Early Candidates for NHL Rookie of the Year

Tyler Poslosky@@TylerPosloskyContributor IIIFebruary 12, 2013

Early Candidates for NHL Rookie of the Year

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    The Calder Memorial Trophy is one of the most prestigious accolades given to the National Hockey League’s most outstanding rookie.

    It’s an achievement marked by blood, sweat and tears. It’s an honor accomplished through pain and injury. It’s a triumph that cements one player each season into hockey history, forever known and remembered as the one who earned this distinguished decoration.

    Colorado’s Gabriel Landeskog took home the hardware last season, scoring 22 goals while recording 52 points. Carolina’s Jeff Skinner won it two years ago. The likes of Chicago’s Patrick Kane, Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin, Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin and St. Louis’ Barret Jackman have also been recent winners of the award.

    Certain future Hall of Famers, including Martin Brodeur, Peter Forsberg and Teemu Selanne, won the award in their rookies seasons.

    With a loaded rookie class, which first-year player will make history by winning the Calder Memorial Trophy in 2013?

    Here’s a list of the early candidates in prime position to win Rookie of the Year. 

Cory Conacher, Tampa Bay Lightning

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    The undrafted rookie has been marvelous for Tampa Bay thus far, scoring five goals through 11 games. The 23-year-old center has tallied 12 points and is a plus-five for the Lightning, who have 12 points, one point behind division-leading Carolina.  

    Conacher’s success can be credited to playing alongside veterans such as Vinny Lecavalier, Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis.

    Coined a honey badger, Conacher looks the part as much as he fits it.

    “A honey badger kind of does whatever it wants,” Conacher said, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

    Conacher couldn’t have imagined a better start to his NHL career.

    “A dream start,” Conacher said.

    Asked about his former player, Jon Cooper spoke highly of Conacher, whom he coached in the AHL with the Admirals.

    “The kid has unbelievable instincts,” Cooper said, according to the Tampa Bay Times. “It’s crazy. I don’t know how to describe it. He can make passes through opponents that are impossible. That’s why we call him ‘Honey Badger.’ He can adapt to what’s going on and play at a high rate of speed.”

    Conacher certainly defies the odds. As a Type I diabetic and undersized at 5'8", 179 pounds, the Tampa Bay rookie became just the second player to debut in the NHL’s modern era and record five multiple-point games in his first seven career games. 

Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues

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    Considered one of the most exceptional Russian players to enter the National Hockey League since Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin and Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin, Blues rookie Vladimir Tarasenko has an advantage over his fellow countrymen.

    Tarasenko, the Blues' 16th overall pick in the 2010 NHL entry draft, didn’t make his NHL debut as a member of a rebuilding team. Rather, he began his professional hockey career as part of a franchise coming off a 109-point season in 2012 and a Central Division championship.

    Blues general manager Doug Armstrong couldn't wait to see Tarasenko begin his career with the Blues, telling the media during Tarasenko’s introductory news conference (via USA Today Sports): “Because of the great work that the players had done last year, winning the division and getting 109 points, we’re just looking for another complement player to come in here and play.”

    Tarasenko isn’t considered to be a complementary player. Instead, he’s regarded as an offensive weapon the Blues lacked last season—one who will aide the likes of David Backes, Andy McDonald, David Perron and T.J. Oshie.

    Just how good is Tarasenko?

    In his first two career games, the 21-year-old netted three goals, including his first two in the Blues season opener, a 6-0 rout over division rival Detroit. Through 12 games, Tarasenko is tied for second among all rookies with five goals and is second with 10 points.

    According to writer Andy Strickland (via the St. Louis Post-Dispatch), “[He] brings a skill set that will naturally adjust to the North American style of play. He excels below the circles and protects the puck well in the corners and below the goal line.”

    Tarasenko was named NHL rookie of the month for January and led all rookies in scoring with nine points, including five goals and four assists over seven games in the first month of the season.

Nail Yakupov, Edmonton Oilers

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    Nail Yakupov, the first overall selection in the 2012 NHL draft, wasted no time beginning his NHL career with a bang.

    He needed just eight minutes, 25 seconds of Edmonton’s Jan. 22 home opener to net his first career goal—a game that saw the home team fall 6-3 to visiting San Jose. 

    Being the first overall pick in last year’s draft brings a lot of pressure for a young player, but the feat doesn’t seem to shake Yakupov, who has five goals and eight points in 12 games.

    “Being the first overall pick is an honor,” Yakupov said, according to Yahoo! Sports. “But still, someone who is picked in the sixth round, for example, will still get the same chance as you. Both will be given an opportunity to show what you’ve got. When you’re drafted, you’re given a chance. And then it’s up to you what you do with that chance.”

    So far, Yakupov is making the most of his chance in the NHL. 

Justin Schultz, Edmonton Oilers

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    Justin Schultz, the former Wisconsin Badgers star defenseman, was drafted by the Anaheim Ducks 48th overall in 2008.

    Schultz became a free agent last summer and signed with the Edmonton Oilers after scoring 34 goals over the past two seasons with the Badgers.

    Playing with his new team, Schultz hasn’t disappointed thus far in his rookie season, scoring four goals in 12 games for the Oilers. The 22-year-old defenseman has recorded seven points while averaging over 23 minutes of ice time per game. 

    His performance hasn’t come as a surprise to the Oilers, who knew they had something special in Schultz during training camp.

    As Edmonton assistant coach Steve Smith told John Korobanik of the Associated Press, “I see a hockey player who has moxie, who has the ability to step up into the play when needed, he has the ability to play strong defensively, he skates strong, he loves the game.

    “From all accounts from the coaches I’ve talked to he wants the puck, he wants to be on the ice, he wants to be a game-changer. There’s just so many positives I’ve seen to this point.”

    Now, 12 games into his NHL career, the Oilers are seeing more of those positive things from their young star.

Brendan Gallagher, Montreal Canadiens

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    In the fifth round of the 2010 NHL entry draft, Montreal selected Brendan Gallagher, the dominant forward for the Vancouver Giants of the WHL the past four years.

    With the Giants, Gallagher netted 40 or more goals in three of his four seasons with the club.

    Now in the NHL, the talented right-winger has scored four goals and is a plus-five through 10 games with the Canadiens.

    Prior to a January practice, Gallagher was informed by Montreal that he would be staying in the NHL for the foreseeable future. The good news brought nothing but smiles to the young star.

    “I came to the rink thinking it would be a normal day and I was getting ready for practice when they called me in and gave me the good news,” Gallagher said, according to NHL.com. “It was pretty cool. So far this season I’ve shown the coaching staff I can help the team win games. That’s all I want to do, is be a contributor to a winning team. If I can continue to do that, I can hopefully stay in the lineup.”

    It doesn’t appear Gallagher’s ice time will diminish in the near future considering his level of productivity on a team that’s trying to make the most of this season.