Before the season even began, many NHL analysts and columnist wanted to crown Steven Stamkos as the NHL's rookie of the year—but not so fast. Stamkos has yet to record a point in his first six games, and there has been speculation that the Lightning might be considering returning him to juniors.
With Stamkos struggling early, it opens the door to another rookie claiming the Calder Trophy at the end of the season. Fabian Brunnstrom, Derick Brassard, and Kris Versteeg are the top-scoring rookies early on in this season.
Thus farm Fabian Brunnstrom has been the most exciting rookie. He recorded a hat trick in his first game as a Dallas Star, the third time this has happened in the NHL. Brunnstrom was a healthy scratch in the Stars' first two games and many had questioned whether or not he deserved to be with Dallas this season.
Brunnstrom was signed this offseason as an unrestricted free agent to a two-year NHL entry level contract, as he was not drafted by an NHL club. Coming into the season, many questioned if Brunnstrom was ready to play North American style hockey. After he made the final cut out of training camp, critics continued to wonder about his readiness for the NHL.
For now, he seems to have quieted his critics, but in Brunnstrom's last five games he has only two points and is a minus-seven. Although he is still second in rookie scoring, the poor plus-minus is somewhat bothersome coming from a player that sees top-six minutes.
If Brunnstrom finishes the season was a minus rating, that should not kill his chances for the Calder. Patrick Kane won the trophy last season with a minus-five. The problem that Brunnstrom might face in his campaign for rookie of the year is that he is on an already offensively-charged team, which could see him get lost in the shuffle. Even though the Dallas Stars offense is extremely high-powered, look for Brunnstrom to find his niche within their offense.
Another name that appears at the top of the NHL rookie ranks is center Derick Brassard. Brassard was the Columbus Blue Jackets' first-round pick in 2006, and after one season in the AHL, Brassard has started out the season putting up two goals and three assists in his first six games. The word that best describes the Blue-Jackets' second-line center is consistent. He brings high energy and solid two-way play that has turned into production early in this season.
Brassard was highly touted coming out of juniors. The year he was drafted, he had scored 116 points in 58 games in the QJMHL. He was drafted sixth-overall, behind Eric Johnson, Jordan Stall, Jonathan Toews, Niklas Backstrom, and Phil Kessel, who currently are all NHL starters. Now it is Brassard's time to show that he belong to be in that group of current NHLers.
Currently Columbus is 3-3-0 this season with big wins over Dallas, Nashville, and Vancouver. Brassard has been a big part of the Blue Jackets' early success, and even started the season with a four-game points streak.
Brassard is a name that I would expect to stay in the Calder race the entire season, because of his consistency. But the question is whether Columbus will playing meaningful games all season. I'm sure if Columbus begins to fall in the standings, Brassard will still continue to fight for points and to help his team win.
Finally, we reach the man that I hope can capture the Calder Trophy this season—Kris Versteeg of the Chicago Blackhawks. "Lucky" is the way I would describe Versteeg's season thus far. Versteeg is not lucky to get points—he is lucky that some of the players that were thought to be top-six forwards, such as Dustin Byfuglien, have not lived up to expectations.
He seems to have found a home on the Blackhawks' top line with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, which has boosted his point totals and helped elevate his game. This is a new situation for Versteeg, because he has never been seen as a team's top scoring threat—just a good passer and a player that never shied away from contact.
Versteeg got his first taste of the NHL last season when he played 13 games and scored four points. He was thrown right into the top six, and seemed to be overwhelmed by the situation.
But this season has been different. Versteeg is currently the leader in rookie scoring, with seven points in his first seven games with the Blackhawks, and is currently third on the team in points and first in assists.
He was a huge surprise out of the gates for the Blackhawks. He was the final player to make the opening day-roster, and within two games he was on the top line with Toews and (at that time) Martin Havlat.
The problem that Versteeg may face is whether he will continue to get first-line minutes—especially if the Blackhawks decide to add a second-line center. A move to get another forward in the top six might bump Versteeg to second- or even third-line minutes. The question is, can he be successful with those limited minutes?
Although it is still very early in the NHL season, these three rookies, in my mind, have separated themselves from the pack. We will see if they can continue their production through an 82-game season.
If they can, then we will have a rookie of the year race like no other. Yes, it is early in the season, and maybe some rookie—even Steven Stamkos—will come out of nowhere to win the Calder. But for right now it is nice to see some early rookie surprises.