Every year, there are a ton of rookies who come into the season and show promise right off the bat, or even halfway through the campaign.
Some immediately take hold in the league, potting 30-goals in their debut, or becoming a 70-point performer, or a two-way threat. Some defensemen will become the stalwarts of their team, or the go-to-guy on the power play.
Others however, crumble. Some post five points over 40 games and are sent back to the AHL for more seasoning. Other players may hit the ice for three games, and then never make it back to the NHL.
In any sport, that first year is the hardest—sophomore jinx or not.
So with the NHL season coming into form, there are some rookies to keep an eye on, and as anyone will tell you, these kids could meet adversity just as easily as they could meet victory.
Sidenote: You may see a few guys who are too old to win the Calder trophy, or have played in too many NHL games to be classified as a rookie. I tried not to discriminate because the rules are very finicky about who is a "rookie" so I guess it's more "First Year NHL Players to Watch." But is that title really that attractive? Probably not.
The 2008 Draft Class:
Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning: The top pick from this past year’s draft fell into the Tampa Bay Lightning’s lap this season. Just months after dealing away Brad Richards, the Lightning reacquired a third part to their “big three.” Stamkos had 92 and 105 points in his first two OHL seasons respectively and even displayed some grit and two-way responsibility.
For better or for worse: Stamkos should be one of the premiere rookies in the NHL this season. The Tampa Bay Lightning barely wasted any time in inking him to his first NHL contract, and Stamkos will not only be given every opportunity to shine with the Lightning, but Tampa Bay also acquired enough forward talent over the offseason that he shouldn’t have any trouble finding the perfect fit as far as linemates go. For Better
Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings: The L.A. Kings continued their rebuilding process with the headliner of one of the most well-rounded groups of defensemen in recent draft history. In the OHL, Doughty was able to show off his offensive abilities seemingly whenever he wanted, and was named the most outstanding defenseman in the OHL.
For better or for worse: Doughty will probably struggle with the Kings this season. Although Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown are just a few of the forwards that will offer him opportunities to show off his passing skills and his vision, the Pacific division is full of physical teams that will play the youngster tough. He’ll probably grab 25 points this season, but he’ll be frustrated in dealing with the larger forwards this season. For Worse
Nikita Filatov, Columbus Blue Jackets: Yet again, the Columbus Blue Jackets tried to find a potential top-line player in the draft, and yet again, they’ll hope something doesn’t derail him. The 18 year-old is a little small (172 lbs), but he’s also shifty, speedy, and dynamic. He had 66 points on CSKA’s third-tier team, but 0 points in 5 games with the big club.
For better or for worse: Filatov is entering a situation in Columbus which has been in a bit of flux for the past few months. There are a few new faces in Columbus (Kristian Huselius, RJ Umbereger, Mike Commodore) which are going to need to get acclimatized to the environment, and it’ll be interesting to see how the offense responds. Filatov will start off slow this season, but he’ll start rounding in to form towards the end of the season. For Better (eventually)
Alex Pietrangelo, St Louis Blues: Another one of those top defensemen from the past draft, Pietrangelo is going to help the Blues become competitive once again. He can play a strong offensive game as well as a quality defensive game, and will pair with Erik Johnson to form a top-pairing in the future (so long as Johnson heals up nicely).
For better or for worse: With Johnson’s injury there’s room for Pietrangelo to make an impact, especially if he can step up his play against some tough Central opponents. There is some help on the back end with Barret Jackman and Eric Brewer, so if Pietrangelo struggles he’ll have veterans to fall back on, but I think Pietrangelo may surprise. For Better
Mikkel Boedeker, Phoenix Coyotes: Boedeker has an advantage over some other Europeans that will be seeing their first-ever NHL action this season: He’s already played in North America. Boedeker spent last season with the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers and had a great season, netting 73 points, and he was a goal away from 30.
For better or for worse: The added experience on this side of the pond certainly helps Boedeker’s case. He could easily step in and become a quality piece of the Phoenix puzzle right away. He’s just another bright young star in Phoenix who could be impressive this season. For Better
Honorable Mention: Luke Schenn, Toronto Maple Leafs: Schenn’s future still has to be decided, and although I’m still of the mind he should spend one more year in junior, his preseason performance is really working to dispute that. He looks like an NHL-quality defender, and has played very few (if any) shaky minutes in the preseason. If he were to play this year (in the NHL) I’d have to think he’d be a very bright spot for the Maple Leafs.
Imports from Europe:
Jonas Frogren, Toronto Maple Leafs: Frogren (a former pick of the Calgary Flames) was brought over from Sweden by Cliff Fletcher to help bolster a remodeled defense. Frogren played some solid hockey over in Sweden, and at 28 the hope is that a mature mind will be better prepared to deal with the Toronto media.
For better or for worse: Although I’m excited about Frogren, I can’t help but feel he may struggle in his first year in North America. The forwards are a different beast in North America than they are in Europe, and Frogren will have to adjust accordingly. Once he gets past this season though, Frogren should be better off. For Worse
Fabian Brunnstrom, Dallas Stars: Brunnstrom was making headlines with his NHL tours during last year’s NHL playoffs. His speedy feet are going to be a weapon in this league, and he’s a little bit bigger, meaning he’ll be less physically dominated than some other, smaller European players.
For better or for worse: Brunnstrom seems primed to fit in with the Dallas Stars and their style. He should be a very dangerous weapon down the wing, which will only strengthen the Stars hopes for another competitive season. For Better
Nikolai Kulemin, Toronto Maple Leafs: Kulemin has been the player that’s given Maple Leafs’ fans hope for years. After staying in Russia last season instead of playing for the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, but now that he’s guaranteed top ice time, he’ll be given every chance to shine.
