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McKenzie: Lower-profile rookies could make some noise

Bob McKenzie
10/7/2010 1:22:17 PM
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Odds are this season's Calder Trophy winner will come from the Top 10 rookies that my colleague Darren Dreger unveiled Wednesday night on the NHL on TSN's Preview Show
     
But that doesn't mean there aren't some intriguing rookies who maybe don't have quite the same profile, and I'll be watching a lot of them to see if they make some noise this season.
    
So here you go, a very personal and highly subjective list of 10 rookies, in no particular order, who didn't make the Top 10 rookies, but who, for one reason or another, could be heard from this season:
 
    1. Derek Stepan of the New York Rangers. Really, really like this kid. Great pedigree, a Minnesotan who played at Wisconsin and was one of the best players at last year's World Junior Championship. Hockey smart, with and without the puck. He's a hockey player's hockey player and while it may be a little much to expect him to be able to centre Alex Frolov and Marian Gaborik on the Rangers' No. 1 line, I keep wondering if he's not the Rangers' best option there and just allow him to grow into the position. The only thing I don't like about the kid is that I hear Ranger voice Sam Rosen calling him Stuh-PAN. I had always assumed it was Step-in. Sam would know. I find Stuh-PAN difficult to say quickly. I'm sure I'll get over it and hope to say his name many times this season. If Stepan can step up -- and really, it's tough to forecast with rookies -- the 20-year-old second-rounder could be a major impact player for a Ranger team that may be on the cusp of the playoffs.
 
    2. Andrei Loktionov of the Los Angeles Kings. Boy, do the Kings start the season with a lot of rookies. Goalie Jonathan Bernier is the high profile one, but Loktionov, Brayden Schenn, Kyle Clifford, Trevor Lewis and Jake Muzzin all will get a chance early to see what they've got and where, or if, they fit in to the Kings' plans for a full season. Any of them, outside of Bernier, could end up back in the minors or junior, but of that group, I'm most curious to see what the Russian centre Loktionov does. He's 20 years old, a second-year pro who left Windsor of the Ontario Hockey League to play for Manchester of the AHL last season,although his first pro season ended prematurely because of injury. He's not that big or powerful and he doesn't necessarily have blinding speed, but some have suggested he has a lot of the same cerebral and skillful qualities as his hockey hero, Igor Larionov. The Kings could use some natural offensive flair and skill up front but whether Loktionov can seize the opportunity at this time remains to be seen. It could be Schenn who emerges. It could be Loktionov. It could be neither of them when all is said and done. But this Kings' group of rookies is an interesting one, well worth monitoring.
 
    3. Tommy Wingels of the San Jose Sharks. Great hockey name, isn't it? Especially for a 22-year-old college centre turned pro winger. Wingels the winger. Another kid with pedigree. A captain at one of college hockey's best programs, Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. On the Sharks, Wingels may be more of a depth winger -- with Marleau, Heatly, Setoguchi and Clowe ahead of him -- but smart hockey players with tenacity and skill find a way to make their mark and that description fits Wingels, a late-round Sharks' draft pick. By the way, we'll give no. 3a on this list to Wingels' more experienced rookie teammate, Logan Couture, who was taken ninth overall in 2007. I was surprised to see the rookie asterisk beside Couture's name in the NHL stats, only because it seems like the San Jose first rounder has been around for a long time. Couture is now a third-year pro who played 25 NHL regular season games last season. If he had played 26, he wouldn't be Calder eligible. Couture is another guy with a good hockey IQ and the flexibility to play wing or centre and maybe, at times, creep into the Sharks' top 6, depending upon the need.
 
    4. Nick Leddy of the Chicago Blackhawks. When the Minnesota Wild took him 16th overall in 2009, it raised a few eyebrows. And there was a sense in the year that followed that perhaps he wasn't developing like people thought he should as a freshman at the University of Minnesota. Since the Wild's immediate need was for a more experienced blueliner, Leddy was traded last spring, part of the package going to Chicago for Cam Barker, but lo and behold, who do the Blackhawks have in their opening-day lineup but Leddy. He's a terrific skater who gets the Phil Housley comparison and Joel Quenneville seems to have taken a shine to him, playing him 20-plus minutes in some pre-season games. The caution flag is always out for any 19 year old defenceman in the NHL, but in a year where rookies P.K. Subban, John Carlson and Oliver Ekman-Larsson are supposed to generate excitement from the blueline, Leddy will be one to watch. The Hawks have other rookies to keep an eye, too. Bryan Bickell may finally emerge as a regular and I'll be curious to see whether tough guy Kyle Beach is ready for prime time, too.
 
