NHL Predictions: Each Team's 2011-12 Rookie of the Year
One of the most interesting races to follow throughout the NHL regular season is the one for the Calder Trophy, awarded annually to the "to the player selected as the most proficient in his first year of competition in the National Hockey League." It always comes right down to the edge, with the rookies' fiery competitive attitude forcing them on.
For a player to count as a rookie, he cannot have played in 25 games in his NHL career. This counts out a lot of players we tend to consider as being the "best youngsters" in the game. Nevertheless, the list of candidates for the award this season is impressive to say the least, and the battle for the trophy is sure to be another close one.
This is a presentation of the player from each team most likely to challenge for the hallowed trophy.
Sami Vatanen: D
The acquisition of Andrew Cogliano means that Kyle Palmieri could have a tough time breaking into the lineup. He could be destined for another year in the AHL.
Vatanen, however, could very well break into the team. The super-talented defenseman will compete for two defensive spots with Kurtis Foster and Luca Sbisa. The advantage he has on some of his junior league rivals is that he already has two years of pro experience in the SM-Liiga and he has already represented the Finnish national team.
Toni Lydman should carry him under his wing.
Jordan Caron: RW
It appears the Boston Bruins may have built the team this offseason with a spot open for Jordan Caron. There is a nice niche carved out for him at the third-line right-wing spot.
The veteran of 23 NHL games will have the opportunity to being what will inevitably be a long, successful partnership with Tyler Seguin this season. He showed his knack for scoring in the AHL last season, and the Bruins are hoping that translates to the NHL sooner rather than later.
With the playmaking Seguin centering him next year, Caron could be a prime candidate for Rookie of the Year honours.
Luke Adam: C
Adam has developed into a real blue-chip prospect after an impressive rookie season with the Portland Pirates of the AHL. The Sabres gave him a 19-game audition in the big league last season, and he impressed with his strength and willingness to be physical.
He'll have a hard time making the NHL roster next season, competing with veteran Jochen Hecht for a role. He could well make the team as a checker, though, and while he won't be flashy offensively in his first few seasons, he could become an important player for a team with big hopes for the upcoming year.
Greg Nemisz: RW
Nemisz should come into training camp competing for a spot as a checking-line center or winger on the bottom line. With his youth and talent, he could well beat out some of the more experienced options at the positions.
Nemisz, 21, projects as a third- or fourth-liner at the NHL but he has displayed a scoring ability at the junior level. If that can translate to the top tier of hockey as soon as next season, he could put himself in a position where it is difficult to send him away.
Zac Dalpe: C
After a strong rookie season with the AHL's Charlotte Checkers, Zac Dalpe is ready to move up to the NHL full time. The Hurricanes lack elite depth at the forward positions, and Dalpe's versatility will be welcome in Raleigh.
Dalpe, 21, spent 15 games with the Hurricanes last season, scoring three goals and adding an assist. It will be difficult for the 'Canes to send him back down if he has an impressive training camp, and coming off his good year there's no reason to assume he won't.
Marcus Kruger: C
While Kruger may have a hard time making the NHL roster, he is the only NHL-ready Blackhawks prospect and most likely the one who will see the most big league time. If he works hard, he could carve himself a spot as the team's third-line center, the role he will probably see himself in when he's a full-time NHLer.
As for now, it's hard to give an estimation as to what Kruger's 2011-12 season may look like. At 21, he's older than most of the other 'Hawks prospects and he already has seven games of NHL experience, a fact that is likely to give him an edge.
Gabriel Landeskog: LW
The player who inevitably is destined for a spot as Matt Duchene's winger could start out there as soon as next year. With Colorado's dearth of true left-wingers, the Swede could find himself playing alongside Milan Hejduk and the All-Star.
The 18-year-old is a physical forward that plays with heart and who will complement whoever he finds on his wings well. He didn't put up as good numbers as some of the other draft-eligible players, but his strength on the penalty kill and in the all-around game made him impossible to pass on.
The top prospect will almost certainly start his NHL career next year.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Ryan Johansen: C
A no-brainer. Ryan Johansen will come in and compete for duties on the second line with Antoine Vermette and Derick Brassard. He will be expected to grow substantially this season in the shadow of Jeff Carter, and will be hoping to make a name for himself in the NHL. He comes onto a good line with Matt Calvert and RJ Umberger, so it's fair to assume he can make an immediate impact.
Johansen put up outrageously good numbers in the WHL last season. It will be a difficult transition for him, as he is coming from a team used to winning, but the Blue Jackets have improved significantly and are on the rise. Heading in, Ryan Johansen is a legitimate Calder Trophy candidate.
Scott Glennie: RW
Glennie should be ready to step into the starting lineup on opening night. He projects to be a second- or third-liner at the NHL level, and he'll likely start on the third playing alongside the likes of Vernon Fiddler and Radek Dvorak. The Stars hope he'll bring some youthful enthusiasm and chip in with the occasional goal or two in his rookie season.
