10 Sophomore Players to Watch In 2010-2011
For every Steven Stamkos there's a few Patrick Berglunds, guys that have promising rookie seasons but struggle mightily in their second years. Here are ten players hoping to avoid that sophomore slump, who have every chance to make a real difference for their teams in their second NHL year . I've tried to exclude the most obvious choices such as John Tavares or Tyler Myers who were already top-tier talent in their squads in their rookie seasons. Instead I've tried to bring up players who, like James Neal in Dallas and others last year, may come in to their sophomore year in the league with the fire and spark necessary to get to that next level even if they may not have been top contributors in every case in their rookie year.
Evander Kane, Atlanta Thrashers
Kane became a fan favorite around the league with his KO punch of Penguin pest Matt Cooke, seen above, but he also had an impressive rookie year as an 18-year old straight out of junior. Named after Evander Holyfield, Kane has not only the boxing prowess demonstrated in the clip above, but all the hockey skills and qualities of a champion. Look for him to get a good chance on a top line this season with the rising Thrashers. Kane scored 14 goals and 26 points while missing 15 games mid-year with a broken foot in 2009-2010. If he can stay healthy this year and gets some power play time under the new coaching staff, a 30-goal year is within reach for him. Atlanta's lack of a solid playmaker centerman may hinder their talented wingers' ability to reach higher levels but Kane is a natural born finisher, having scored 48 goals in 61 games in his final year of junior hockey and should be able to make it work. Look for more goals and knockout punches in 2010-2011.
Peter Regin, Ottawa Senators
Regin had a strong first year in Ottawa playing limited minutes, but impressed late in the year and especially in the playoffs in the series against Pittsburgh, at times appearing like a potentially dominant offensive player. He built up his confidence with strong performances in the Olympics for Denmark and continued to show his flair in the May World Championships as well. Regin scored 29 points last season playing just over 13 minutes per game, even getting about a minute of power play action per game.
He will come to this season expecting to play in a scoring role and coach Cory Clouston is likely to give him that opportunity. Ottawa is well stocked at center with Jason Spezza and Mike Fisher manning the top lines, but Regin can play wing as well and might find himself scoring more there as well, as well as expecting some more power play time in the second unit.
Niklas Bergfors, Atlanta Thrashers
The skilled Swede Bergfors is probably best known right now for being the key chip going to Atlanta in the Ilya Kovalchuk trade at the past trade deadline. He should also be known for almost out-scoring Kovy during the period after the trade, scoring 8 goals and 17 points after the trade, versus Kovalchuk's 10 goals and 27 points. He's not a first grade scorer like Ilya and never will be, but he will certainly be given more of a chance to be an offensive impact player in the new look Thrashers than he was as a rookie in Jacques Lemaire's careful New Jersey team. He's another offensive talent to look for to make an impact for an up-and-coming team that may just finally be headed in the right direction. Don't expect him to match Kovalchuk's contributions, but Bergfors is a key piece for Atlanta moving forward.
Ville Leino, Philadelphia Flyers
Leino was tipped as a breakout player last year with Detroit, having appeared in a handful of games the previous season and with a strong AHL rookie season behind him. But the handsomely bearded Finn struggled with limited ice time in Detroit all year and was eventually traded to the Philadelphia Flyers to make room under the salary cap. He then went on to light up every opposition with the Flyers in the playoffs, playing like a star veteran with new linemates Danny Briere and Scott Hartnell, scoring an impressive 21 points in 19 playoff appearances, after putting up a measly 11 points in the regular season. The Flyers are surely hoping he can replicate that playoff success throughout a whole season, and if he can, he's a serious candidate for breakout player of the year. Even he doesn't, he'll still compete for grizzliest beard in town with Hartnell.
Cody Franson, Nashville Predators
Franson led all rookies last season with a +15 plus/minus rating and also was first among Predators defensemen with that rating, in spite of only playing about 12 minutes per game. He also had 21 points in just 61 games, so statistically his first full season was extremely strong. Nashville has a strong history in developing high quality defensemen and Franson looks to be no exception to this rule. He just signed a two-year contract extension with the team as a restricted free agent and even on Nashville's crowded blue line he should expect to get more responsibility as he's eased into a higher profile role on the team.
