There are several heralded rookies that could break into the NHL this season with the Edmonton Oilers, led by Taylor Hall, the first overall pick in the 2010 draft.
But the other four teams of the Northwest Division also have their own prospects ready to play a role in the NHL this season, such as Cody Hodgson (Vancouver Canucks) and Mikael Backlund (Calgary Flames).
The following nine players could each have an impact on their respective team's fortunes starting in the 2010-2011 season, and don't be surprised if the Calder Trophy winner comes from the Northwest Division this year. (But you might be surprised who I predict will win the Calder)
From the youngest (Taylor Hall, 18) to the oldest (Cory Schneider, 24) here are the rookies most likely to have an impact in the Northwest Division this year.
Right Winger 6'1" 187 lbs
Age: 18 (November 14th, 1991)
Draft Position: 1st Overall, 2010
Following in the footsteps of other recent #1 picks Steven Stamkos (Tampa Bay Lightning, 2008) and John Tavares (New York Islanders, 2009), the Edmonton Oilers hope future superstar Taylor Hall is ready to jump into the NHL just months after being drafted.
At the tender age of 18, Hall has nothing left to prove in Junior, having won the Memorial Cup with the Windsor Spitfires 2 years running, and being named Memorial Cup MVP both times. Last season for the Spitfires he put up 40 goals and 66 assists for 106 points in only 57 regular season games.
In comparison, Stamkos put up 58 goals and 47 assists for 105 points in 79 games during his last season with the Sarnia Sting, and Tavares put up 58 goals and 46 assists for 104 points in 56 games for the Oshawa Generals and London Knights during his last year of junior.
The Oilers hope Hall can have a comparable rookie season to those two. During his rookie year (2008-2009) as an 18 year old, Stamkos scored 23 goals and produced 23 assists for 46 points. Last season, Tavares scored 24 goals and had 30 assists for 54 points as an 18 year old.
If Hall can put up comparable numbers as an 18 year old this season, he'll be near the top of the scoring charts for the offensively challenged Oilers, whose leading scorer last season was Dustin Penner with a mere 63 points. However, with the additions of Hall, Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson and Jordan Eberle, the Oilers shouldn't be so challenged offensively this year.
Left Winger 6'2" 187 lbs
Age: 19 (April 12, 1991)
Draft Position: 10th Overall, 2009
Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson has been playing in the Swedish Elite League for Timra IK over the last three seasons, and now is ready to make the jump to the NHL. Last season, playing against men rather than other junior age players, he put up 12 goals and 17 assists for 29 points in 49 games. During the 2010 World Juniors, he had 10 points (3 goals, 7 assists) in 10 games for Team Sweden.
Perhaps due to the big name Swedish stars still playing in the NHL playoffs (Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin, Nicklas Backstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, etc) Paajarvi-Svensson was named to Team Sweden for the 2010 World Championships. He acquitted himself very well playing against NHL caliber players, leading Team Sweden in scoring with 5 goals and 4 assists in 9 games en route to a Bronze Medal.
After this impressive season, look for Paajarvi-Svensson to compete hard with Taylor Hall for the best rookie on the Oilers this fall.
Right Winger 5'9" 175 lbs
Age: 19 (September 29th, 1990)
Draft Position: 22nd Overall, 2009
Jordan Schroeder had an impressive junior career, but fell to 22nd overall in the draft due to concerns over his size. However, the skilled and speedy winger hasn't let his size stop him so far.
Before turning pro, Schroeder was with the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers, putting up 22 goals and 51 assists for 73 points in 72 games over the last two seasons.
However, his international play for Team USA at the World Juniors, playing against the best junior age players, is even more impressive. Schroeder holds the Team USA record for career points (previously held by Jeremy Roenick) at the World Juniors with 27 points.
During the 2010 World Juniors scored 3 goals and produced 5 assists for 8 points in 7 games en route to the Gold Medal, including a game breaking 3rd period goal against Canada in the finals.
Following the end of the 2009-2010 NCAA season, Schroeder turned pro and joined the Manitoba Moose, the Canucks AHL affiliate. Playing down the stretch and into the playoffs, Schroeder put up 15 points (7 goals, 8 assists) in 17 regular season and playoff games.
Schroeder has a chance to make the Canucks as a 19 year old this season, as there is a convenient right wing spot open on the top line with Alex Burrows still recovering from shoulder surgery. If he impresses, and there is no reason to assume he won't given his AHL play last season, then expect to see Schroeder stay in the lineup even after Burrows returns.