For better or for worse: Well, there isn’t anything not to like about Kulemin if you’re a Toronto fan; he’s essentially the Russian Darcy Tucker except with a better shot. He’ll hit, he’ll score, and he splays tenacity all over the ice. That and the fact that SOMEONE has to score for the Leafs this season leave me confident that Kulemin gives Leafs fans something to smile about. For Better
Janne Pesonen, Pittsburgh Penguins: Pesonen is a small player, but the native of Finland makes up for it with his creativity—like Pittsburgh needs another playmaker. He had a breakout year with 77 points last season in Finland, and could be one of those players that makes the lesser-lights better in Pittsburgh.
For better or for worse: There’s really no way you can say that Pesonen won’t perform. Even if he has trouble adjusting to the North American game he’s still surrounded by some of the top talent (Malkin, Crosby, Staal) in the NHL. Even if he doesn’t play with them on the same line, those three still take some of the attention away, and Pesonen won’t be without his chances. For Better
Honorable Mention: Lauri Korpikoski, New York Rangers: With a little bit of variety and new blood amongst the forwards on Broadway, Korpikoski could really emerge. He’ll be an interesting player to watch this season for sure.
Some names you may already know:
Patrick Berglund, St Louis Blues: The Swede is tall, he’s got hands, and he can score. With T.J. Oshie, Lars Ellers, and Berglund waiting in the wings to take over the offense, the Blues are in good hands, and Berglund could be making earth-shattering plays early on this season.
For better or for worse: Berglund should get every chance to perform, and he’s not one to shy away from those chances. He’s had back-to-back 40 point seasons over in Sweden, and he could take a lot of people by surprise, especially with the four teams that are already ahead of St Louis in the Central division. For Better
Bobby Ryan, Anaheim Ducks: A lot of people are already familiar with Ryan, and it’s not because he went number two in 2005. Ryan is a big kid who has already gotten a bit of a shot in the NHL with 23 games last season. He’s a steady performer who knows where to look for his teammates.
For better or for worse: After struggling to accumulate 10 points last season, Ryan was shipped back to the AHL. He went on to net 49 points in 48 games including 21 goals. Although Ryan is getting another shot at the Ducks’ lineup, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him take a slower approach to improvement at the NHL level. For worse
Sidenote: Why am I supposed to be concerned with the "apparent package" that the Maple Leafs were trying to convince Anaheim to take in exchange for Mathieu Schneider and Bobby Ryan? If the trade were to still happen this is alright news to hear, but otherwise this is like watching the finale of Survivor four months after it happens.
In newsworthy terms, Schneider was dealt an eternity ago, and there are plenty of packages offered up in each and every trade from a variety of teams. Why not tell us what Philly was offering for Owen Nolan way back when the Leafs got him from San Jose? That information is just about as useful.
Kyle Turris, Phoenix Coyotes: Turris was originally planning on playing out his career in the WCHA and Wayne Gretzky and the Phoenix Coyotes weren’t going to do anything to rush their future star. Well after netting 35 points in 36 games last season, Turris proved that he can play the two-way game, as well as set up and finish plays himself.
For better or for worse: Turris will be faced with a large jump from the BCHL to the WCHA to the NHL. He’s a smaller player who may still take a few years to mature at the NHL level, so he may not produce like he’s expected to the first few seasons, which may seem like a bit of a letdown. Don’t let that deter you though, he’ll be part of a talented Phoenix core for years to come even if his size poses problems for him early. For Worse (by expectation only)
Kyle Okposo, New York Islanders: Although the rest of the Isles team is in a bit of disarray, there’s no doubt that their future lies with Okposo. The Minnesota-native brings the kind of attitude to the game that the Isles treasure.
For better or for worse: After playing in three different levels last season (WCHA, AHL, NHL), Okposo proved that the only hurdle remaining to him was performing in the NHL. Although he did that in a brief nine games last season (5 points) Okposo may be hard pressed to find that success consistently over an 82-game season. Expect him to be very good in streaks this season, but also struggle a bit towards the end, having never played anything close to an 82-game schedule. For Worse
Jesse Winchester, Ottawa Senators: The Senators have an interesting player on their hands. After spending a full four seasons in the ECAC with Colgate, Winchester made the jump to the NHL with the Senators. Last season seemed more dedicated to Winchester’s playmaking ability, but he’s also proven in the past he can score just as easily as he can set the scores up.
For better or for worse: The past three years in college, Winchester has been a point-per-game player. Granted he may not be MVP-worthy at the NHL level, but he also won’t flounder like Brandon Bochenski did (a name that’s been thrown around since Winchester has arrived on the top line in Ottawa). Although the season could provide some wear and tear on Winchester, I think he’ll be a pleasant surprise for the Sens even after getting bumped from the top line. For Better
Now with all of these names, there are probably going to be a few others that come out of nowhere to earn spots with their teams, and along with those youngsters, a few journeymen may have surprising seasons. These are just a handful of players to keep an eye on, and chances are your team has its own diamond—in the rough or otherwise.
And just for fun, here are some other names I uncovered to watch for: Marek Schwarz (St Louis—He did get sent back down, but if STL runs into injuries/ineffectiveness he could be good), Mikhail Grabovski (Toronto, although not a rookie), Ville Leino (Detroit), Akim Aliu (Chicago), Patrick Maroon (Philadelphia), Jack Skille (Chicago), Bryan Little (Atlanta—and yes he did play 48 games last season but watch him nonetheless), Zach Bogosian (Atlanta), Jakub Voracek and Derek Brassard(Columbus), Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk (Philadelphia), and Alex Goligoski (Pittsburgh).
Bryan Thiel is a Senior Writer and NHL Community Leader for Bleacher Report. If you want to get in contact with Bryan you can do so through his profile, and you can also check out his previous work in his archives.