Glennie will probably never be a top scorer at the NHL level, but he will be the kind of indispensable player every team needs. With the loss of Brad Richards and the problems with money in Dallas, now might be a good time for a rebuild. Glennie is the kind of guy you want to build around.
Detroit Red Wings
Tomas Tatar: C
WIth the graduation of Jakub Kindl, the Red Wings are low on NHL talent right now. One player who could come in this year is Tomas Tatar. Though they are fairly deep at center, Tatar has improved a lot in recent seasons and already has had an audition in the NHL.
Tatar projects as a second- or third-liner at the big league level, but unless the Wings make a move it could take him a while to reach that point. Next year he'll definitely outlive his rookie eligibility, but it is difficult to predict how many games he'll play. Fifty appearances with 15 to 20 points is a realistic bet.
Anton Lander: C
The Oilers have a whole load of top-tier talent in their pipeline, and Anton Lander is a dark horse. The 2009 second-rounder is an all-around center that will be a good complement to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Sam Gagner down the line. Speaking of RNH, he's left off here because the likelihood is that he will not play next season, rather return to juniors to better prepare himself for the rigours of the pro game.
Anton Lander will compete with Eric Belanger and Gilbert Brule for third- and fourth-line duties, and he will probably find himself in the NHL next year. He is a good leader and a solid defensive player, and the Oilers will want him to be involved every step of the way as they come out of their rebound.
That starts next year.
Erik Gudbranson: D
A lot of this depends on whether or not Jakob Markström plays. If he doesn't, then Gudbranson will be the Panthers Rookie of the Year.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see what the Florida Panthers have planned. Gudbranson will eventually form half of what will be one of the best defensive pairings in the NHL, together with Dmitry Kulikov. It is difficult to predict where he will start next year, but he will likely end it with the Russian.
He was ready for NHL duties a year ago. If he plays well, he could very well be in for league honours.
Los Angeles Kings
Andrei Loktionov: C
The young Russian has been ready for the NHL for quite a while, and will definitely become an important player for the Kings next season. He has already featured in 20 NHL games, and the Brayden Schenn trade will only further his shot at making the roster this season.
Loktionov has developed fast and is an offensively skilled player to say the least. He is a legitimate Calder Trophy candidate this season. He will likely fill a third-line center spot for the Kings, who need a complement to the somewhat more defensively minded Mike Richards and Anze Kopitar. Loktionov is that guy.
Cody Almond: C
While the Minnesota Wild have somewhat of a logjam at the center position, Cody Almond could see himself sneak into the opening night roster. The Wild are high on this kid, and he might be moved to wing as they have a hole on the left side of the third line.
Almond is a veteran of 15 NHL games and he has one goal. He is by no means a big goal scorer, but he is a hard-working player and the Wild need ones in their team. His only challenger is Marco Scandella.
Alexei Yemelin: D
Unless Russian defender Andrei Markov manages to miraculously go a full season without any injuries, compatriot Alexei Yemelin will get plenty of playing time.The 25-year-old defenseman will likely compete with Yannick Weber for a top-six spot heading in, but with Roman Hamrlik lost and not replaced, there is definitely a spot to be filled, whether it's as a night-in, night-out guy or a seventh D-man.
Yemelin could be a dark horse as a Rookie of the Year.
Jonathon Blum: D
Top prospect Ryan Ellis will likely be buried on the depth chart as an offensive defenseman, but Blum comes straight in as an established player. Blum only preserved his rookie status by two games last season, and he comes in this season as a lock for the roster.
Blum should create a solid defensive partnership with Kevin Klein. He will be able to grow in the shadow of Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. He is a no-nonsense defenseman, so it's doubtful he becomes a strong candidate for league awards, but he will become important in Nashville.
New Jersey Devils
Adam Larsson: D
The buyout of Colin White's contract seems to be a pretty clear indication that the New Jersey Devils are making room for a defenseman. That man could be Adam Larsson.
Heading into the 2011 draft, Larsson was undeniably the player most ready to NHL action. The Devils were very, very lucky to pick him up at fourth overall. It wouldn't at all be surprising to see him develop into the star of that draft year. That starts next year.
New York Islanders
Nino Niederreiter: RW
The Swiss prodigy is one of the league's top prospects, and he will come straight into the Isles' top six. With plenty of youthful support in around him, Niederreiter could have a big rookie season.
The Islanders will likely struggle again, and it would be surprising to see Nino put up great numbers. This could very well become a three-man race, with Calvin de Haan and Kirill Kabanov also in the hunt.
New York Rangers
Tim Erixon: D
Getting this guy on board was a great job done by the Rangers. He is one of the NHL's top defensive prospects and will be for a long time. Marc Staal's future partner will begin his North American career next season, and he could well find himself beside Dan Girardi. He is an offensively talented, defensively gifted, all-action player and will soon be well loved by the Ranger faithful.
Look for him to make an impact early next season.
David Rundblad: D
The trade that sent a 2010 first-rounder (Vladimir Tarasenko) to St. Louis for David Rundblad could turn into a big win for the Sens.
