A look at the rookies of the Western Conference...
When it comes to rookies and high draft picks the NHL differs from a lot of the other major pro sports leagues. Typically in the NFL and NBA, players are drafted to have an immediate impact and play key roles on their respective teams. The NHL and MLB, however, there is much more of a development process in the minor leagues, and many times it can take years for players to contribute.
With that being said, there are exceptions to every rule. There is little doubt that many young players would become superstars before the ink is dry on their entry-level contracts. Although, it’s not an exact science. For every Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin there is also a Patrik Stefan and Alexandre Daigle. Could you imagine being the Ottawa Senators front office after that 1993 draft when they took Daigle first overall? They ended up passing on some guy named Chris Pronger who went second to the Hartford Whalers.
Little known fact: Just a few years later the word “mulligan” was invented by a radical group of NHL general managers to hopefully avoid such a catastrophe from occurring ever again.
I suppose things turned out ok for the Senators in the end. The team has enjoyed a fair amount of success in their relatively short history and are thriving in one of the country’s best hockey markets. Meanwhile, the Whalers have since packed up and moved to Carolina. Not even one of the most underrated logos and jerseys in history could save them.
When it comes to keeper leagues, the way poolies evaluate emerging players has changed drastically. You now have to consider things many years down the line in several cases. The 2012-13 campaign though, and yes I still have faith there will be some sort of a season, could see rookies play a bigger role. If you consider that this year is probably going to have many games cut from the schedule, rookies won’t have to worry about hitting a wall late in the year, which is what typically happens during an 82 game gruelling season.
Here’s a look at a few players in the Western Conference that may turn some heads as rookies.
Brendan Smith – D – Detroit Red Wings
Smith played 14 games for the Wings in 2011-12. It wasn’t enough to lose his rookie status, but he certainly showed some flashes of brilliance. He racked up seven points, was a plus-3, and averaged over a hit a game. With three years of college hockey and two years with Grand Rapids of the American Hockey League, Smith may be further ahead than most in terms of development. He was also drafted in 2007 which makes him a little older than other rookies that could be playing this season.
Smith may be one of the few players on Detroit that the departure of Nicklas Lidstrom actually benefits. Without the great Swede for the Wings to lean on, they are going to be relying on ice-time from guys like Smith, both on the power play and even strength to pick up the slack.
Look for Smith to start on a lower pairing, but his tremendous skating ability, which is key in today’s NHL, should see him rise up the food chain quickly.
Sven Baertschi – LW – Calgary Flames
I thought the Flames and Jay Feaster might even forego the NHL draft because of their refusal to rebuild, but in the midst of their defiance have been some solid draft picks. Baertschi is one such player who was given a chance to get his feet wet in five games during 2011-12, and he produced three goals.
The Flames appear to want to give Baertschi a shot at left wing on the second line, but it will be his job to keep that spot. Any way you slice it the Flames will need his goal scoring ability this year. Calgary was 24th in goals per game last season, and they need to take some of the pressure off Miikka Kiprusoff.
With any luck the Flames will finally give youngsters like Baertschi a chance to show what they can do, instead of trying to acquire Olli Jokinen for the 18th time in hopes of moving up from 9th to 8th in the West.
Mikael Granlund – C – Minnesota Wild
If you think the Wild are foolish for slotting Granlund in as their number two center before he has even played an NHL game, then you probably haven’t watched a lot of Minnesota games recently. It’s been three years since Jacques Lemaire coached the team, but the stench of the neutral zone trap remains. The trap is almost like a plague that refuses to let go, even after the person who implemented it is long gone.
I have seen infomercials for toaster ovens that were more creative than Minnesota’s offense. If Granlund can duplicate some of this magic though, it should open some eyes.
He was displayed on a postage stamp in Finland for that effort. Right now I think Wild fans would settle for a promotional team advertisement on a Minneapolis bus.
Nail Yakupov – RW – Edmonton Oilers
It’s getting to the point in Edmonton now where there is just so much young talent, that it would be difficult not to put up decent numbers. With Yakupov’s skill set, he could do a lot better than decent.
I wrote in a recent piece that I thought Yakupov had the potential to hit 60 points in his rookie campaign. Now with a significantly shortened season that number may drop a bit, but if you compare the rookie years of Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, I think a point pace like they had would be realistic to expect.
Before long the Oilers may put Nugent-Hopkins and Yakupov together because of RNH’s passing ability. A sniper like Yakupov could be the perfect complement to his talents.
Vladimir Tarasenko – RW – St. Louis Blues
Tarasenko sounds like a villain from a James Bond film and should see some action in the Blues top six this year. St. Louis did a great job of keeping pucks out of the net in 2011-12, but they were in the bottom third of the league when it came to goals for. Tarasenko can certainly help out in that area as he had an impressive 23 goals in the KHL last season.
Right now he looks to be slotted next to a couple of guys with an abundance of offensive skill in Patrik Berglund and Andy McDonald. His puck-handling and individual ability is something the Blues have been lacking. If all goes well then those three could quickly become one of the more underrated second lines in hockey.
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