Making the Cut for the 2011-12 season

By Brad Gardner
Photo: 2011 second round draft pick Brandon Saad (CHI) is among the 61 rookies who start the 2011-12 season in the NHL. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

A new wave of rookies took the ice on opening night of the 2011-12 NHL season. There were a total of 61 rookies who made their club’s roster for the start of the regular season with 25 of the league’s 30 teams playing at least one rookie in their first game.

A majority of the available rookies opening night have experience at the pro level. Some players made big impacts down the stretch last season, such as Nashville’s Jonathon Blum and Chicago’s Ben Smith, and parlayed those impressive late-season performances and a strong training camp into an opening night roster spot. While Smith was forced to sit out due to a concussion suffered during the preseason, Blum is expected to play a significant role from the start in Nashville as he is penciled into the second defensive pairing.

At the other end of the spectrum are those rookies entering the NHL after taking the longer road through the minors. Evgeny Grachev was a top prospect for the Rangers for several seasons before joining the St. Louis organization. He will get a shot at top nine minutes with the Blues on opening night while B.J. Crombeen and David Perron remain out of the line-up due to injury. Likewise, Maksim Mayorov spent three seasons in the Columbus minor league system before finally getting penciled into a third line role for the Jackets this season.

Of the 61 total rookies, 13 of them are spending opening night in the NHL after playing last season in the CHL. Many of these former junior standouts were selected at last summer’s draft, as eight picks from the 2011 draft are expected to be with their parent club on opening night. While some of this summer’s recent draft picks were considered safe bets to see ice time in the NHL this year, such as Colorado’s Gabriel Landeskog and New Jersey’s Adam Larsson, others earned spots with strong showings in training camp and preseason games.

Top overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins proved himself in his first ever training camp and eased at least some of the worries about his transition to the bigger bodies in the NHL by continuing to find space in the offensive zone and produce on the score sheet. He is set to open the season on the Oiler’s top line, centering 2010 first overall pick Taylor Hall and Ales Hemsky.

Other top ten picks like Ottawa’s Mika Zibanejad, Winnipeg’s Mark Scheifele, and the Flyers’ Sean Couturier may not be earning top line minutes right away, but all three have the potential to be impact players down the line for the respective clubs. Perhaps none of these three were as surprising as Chicago’s 43rd overall pick Brandon Saad, who took advantage of an opportunity to play in five preseason games and earned himself a spot on Blackhawks’ top line opening night alongside Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp.

The remaining 2011 picks, the Islanders’ Ryan Strome and Carolina’s Ryan Murphy, have roles which are less defined entering the season. Strome is actually not expected to play in less there are injuries at forward on Long Island. Murphy is still behind another talented defensive prospect in Justin Faulk on the Hurricane’s depth chart, but he could still potentially see some game time while he’s with the NHL club. In addition to Murphy and Faulk, Carolina also has forward Zac Dalpe, who some have suggested could follow in teammate Jeff Skinner‘s footsteps towards the Calder Trophy this season.

With at least eight total picks from 2011 expected to skate on opening night, the league continues to see teams giving even their youngest prospects a taste of the NHL early in the season. That number is up from the 2010-11 opening night in which six picks from the 2010 draft premiered with their NHL teams. Four of those 2010 picks came from the top eight selections of the draft, including Taylor Hall, Tyler Seguin, Jeff Skinner, and Alexander Burmistrov. The remaining four picks from that top eight are expected to play big roles for their respective clubs in 2011-12, with Florida’s Erik Gudbranson, Columbus’ Ryan Johansen, and Tampa’s Brett Connolly all debuting on opening night. Only Nino Niederreiter, out with a groin injury, was not able to lace up his skates in the first game of the season.

Whether it was injuries to NHL players or offseason departures, two teams led the way with six rookies on the opening night roster. Injuries to Peter Regin, Matt Carkner, and Jesse Winchester forced Ottawa to fill their line-up with young players. Defensive prospects David Rundblad, Jared Cowen, and Patrick Wiercioch are all penciled into the line-up along with forwards Zibanejad, Stephane Da Costa, and Colin Greening. Though a few of the rookies will have to be sent down when the injured return, Ottawa should continue to carry a couple first-year players on their roster throughout the season.

Nashville tied the Senators with six rookies slated for opening night. For the Preds, it is also in part because of injuries to their defensive corps, namely rookie Roman Josi and veteran Francis Bouillon. Blum will be up full-time this year after an impressive finish in 2010-11, while Mattias Ekholm and Teemu Laakso will also eat up some minutes on the blue line. Former University of Wisconsin teammates Blake Geoffrion and Craig Smith are also expected to play prominent roles at forward. Anders Lindback rounds out the group as Pekka Rinne‘s back-up in goal.

Seven of the prospects played last season at the NCAA level. Toronto iced two of them in its opener with forward Matt Frattin and defenseman Jake Gardiner. One of the preseasons more buzz-worthy performances came from Bemidji State-grad Matt Read in Philadelphia. Craig Smith in Nashville and Cam Atkinson in Columbus could also step immediately into prominent roles on their teams.

Another seven rookies are transitioning to the NHL from European pro leagues. While Larsson and Rundblad may garner more attention, fellow blueliners Ekholm, Calgary’s Tim Erixon, and Montreal’s Raphael Diaz also made their NHL debut this year. The remaining two forwards, Zibanejad and Edmonton’s Anton Lander, both have a workmanlike reputation and bring excellent leadership ability to their developing teams.

Andrew Gordon, Maxime Macenauer, Devante Smith-Pelly

Boston: Matt Bartkowski, Jordan Caron

Buffalo: Jhonas Enroth, Marc-Andre Gragnani

Calgary: Roman Horak

Carolina: Zac Dalpe, Justin Faulk, Ryan Murphy

Chicago: Brandon Pirri, Brandon Saad, Ben Smith*

Gabriel Landeskog

Columbus: Cam Atkinson, Ryan Johansen, Maksim Mayorov, David Savard, Mark Dekanich*

Philip Larsen, Tomas Vincour, Scott Glennie*

Detroit: Cory Emmerton, Jan Mursak*

Edmonton: Anton Lander, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Fedun*

Florida: Erik Gudbranson, Jacob Markstrom

Los Angeles:

Minnesota: Brett Bulmer, Justin Falk, Nick Johnson, Marco Scandella

Raphael Diaz, Andreas Engqvist, Alexei Yemelin (scratch)

Jonathon Blum, Mattias Ekholm, Blake Geoffrion, Teemu Laakso, Anders Lindback, Craig Smith, Roman Josi*

New Jersey:
Adam Henrique, Adam Larsson

New York Islanders: Ryan Strome (scratch), Nino Niederreiter*

New York Rangers:
Stu Bickel, Tim Erixon

Jared Cowen, Stephane Da Costa, Colin Greening, David Rundblad, Patrick Wiercioch, Mika Zibanejad

Philadelphia: Sean Couturier, Matt Read, Zac Rinaldo, Brayden Schenn (assigned to AHL for cap reasons)

Phoenix: none

Pittsburgh: none

San Jose: Andrew Desjardins, Thomas Greiss, Tommy Wingels

St. Louis: Evgeny Grachev

Tampa Bay: Brett Connolly

Toronto: Matt Frattin, Jake Gardiner, Nazem Kadri*

Cody Hodgson, Dale Weise

Washington: none

Winnipeg: Brett MacLean (claimed on waivers from Phoenix), Mark Scheifele

* denotes rookies who missed the season-opener due to injury