The NHL's 10 Best Sophomores of 2009-10
There is perhaps no greater pressure on an athlete than that which comes with being a highly touted rookie. For such players in the NHL, they're usually coming to a team that is terrible, with fans that are starving for something to be happy about, and a management team that is hoping you'll be the new face of the franchise...oh, and play some good hockey, too.
Some players excel when faced with such pressures their first year; just look at 2009 Calder Trophy winner Steve Mason. Others fail to deliver.
Then there are those who have a phenomenal first year, and then fall flat on their face in their sophomore season, just look at 2009 Calder Trophy winner Steve Mason.
You hear a lot about the so-called "sophomore slump" in the NHL; however, not enough attention is given to those players that either maintain their great play of the year before, or, better yet, turn a disappointing rookie campaign into a brilliant sophomore season.
The following is a look at the 10 best second-year men in the NHL.
10. TJ Oshie - St. Louis Blues
The 2005 first-round pick of the Blues had a very good rookie campaign, scoring 39 points in 57 games. His play was limited due to a prolonged ankle injury and an appendectomy, but hopes were high that the Mount Vernon, Wash., native would emerge as a solid contributor for the Blues in 2009-10.
He hasn't disappointed.
Oshie is well on his way to eclipsing his point totals from last season, and although he's only 5'11" and 190 pounds, he is already one of St. Louis' fiercest and most consistent hitters. Oshie figures to round out into one of the better two-way forwards in the NHL. That is, of course, if he can avoid the injuries that tend to plague players of his ilk: small guys who play a very big man's game.
9. Brandon Sutter - Carolina Hurricanes
Talk about pressure. With one of the most famous last names in hockey on your back, there's no doubt there's going to be some amount of expectation to perform, if not impress.
Brent Sutter's son didn't have a particularly good first year in the league. He began 2008-09 with a concussion and then found himself yo-yoing between the NHL and the AHL for most of the season. In 50 games, he scored only six points.
But having your dad and five uncles, all NHL veterans, to talk to in the offseason is a pretty good way of finding out how you can improve and provide a solid contribution to your NHL team.
That's just what Sutter has done this season.
His above-average hockey sense, solid frame, and defensive instincts have provided the Carolina Hurricanes with a reliable shutdown center through the 50 games he's played for them this year. Additionally, he's been able to chip in 12 goals and 13 assists, making him a potentially valuable two-way forward in the years to come.
8. Darren Helm - Detroit Red Wings
In 2007-08, Darren Helm played six games for the Red Wings, the maximum a player can play before being officially recognized as an NHL rookie—well, in the regular season at least.
Helm went on to appear in 16 playoff games that year, ensuring that he will someday be an answer to a Red Wings trivia question, and he won his first Stanley Cup before playing his rookie year.
Although Helm's performance in the playoffs in 2008 was outstanding, he was limited to 16 games in 2008-09, his official rookie year. However, true to form, he emerged once again in the postseason, playing in all 23 games for Detroit and scoring five points.
Now in his (official) second year, Helm is cementing himself as one of Detroit's better fore-checkers and defensive forwards. He possesses blistering speed and infectious tenacity and is adept at playing a grinding game in the corners and along the boards. If Helm could manage to find some consistency in the scoring department, he might very well be one of the Wings' most lethal weapons in a few seasons.
7. Chris Stewart - Colorado Avalanche
I know. Who?
Like his whole team this year, Chris Stewart is quietly having an outstanding season in Denver. Stewart played 53 games last year for the Avs, providing some physical presence along the boards, but only totaling 19 points. Through the same number of games this season, Stewart has pitched in with 39 points (18G, 21A): among them, four game-winning goals to lead the team.
Stewart is a big, physical winger who relishes laying on big hits and battling in the corners. Like most young players, he still needs to find some consistency in his game; however, his potential is that of a quintessential power forward.
6. Patric Hornqvist - Nashville Predators
Hornqvist appeared in 28 games for the Predators his rookie year, scoring a paltry seven points and finishing with a minus-three. Hardly a dynamic start to his career.
However, in 57 games this season, the young Swede has emerged as the team's leading scorer with 23 goals and is rounding out to be a deceptively shifty and defensively sound scoring forward. Think of him as a poor man's Henrik Zetterberg.
Like many European-trained players, his game is more about finesse than physicality, but he doesn't shy away from aggressive defenders: Something he's likely to encounter more often should he continue on his current path.
5. Wayne Simmonds - Los Angeles Kings
Wayne Simmonds appeared in all 82 games for the Kings last year. Although his 23 points and minus-eight rating were decent for a first-year, fourth-line winger, it was Simmond's physical play and boundless energy that quickly endeared him to the Kings faithful.