The Swedish defenseman was one of the best players in the Swedish Elite League last season, and really put himself on the map as one of the league's top prospects.
He comes into Ottawa in the middle of a rebuilding stage. He has the chance to win this city over. He will.
My bet is on David Rundblad for the NHL Calder Trophy as the league's Rookie of the Year.
Brayden Schenn: C
With Michael Nylander's PTO, it remains to be seen what kind of role Schenn will have with the Flyers next season. Most likely, he will move to the wing on the third line in his first season in the NHL.
As is often the case with the superstar prospects, Schenn could well experience growing pains. After his big trade in the summer he comes in with sky-high expectations.
Flyers fans need to give him time.
Brandon Gormley: D
It is unclear if Gormley will make the team out of training camp, but if he does he will definitely make an impact right away. The Canadian defenseman brings great size to a blue-line corps that is low on it, and his solid, two-way style will fit in well in the Western Conference's Pacific Division.
Gormley could well return to the Moncton Wildcats of the QMJHL, and if he does the team will be low on NHL-ready talent. There were a lot of graduations in the past two or three seasons, and while the team is young it is not full on rookies. Gormley is the only one with a legitimate chance of breaking through this year.
Eric Tangradi: LW
Tangradi will come into Penguins training camp battling for a roster spot. He should win one without too much trouble. It is the next step that is the challenge for him: cementing his spot in the team.
At 22, he brings a good injection of youth to the Penguins lineup. The 6'4", 232-lb forward also brings good size and aggressiveness to the fourth line. He could become a valuable player down the stretch for the Penguins.
San Jose Sharks
Tommy Wingels: C
The 23-year-old ex-collegiate, Tommy Wingels will likely battle for a roster spot with free-agent invitee Brad Winchester. Wingels brings something to that fight that Winchester doesn't: versatility.
Wingels is an attractive option to the Sharks because he can play any forward position, and has in the past. The Sharks could be looking to add some youth to their bottom six, and that is where Wingels will be able to make his mark.
St Louis Blues
Stefan Della Rovere: LW
Della Rovere is likely the only Blues rookie with a chance of cracking the NHL roster. The Blues have 12 forwards who will almost certainly be the 12 in the team come opening night, but Della Rovere has a good chance at grabbing one of the final two spots on the 23-man roster.
The Caps draftee may not see too much ice time, but the Blues know what they get with him. That makes him an attractive option. He could well see a good 40 games in a Blues uniform this upcoming season.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Dustin Tokarski: G
This is a somewhat controversial choice, but it is the right one for one reason.
Dwayne Roloson is unlikely to go the whole season without picking up some nagging injuries, and Mathieu Garon is no starter.
The Lightning have some top young wing prospects, including Carter Ashton and Brett Connolly, but Tokarski tops them this season. Tokarski rocked the AHL last season, and will see plenty of NHL time this year.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Nazem Kadri: C
The Toronto Maple Leafs are deep down the middle, but Brian Burke cannot keep keeping Nazem Kadri out of the team. He is simply too good. He will play.
Kadri has the versatility to play on the wing, so the Leafs will make room for him. He is the top prospect in the Leafs system by far. He could pile up the points. A legitimate Calder Trophy candidate in Toronto.
Cody Hodgson: C
With Ryan Kesler and Mason Raymond likely to miss the first month or so of the regular season, Cody Hodgson will undoubtedly be given an opportunity to stick with the team. He needs to take it and prove that he deserves to be there.
Hodgson, drafted 10th overall in 2008, has had chances in the past to make the roster, but has failed to show enough will and desire to do so. This year, he has the chance to make the third-line center role his for the entire season. Kesler's injury is his door to a permanent job in the NHL. You have to ask how much more patience the Canucks will have with the young Canadian if he fails again this year.
Mattias Sjögren: C
Picking up free-agent Mattias Sjögren this summer was a great deal by George McPhee. The Swede was much sought-after, but chose the Caps over the likes of the Montreal Canadiens. The Caps general manager gets a grinding forward who was easily among the best third- or fourth-liners outside the NHL last season. He already plays an NHL-style game that will translate very well to the North American game.
Sjögren will come straight into Washington and will make an impact right away. At this point, there doesn't seem to be any doubt that he'll make the team right out of training camp. The 23-year-old can and will become an important player for the Caps this season, as they look to make a long playoff run. Sjögren will be a big part of that.
Patrice Cormier: C
The Atlanta Thrashers are somewhat low on forward depth, and if a rookie is going to break through it is likely to be an offensive one. Patrice Cormier, who will almost certainly make the roster, preserved his rookie status by four games last season. He counts.
Cormier is a third-line-caliber player who can be aggressive and be prolific offensively. Acquired in the Ilya Kovalchuk-to-Devils trade, he will be very valuable to the Jets one day. It wouldn't be surprising to see him make a significant impact with the relocated team this upcoming season.
Follow Jake Ware on Twitter at @JacobWare95