Center 6' 188 lbs
Age: 20 (Feb 18th, 1990)
Draft Position: 10th Overall, 2008
Herald as one of the top prospects in the entire NHL as last as last summer, Cody Hodgson's career took an abrupt detour last year due to a back injury.
During an incredibly successful 12 months, Hodgson captained Team Canada to gold at the U18 Championships in the summer of 2008, and then put up 92 points (43 goals, 49 assists) in just 53 games with the Brampton Battalion of the OHL during the 2008-2009 season.
He also helped power Team Canada to a gold medal at the 2009 World Juniors, putting up 16 points (5 goals, 11 assists) in 6 games to beat out John Tavares (15 points) and Jordan Eberle (13 points) as the leading scorer of the tournament.
Following the end of the OHL playoffs (he put up 31 points in 21 games), Hodgson joined the Manitoba Moose, the Canuck's AHL affiliate, for their playoff run. He scored 6 points (2 goals, 4 assists) in 11 games.
Unfortunately, in the summer of 2009, Hodgson injured his back training. He tried to play through the pain during training camp and the preseason with the Canucks, but was eventually sent back to Brampton. After missing 50 games, he returned to the ice in Brampton and promptly suffered a broken foot blocking a shot. Hodgson ended up playing only 13 regular season and 11 playoff games for the Battalion, although he put up a respectable 11 goals and 19 assists in that time.
Fully healthy for the first time in almost a year, Hodgson is looking to crack the Canucks lineup this fall and regain his spot as a heralded prospect. Expect to see Hodgson on the Canuck's third line with Manny Malhotra and Raffi Torres this season, as the Canucks pair him with the two veterans. (The Canucks scored the most goals in the Western Conference last season, and all six forwards from the top 2 lines are returning, so it isn't realistic to expect Hodgson to displace one of them. But I'm sure he'll try, and he might get a look playing with the Sedins while Alex Burrows is out with shoulder surgery to start the season)
Right Wing 5'10" 187 lbs
Age: 20 (May 19th, 1990)
Draft Position: 22nd Overall, 2008
Like his fellow Oiler's prospects Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson and Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle had a superb junior career. Playing for the Regina Pats of the WHL, Eberle put up 50 goals and 56 assists for 106 points in only 50 games during his last season of Junior.
During the 2009 World Juniors, he had been a key part (6 goals, 7 assists) of Team Canada's gold medal. But it was his heroics at the 2010 World Juniors that made Eberle into a household name in Canada.
In the championship game versus Team USA, the Canadians were down 5-3 in the third period with less than 3 minutes left on the clock. Eberle put the team on his back and scored a pair of 3rd period goals in quick succession to stun Team USA and force overtime. Unfortunately Team USA scored in overtime to win the gold medal, otherwise Disney would have been filming a hockey movie about Eberle's heroics.
With those two goals in the championship game, Eberle became Team Canada's all time career leader in goals at the World Juniors with 14, passing the mark John Tavares had set with 13 the previous year. As a consolation to go with his silver medal, Eberle was voted the MVP of the 2010 World Juniors.
Eberle has also played 20 games over the last two seasons with the Oiler's AHL affiliate, the Springfield Falcons, producing 9 goals and 14 assists.
This production playing against pros in the AHL, plus his Team Canada exploits, leads me to predict that despite Hall's heralded status, it is Eberle who will be the rookie with the most impact on the Oiler's this year. I'm picking Jordan Eberle for the Calder Trophy winner once all is said and done.
*At this point, I'm sure there are around 20 teams kicking themselves for not drafting him when they had the chance. I know I wish the Canucks had taken him, as much as I like Hodgson. And can you imagine a line of Eberle, Toews and Kane if the Hawks had taken him instead of loose cannon Kyle Beach?
Defense 6'2" 193 lbs
Age: 20 (January 19th, 1990)
Draft Position: 23rd Overall, 2008
The first of two defenseman on this list, Tyler Cuma is a good bet to make the Minnesota Wild this fall. They only have 5 NHL proven defensemen on the roster, and that is assuming Brett Burns has made a full recovery after his multiple concussions and shoulder issues over the last two seasons.