    5. Marcus Johansson of the Washington Capitals. The first-rounder, 24th overall in 2009, isn't the biggest or flashiest rookie, that is for sure, but there's plenty of flash and dash on the Capitals already and they could use a dose of what Johansson offers -- a speedy and sound two-way game. Having played in the Swedish Elite League, Johansson should be able to handle the transition to the NHL and his role as a third-line centre on the Capitals. The kid won't make headlines, especially on a team with Ovechkin, Backstrom, Green, Semin et al, but if he's a conscientous all-around centre who can log decent two-way minutes, he may in his own subtle way make a contribution far exceeding a lot of the more exciting rookies in this year's class. Belated birthday wishes to him, by the way. Turned 20 yesterday.
 
    6. Sergei Bobrovsky of the Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers are trying not to get too excited too early about the Russian goalie they call BOB, but he's coming off a good year and the KHL and the 22-year-old had the kind of training camp in Philadelphia that allows the Flyer hiearchy to dream a little. He has a great work ethic, moves well, is well liked by his teammates and he just goes about the business of stopping the puck and looking good doing it. The injury to Michael Leighton opens the door for BOB to be an early-season story so this is one of the most fascinating sidebars to this season, especially since he gets the nod over Brian Boucher as the starter in Game 1 for Philadelphia. As for other rookie goalies, I am interested to see how many games Cory Schneider plays in Vancouver and whether he's ready to show he's going to be a No. 1 in the next year or two, and I'm constantly amazed at the size of some goalies coming into the league now. Nashville back-up Anders Lindback, a Swede, is 6-foot-6, basically the same as starter Pekka Rinne, who is also close to 6-6. That's 13 feet of goaltender in Nashville. Calgary backup Henrik Karlsson isn't considered a rookie, but he's also 6-foot-6. Holy moly, those are big goalies.
 
    7. T.J. Brodie of the Calgary Flames. Any rookie defenseman who scores four goals in five pre-season games is going to get noticed and there's no question, the OHL (Saginaw and Barrie) graduate has earned a spot on the Flames' starting six, with veterans Steve Staois and Cory Sarich the odd men out, at least to start the season. But Brodie's game tailed off a little as camp went on and the Flames are watching him closely to see if the 20-year-old first-year pro is actually ready for NHL regular season activity. No one expects him to score almost a goal a game, but they will have to find out if he's capable of top six minutes at this stage in his development. So far, so good, but as the old saying goes, the pre-season is the pre-season...
 
    8. Jordan Caron of the Boston Bruins. Tyler Seguin, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2010 draft, naturally gets the lion's share of the attention and rightfully so, but the 20 year old first-year pro from the Quebec League looks as though he's going to be given a shot to show he belongs in the Bruins' top nine forwards. Through much of camp he was given the plum assignment of skating alongside Patrice Bergeron and Mark Recchi, but now he has to prove he's capable of doing that on a fulltime basis. He's a big, strong kid with a solid two-way approach.
 
    9. Eric Tangradi of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Any young winger in Pittsburgh, especially one who could end up playing on a line with Mike Comrie and Evgeny Malkin, is worth a look, especially if he's a big body like Tangradi who has a good touch around the net. The knock on the Anaheim second rounder in 2007, who has a year of minor pro experience, is that he's not fleet of foot but he'll be given every opportunity in a significant role to show he's ready. And, really, it's not everyday the Penguins inject a 21-year-old quasi-homegrown winger into the lineup.
 
    10. It's my list, I can do with it what I like, so there are two players at No. 10 and neither is starting the season in the NHL, but they strike me as guys who, depending upon their play in the minors and/or the play of other players on their NHL teams, could get the call at some point.
 

The first is Chicago prospect Jeremy Morin, who was terrific in training camp, scoring one goal and four assists in six games. He came over from a trade with Atlanta, where he was a second-round pick. The book on Morin has always been a great natural sniper with a pro release but skating deficiencies. The 19-year-old worked hard this summer on his skating with former U.S. Olympic speedskater David Cruikshank in Milwaukee and the Hawks were impressed with his improved speed and natural offensive ability. If Morin plays well in Rockford, and Viktor Stalberg or others stumble in Chicago, the still junior eligible Morin could make a return appearance.
 
I sense the same sort of possibility for Montreal forward Ryan White, who was sent to Hamilton of the AHL even though he was arguably one of the better pre-season players for the Canadiens. White was a victim of the contract game. He outplayed Benoit Pouliot, and others, in Montreal, but Pouliot is on a one-way contract and White is on a convenient two-way deal. So White went down, even though he was clearly one of Montreal's top 12 forwards when they broke camp. Financial considerations are inevitable in today's game, but at some point playing the game has to be the bottom line and if White is able to put his demotion disappointment behind him, and any of Montreal's younger players trip up, a return to the NHL could be in the cards. The 22-year-old third-year pro has worked hard to improve his skating and get stronger and all he did in training camp was skate, hit, fight, score and make plays. He had two goals, three points, was plus-four and had 27 PIMs.

Bob McKenzie

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