In search of Calder

By Jake Dole
Already it is clear that there will be no shortage of young talent in the NHL next year, which could make for a spectacular Calder race. Although it is somewhat early, it is elementary to note that the race will be wide open, with prospects participating from all over the world, all with the potential of taking the trophy home.

However, the big picture is not the winner of the trophy itself, but rather the impressions left by the competing first-year players. Although winning the Calder is a spectacular way to start off a career, many would agree that oftentimes the winner is not always the best player in the long run. Although Calder winners were predicted by a handful of experts for years, lately the results have been somewhat surprising. Chris Drury, Scott Gomez and Evgeni Nabokov in the eyes of many, unexpectedly crept into the mix and ultimately won the Calder. This year could be no exception. That is why I’ve decided to comprise a list of 15 prospects who I think will make the most noise next year.

With the highly touted names such as Brendl, Heatley, Kovalchuk, Klesla and Noronen, it wasn’t at all complicated to compile the names, however, it was the most difficult to leave a few off. Hence, in no particular order:

1. Dany Heatley. LW. Birth: 1981-01-21; 6’1, 206. Atlanta Thrashers.

Playing in Wisconsin of the WCHA, Heatley did not disappoint. Blessed with an explosive shot, excellent puck-handling skills and a good head on his shoulders, Dany could make a major offensive contribution to the Thrashers next season. With an exceptional release, Dany seems to be destined to be a consistent scorer in the NHL; add his competitive fury to that, and you have a future star in the making. With the Thrashers lack of depth at forward, I believe that Heatley will crack the opening day lineup as a top-2 liner. He will need a decent training camp to do so, which he is perfectly capable of. However, don’t expect more than 40 points from him yet, after all, Atlanta is still a defense-first system.

2. Alexei Semenov. D. Birth: 1981-04-10. 6’6, 210. Edmonton Oilers.

Although it’s unlikely that he could duplicate his OHL dominance in the NHL next year, this is a name worth mentioning. Along with his imposing size, Semenov offers above-average offensive skills. Last year, in Sudbury of the OHL, Alexei took charge as he delivered offensively at a point-a-game pace and added sufficient grit and intensity to the lineup. As a reward for his contributions, Semenov was named OHL’s top defenseman. Although a year in the AHL wouldn’t hurt, I think that he will make the team, and contribute mainly defensively to the Edmonton Oilers.

3. Mika Noronen. G. Birth: 1974-06-17. 6’1, 206. Buffalo Sabres.

The trade of Dominik Hasek to the Detroit Red Wings, has increased his value by a wide margin. Coming off a dominant year in the AHL, Noronen is clearly more than ready to perform at the NHL level. As of now, it looks like he will back up Martin Biron, Buffalo’s other young netminder. In spite of that, don’t be surprised if Mika has the starting job by Christmas. However, with his NHL experience, Martin Biron does have the advantage. Like Evgeni Nabokov, Noronen’s stock could have a significant rise this season. Nonetheless, keep in mind that Mika is only 22 and might not yet have enough experience to tend goal for a cup contender.

4. Pavel Brendl. RW. Birth: 1981-03-23. 6’1, 197. New York Rangers.

With his ability, Pavel can be as good as he truly wants. Pavel is a sniper; being mainly a goalscorer he is known for paying little attention to his defensive responsibilities. In addition, Brendl has earned a reputation for showing up out of shape and having less-than-acceptable work ethic. Despite these negative factors, I will not deny that he’s made exceptional strides this season. Pavel put on some weight (muscle, of course), gained strength and his two-way game improved dramatically. Brendl was predicted by many to win the Calder last year, but a poor training camp resulted in a ticket back to the WHL. Assuming that he shows up in good shape, expect Brendl to produce admirably; he is capable of 20-30 goals next year.

5. Krisian Huselius. LW. Birth: 1978-11-10. 6’1, 183. Florida Panthers.

With all the raves that he’s received last year, you can’t stop but wonder: Where has he been all this time? Before the start of last season, Kristian was known for being an excellent stickhandler; however, many didn’t seem to know about his ability to amass points. In 2000-2001, Kristian proved to be the most exciting player in the SEL, as he led in the nearly every offensive category. It seems a bit unfair that after all that, he lost out on the MVP honours to Mikael Renberg, who might have brought a bit more to Swedish hockey than what was on paper. Kristian has been called soft by some NHL forecasters, but there is no denying his talent. Whether or not he’s presumed to be tough enough, Huselius is one of the toughest players to knock off the puck. At training camp, he will try to prove his critics wrong. I do predict that he will make the team and play on the top two lines. Who knows, he might even develop into an ideal set-up man for Pavel Bure…

6. Kris Beech. C. Birth: 1981-02-05. 6’2, 178. Pittsburgh Penguins.

I know that many are tired of hearing it, but Beech was the key player going Pittsburgh’s way in return for the disgruntled superstar Jaromir Jagr. With his two-way ability, the young center could make himself a spot in the Pens lineup. However, it is vital to point out that Lemieux, Hrdina, Lang and Kraft are all natural centres. Hrdina and Kraft have seen playing time on the wing, but it is clear right now that Beech does have a lot of work ahead of him at training camp. Nonetheless, with his hard-nosed style, Beech could fit perfectly in the NHL very quickly. Don’t expect a lot of production yet, but it is safe to say that the Penguins will not be disappointed with this young man.