Colin Wilson, Nashville Predators
Nashville's seventh overall pick in the 2008 draft, Colin Wilson is a highly touted former collegiate prospect who appeared in 35 games with the Predators this year, managing 15 points during that extended audition. He should be in for a bigger role this year, if he's ready for the added responsibility that comes with it. With former captain Jason Arnott's departure to New Jersey he may just be the player coach Barry Trotz is looking to seat in the number 2 center position behind newly signed Matthew Lombardi. The Predators will need their younger players to step up and provide some of the scoring that they were sorely missing last year. Wilson scored 34 points in 40 AHL games in Milwaukee last year, so if he can take that next step in his development this year and stick with the big club all year, he's one to watch.
Jamie Benn, Dallas Stars
Following on James Neal's strong rookie campaign the year before, Benn also surprised by sticking with the Stars all year in his first pro season straight out of the WHL's Kelowna Rockets. Not only did he make the team, he also scored a delightful 22 goals and 41 points with the Stars playing all 82 games (one of just 4 rookies to play in every game) and must be considered a top-line player this season after getting into only about 14 minutes of action per game in 2009-2010. With guys like Benn on the team, Dallas has a promising youth movement going after two straight finishes outside of the playoffs and with guys like Benn and Neal continuing to develop, they are a team on the rise. Watch for Benn to build on his scoring totals with increased ice time and higher confidence this season.
Scott Parse, Los Angeles Kings
Probably the least known quantity on this list, Parse played 59 games with the up-and-coming Kings in 2009-2010. He was limited to about 10 minutes per game while skating mostly on one of the checking lines and getting next to no special teams time at all. GM Dean Lombardi has high hopes for Parse in his second year with quotes like this one reported by Hockeybuzz.com's Matthew Barry :
“The other kid that’s a wild card here is Parse. He arguably is in our top three players in skill. But there’s a lot to learn in terms of being a pro, making the commitment every night, playing in the hard areas like a lot of kids have to earn. If he can get to that Versteeg, Leino level that would certainly be an upgrade for us.”
Lombardi is certainly careful in managing expectations for Parse, even questioning his work ethic in a roundabout way, but it's clear he thinks this is a player with a lot of potential. If he does stick on a scoring line this time around, a 20-goal season isn't out of reach for the energetic winger.
Matt Gilroy, New York Rangers
The Hobey Baker Award winner from 2008 as the top U.S college player of the year seemed to run into the same obstacle a lot of college players find in their first pro season and ran out of steam as the season progressed, even being sent down to the AHL for a brief stint mid-season. Moving from the less intensive college schedule to a night-in night-out 82 game season in the NHL takes some adjusting. That isn't to say he had a poor rookie season, just that with the tough year the Rangers had he certainly should have had the opportunity to learn a lot and will hopefully be more consistent in year two of his pro career. Gilroy played 69 games with the Rangers with 15 points and an even plus/minus rating, numbers that show promise, but he certainly has the talent to build on that first year. With some added power play time and perhaps a more offensively charged Rangers team with the addition of Alex Frolov and others, Gilroy's point totals could double this year if things go well.
Michael Grabner, Florida Panthers
Austrian-born winger Grabner makes the list in spite of having appeared in just 20 games for the Vancouver Canucks last year. He has 3 years of AHL hockey behind him, having scored 30 goals in 66 games for the Manitoba Moose in his last full season down in 2008-09. He was traded this summer to the offensively challenged Florida Panthers, where he should get a great chance to play on one of the top two lines. If he can take advantage of that opportunity, he might be one of the breakout players of the year. The Panthers are expected to struggle this year and they certainly lack the scoring depth necessary to even dream of a playoff spot, but if Grabner comes to his own as an NHL scorer there, their future suddenly looks a lot brighter. Grabner certainly had that mad look of future success in his eye when he was drafted in 2006, as seen on the left.