NHL 2011-12: 10 Rookies Who Could Make a Big Impact
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Every year, perhaps more so than in any other professional sport, rookies in the NHL make a big impact. This year was no different, with a fine rookie class featuring first-year professionals like Carolina's Jeff Skinner and Edmonton's Taylor Hall, more seasoned prospects such as San Jose's Logan Couture, and diamonds in the rough like Boston's Brad Marchand and New York's Michael Grabner.
The upcoming season should provide the same level of talent, and here are the 10 rookies who should make the biggest splash for their teams.
Players Who Just Missed the Cut, but Shouldn't Be Forgotten
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10. Brett Connolly, RW, Tampa Bay Lightning
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Connolly was the sixth pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, and would have likely been taken higher had it not been for a hip injury that limited him to only 16 games during the 2009-2010 season. He bounced back very well to put up 46 goals and 73 points in 59 games this season, and signed an Entry Level Contract with the Lightning on June 11.
On a team already so loaded offensively, there won't be that much pressure on Connolly, the very definition of a sniper. He's only listed 10th because there is still some thought that he would be best served with another year in the WHL, but if he makes the team, look for him to thrive in a third line capacity.
9. Jonathon Blum, D, Nashville Predators
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The smooth-skating American defenseman played in 23 games for the Predators last year, and after spending two years with the Milwaukee Admirals of the AHL, should finally get the full time call up to Nashville next year. He is a good puck mover and is very offensively gifted, as his 34 points in 54 AHL games last season attest to.
Much like Connolly, he joins a very deep roster at his position, behind Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, Cody Franson and Kevin Klein. He projects to be a top four defenseman in the NHL and should take his first steps towards that goal this year.
8. Nazem Kadri, C, Toronto Maple Leafs
Kadri, the seventh overall selection in the 2009 draft and the fourth Lebanese player in NHL history, played in 29 games this year for the Maple Leafs and figures to be a full-time member of the team next year.
A very effective puck handler and superb playmaker, Kadri spent most of the last two years playing for the Toronto Marlies in the AHL, and brings a bit of an edge to his game (he is noted for controversially not shaking the hand of Switzerland's Nino Neiderreiter at the 2010 World Junior Championships). He should be a mainstay in the Maple Leafs line up for years to come.
7. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, C, Edmonton Oilers
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As the first overall pick in this year's entry draft, Nugent-Hopkins figures to be pressed into action for the Oilers right away. There will be immense pressure on him, and while he was the consensus best prospect in the draft, he was not considered the most NHL-ready by just about anyone.
This doesn't mean that he won't be successful in his first year, but I feel as though he would be best served spending another year to hone his skills before becoming a full-time player. Look for the gifted playmaker to work effectively with last year's first overall pick, Taylor Hall, but to not blow anyone away with his rookie year.
6. Gabriel Landeskog, LW, Colorado Avalanche
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Now the player who was considered the most NHL-ready in this year's draft. The rugged Swedish left winger provides a great deal of toughness and brings leadership to a very young team. Not to say that he will ever be quite this good, but his style of play may remind Avalanche fans of another physical, talented Swede who once called Denver home.
While he may not fill up the score sheet every night in the NHL (66 points in 53 games in the OHL), Landeskog can step in and have an immediate impact for the Colorado Avalanche, who will be very happy with the future captain they may have just acquired.
5. David Rundblad, D, Ottawa Senators
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Another Swedish born prospect, Rundblad has been called the best player not currently playing in North America by many analysts. He is a very gifted offensive defenseman who was acquired from the St. Louis Blues on draft night in 2010 for a pick that turned out to be another future star, Vladimir Tarasenko.
He put up 50 points in only 55 games playing for Skelleftea in the Swedish Elite League, widely considered the best league outside of the NHL. At times he has a tendency to get too creative with his own talent, but seeing as he is only 20 years old, this certainly should be an issue he can fix. Depending on how the Senators handle his first year in North America, he could easily be a top four defenseman right away for them.
4. Erik Gudbranson, D, Florida Panthers
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Gudbranson, who was the third overall selection at the 2010 draft, is the type of defenseman coaches love. His play in the defensive zone is superb, and if he continues to adopt a more physical style to his game, his skills should translate very well to the NHL.
Already known to be a very strong skater, he showed some flashes of offensive skill this year, and if he continues to improve in that category, he could become a star in this league in the near future.
At the very least, Gudbranson should be in the lineup this year for a Panthers team that is (as usual) in rebuilding mode, and should provide a solid starting point for the team management to build around.
3. Ryan Johansen, C, Columbus Blue Jackets
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The Columbus Blue Jackets made Johansen the fourth overall selection at the 2010 Entry Draft, but his performance up until that time left some analysts questioning why they chose him so early.
In the 2010-2011 season, Johansen showed exactly why. Playing in only 63 games, he tallied 92 points (23 more points in eight fewer games than in 2009-2010 for those of you playing along at home) for the Portland Winterhawks and showed the type of offensive ability that scouts weren't really sure that he had.
A superb penalty killer and passer, Johansen figures to break into the lineup this season and be given every opportunity to succeed on a young Blue Jackets team. Look for him to make a big impact this year and for years to come.
2. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, D, Phoenix Coyotes
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Yet another Swede, Ekman-Larsson played about half of the Coyotes games last season, but should make the leap to being a top four defenseman full time this season. He is a fantastic skater with great mobility—known for his spin moves much like LA's Drew Doughty—and his puck-handling skills should make him an offensive force in the league for years.
Defensively he plays a solid, if not spectacular game. At 6'2" and weighing in at 190 pounds, he isn't the biggest player, but he uses his body when he has to and is rarely caught off guard. Get used to hearing Ekman-Larsson's name, because after he makes the jump full time this year, he won't be going anywhere for a while.
...Well, unless the Coyotes have to move for 2012-2013. Zing!
1. Brayden Schenn, C, Philadelphia Flyers
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I'll admit, I'm from Philadelphia, but that's not why he's my top choice. This ranking is as much about talent as it is opportunity. Schenn, recently acquired from the LA Kings in the Mike Richards trade, is considered by most to be the best prospect not currently playing in the NHL.
You can be sure that will change this season.
Paul Holmgren and Ed Snider will certainly be eager to show that they got a good deal for their captain, and Schenn will be given every possible chance to earn a spot on the team and put up big numbers right away. The trades of Jeff Carter and Richards open up a third line center role, which you can be pretty sure will go to Schenn.
His coming out party was the 2011 World Junior Championships, where he scored eight goals and added 10 assists in only seven games. The opportunities that the Flyers will give him, on top of his 53 points in just 27 games for the Saskatoon Blades, is the reason why he is my pick to be the top rookie in next year's class.
Don't just take my word for it though. Feel free to respond with anyone you think I missed!