Rating the Rookies

This is another one of those posts that you need to start with “It’s still very early in the season but…”

Rookies mean more to NHL teams than they ever have before.  The game is faster and more suited to young players.  The salary cap makes giving a rookie (and his lower salary) significant ice time instead of signing a veteran to a big contract a good choice.

Each summer the top picks in the draft receive serious hype, and that’s understandable.  Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin were both rookies in 2005-2006 and they’re now household names.  Patrick Kane, a rookie in 2007-2008, scored the Stanley Cup winning goal back in June.  Steven Stamkos, whose rookie year came in 2008-2009, scored 51 goals last season to win a share of the Rocket Richard Trophy and is currently leading the league in scoring.

Their success has prompted us to look at this season’s crop of rookies and see how they’re doing so far.

Surprisingly, Mark Letestu of the Pittsburgh Penguins is currently leading all rookies in scoring.  The 25-year-old was never drafted, but was signed by the Penguins as a free agent in 2007.   He played 10 games with the Penguins last season, scoring once, and has taken on a lot of additional responsibility this year.

Letestu currently has four goals and three assists.  He’s found a niche filling in for Jordan Staal as the Pens’ second line center on most nights.  When Staal returns, will Letestu see his ice time shrink or will the team find a different spot for him?  The way he’s playing has made it difficult for the Pens to reduce his role at all.

Tyler Ennis of the Buffalo Sabres is tied with Letestu in points, but has fewer goals.  Ennis was selected 26th overall by the Sabres in 2008.  He made his NHL debut last season, scoring three goals and adding six assists in only ten games for the Sabres.  He added a goal and three assists in the playoffs, cementing himself in the Sabres line-up.

At this point in his career, John Carlson is probably best known as the man who broke the hearts of a nation.  Carlson scored the game winning goal in the 2010 World Junior Championship to win the game for the United States over the host country Canada.

Carlson played 22 games for the Capitals last season, scoring one goal and five assists.  He currently has one goal and five assists this season as well.

Unlike the other three players listed so far, Derek Stepan played his first NHL game this season, and what a game it was!  Stepan recorded a hat trick in his first career game, becoming only the fourth player in NHL history to do so.

The 20-year-old was drafted in the second round by the Rangers in 2008.  He currently has three goals and two assists on the season.  Stepan is already being called a “potential face of the franchise” and being given some serious ice time in New York.

Bryan Bickell is a rookie, but he already has a Stanley Cup ring on his finger.  Bickell played 16 regular season games for the Blackhawks last season, scoring three goals and one assist.  He also played in four playoff games for Chicago, recording an assist on Chicago’s run to the Cup.

He currently has two goals and three assists this season.

The five players listed are currently the rookie scoring leaders, but they’re obviously not the only players in the running for the Calder this season.  Edmonton’s trio of talented rookies, Jordan Eberle, Magnus Paajarvi and Taylor Hall have already had some early season success as have Jeff Skinner, Matt Taormina and Cam Fowler.

Montreal’s P.K. Subban and 2010 second overall pick Tyler Seguin of the Boston Bruins are also threats to take the Calder.

On the goaltending front, Michal Neuvirth, Anders Lindback, Sergei Bobrovsky and Jonathan Bernier look to be the early favourites.

This season’s crop of rookies is an excellent one, so the battle for the Calder Trophy will likely be hotly contested.