Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Narrowing Down The Freshmen

This isn't going to be some story about college hockey, although it could be with the NCAA's Frozen Four getting ready for this weekend. Instead, there are a number of excellent rookies in the NHL as we speak, and it's time to highlight some of them here with the year-end awards approaching. I get no vote on who will win the Calder Trophy, so I won't speculate as to who I think should win. What I will do, however, is narrow it down to my favorite rookie from either conference, and see where my guess stands when the awards are being handed out.

I plan to throw out a bunch of names of rookies who I've been impressed with this season. I'll help you identify these rookies by linking pictures to their respective names, and I'll talk a little about why they may be considered for the Calder Trophy. There have definitely been some amazing rookie performances this season, so let's get right to it.

John Tavares - New York Islanders: Tavares came in with all the fanfare of being a dominant player, but he was joining a team that was extremely short on talent. However, Tavares has made lemonade out of lemons by scoring 22 goals and 49 points with the Islanders. Both totals put him second-place in those respective categories. Tavares looks to be a blue chipper for the foreseeable future, so there should be no doubt that he may garner some rookie-of-the-year votes. If GM Garth Snow can assemble a solid team around him, Tavares might be the best pure goal scorer to arrive on Long Island since Mike Bossy.

Tyler Myers - Buffalo Sabres: The American-born, Canadian-trained Myers is a tower of power on the Sabres' blueline. Standing 6'8" tall, Myers is currently leading all rookies in assists with 36, is third in points with 47, and is tied for the lead for rookies in plus/minus with a +15 rating. Rookie defencemen normally don't have this kind of impact, especially a kid trying to fill out a 6'8" frame. However, Myers leads his team in ice-time, proving how important he is to the Sabres, and how highly-regarded he is by head coach Lindy Ruff. Myers will definitely get votes for the Calder Trophy - the kid is a workhorse, and he is very good at what he does.

Tuukka Rask - Boston Bruins: Aside from the video last year with the AHL's Providence Bruins where Rask lost his mind after a shootout, it appears the former Leafs draft pick has ice in his veins. Rask leads all NHL rookie goaltenders in shutouts with five, and sits second amongst rookies with 20 wins. Perhaps most importantly, Rask leads the entire NHL in GAA at 1.99, and save percentage at .930. For a team that has struggled this season, Rask has stepped up. While it's tough to imagine a rookie knocking the reigning Vezina Trophy winner out of the starting position, it appears that Rask has done that in Boston. There's no doubt that Rask will garner some votes for his statistics alone, and he may be the reason the Boston Bruins make the playoffs this season.

Niclas Bergfors - Atlanta Thrashers: Rarely do you find a Calder candidate being traded mid-season, but the New Jersey Devils gave up this highly-promising rookie in exchange for Ilya Kovalchuk. Bergfors currently sits third in goals amongst rookies with 21, and sits fourth amongst rookies with 44 points. Bergfors has quietly been a bright spot for two teams despite neither of those teams getting a lot of mainstream press. The speedy Swede may be at a disadvantage because of his lack of attention playing in a non-traditional market, but there's no denying that the youngster has put up a solid rookie campaign.

Jonas Gustavsson - Toronto Maple Leafs: The "Monster" came in with a ton of hype, and found himself in the center of the hockey universe. It took a little time for Gustavsson to adjust to the NHL game after spending his previous season in the Swedish Elite League, but he has started to come around. Toronto isn't a very good team, so it made life a little tougher on the rookie netminder, but he has still the third-most wins amongst rookies with 16, has the fourth-best GAA amongst rookies at 2.82, and the fourth-best save percentage amongst rookies at .904. Not bad at all for a team that will miss the playoffs. While Gustavsson will benefit from playing in a major hockey market, it's hard to make a case for him as a better Calder candidate than Tuukka Rask as Rask's numbers as simply superior. However, he may get a few votes just because of where he plays.

Matt Duchene - Colorado Avalanche: It was expected that Duchene would make the Avalanche out of training camp, but no one expected him to have the season he is having. Duchene leads all NHL rookies in goals with 23 and points with 54, and has been a driving force behind Colorado's success this season. He's sitting second amongst rookies in assists with 31 as well. It was expected that Colorado would miss the playoffs, but Duchene's rookie campaign appears to be leading the Avalanche to a Stanley Cup Playoff berth. Duchene's numbers will make him one of the favorites for the Calder Trophy this year, and it's hard to argue with those stats.

Jimmy Howard - Detroit Red Wings: Howard, like Rask, supplanted the veteran starter when Howard took Chris Osgood's job early in the season. After spending five years with the AHL's Grand Rapids Griffins, he ran with his opportunity in the NHL. Howard leads NHL rookie goaltenders in wins with 34 - 14 more than second-place Tuukka Rask! Howard sits second amongst rookies in GAA, at 2.30, and save percentage, at .923. And, just for good measure, Howard ranks third in shutouts amongst rookies with two blankings this season. Perhaps more importantly, Howard has been the main reason for the Red Wings climbing out of ninth-place in the Western Conference standings to their current sixth-place ranking. And they have a shot to move into fifth-place before the season ends. If Howard isn't the Red Wings' MVP this season, I don't know who else should be. Jimmy Howard should be a major contender for the Calder Trophy.

Jamie Benn - Dallas Stars: Benn would be the Western Conference's darkhorse in the Calder Trophy race. Benn plays for a non-playoff team, yet has put up some very good numbers. He is tied with Niclas Bergfors in rookie goal-scoring with 21 goals, and sits fifth in rookie scoring with 39 points. What hurts Benn is the struggle that Dallas has faced this season. There's no denying that Benn's numbers are fairly good for a rookie on a team that struggled all season long, but he won't get many sympathy votes.

While it's tough to decide who will emerge as the favorite from either conference, my money is on Tyler Myers in the Eastern Conference and Jimmy Howard of the Western Conference.

Myers has been one of the key cogs in Buffalo's second-place standing in the East, and his stats are amongst the tops in every category. He has played veteran minutes, averaging 23:47 of ice-time per game, and logs the most shifts-per-game out of all the NHL rookies. Those factors should make him one of the favorites for the Calder Trophy.

Howard, as stated above, is certainly Detroit's MVP this season, and his play has been the entire reason that Detroit has gone from also-ran to one of the most dangerous teams in the playoffs. Howard, like Myers, has statistics that rank him at the top of every category, and those factors should make him a favorite as the best rookie in the NHL this season.

The third player who I think will be a finalist will be the leading scorer amongst rookies. Matt Duchene's leadership and scoring have turned the Colorado's "rebuilding" season into another playoff appearance. Statistically, he is the best rookie this season when it comes to scoring, and that, combined with Colorado's pre-season expectations, have to make him a finalist for the Calder Trophy as well.

The race for the Calder Trophy is almost done as the last week of the NHL season winds down. Who is your Calder winner? Maybe it's someone not on this list? Let me know in the comments who your Calder Trophy winner is!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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