One of the most exciting things about a new season in any professional sport is the new crop of rookies set to make an impact and potentially change the balance of power.
There are more than just a few players that can do that this season in the NHL. In fact, many of the top picks from both the 2010 and the 2011 NHL Draft will make their debuts with the eyes of many watching their every move. These are the top prospects, the young studs, the future stars, whatever you want to call them. They are the rookies that everyone talks about as the sexy picks for the Calder Trophy.
That’s not what this list is about, though.
This is about the dark horses, the sleepers, the players you may not have even heard of. After all, the Rookie of the Year Award is one of the hardest to pick because you don’t know how a bunch of guys, who have never played at the highest level, will fair until you see them play.
So apologies to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Brayden Schenn, Gabriel Landeskog, Adam Larsson, Nino Niederreiter, Mark Scheifele and the rest of the high draft picks that everyone is talking about. You get enough attention from the other writers, so I’m going to focus on the other rookies that you should get to know throughout the 2011-12 season because one of them might just surprise you at this year's NHL Awards.
Cory Emmerton is the ultimate dark horse on this list, but that’s only because he plays for a deep Detroit Red Wings team.
The Wings have always been stacked with plenty of good forwards and prefer to groom their young players in the minors for at least a year or two after they finish playing junior hockey. This is why Emmerton is a 23-year-old rookie.
For now, the second-round pick in 2006 will play on the fourth line. However, Emmerton racked up two points in his NHL debut and if he keeps producing then Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock will have no choice but to increase his offensive duties.
Everyone loves talking about Brayden Schenn, and when he was traded to the Flyers over the summer, he immediately became their top prospect. Then there’s the eight overall pick from this year’s draft, Sean Couturier, that people are curious about which doesn’t leave any room in the spotlight for Matt Read.
That’s too bad for those who ignored Read because he put on quite a show in the preseason with seven points in just six games. Not only that, but he already has a goal and is seeing plenty of ice-time early on in the regular season for Philly.
Not bad for the undrafted 25-year-old, who is just now beginning his first full season of pro hockey after playing in the USHL and then spending four years playing at Bemidji State University.
Jacob Markstrom is a fairly big wild card in terms of how much of an impact he’ll have this season, but then again, so are a lot of the guys on this list.
It’s a mystery how much playing time Markstrom will even see at the NHL level this season, but for now he is the backup goaltender to Jose Theodore on the Florida Panthers. This is partially due to an injury to veteran backup Scott Clemmensen, but that doesn’t mean Markstrom isn’t an extremely capable NHL-calibre goalie.
He was the first pick of the second round in the 2008 NHL Draft and posted a very good 2.01 GAA with a 0.927 save percentage in the Swedish Elite League two years ago and last season he put up solid numbers in the AHL as well.
For Markstrom though, he might have to wait to see if Theodore falters for him to even get consistent playing time. Stanger things have happened though.
Remember how Cory Crawford became the Chicago Blackhawks starter last season? It was due to the poor play of veteran Marty Turco, so that’s something to think about when assessing Markstrom’s chances of making an impact this season.
The solid, stay-at-home defenseman has never been the type to attract much attention, even if he is 6'5" and 230 pounds like Jared Cowen.
Another reason Cowen is flying under the radar is because most people following the Senators are focused on their sixth overall pick from this year’s draft, Mika Zibanejid.
Cowen was the ninth overall pick just two years ago though, so expect him to have an impact and be a force to be reckoned with on the blue line. He should also get lots of minutes on a young Ottawa team who is clearly in a rebuilding mode and has no reason not to give their top prospects plenty of minutes.
At 6'2" and 203 pounds, Luke Adam is a talented forward with decent size and is getting a full-time crack in the NHL after averaging over a point per game last season in the minors.
Adam was taken in the second round of the 2008 NHL Draft and is flying under the radar as most fans and analysts are looking towards the former first-round picks to light it up as rookies. The St. John’s, Newfoundland native might not be stealthy for long as he already has four points in the Sabres first two games of the season.
