Could next year’s group of rookies be better than last season’s crop?

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While the 2011-12 season’s group of rookies lacked a true superstar, there were plenty of difference-makers with less than 25 regular season games* under their belts.

Jeff Skinner captured many adolescent Carolinian hearts on his way to an All-Star appearance and the 2011 Calder Trophy win. Logan Couture was second among rookies with 56 points and rarely looked out of place among the bevy of talented forwards in San Jose. Michael Grabner went from waiver wire cast-off to a 34 goal season, Corey Crawford became the Chicago Blackhawks’ franchise goalie for at least the near future and Brad Marchand’s 2011 playoff run was the most impressive of any first-year player by at least a nose.

The funny thing about predicting a given season is that it’s often very difficult to see players like Skinner and Marchand coming – at least so soon. Unexpectedly strong rookies are one of the variables that can throw previews for a loop and make hockey forecasting almost as embarrassing as missing the next snowstorm. (Then again, isn’t that part of the fun, anyway?)

USA Today’s Kevin Allen brings up an interesting question: could the 2011-12 crop of rookies make a bigger impact on the NHL than last season’s group?

This season’s NHL rookie crop should be as strong as, or stronger than, last season’s crop. The top four picks from the June draft — Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (Edmonton Oilers), Gabriel Landeskog (Colorado Avalanche), Jonathan Huberdeau (Florida Panthers) and Adam Larsson (New Jersey Devils) — should all have a chance to start with their NHL teams, although Huberdeau hasn’t signed a contract yet.

There probably will be other 2011 draft picks who could get a look. Remember, Carolina Hurricanes center Jeff Skinner, the 2010-11 rookie of the year, was the seventh pick in the 2010 draft.

The Nashville Predators could have three strong Calder Trophy candidates in defenseman Jonathan Blum, and forwards Blake Geoffrion and Craig Smith. To be eligible for Calder consideration, players can’t have more than 25 NHL games on their résumé. Blum played 23 last season and Geoffrion played 20.

Allen also points out 2011 Hockey Baker Award winner Andy Miele (Phoenix Coyotes) and diminutive Calgary Flames draft pick Paul Byron as two possible dark horse candidates to make Marchand-like surprise impacts next season.

It’s risky to make any bold proclamations before training camp even begins, but it might help to take a look at how much of an impact last season’s rookies really made. Here’s a quick look at the 2010-11 rookie leaders in scoring, time on ice and some relevant goalie categories.

Top 5 point producers

1. Skinner (63)
2. Couture (56)
3. Grabner (52)
4. Tyler Ennis (49)
5. Derek Stepan (45)

Top 5 goal scorers

1. Grabner (34)
2. Couture (32)
3. Skinner (31)
4. Taylor Hall (22)
5 (tied). Stepan and Marchand (21)

Top 5 time on ice per game – defense (50 games played minimum)

1. John Carlson – 22:38 minutes per game
2. P.K. Subban – 22:16 mpg
3. Cam Fowler – 22:07 mpg
4. Travis Hamonic – 21:34 mpg
5. Kevin Shattenkirk – 19:50 mpg

Top 5 time on ice per game – forwards (50 games played minimum)

1. Hall – 18:12 mpg
2. Couture – 17:49 mpg
3. Jordan Eberle – 17:40 mpg
4. Skinner – 16:43 mpg
5. Stepan – 16:26 mpg

Top 5 rookie goalies at a glance

Crawford: 33-18-6; .917 save percentage; 2.30 GAA
Sergei Bobrovsky: 28-13-8; .915 save pct.; 2.59 GAA
Michal Neuvirth: 27-12-4; .914 save pct.; 2.45 GAA
James Reimer: 20-10-5; .921 save pct.; 2.60 GAA
Cory Schneider: 16-4-2; .929 save pct.; 2.23 GAA

***

Looking at those stats, it’s going to be especially tough for the 11-12 rookies to top last year’s rookies in two of the three areas on the ice: defense and goaltending. There were a nice set of forwards – especially the Calder finalists – but blueliners such as Carlson and Subban along with goalies such as Neuvirth and Reimer made last year’s rookies more formidable than some might even remember. (Seriously, Carlson is a gem.)

So on August 21, my wild guess is to say that the 2010-11 group will end up being stronger – at least as far immediate impacts are concerned. Of course, if last season is any indication, a lot can change from now and even training camp until the beginning of the regular season.

Do you think the 2011-12 rookie group will be even more impressive than last season’s crop? Who stands out to you as an under-the-radar rookie who could sneak into the Calder race next season? Let us know in the comments.

* – 25 GP is the Calder Trophy cut-off point.

Trouble for Ducks: Lindholm and Vatanen need major shoulder surgeries, will miss months

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Not a great week for the Anaheim Ducks.

After being eliminated in Game 6 of the Western Conference final — the toughest loss of Ryan Kesler’s career, apparently — the Ducks broke more bad news on Friday as GM Bob Murray announced d-men Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen both require torn labrum surgery, and will be out an awfully long time.

The timeline on Lindholm is 4-5 months, while Vatanen’s recovery will extend beyond that because his injury was more serious.

