Blues’ Tarasenko tops HF’s January Calder Poll

By Tony Piscotta

Vladimir Tarasenko - St. Louis Blues

Photo: St. Louis Blues winger Vladimir Tarasenko got off to an impressive start in his NHL career, making him an easy choice as the NHL's top rookie for January (courtesy of Scott Kane/Icon SMI)

Due to the NHL lockout, January was an abbreviated month, with most teams playing just over half a dozen games. Nonetheless, the Hockey’s Future staff was polled to give their early thoughts on the front-runners for the league's Calder Trophy, which recognizes the NHL's top rookie.

The mid-season start allowed some of the top junior players to jump directly from the CHL to the NHL. However,  the top three rookies at the start of the year are "older" players – all in their twenties – with experience at either the AHL, NCAA or in the case of our top rookie so far, St. Louis Blues forward Vladmir Tarasenko, in Russia's KHL.

1. Vladimir Tarasenko, RW, St. Louis Blues
Drafted 16th overall (1st round) in 2010

Rumored to be headed to the NHL last year, and viewed by one player personnel director of a rival club as the top forward outside the NHL, Tarasenko was scoring at a point-per-game pace for KHL club SKA St. Petersburg (14 goals, 17 assists in 31 games) prior to the NHL lockout's end.

Tarasenko made his NHL debut with a bang. After scoring two goals in the Blues opening 6-0 win against Detroit, he had a goal and two assists two nights later in a 4-3 shootout win in Nashville.

In seven January games for the Blues, Tarasenko scored five goals with four assists and was a +6 while averaging over 15 minutes of ice time.

2. Justin Schultz, D, Edmonton Oilers
Drafted 43rd overall (2nd round) in 2008 by Anaheim/Signed as Free Agent, July 2012

Though drafted by the Anaheim Ducks, Schultz became an unrestricted free agent and was highly sought after following his junior year at the University of Wisconsin before signing with the Oilers last summer. The 22-year-old spent the first half of this season with the Oilers' AHL affiliate in Oklahoma City, where he was the Barons second-leading scorer behind forward Jordan Eberle, scoring 18 goals and adding 30 assists in 34 games.

After a scoreless opening night game against Vancouver, Schultz had points in three straight games. More impressively, he has averaged over 20 minutes per game and played nearly 27 minutes in the Oilers' 2-1 overtime victory against the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings on January 24th.

In seven January games, Schultz scored two goals with three assists and was a +2 while averaging 22:46 minutes of ice time.

3. Cory Conacher, C/LW, Tampa Bay Lightning
Signed as a free agent, March 2012

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the early season, the small (5'8”, 180 lbs.) but speedy forward has burst onto the scene for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Signed to an AHL contract by Lightning affiliate Norfolk in 2011-12 following his college career at Canisius College, Conacher led the AHL in scoring a year ago and was signed to a free agent contract by Tampa Bay in March, 2012.

Conacher continued his scoring ways with new Lightning AHL affiliate Syracuse this season, scoring 12 goals with 16 assists in 36 games while also producing 56 penalty minutes before joining Tampa Bay at the end of the lockout.

After scoring a goal and adding an assist on opening night against Washington, Conacher had points in five of six January games for the Lightning, finishing the month with a +5 rating to go along with three goals and six assists.

4. Dougie Hamilton, D, Boston Bruins
Drafted 9th overall (1st round) in 2011

One of several junior players to make their debut following the lockout, Hamilton quickly established his presence on the Bruins' defense corps. The top defensemen in the CHL last season while playing for Niagara in the Ontario Hockey League, Hamilton was dominant for the IceDogs this season and also skated for fourth-place Canada at the 2013 U-20 World Junior Championship prior to the lockout ending.

After seeing limited ice time in the season opener, Hamilton skated a season-high 23:27 minutes against Winnipeg and has been a steady presence on the Bruins' back line. Perhaps the highlight of his season so far was an assist on David Krejci's game-winning goal against Carolina. Faking a shot from the point, Hamilton found a wide open Krejci with a pin point pass.

Hamilton skated in seven games for the Bruins in January, averaging 18:51 minutes of ice time and was -2 with four assists.

5. Alex Galchenyuk, C/LW, Montreal Canadians
Drafted 3rd overall (1st round) in 2012

One of the heroes for the gold medal-winning USA squad at the 2013 U-20 WJC, Galchenyuk was off to a torrid start for Sarnia in the OHL this season after missing almost the entire year in 2011-12. Born in Milwaukee, Galchenyuk grew up in the Dynamo Moscow youth program before returning to North America as a teenager.

While his ice time has been limited in the early going for Montreal, the Habs have been impressed and committed to keeping him for the entire season rather than returning Galchenyuk to Sarnia.

One of two impressive rookies for Montreal along with 20-year-old Brendan Gallagher, he skated in six games in January; scoring one goal with four assists and was +3 while averaging 12:24 minutes of ice time.