This season, Simmonds has contributed 35 points, often playing on one of the top two lines, and he leads the team in plus/minus with a plus-18 rating.
Simmonds is the kind of player every coach dreams about: tough as nails, never stops moving, hits anything that he can skate to, and leaves opposing players cursing his name upon returning to their bench.
He's also the kind of defensively sound and deceptively offensive player that is found at the heart of most championships. Although L.A. may be a couple of years away, the championship season they're building toward now will have Simmonds as a key contributor to it.
4. Alex Goligoski - Pittsburgh Penguins
Goligoski first suited up for the Penguins in 2007-08, playing in just three games. However, his career with the Penguins began in earnest last season, when he appeared in 45 games, scoring 20 points and earning a plus-five rating.
His action in the Pens' Cup-winning playoff run was limited to just two games. But with the departure of Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill in the offseason, Goligoski was set to fill some rather large minutes in Steel Town this year.
The Michigan native is excelling in his more prominent role this year in Pittsburgh. His 26 points (6 G, 20 A) are second only to Sergei Gonchar (36 points) in team defensive scoring, and he's proved to be effective at quarterbacking a power play.
At 5'11", Goligoski doesn't own ideal size for an NHL defenseman, but his hockey sense and mobility suggest he'll be a regular on the Pittsburgh blue line well into the future.
3. James Neal - Dallas Stars
First in goals scored (24) and third in points (45), James Neal is becoming a not-so-secret weapon for the Dallas Stars.
Already matching his career high in goals from a year ago, Neal's second season in Big-D should yield him his first 30-goal campaign. Neal's shot is perhaps one of the best in the league, and his ability to release it quickly has caught more than a few goalies off-guard.
Although Neal's size is ideal for a power forward (6'3" 203 pounds), he has yet to embrace a physical game. If and when he does decide to play with more aggression, he'd become a force few teams could stop.
2. Drew Doughty - Los Angeles Kings
It's a good time to be a Kings fan, and Doughty is a big reason why.
Drawing comparisons to the great Ray Bourque while playing in the OHL for the Guelph Storm, Doughty's first year in the league came with no small amount of expectations—from a fanbase desperately hoping for a return to the playoffs.
Although the Kings failed to qualify for the 2008-09 postseason, Doughty's play was a definite highlight and cause for hope for the 2009-10 season. Even as a rookie, Doughty played the kind of patient, intelligent game that some defensemen twice his age are still trying to find. Remarkably consistent in all three zones, Doughty is quickly becoming one of the best passers in the league and is more than comfortable manning the point on the first power-play unit.
The one knock on Doughty's game during his first year was his lack of effective physical play. That's coming along just fine during his sophomore season, as he's become more adept at throwing a hip check into oncoming forwards.
Doughty is currently fifth in the league among defenseman in scoring (43 points) and his plus-18 rating reveals he's every bit the No. 1 defenseman L.A. hoped that he'd be.
Ray Bourque? Well, no, not quite yet, but he's getting there.
1. Steven Stamkos - Tampa Bay Lightning
Man, this kid had a rough ride last year.
Drafted first overall in 2008, Stamkos was considered to be the second coming of Steve Yzerman. With a new ownership team in Tampa Bay, they wasted no time promoting their fresh-faced draft pick as the Rookie of the Year-in-waiting before the season even began—which it did, in Europe. Playing his first two games overseas for a coach (Barry Melrose) 14 years removed from the bench, Stamkos hardly had the perfect start to the glorious rookie season everyone was telling him he was going to have.
Fourteen games in, he waves goodbye (perhaps enthusiastically so) to the only NHL coach he'd ever known, who then promptly tells the world that Stamkos isn't ready to play in the NHL. Thanks, Barry.
Stamkos' 23 goals and 23 assists his rookie year were nothing to sneeze at, but far below the impossibly high expectations placed on the 19-year-old center.
The promise and expectations Stamkos was to deliver in his rookie year are now being delivered in spades in his sophomore season.
Stamkos leads his team (by a mile) in goals with 33 and is second in scoring (63 points) to Martin St. Louis (66).
Stamkos is one of those very rare players that can score anywhere and anyway you like, be it a tap-in, a deke, a puck batted out of the air, or a quick wrister to the top shelf. His versatility is his greatest asset and biggest threat to opposing goalies.
Although his rookie season left some doubting the impending greatness of the young Ontario, Canada, native, Stamkos' second season is providing ample evidence that the league is about to welcome a top-tier superstar to its pantheon of hockey gods.