Looking at the calendar, four months would run Lindholm up to the end of September, meaning he’d miss a good chunk of the preseason. If it’s five months, he could miss the first three weeks of the regular season.

Murray didn’t even put a timetable on Vatanen, only saying it would be longer.

This adds to what was already going to be a pretty stressful summer in Anaheim. As we wrote earlier, Murray has some big decisions on his hands.

Vatanen and Lindholm are huge parts of the team. Both averaged over 21 minutes per night this season, and both broke the 20-point plateau. They’re also locked in long term — Lindholm at $5.2 million annually through 2022, Vatanen at $4.8M through 2020.

If the Ducks decide to protect seven forwards and three defensemen for the expansion draft, the defense will definitely be worth watching. Lindholm will be protected for sure, and Shea Theodore and Brandon Montour are each exempt. But that only leaves two spots for Vatanen, Kevin Bieksa, Cam Fowler, and Josh Manson.

Bieksa, 35, has a no-movement clause, so unless the Ducks find a way to get around that, they’ll need to protect him. (Chances are, they’ll seek a way around it, either via trade or buyout or just convincing him to waive.)

Fowler, meanwhile, only has one year left on his contract before he can become an unrestricted free agent. There are already reports that extension negotiations are going well but, after the season he just had, with 39 points in 80 games, the 25-year-old won’t be cheap to re-sign.

Yes, there is the option to protect four defensemen and four forwards. But Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Ryan Kesler all have NMCs, and the Ducks won’t want to expose Rickard Rakell or Jakob Silfverberg.

Add it all up, and the Ducks will certainly be worth watching this offseason.

In a surprise, Blues name Steve Ott assistant coach

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Pretty wild last few days for St. Louis on the coaching front.

After gutting Mike Yeo’s staff of four assistants, then hiring hiring Darryl Sydor, the Blues went totally off the grid on Friday by announcing longtime NHLer Steve Ott would become Yeo’s new assistant.

“Steve was a competitor on the ice as a player and I expect him to bring that energy in this role,” Yeo said in a release. “He was highly respected as a player and a person among his teammates and I believe he will be a huge asset to our staff.”

The decision caught many off guard given Ott, 34, has no prior coaching experience and was playing as recently as last month, suiting up for Montreal in its opening-round playoff loss to the Rangers.

Ott is familiar with the Blues organization, having played there for three seasons.

“I am very proud of my playing career and will devote the same work ethic to my coaching career,” said Ott. “The Blues organization is very special to me and my family and I’m excited to take the next step in my hockey career with this franchise.”

Blues GM Doug Armstrong signed Ott to a three-year deal. It’s fitting that Armstrong was the one to engineer this move, as he’s been behind unorthodox coaching moves in the past. Last summer, he defied convention by hiring Yeo as Ken Hitchcock’s assistant, with the understanding that Yeo would inherit the head man position next season.

It didn’t go exactly to plan. Armstrong fired Hitchcock in February, accelerating Yeo’s ascension.

Kesler calls Game 6 loss to Nashville the ‘toughest’ of his career

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Ryan Kesler has lost some big games in his career.

He was on the United States team that lost to Canada in the gold-medal game of the 2010 Winter Olympics.

He was on the Vancouver Canucks team that lost to the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final.

But apparently neither of those losses were as bad as the one his Anaheim Ducks experienced on Monday.

“This was the toughest loss of my career,” Kesler said of losing Game 6 of the Western Conference Final to Nashville. “This stings. It still stings. We left everything out there.”

Kesler had a particularly tough game, finishing minus-4 in the 6-3 loss. In the series, he only had one assist, failing to score on any of his 19 shots.

At 32 years old, Kesler is running out of time to win his first Stanley Cup.

And perhaps that’s why this latest loss was especially tough for him. The Ducks had a great chance to eliminate the Predators once Ryan Johansen was lost for the series, and then they would’ve faced either Pittsburgh minus Kris Letang or the underdog Ottawa Senators.

That’s gonna sting every time.

Related: Johansen wishes he was there to shake Kesler’s hand after Predators won

Fisher returns to Preds practice, but still not cleared

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Given the injuries Nashville’s sustained at center this postseason, Mike Fisher‘s presence at today’s practice was a welcome sight — regardless of his availability for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.

“I feel pretty good,” Fisher told NHL.com after practicing for the first time since May 18. “I skated a few days here. Still not cleared, but it felt good to get out there with the guys.”

Fisher was knocked out of the Western Conference Final in Game 4, after taking a Josh Manson knee to the head. That, combined with the loss of Ryan Johansen to season-ending thigh surgery, whittled Nashville’s center depth down to Calle Jarnkrok, Colton Sissions, Vern Fiddler and Frederick Gaudreau.

Even though Fisher is pointless through 14 playoff games, his return would still be massive. In addition to serving as team captain, he was averaging just under 17 minutes per night prior to getting hurt, while winning 52 percent of his faceoffs.

He said his undisclosed injury feels “a lot better than it was a few days ago,” adding that his goal is to return for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday.

Fisher took minimal contact at today’s skate, and worked on a line with James Neal and Harry Zolnierczyk.