A puck moving defenceman with good skating skills, Cuma put up 22 points (5 goals, 17 assists) in 52 games for the Ottawa 67's of the OHL. This was a respectable season on a team that finished 5th in the OHL standings.
Defense 5'11" 190 lbs
Age: 21 (January 29th, 1991)
Draft Position: 14th Overall, 2007
The second of two defensemen on this list, Kevin Shattenkirk is a product of the US National Development Team. He played in the 2007 U18 World Championships and won a silver medal. In the 2009 World Juniors, he put up 9 points (1 goal, 8 assists) in 6 games, although it ultimately for naught as Team USA finished out of the medals at fifth place.
During the 2009-2010 season, Shattenkirk put up an impressive 7 goals and 22 assists for 29 points in 38 games for the Boston University Terriers. Following the end of the NCAA season, Shattenkirk turned pro and joined the Avalanche's AHL affiliate Lake Erie for their final 3 games of the season, putting up 2 assists in this span.
The Avalanche are thin at defense this year, with only four proven NHL defensemen (Adam Foote, Scott Hannan, Kyle Quincey and John Michael-Liles) on the roster to date and Shattenkirk could easily make the team with a good camp and preseason.
Center 6' 194 lbs
Age: 21 (March 17th, 1989)
Draft Position: 24th Overall, 2007
The first prospect on this list to have NHL experience under his belt, Mikael Backlund played 23 games for the Calgary Flames last year, putting up 1 goal and 9 assists for 10 points. He also played 54 games for the Flame's AHL affiliate, the Abbotsford Heat. For the Heat, Backlund scored 15 goals and produced 17 assists for 32 points. He was also named to Team Sweden for the 2010 World Championships, but only produced 1 assist in 6 games.
Backlund had more success at the World Juniors, winning back to back silver medals in 2008 and 2009, putting up 14 points (8 goals, 6 assists) over 12 games.
A playmaking center with good vision on the ice, Backlund should make the Flames full time this year, and hopefully will develop into the top line center that GM Darryl Sutter never seems to be able to find for Jarome Iginla. Unfortunately for Iginla and Calgary fans, that likely won't happen for a few years yet, but Backlund should still play an important role on the Flames this year.
Goalie 6'2" 195 lbs
Age: 24 (March 18th, 1986)
Draft Position: 26th Overall, 2004
Cory Schneider is the oldest player on this list, as is fitting since he is the only goalie. Another product of the US Development Team, like Jordan Schroeder and Kevin Shattenkirk, he was the starting goalie for Team USA for the 2006 World Juniors, held coincidently in his future home rink of GM Place in Vancouver.
Schneider played three years at Boston College, posting a 65-25-7 record with 15 shutouts, before turning pro. Over three seasons with the Manitoba Moose, Vancouver's AHL affiliate, Schneider has posted 84 wins, 45 losses and 5 overtime losses over 136 starts. His career AHL save percentage is 0.921 with a 2.28 GAA.
In the 2008-2009 season, Schneider led the AHL in save percentage (0.928) and GAA (2.04) and was named AHL goalie of the year. He also led the Moose to the AHL's best regular season record and to the Calder Cup finals before loosing in six games to the Hershey Bears.
Schneider has also played 10 NHL games, although his record of 2-5-1 should be taken with a grain of salt. Each time he was called up, the Canucks were decimated by injuries to their defencemen (and Roberto Luongo), so he was largely playing behind his teammates from the Moose, not an NHL caliber defence.
In 2010-2011, Cory Schneider has graduated from the AHL to the NHL, and should see 20-25 starts. His greatest impact might be the reduced workload for Roberto Luongo, although he should be a capable backup in his own right this year, and a starter in the near future. (Although not likely with the Canucks unless the NHL voids Luongo's 12 year extension)
Edit: The NHL finally approved the Luongo extension today (Sept 3 2010), so with that resolved, expect to see Schneider showcased in 20-25 starts, with a majority of them coming late in the season to rest Luongo for the playoffs.
Center 6'4" 189 lbs
Age: 21 (February 12th, 1989)
Draft Position: 16th Overall, 2007
Honorable mention goes to Colton Gillies. The big center should make the Minnesota Wild on a full time basis this year, although he might have to switch to the wing. As he played 45 NHL games as a 19 year old in the 2008-2009 season, I can't include him as a rookie. But I'm sure you'll be hearing his name (probably in reference to a thundering hit) on hockey broadcasts this season.