Perhaps Adam will continue to light the lamp and turn heads for the Sabres along with another dark horse rookie in Buffalo who is still to come on this list.
Drafted in the second round of the 2008 NHL Draft, Zac Dalpe is now into his second full season as a pro and is getting a legitimate shot to do some damage with the Hurricanes. Don’t expect Dalpe to put up Jeff Skinner-like numbers as he’s not a top prospect like Skinner.
However, he is definitely a sleeper in this rookie class and he was actually picked by two members of the Yahoo Sports Puck Daddy blog as their Calder Trophy winner.
I personally don’t expect him to win the award, but he is a talented, play-making forward who could turn some heads and get some attention in the votes if he is given enough ice-time this season.
With J.P. Dumont and Joel Ward gone and Mike Fischer starting the season on the injured reserve list, the Nashville Predators need someone to step up and produce some points. As a fourth-round pick in 2009, Craig Smith might not look like that someone on paper and that’s why he is being overlooked in this year’s group of rookies.
Smith is another player who went the university route and shouldn’t be underestimated. Last year, he produced 43 points in just 41 games for the University of Wisconsin and made such an impression on U.S.A. Hockey that he was invited to play for their World Championship team. It’s not very common to see players who have never played at the professional level to be invited to the World Championships so Smith must be doing something right.
He should get top-six forward minutes this season for the Predators and he already has four points in the first two games of the season.
Yes, that’s right. Jonathon Blum is a rookie. He played only 23 regular season games for Nashville last season, which is just under the cut-off line of 25 games to qualify as an official NHL season.
Blum will be given even more responsibility than Craig Smith for the Predators in 2011-12 as he will likely serve as the team’s No. 3 d-man now that Cody Franson is a Toronto Maple Leaf. This should work out just fine for Blum and the Predators though as the 22-year-old is clearly ready for the challenge.
When Blum was called up to the NHL midway through last season, he played so well that he forced the Nashville organization to trade away one of their other defenseman, Alexander Sulzer, just to make room for him. He was named the top defenseman of 2009 in the entire CHL during his days in junior hockey and is clearly good enough to play a big role for Nashville this season.
Perhaps Jonathon Blum is just barely a rookie, but that doesn’t matter. He’s still a dark horse that could legitimately win the Calder Trophy.
It’s somewhat puzzling why Brett Connolly’s name isn’t mentioned more in the group of sexy rookie prospects that don’t belong on this list. He was drafted sixth overall in 2010 (just one spot behind Nino Niederreiter) and has the talent to score some jaw-dropping goals.
It looks as though he’ll get a shot to play with some very talented forwards in Tampa Bay too. On opening night for the Lightning, Connolly played over 14 minutes and even took a couple of shifts with Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis.
Maybe no one is talking about him because his first training camp with Tampa Bay was very uneventful and short-lived. That was only because Connolly had missed almost the entire previous season due to a hip injury.
Regardless, Brett Connolly is back up to NHL speed and he has the size, speed and skill to be a very good NHL player this season.
Many fans first noticed Marc-Andre Gragnani during the playoffs as a solid power play quarterback for the Sabres, so you might be wondering why he’s on a list of rookie dark horses.
Gragnani has been playing in the minors for the last three years and hasn’t played enough NHL games to qualify as having played a full NHL season. Therefore, much like Jonathan Blum, he’s still a rookie.
The reason Gragnani is my top rookie dark horse is because of how many points he is capable of putting up as a defenseman. He nearly averaged a point a game last season in the AHL and had seven points in Buffalo’s seven playoff games.
In fact, he played so well in the 2011 playoffs that he was invited to join Team Canada at the World Championships after the Sabres were eliminated.
Imagine how well he could do once he finally gets the feel of the NHL game? Gragnani is also 24 years old, which should give him an edge over many of the younger rookies.
Let me know who your dark horse is for the NHL's top rookie this season.