ATLANTA – At first blush, the Atlanta Thrashers are looking like geniuses for drafting Tobias Enstrom with the 239th pick almost five years ago.
But Thrashers GM-coach Don Waddell isn’t so sure.
“Geez, if we were that smart we would have drafted him in the first round,” Waddell said.
The guy has a point.
Watching Enstrom play this season, it’s almost impossible to fathom that 30 teams and hundreds of scouts could have been this wrong about a guy. Few outside the Thrashers organization and Enstrom’s immediate family had even heard of him prior to this season. And even those who knew him had no notion the little defenseman who could would come in and put together a season worthy of consideration for the Calder Trophy.
Almost two-thirds through the season, there is little doubt Enstrom has forced his way into the consciousness of voters for the Calder Trophy. At this point, the field has narrowed to a five-player race consisting of Patrick Kane, Nicklas Backstrom, Jonathan Toews, Peter Mueller and Enstrom.
When asked whether he knows much about the Calder Trophy, Enstrom says he’s know it goes to the rookie of the year, but hasn’t given much thought to winning it.
Obviously, he hasn’t looked at the NHL stats lately.
He leads all rookie defensemen in scoring by a mile with 3-27-30 totals, 11 points ahead of the next highest-scoring rookie rearguard, Dallas’s Matt Niskanen. Enstrom leads both Atlanta and all rookies in ice time with 23:55 per game and has been a calming influence on a Thrashers blueline that is not a strong one.
“It’s fun when people like what you’re doing,” said Enstrom, who will compete in the YoungStars game Saturday as part of the All-Star Game festivities.
Going into this season, if anyone were picking potential defensemen to win the Calder Trophy, the first two names that would have come to mind would be Jack Johnson and Erik Johnson. But while the two Americans have had their share of triumphs and tribulations, Enstrom has been very efficient and durable, reminding many of Detroit Red Wings defenseman Brian Rafalski, another smallish defenseman who was passed over by everyone until the New Jersey Devils signed him out of Finland in 1999.
It helps that Enstrom is 23 years old and has played several years in the Swedish Elite League and for the Tre Kronor in the World Championship. It also helps that Enstrom grew up just outside the northern town of Ornskoldsvik, which is the home of the MoDo hockey factory that has produced the likes of Peter Forsberg, Daniel and Henrik Sedin and Markus Naslund.
Enstrom is generously listed at 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds, which is something of a stretch, both figuratively and literally. Asked whether those vital stats were accurate, Enstrom paused for a second and said, “I don’t know.”
All of which makes his ascendancy in the rookie race all the more impressive. For a smaller player, he has been very durable this season and seems not to be intimidated by the more physical aspects of playing in the NHL.
“They have good players in Sweden, too,” he said, sounding as though he’s a little weary of answering that question. “And I played in the World Championship. The only thing different here is that the ice is a little smaller and the players are a little bigger.”
It was at the World Championship that Waddell surmised that Enstrom could step into the Thrashers lineup, although he professes to be surprised that Enstrom has been this good this early in his career.
“I’m surprised that he has been able to take on so much responsibility at such a young age,” Waddell said. “He has taken some big hits, but then again he doesn’t often put himself in real tough situations where he’s getting hit. But when he has gotten hit, he hasn’t missed a minute. He hasn’t missed a shift, actually.”
In other news from the All-Star Game weekend…
The NHL’s board of governors will meet Saturday and one of the items on the agenda will be the possibility of increasing the regular season to 84 games. There will not be a vote on the matter, but it will be discussed.
Any plan to increase the schedule would not come into effect until the 2009-10 season at the earliest. And considering that will be an Olympic year, it’s doubtful they would do it for that season.
“Personally, I do think 82 games are too much,” said San Jose Sharks coach Ron Wilson. “I’d like to see a 70-game schedule with a few more breaks in there.”
WADDELL TO THE RESCUE
Atlanta Thrashers coach Don Waddell agreed to serve as an assistant coach for the Eastern Conference after New Jersey Devils coach Brent Sutter pulled out because of a family commitment.
“I don’t know what the whole story is, but I guess Brent had some personal issues that came up,” Waddell said. “Being that we’re the host city and the coach is such a good guy, they called me and asked me if I would fill in for him.”
HOSSA DEADLINE LOOMING
Waddell also said the time for serious negotiations with pending unrestricted free agent Marian Hossa is coming very soon. He intends to meet with Hossa and his agent, Ritch Winter, on Monday and said he’ll have a very clear message.
“This thing is going to have to move to the next stage, it can’t just be baby steps any more,” Waddell said. “This thing has got to get moving quicker than it has been.”
Waddell claims he hasn’t had a single discussion with another GM about the possibility of trading Hossa before the Feb. 26 deadline. But he did acknowledge that if it’s clear a deal can’t get done by then, it is something he’ll have to consider.
“What assets would we get back if we decided to trade him?” Waddell said. “The value might be better to keep him for the rest of the year rather than take back a bunch of draft picks or something like that.”
LUCIC IN FIGHTING MOOD
Boston Bruins rookie Milan Lucic, who plays a rather robust game, said he won’t be looking for any fights in the YoungStars game Saturday. After all, there aren’t many fighters on the Western Conference squad and the only willing participant might be David Clarkson of the New Jersey Devils, who will be on his own team for the game.
“Maybe we’ll have to get something going,” Lucic said.
PERRON MAKES STRIDES
Two years ago, David Perron was playing Midget B hockey in Quebec and now he’s not only playing in the NHL, he has been a pleasant surprise during his rookie season.
“I always thought I was a good player,” said the St. Louis Blues rookie. “I just kept working harder than everybody else. A lot of coaches gave up on me, but I kept going.”