John Tavares was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 NHL draft. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)
August. Ugh. The dog days of the NHL summer. Next to nothing is happening, anywhere. There’s little to talk about, but it is a good time to make some early predictions.
This year’s crop of potential rookies is as good as it’s been since the heady days of Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby in 2005. There are college underclassmen and free agents, European pros and hot-shot juniors all ready to make the jump to the show.
What are the chances one of these 10 youngsters will walk off the stage in Las Vegas with the Calder next June? Pretty good, although under-the-radar guys usually jump to the fore as well (See: Mason, Steve, 2009). But these are our favorites, in this order, to make the biggest rookie splashes in the NHL this season.
10. Zach Boychuk, C, Carolina
The 14th pick in 2008 will turn 20 when the season starts. He’s a natural goal-scorer who potted 110 goals in four Western League seasons for mediocre Lethbridge teams. The Canes will give Boychuk, who saw two games of action with the team last season, every chance to make the NHL, as Rod Brind’Amour begins to show signs of his age.
9. Artem Anisimov, C, New York Rangers
Although little-known, expect Anisimov to have every chance at a big season on Broadway. The 21-year-old was the 54th pick of the 2006 draft and last season led New York’s American League affiliate, Hartford, in scoring with 37 goals and 81 points – good for fifth in the league. With Scott Gomez gone to Montreal, the Blueshirts need someone to fill the offensive void down the middle and Anisimov will be given every opportunity to be that player.
8. Matt Duchene, C, Colorado
With Joe Sakic’s retirement, Duchene’s chances of making the Avalanche got much better. He’s got the skill, but another year of seasoning – and dominating – in junior might be best for the 18-year-old’s development. But this kid can fly and he’s confident; think Steven Stamkos. The third-overall pick in 2009 will have his Calder chances hurt by a lack of scorers to play with in Colorado, although the Avs’ depth problems will mean more ice time for Duchene, so anything is possible.
7. Victor Hedman, D, Tampa Bay
Many would have assumed the No. 2 pick in June and Swedish Elite League stud to be higher on this list, but two things bumped him down: First, defense is a hard position to play, especially on a new ice surface. Second, the new depth on Tampa’s blueline means Hedman, 18, won’t be thrown to the wolves just yet. That’s a good thing for him and his team. By season’s end we predict Hedman to be the No. 2 or 3 man in the Bolts D-corps, but that won’t be enough to earn him the Calder.
6. Colin Wilson, C, Nashville
The seventh pick in 2008 will turn 20 in late October and is the future No. 1 pivot in Nashville. This season he can fill a big hole as a second- or third-line center, as David Legwand has not turned into the scorer the Preds felt he’d be. The 6-foot-1, 215-pounder was dominant with NCAA-champion Boston University, totaling 17 goals and 55 points in 43 games as a sophomore.
5. Nikita Filatov, LW, Columbus
The sixth pick in 2008 showed flashes of brilliance in eight games with the Blue Jackets last season, including an impressive hat trick. The 19-year-old finished the season with AHL Syracuse, where he had 16 goals and 32 points in 39 games, while adapting to North American ice. He’s a sniper in a waif’s body (just 172 pounds), which may hamper his ability to stay healthy.
4. Semyon Varlamov, G, Washington
The 21-year-old proved he has the stuff to succeed in the NHL – and if he can permanently unseat Jose Theodore as the No. 1 in Washington, he will have a chance at 40 wins. The 23rd pick in 2006 showed he was still a little rough around the edges last year, but also that he’s got the mental makeup to bounce back from rough outings, something every top-flight goaltender must have. But he must be the No. 1 to have any Calder hopes.
3, Cody Hodgson, C, Vancouver
The reigning Canadian major junior player of the year is a hot Calder pick with nothing left to prove in the Ontario League. And since the 19-year-old is too young to play a season in the AHL (where he enjoyed 11 productive playoff games last season), he’s really got nowhere else to go other than the Canucks. His rookie-of-the-year chances will depend on how far up the depth chart the 10th selection in 2008 can move; if he can’t get to the No. 2 center spot – or at least No. 3 – it’s bye-bye Calder.
2. Ville Leino, LW, Detroit
With the free agent defections of Marian Hossa, Jiri Hudler and Mikael Samuelsson, there are suddenly big offensive holes to fill in Detroit. GM Ken Holland has tried a band-aid solution by signing reclamation-project wingers to one-year deals (Jason Williams, Todd Bertuzzi, Patrick Eaves), but it’s Leino who will bear much of the burden. Coach Mike Babcock called the 25-year-old the best player he’d ever had to cut after training camp last year. Leino went on to have a strong AHL season, while also managing five goals and nine points in 13 games with the Wings. He is currently slotted as the No. 2 left winger on a strong offensive team.
1. John Tavares, C, New York Islanders
We know; Tavares is the easy choice. But he’s also the most logical. Not only will he be the NHL’s poster boy for everything Calder this season, the OHL’s all-time leading goal-scorer is already the No. 1 center on his NHL team – and training camp hasn’t even started. Expect J.T. to win his team’s scoring race and make those around him better just about every night. This kid is special because he rises to the occasion when it matters most – the mark of a superstar, albeit in-the-making. There may not be too many occasions worth rising to on the Island this season, but Tavares will be out to prove all year why he’s been touted as the next great goal-scoring center since he was a 14-year-old. Now that’s a personal challenge worth rising to.
The THN.com Top 10 appears Wednesdays only on TheHockeyNews.com.
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