Kreider heads Calder Poll for December

By Tony Piscotta

Chris Kreider - New York Rangers

Photo: New York Rangers forward Chris Kreider has regained his form from the 2012 playoffs after struggling through the 2012-13 season (courtesy of David Hahn/Icon SMI)

An injury to the San Jose SharksTomas Hertl, an early season favorite for the Calder Trophy, has widened the race for the NHL's top rookie prize, with New York Rangers forward Chris Kreider jumping into the top spot in the Hockey's Future Calder Poll for December.

Dallas Stars' 18-year-old Valeri Nichushkin is emerging as a  top contender, making his debut in our poll at the number two spot.

As they did a month ago, injuries once again shuffled the order of the top contenders this month. Hertl (knee injury) and Dan DeKeyser (separated shoulder) both missed significant time. Hertl, who slipped the to the eighth spot along with Florida's Aleksander Barkov, recently underwent surgery. DeKeyser, who dropped out of this month's poll, is back with the Detroit Red Wings and again logging big minutes.

An injury to Los Angeles Kings starting goaltender Jonathan Quick led to an opportunity for Manchester Monarchs goalie Martin Jones and the 23-year-old made the most of it. He debuts in this month's poll in the sixth spot but has since been returned to the AHL's Monarchs.  His Los Angeles and Manchester teammate Tyler Toffoli continues to be an offensive threat and moved up to the fourth spot this month after barely making November's poll.

19-year-old defenseman Hampus Lindholm, who skates for the Kings' cross-town rival, the Anaheim Ducks, made a big move this month, climbing from the ninth spot to the fourth spot while Boston's Torey Krug slides from third to tenth.

Nashville's Seth Jones saw his ice time reduced after scuffling a bit in December, and also slid out of the Top 10 completely. But the 19-year-old was once again seeing over 20 minutes a night to start January.

Chicago's Brandon Pirri, sixth last month, was returned to Rockford in the AHL.

Two players who were expected to skate for Finland in the recent World Junior Championship in Malmo, SwedenPittsburgh Penguins' defenseman Olli Maatta and Barkov — missed out on the opportunity to win a gold medal but have assumed key roles for their respective NHL clubs. Both enter this month's poll at seventh and eighth, respectively.

1. Chris Kreider, LW, New York Rangers
Drafted 19th overall (1st round) in 2009

Kreider was unlikely to keep up his 13 points in 15 games scoring pace from November but it is hard to imagine where the Rangers would be at this point without the former Boston College star.

Skating on the top line and on the New York power-play with Olympic selections Rick Nash (Canada) and Derek Stepan (USA), Kreider's speed and skill level have provided a much needed jolt for the Rangers.

In 14 games in December, Kreider scored four goals with two assists and was +2, averaging 16:34 minutes of ice time per game.

2. Valeri Nichushkin, RW, Dallas Stars
Drafted 10th overall (1st round) in 2013

Nichushkin has steadily seen more ice time for Dallas as the season has unfolded, with his offensive productivity matching that increase in playing time. Heading into January with 14 points over his last 17 games, the hulking 18-year-old is just scratching the surface of his potential.

Despite limited power-play opportunities (two of his nine goals have come on the man advantage), Nichushkin has scored nine goals with 13 assists and is +12 in 42 games. His point total ties Nichushkin for fifth in rookie scoring with teammate Alex Chiasson and two other players.

Nichushkin was the leading scorer amongst rookies in December, finishing with 5 goals and 7 assists in 15 games, and was +12 while averaging 15:24 minutes of ice time.

3. Nathan MacKinnon, RW/C, Colorado Avalanche
Drafted 1st overall (1st Round) in 2013

While former Halifax Mooseheads teammate Jonathan Drouin, selected two spots after his 2012-13 linemate at the 2013 NHL Draft, was preparing to play for Canada in the 2014 World Junior Championship, the 18-year-old MacKinnon continues to be among the scoring leaders for the surprising Avalanche.

Tied for second on his team in goals with Ryan O'Reilly, and two behind Colorado's leading scorer, Matt Duchene, the 18-year-old leads all rookies in points with 14 goals and 14 assists in 42 games.

MacKinnon scored five goals with three assists in 14 games in December and had an even plus/minus, averaging 17:23 minutes of ice time.

4. (tie) Hampus Lindholm, D, Anaheim Ducks
Drafted 6th overall (1st round) in 2012

Anaheim continues to challenge for the top spot in the Western Conference with Lindholm being a big part of the Ducks' success. For the season, he has averaged over 19 minutes of ice time per game and leads all rookie defensemen with a +22 rating.

Injuries to goalies Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth forced the Ducks to turn to rookie Frederik Andersen at one stretch but the team did not miss a beat. Lindholm has spent most of the season alongside veteran Francois Beauchemin on the top pairing for Anaheim.

In 12 games in December, he scored one goal with four assists and was +8, averaging 19:05 minutes of ice time.

4. (tie) Tyler Toffoli, RW, Los Angeles Kings
Drafted 47th overall (2nd round) in 2010

Toffoli looks set to stay in the Kings lineup for a while after another big month in December and moves up six spots after tying DeKeyser for the tenth spot last month. After twice breaking the 100-point mark in junior hockey, Toffoli was the third leading scorer for the AHL's Manchester Monarchs last season.

