He is more of a solid two-way forward than a true scorer. Center Brandon Pirri and defenseman Adam Clendening are currently still with Rockford in the AHL.

For Columbus, Nashville and Detroit, most of their prospects are still in the AHL.

Jonathan Audy-Marchessault, 21, was signed by the Blue Jackets as a free agent in July, and is the leading scorer for Columbus affiliate Springfield. Nashville's Jeremy Smith was one of the top goalies in the AHL for Milwaukee last year, but with Pekka Rinne entrenched for the Predators,' his turn may come elsewhere. And, while defensemen Brendan Smith and Brian Lashoff are getting an opportunity to play with the Red Wings following Niklas Lidstrom's retirement, neither are gifted offensive players. Grand Rapids' forwards Gustav Nyquist, Landon Ferraro, Tomas Tatar, and Joakim Andersson, however, are putting up nice numbers in the AHL.

NORTHEAST DIVISION

The Buffalo Sabres have two outstanding prospects in forwards Marcus Foligno and Mikhail Grigorenko. Foligno scored six goals with seven assists in a 14-game tryout at the end of last season but is still technically a rookie. Grigorenko, 18, had 50 points in 32 games for Quebec in the QMJHL during the lockout and was Russia's third-leading scorer at the 2013 U-20 World Junior Championship. Whether he stays with the Sabres after four games or returns to juniors remains to be seen.

23-year-old defenseman T.J. Brennan was the leading scorer for the AHL's Rochester Americans prior to the lockout with 14 goals and 21 assists in 36 games. Buffalo's crowded defense corps, headlined by Tyler Myers and Jordan Leopold, may limit Brennan's NHL minutes, however.

Boston defenseman Dougie Hamilton has had no trouble getting minutes as the season started and the Bruins may  be intent on keeping the 19-year-old with the club rather than sending him back to the OHL. In his fourth season with Niagara, Hamilton had 41 points in 32 games for the IceDogs and skated for Canada at the 2013 U-20 World Junior Championship.

Ottawa forward Jakob Silfverberg, the leading scorer for Swedish champion Brynas in the Elitserien playoffs in 2011-12, appeared in two playoff games during the Senators' series with the Rangers and could be considered another Calder Trophy favorite. With defenseman Jared Cowen out of the lineup due to hip surgery, rookies Patrick Wiercioch and Mark Borowiecki may get ice time but neither appear to be the type of offensive players generally considered for such an award.

Alex Galchenyuk, who had 61 points in 33 games for the OHL's Sarnia Sting and was one of the top scorers for the gold medal-winning USA team at the 2013 U-20 World Junior Championship, made Montreal's team coming out of training camp. The third player taken in the 2012 NHL Draft, he is a gifted offensive player but after playing just eight games due to injury in 2011-12, it will be interesting to see if the Canadians keep him or return him to the OHL.  Brendan Gallagher is an undersized scorer who is in his first year of pro hockey after topping the 40-goal mark three straight seasons in the WHL.

Like Vancouver's Pinizzotto, both of Toronto's rookies, defenseman Mike Kostka and Leo Komarov are too old to qualify for the Calder Trophy. Forward Carter Ashton is the only player with the AHL's Toronto Marlies who might get some consideration if he is promoted.

SOUTHEAST DIVISION

Few players were scrutinized more closely during the 2013 U-20 World Junior Championship than Florida Panthers' rookie Jonathan Huberdeau. A dominant player on a Saint John team that ran roughshod through the QMJHL in 2010-11 and 2012 (winning a Memorial Cup championship in 2011), Huberdeau played on Canada's top line with Ryan-Nugent Hopkins and Mark Scheifele, scoring three goals with six assists in six games. He had 45 points in 30 games with the Sea Dogs this year during the lockout. With the Panthers he is playing on a line with veteran Alexei Kovalev, and making a strong case to stay with Florida for the rest of the season.

20-year-old Evgeny Kuznetsov, identified as "the top player outside of the NHL" by one NHL player personnel director, recently played in the KHL All-Star Game but it does not appear that he will join the Washington Capitals anytime soon. Defenseman Tomas Kundratek is the only rookie currently on Washington's roster. Obtained in a trade from the Rangers last season, he played in five games a year ago, spending most of his first two pro seasons in the AHL.