6. Jonathan Huberdeau, LW/RW, Florida Panthers
Drafted 2nd overall (1st round) in 2011

A teammate of Hamilton's on Canada's U-20 squad, Huberdeau was the leading scorer for the QMJHL's Saint John Sea Dogs with 48 points in 30 games before heading to the Panthers' training camp. Originally on a line with 39-year-old veteran Alexei Kovalev to start the season, Huberdeau has been playing the wing instead of his traditional center position on a line with Peter Mueller and fellow Panthers' rookie Drew Shore.

After an impressive opening night game in which he had a goal and two assists against Carolina, Huberdeau did not register a point in his next five games before scoring a goal on January 31st against Winnipeg. Despite the mini-drought, the Panthers committed to keeping him for the rest of the season rather than sending Huberdeau back to juniors.

Overall, in seven January games he was +1 with two goals and two assists while averaging 15:33 minutes of ice time.

7. Mikael Granlund, C, Minnesota Wild
Drafted 9th overall (1st round) in 2010

One of the top scorers in Finland's SM-Liiga playing for HIFK last season, Granlund signed a three-year contract with the Wild in May, 2012 and was skating with Minnesota AHL affiliate Houston during the lockout. He had 21 points in 21 games for the Aeros while missing 12 games with an ankle injury.

Granlund scored a goal for the Wild on opening night and was also very effective in winning face-offs in Minnesota's first three games. On the downside, his defensive play has been suspect and he has struggled to put up points since that initial goal. With Charlie Coyle recently recalled and Mike Rupp acquired from New Jersey, Granlund's roster spot could be in jeopardy.

In seven January games he scored one goal with two assists and was an even +/- while averaging 15:13 minutes of ice time.

8. Nail Yakupov, RW, Edmonton Oilers
Drafted 1st overall (1st round) in 2012

The top player taken in the 2012 NHL Draft, Yakupov returned to Russia to play for Nizhnekamsk in the KHL during the lockout and also captained Russia's bronze medal-winning team in the U-20 WJC. He joined the Oilers following the lockout and has fit right in with the other high profile young forwards currently skating for Edmonton.

While his play has been overshadowed somewhat by Schultz' fast start, Yakupov has fit right in on the Oilers' second line with Ales Hemsky and center Sam Gagner and was riding a six-game point streak at the time this article was written. Two-way play is a concern (-6 rating), but Yakupov is still young and has mostly been known more for his offensive rather than defensive play.

Yakupov scored four goals with one assist in seven games in January while averaging just under 15 minutes of ice time.

9. Brendan Gallagher, RW, Montreal Canadians
Drafted 147th overall (5th round) in 2010

Another under-sized forward in the mold of Conacher (5'8”, 175 lbs.), Gallagher topped the 40-goal mark for three straight seasons with the WHL's Vancouver Giants before turning pro this season. He was the second-leading scorer for Habs' AHL affiliate Hamilton during the lockout, scoring 10 goals with 10 assists in 36 games before heading to training camp with Montreal.

Playing primarily on a line with the highly-skilled Galchenyuk and hard scrabble veteran forward Brandon Prust, he has provided both offense and two-way play for Montreal.

A healthy scratch on opening night, Gallagher scored two goals with two assists and was +4 in five games in January while averaging 11:41 minutes of ice time.

10 (tie).  Brendan Smith, D, Detroit Red Wings
Drafted 27th overall (1st round) in 2007

Now in his third pro season after leaving the University of Wisconsin following his junior year, Smith appeared in 14 games for Detroit in 2011-12 but figured to see key minutes for the Red Wings this year after the retirement of veteran Niklas Lindstrom. He was with AHL affiliate Grand Rapids during the lockout; scoring five goals with 15 assists and finishing +9 with 49 penalty minutes in 32 games.

Playing alongside Kyle Quincey with the Red Wings, Smith was averaging over 18 minutes of ice time before suffering a shoulder injury in a February 2nd game against Columbus. That injury could keep him out for up to four weeks.

In six January games he was +3 with one assist.

10 (tie).  Matt Irwin, D, San Jose Sharks
Re-signed as restricted free agent, June 2012.

Originally signed by the Sharks following his sophomore season at Massachusetts-Amherst, Irwin spent two seasons in the AHL with Worcester before making his NHL debut this year. Skating for Worcester during the NHL lockout, he had one goal with 13 assists and was +1 in 29 games.

The Sharks have been one of the league's hottest teams to start the year but the coaching staff continues to experiment with their defense pairings. Irwin (who turned 25 in November, making him the oldest prospect in our poll) has played with Dan Boyle, Justin Braun and Douglas Murray at different times.

While not yet putting up the offensive numbers that he did in the AHL, Irwin averaged 19 minutes of ice time and was an even +/- with one goal and one assist in seven January games.

Honorable Mentions: Brenden Dillon (DAL), Jonas Brodin (MIN), Marcus Foligno (BUF), Simon Despres (PIT).