7. Vaclav Nedorost. C. Birth: 1982-03-16. 6’1, 178. Colorado Avalanche.

The skilled playmaker will get a chance at making the team at camp. However, as a center, he will have Sakic, Forsberg and Drury in front of him. After bulking up in the offseason, and adding a physical dimension to his game, the Avalanche shouldn’t have a problem finding a spot for him in the lineup. In addition to being a playmaker, Vaclav is an outstanding skater and a hard worker. He has signed a contract with the Colorado organization and will play in North America next year.

8. Jeff Jillson. D. Birth: 1980-7-24. 6’3, 220. San Jose Sharks.

Jeff, already, has an NHL frame. His game, both offensively and defensively, has evolved. San Jose has decent blueline depth as of now, but with the aging Gary Suter, Jillson could be a perfect compliment to the Sharks’ lineup. A big, strong blueliner; he uses his size and toughness to take control defensively. Jillson could be the 5th or 6th man on the San Jose blueline this year.

9. Rostislav Klesla. D. Birth: 1982-03-21. 6’2, 198. Columbus Blue Jackets.

Despite his age, Rostislav has as good a chance as any for the Calder honours next year. He played in a handful of games last year in the NHL and showcased excellent two-way ability. Those who have followed Klesla are aware of his maturity and hard work. He is an extremely intense competitor with a superb shot from the point. Although he could still gain some strength and weight, it seems like he could handle the daily rigours of NHL hockey.

10. Sergei Varlamov. C. Birth: 1978-7-21. 5’11, 195. St. Louis Blues.

The odds now seem somewhat against Sergei, now that he is on a team with tremendous depth. However, he is a name not to be ignored, although I’m sure that it is not known by everyone. Many experts are aware that Varlamov has all the tools to be at least a decent second-liner in the NHL. He scores highlight-reel goals, possesses a sneaky shot and skates flawlessly. Despite his many assets, Sergei has been known to be awful at practices and absent from his own zone at games. His one-sidedness was the main reason the Flames traded Sergei. However, don’t despair Varlamov fans: If Sergei does play up to his ability at camp and makes the roster, he just might prove all of his critics wrong. Although that is a long shot, keep this name in mind; after all, he might be a late bloomer.

11. Ilya Kovalchuk. LW. Birth: 1983-04-15. 6’2, 207. Atlanta Thrashers.

Although, it is looking more and more like Ilya will return to Russia, if he does attend camp, his chances of making the team are excellent. Despite some recent acquisitions, the Thrashers’ lineup is still full of holes. With Kovalchuk’s two-way dominance and experience playing against older men, he could make a lot of noise. Nonetheless, it seems like Ilya would be better served completing another year in Russia, playing in the Superleague, after compiling eye-popping stats in the High League.

12. Miikka Kiprusoff. G. Birth: 1976-10-20. 6’0, 178. San Jose Sharks.

Frankly, I doubt that I would ever add his name to the list, if not for his solid playoff performance. Last year, with the trade of “Mr. Scapegoat” Steve Shields, Miikka finally took hold of the opportunity to back up Calder trophy winner Evgeni Nabokov. Nabokov earlier made the all-star team and was the main cause for the trade of Shields to Anaheim, along with Jeff Friesen for superstar winger Teemu Selanne. Shield’s story says it all: One day you have the starting job, the next day, you don’t. It won’t be easy to steal Nabokov’s job, because more luck would be involved than pure ability. However, if Evgeni does get injured or struggles, the starting job could be up in the air. Miikka Kiprusoff is not a good bet, but he is a wildcard.

13. Jamie Lundmark. C. Birth: 1981-01-16. 6’0, 174. New York Rangers.

Is there one man in New York not disappointed in the Rangers’ off-season nonexistence? Sure; Jamie Lundmark is a perfect example. Although, very few changes have been made during the summer to improve the team, believe it or not, New York will be a changed team. The fans might finally see Jamie and Pavel don the Rangers jerseys. At the age of 20, Lundmark is one of the best prospects that Canada has to offer. Compared to Sakic and Yzerman, Jamie possesses an excellent shot and underrated skating ability. Expect a move to the wing, with Messier, Nedved and York dominating the middle.

14. Jason Chimera. C. Birth: 1979-05-02. 6’0, 180. Edmonton Oilers.

Another player with the potential to surprise. The Edmonton Oilers have stated that Chimera will get every shot at making the team at camp. During the year, Jason made major strides to improve the physical aspects of his game. After being called soft last year, Jason plays a more aggressive and intelligent style in his own zone. Offensively, Chimera is a great skater with a decent shot.

15. Raffi Torres. LW. Birth: 1981-10-08. 5’11, 207. New York Islanders.

As sure a bet as anyone on the list to make an NHL roster. With his grit, intensity and underrated offensive potential, Raffi could see playing time on all the 3 top lines. He should play on both the powerplay as well as shorthanded situations. Torres is known for being somewhat of a pest on the ice as well as a major board cruncher. Finished up his junior years with Brampton of the OHL last season.

If the readers would like to mention those who you think were left off the list unfairly, they are welcome to comment below.

My top 5 picks to challenge for the trophy are Rostislav Klesla, Kristian Huselius, Raffi Torres, Pavel Brendl and, last but not least, Jeff Jillson.