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.

The Buzzer: His name is Joonas

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Choice PHT cuts

Shockingly, Radko Gudas is not on board with a 10-game suspension. Shocking.

Yahoo for Aho.

Johnny B. Very Good.

Blue Jackets are looking like contenders (again).

Players of the Night

  • Joonas Donskoi scored two goals for the Sharks and also found the net during the shootout. The Ducks still won as goaltending continues to shine for them (Reto Berra played the role of John Gibson tonight), but it was quite the game by Donskoi.

This is now his third two-point night of the season.

  • Also in the running: Mikael Granlund, who two goals and also grabbed a primary assist. He collected the last two goals of regulation, helping the Minnesota Wild secure a standings point. Like Donskoi, his work wasn’t quite enough, as the Devils won in overtime.

Highlight of the Night

Kevin Fiala has been on a tear since Kyle Turris arrived in Nashville. Sometimes Turris factors into that, sometimes it’s Fiala, who might be enlivened by the addition. This time around, P.K. Subban deserves a lot of credit for setting up what ended up being just a brilliant goal:

That goal is almost poetic.

Factoids of the Night

The Devils won thanks to this 3-on-3 OT goal from John Moore, which apparently is a fairly frequent occurrence.

We might as well go for a trifecta of specific-but-impressive defensemen facts:

Scores

Blue Jackets 3, Sabres 2
Coyotes 4, Maple Leafs 1
Flames 4, Capitals 1
Predators 5, Jets 3
Devils 4, Wild 3 (OT)
Ducks 3, Sharks 2 (SO)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Blue Jackets are trending up

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A couple of weeks ago, PHT’s Adam Gretz hit the nail on the head in stating that the Columbus Blue Jackets “are not going away.”

Still, for those of us who’ve been impressed by their play and their war chest of prime-age (and nearing the cusp) talent, it’s been a little frustrating to see Columbus stumble a bit here and there through the baby steps of becoming a contender.

While acknowledging the risk of being the blog that cried wolf on this situation, Monday once again presented evidence that the Blues Jackets might just find their stride.

Now, it wasn’t easy against a struggling Buffalo Sabres team on Monday night,* as the Blue Jackets barely protected a 3-2 lead, with this near-goal making people hold their breath:

The overall trend is way up, however, as the Blue Jackets are now on a four-game winning streak. A lot has gone right for Columbus during that span; Sergei Bobrovsky‘s been brilliant, they haven’t allowed a power-play goal, and Artemi Panarin did this on Monday.

Diverse weapons

Columbus can be a scary opponent because they can send waves of quality forwards at opponents, especially with Josh Anderson, Alexander Wennberg, and Oliver Bjorkstrand (also perhaps Pierre Luc-Dubois?) emerging as threats. That said, Panarin might rank as their most dangerous “gamebreaker,” so it’s promising to see him score a goalie-had-no-chance brand of goal like that.

Sure, it would have been nice to add even one extra push with, say, Matt Duchene … but there’s a lot to like here, nonetheless.

Actually, I probably should have specified that Panarin is arguably the team’s most dangerous gamebreaker among their forwards.

As Alison Lukan discussed for The Athletic (sub required), the Blue Jackets are allowing their superb defensemen Zach Werenski and Seth Jones to run while as “rovers,” and that’s scary news for opponents. Defensemen given the green light to be aggressive can sometimes be that much tougher to track, and Werenski and Jones have the tools to mix attacking and responsible defense for a potent, frightening mix.

The evolution of Torts

On a similar note, allow me to utter an opinion that isn’t often shared by people who are even mildly interested in “fancy stats” and non-traditional ways of thinking: John Tortorella’s evolution makes me intrigued about this team’s chances.

It’s fair to ding Torts for being stubborn about certain things, yet I wonder if there’s some Mike Babcock to him: the fiery nature of an “old school” coach mixed with the survival instincts and competitiveness needed to actually embrace changes in the league.

Giving Jones and Werenski isn’t the first example of Tortorella going “safe is death” and it’s not the first sign of innovation in Columbus. After all, it took the NHL some time to adapt to the Blue Jackets’ power play last season, which involved using a would-be depth forward (Sam Gagner) in a specialist role that was quite effective and off the beaten path.

Robber Bob

The last reason to be excited about Columbus is fairly straightforward: it sure seems like Sergei Bobrovsky is less streaky and more, perhaps, the best goalie in the world. Or at least the best goalie on enough nights to make this team pretty scary.

Now, does this mean that Columbus won’t stumble again this season? Of course not. Really, we don’t see many teams nearly immune to struggles, and some arguably suffer if they don’t hit much regular-season turmoil (the 2015-16 and 2016-17 Capitals, perhaps?).

Ultimately, it’s difficult not to get excited about The Next Big Thing(s) in the NHL, and the Blue Jackets seem like they have the potential to be just that.

* – Check PHT on Tuesday for more on Jack Eichel and his struggling Sabres.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Coyotes win again, end Maple Leafs’ run at six games

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Break up the Arizona Coyotes.

After a downright depressing start to a season that opened with some hope, the Coyotes are at least gaining some self-respect, if not some respect around the NHL. That continued on Monday as the Coyotes extended their winning streak to three games.

Remarkably, that 4-1 win came against the Toronto Maple Leafs, ending the Buds’ own run at six games.

That 4-1 margin greatly exaggerates the difference between the two teams, however. This one came down to the wire, especially as a would be 2-2 goal was disallowed. The Coyotes added insurance goals late with two empty-netters.

Instead of being lopsided, the game came down to players who were expected to be difference-makers actually making a difference.