Scheifele, who played in seven games for Winnipeg a year ago before heading back to the OHL's Barrie Colts, has seen limited ice time in the Jets' first two games this year and may once again be heading back to junior hockey. In addition to representing Canada at the WJC for the second time, he scored 22 goals with 27 assists in 30 games for Barrie during the lockout.

Tampa Bay's Cory Conacher, a graduate of Canisius College in Buffalo, received a two-year contract with the Lighting in March, 2012 after leading the AHL in scoring for Calder Cup champion Norfolk last season. Conacher scored 39 goals with 41 assists and had 114 penalty minutes in 75 games last year. Conacher began the year playing on a line with Vincent Lecavalier and Teddy Purcell and has four points in his first two games.

Forwards Jeremy Welsh and Riley Nash, both former college players who signed with the Hurricanes following their junior seasons, and defenseman Bob Sanguinetti are dark horse candidates. Welsh made his NHL debut last spring, appearing in one game with Carolina after skating for Union College in the Frozen Four. He scored six goals with seven assists for Charlotte in 39 AHL games during the lockout. Nash, who is in his second season with Charlotte, is the Checkers fourth-leading scorer with eight goals and 17 assists in 41 games. Sanguinetti, the Rangers' first round pick in 2006, is now in his fifth pro season. An offensively talented defenseman, he is coming off his best AHL season and in 36 games during the lockout had six goals with 15 assists for Charlotte.

ATLANTIC DIVISION

The New York Rangers' Chris Kreider had a record-setting year last season, winning his second NCAA championship in three years with Boston College and then scoring five goals with two assists in 18 playoff games (the most points ever for a player making his NHL debut in the playoffs without playing a regular season NHL game). The addition of Rick Nash to the Rangers' lineup and a healthy Marion Gaborik could allow his offensive talents to flourish but his two-way game (Kreider was minus-four in the playoffs) will be scrutinized in a full-time role.

After several years of having players like John Tavares, Nino Niederreiter, Josh Bailey, and Kyle Okposo making their debuts with the Islanders as teenagers, the Islanders' two youngest players on their opening day roster were 21-year-old's (Tavares and rookie forward Casey Cisikas). Cisikas appeared in 15 games last year and is one of two Islanders rookies (along with defenseman Brian Strait). Cisikas, a two-way forward, had 21 points in 21 games for the AHL's Bridgeport Sound Tigers during the lockout. Strait, claimed on waivers from Pittsburgh just before the season, played in 15 games for the Penguins over the past two years (including three games in Pittsburgh's playoff series with the Flyers last spring). Brock Nelson is the top forward prospect for Bridgeport. Ryan Strome, a 19-year-old who skated for Canada at the WJC and was with the Islanders during their training camp, was returned to Niagara in the OHL.

Pittsburgh returns a mostly veteran lineup with just two rookies and one player under the age of 22. Defensemen Simon Despres (21) and Roberto Bortuzzo (23) appeared in 18 and six games, respectively, last year for the Penguins. With veterans such as Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin and Kris Letang seeing top minutes, opportunities will be limited Despres and Bortuzzo.

Both the Devils and Flyers are giving their first round picks from the 2012 NHL Draft a chance to see some ice time before both are sent back to their junior teams.

With Adam Henrique out with an injury, 18-year-old Stefan Matteau made his NHL debut with the Devils after skating in 35 games for the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada during the lockout. Matteau spent two seasons with the U.S. National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, MI before heading to the QMJHL this season. Defenseman Alexander Urbom, who has appeared in 13 games for the Devils over the past two seasons while skating for the AHL's Albany Devils, once again finds himself next in line behind a veteran group in New Jersey. The 21-year-old has four assists and is plus-two in 32 games for Albany this season.

Scott Laughton, selected nine spots ahead of Matteau with the 20th pick in the draft, has also benefited from an injury to one of his team's top forwards, with Laughton skating in the third center spot normally occupied by Daniel Briere. In his third OHL season with the Oshawa Generals prior to the end of the lockout, Laughton scored 13 goals with 20 assists and was plus-three in 32 games.