A bit of a streak scorer who seems to get his points in bunches — he recently went eight games without a point — the 21-year-old has been able to maintain his spot in the Kings' lineup with sound two-way play.

In 14 games in December, Toffoli scored five goals with three assists and was +9 while averaging 14:23 minutes of ice time.

6. Martin Jones, G, Los Angeles Kings
Signed as a free agent in September, 2008

Now in his fourth season of pro hockey, Jones was called up from the Kings' AHL affiliate Manchester after a groin injury to starter Jonathan Quick and made his NHL debut on December 3rd against Anaheim. After a 3-2 overtime win over the Ducks, the 23-year-old won his next seven starts – beginning his career 8-0 before a loss to Dallas on December 23rd.

Jones' impressive run provided a spark to the Kings in the absence of Quick. With the 2012 playoff MVP back, Jones was re-assigned to the AHL's Monarchs on January 5th and one-time Maple Leaf Ben Scrivens will be the Kings' backup goaltender…for now.

Martin was 8-3 with three shutouts in 11 NHL games, making his last appearance in a loss to St. Louis on January 2nd. He posted a 1.41 goals-against and .950 save percentage for the Kings.

7. Olli Maatta, D, Pittsburgh Penguins
Drafted 22nd overall (1st round) in 2012

Injuries to veterans Kris Letang, Paul Martin and Rob Scuderi decimated the Penguins' defense corps but the 19-year-old from Finland stepped into a large role and was not fazed by the pressure. During one stretch he played more than 20 minutes in six of seven games.

While it's difficult for a defense-first defenseman to garner attention when it comes to postseason awards, Maatta's comfort level and ability to play in all situations at such a young age, much like Lindholm, has at least inserted him into the Calder conversation.

With Pittsburgh starting to get some of its veterans back expect his role to decrease, but Maatta has impressed in the first half of the season.

In 13 games during December, Maatta scored two goals with five assists and was an even plus/minus while averaging 21:11 minutes of ice time, including 28:06 minutes in the Penguins shootout win over the Rangers on December 19th.

8. (tie) Aleksander Barkov, C, Florida Panthers
Drafted 2nd overall (1st round) in 2013

Like Maatta, Barkov skated for Finland in the 2013 World Junior Championship and was eligible for this year's competition but is instead competing in the NHL. Along with fellow rookie Nick Bjugstad, he has played a key role in the mid-season resurgence of the Panthers.

Making the jump directly from Finland's Liiga, he made his NHL debut as an 18-year-old and had the adjustment period expected of most young players. After the Panthers' coaching change earlier in the season, Barkov has seen added ice time under new coach Peter Horachek and has responded positively to the increased role.

Currently leading the offensively-challenged Panthers in scoring with seven goals and 15 assists in 43 games, Barkov has points in eight of his last nine games. Earlier in the year he had one goal and two assists in a 20-game span between October 25th and December 8th.

For the month of December he scored three goals with six assists in 14 games and was +4, averaging 16:44 of ice time.

8. (tie) Tomas Hertl, C, San Jose Sharks
Drafted 17th overall (1st round) in 2012

The clear leader in the Calder Trophy race for the first three months of the season, Hertl suffered what may be a season-ending knee injury after a knee-to-knee collision with Los Angeles Kings' forward Dustin Brown in a game on December 20th.

The first rookie to score 15 goals this year, the 20-year-old Hertl was being talked about for a spot on the Czech Republic Olympic team prior to his injury. It was originally thought that he would miss up to a month but after undergoing surgery his recovery is expected to be much longer.

Prior to his injury, Hertl's frenetic scoring pace had slowed a bit, though he did score the game-winner in the Sharks' 3-1 win over Minnesota on December 13th. In nine games in December, he scored two goals with two assists and was +1 while averaging 14:39 minutes of ice time.

10. Tyler Johnson, C, Tampa Bay Lightning
Signed as a free agent in March, 2011

The Tampa Bay Lightning continue to be this year's version of the 2012-13 Ottawa Senators, with as many as eight rookies in the lineup each night. But the key to Tampa Bay's success to this point has been the play of the diminutive Johnson.

The 23-year-old native of Spokane, WA continues to play top-end minutes with Tampa Bay and has been a big part of the Lightning's success so far, particularly with leading scorer Steven Stamkos out due to injury.

In 13 games in December, Johnson scored four goals with four assists and was +6 while averaging 19:59 minutes of ice time (over two minutes more than he averaged in November).

Others receiving votes (in order of points):  Torey Krug, D, Boston; Mark Scheifele, C, Winnipeg; Jacob Trouba, D, Winnipeg; Eric Gelinas, D, New Jersey; Radko Gudas, D, Tampa Bay; Connor Murphy, D, Phoenix; Zemgus Girgensons, C, Buffalo; Alex Chiasson, RW, Dallas; Ondrej Palat, LW, Tampa Bay; Ryan Spooner, C, Boston.

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