[During their darker days, this post explained that they seemed better than their record indicated]

It hasn’t been the easiest start for hidden-gem-star Oliver Ekman-Larsson, so he must have been especially happy to score what eventually stood as the game-winner:

Antti Raanta also had himself quite a game, stopping 27 out of 28 shots as his winning streak is also at three games. Injuries and other issues plagued him to start his debut season with Arizona, but now it looks a lot more like things are going as originally planned.

Heading into a Canadian road trip that began with a 4-1 loss to the Jets in Winnipeg, this sure seemed like it would be a dreadful turn for the already-dreadful ‘Yotes. Instead, they’ve rattled off three straight wins: 5-4 at Montreal, 3-2 in OT at Ottawa, and now tonight’s victory in Toronto. You may note that two of those wins came in regulation, too.

Honestly, you can pull things back and realize that the Coyotes have been scrappy in a month of November that seemed fated to doom them.

(If this team was still the Phoenix Coyotes instead of the Arizona Coyotes, you’d probably see a lot of “rising from the ashes”-type headlines. But alas.)

They began the month winning one and losing one. Starting on Nov. 6, they went on a stretch where they played seven of eight games on the road (a stretch that ended today in Toronto). They lost the first five games of that run, but they managed to get “loser points” in two of those defeats.

Despite a tough schedule on paper, and after going a ludicrous 1-11-1 in October, the Coyotes are now 4-4-2 in November, with seven road games versus three home tilts. Maybe they were inspired by a traveling band of fans?

Now, none of that makes you think that this team is going to set the world on fire. Instead, it indicates that there’s some fight left in this squad, and maybe a nod to Rick Tocchet keeping spirits reasonably high even as things looked especially grim.

With Raanta seemingly healthy, “OEL” back on his game, and Clayton Keller continuing to tear the league up as a rookie (two more assists tonight), the Coyotes might be building some confidence, even if they can’t go too far with that at 5-15-3.

Still, they need only to look at the team they narrowly defeated in Toronto and realize that, with the right players and decision-makers, a quick turnaround is actually quite plausible.

For now, they’ll settle for a resoundingly successful road trip.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Gaudreau, Monahan, Flames too much for Capitals

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When you talk about the best lines in the NHL, don’t sleep on the trio Johnny Gaudreau is leading for the Calgary Flames.

With his 10th goal of the season coming early in a Flames – Washington Capitals game that is ongoing, Gaudreau collected his 30th point of 2017-18. As of this writing, only two other players have hit that mark so far: Steven Stamkos (35 points) and Nikita Kucherov (33), the headliners of a Tampa Bay Lightning trio that’s grabbing a lot of, well, headlines.

Here’s the goal Gaudreau scored against the Caps, keeping in mind that he has plenty of time to add to his lofty totals:

To an extent, it feels like Gaudreau’s fantastic work has been sneaking under the radar, at least compared to the likes of Stamkos – Kucherov. Then again, maybe some of it has to do with the fact that his hot streak is at least somewhat concentrated in the last few weeks?

Gaudreau, no doubt, is the catalyst. His playmaking ability is often spellbinding, and he’s well beyond questions about being a flash in the pan at this point in his career. The 24-year-old came into tonight’s game with 233 points in 251 career regular-season games; he’s scored more than the likes of Joe Pavelski and Evgeni Malkin since becoming a full-time player in 2014-15, according to Hockey Reference. (He ranks 12th overall during that span.)

His linemates deserve some of the spotlight, too.

There remains a debate about how much Sean Monahan can accomplish without Gaudreau, yet the counterpoint would be to wonder if it’s really that wise to mess with such a good thing. Such an argument is especially tough to make on the heels of his first career hat trick:

While Gaudreau has eight goals and 10 assists for a whopping 18 points (and possibly counting) during a 10-game point streak, Monahan collected his 21st point of this season on the primary assist. He added a helper to that hat trick the other night, so even if he’s stopped for the rest of Monday, Monahan has five points in two games. He also generated a six-game point streak (three goals, five assists) from Oct. 27 – Nov. 9.

When people haven’t been discussing Monahan’s dependence upon Gaudreau, they’ve wondered who might be the right winger for that dynamic duo.

Micheal Ferland might spell the end of that debate.

The big 25-year-old currently has 12 points in 18 games, but he’s really been revving up his production as of late. The Flyers snapped his five-game goal streak on Nov. 18, yet he extended his point streak to six contests with an assist (5G, 3A).

Logically, Ferland makes some sense for Gaudreau – Monahan. Neither of those forwards bring a lot of beef to the table, and Ferland has also shown some signs that he possesses the ability to finish the chances they can set up. As fun as it is to watch Jaromir Jagr with those two, Ferland might end up being the best fit for them since Jiri Hudler’s better Flames days.

(Ferland didn’t get an assist on Gaudreau’s goal, so he’ll need to generate some offense as this game goes along to keep his impressive streak going.)

***

Stamkos, Kucherov, and Vladislav Namestnikov probably carry the championship belts as the best scoring line in hockey, at least right now. One of the delightful things about this relatively high-scoring start to the season is that there are plenty of contenders for that imaginary title, and Gaudreau’s group shouldn’t be shortchanged in such debates.

Update: Monahan added a goal of his own (the eventual game-winner, with a primary assist by Gaudreau) as the Flames ran away with this one by a score of 4-1. Matthew Tkachuk made his presence felt as well with two assists.

About the only bummer was that Ferland’s point streak ended.

So, Gaudreau finishes the night with 31 points on the season, including 19 during this 10-game streak. Monahan now has 22 points (with six in the last two contests).

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.