Before the calendar turned to 2012, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins could be forgiven for starting construction on the case to house his Calder Trophy as the NHL's best rookie. That dream took a hit thanks to a shoulder injury the 18-year-old sustained Jan. 2, his first game in the NHL's unofficial second half.
(In truth, by my count, the NHL has three unofficial lines of demarcation separating the first and second halves of the season: New Year's Day, the All-Star Game, and the point where most or all teams have played 41 games, which came about a week ago. But I digress.)
The Calder race has been thrown open with the first overall pick out for 3-to-4 weeks with a separated shoulder. So let's handicap the candidates.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, 3:2 - Of course he's still the favorite. If he returns at full strength in the allotted time period and doesn't aggravate the injury, RNH will still probably reach 60 points. However, this was but the first of what could potentially be multiple early-career injuries to his lanky six-foot, 171-pound frame. Once his body mass catches up to his skill, Nugent-Hopkins is going to be a dominating force in the NHL, but until then, don't be surprised if he finds his next couple seasons injury-shortened thanks to bruising blows by opposing defenders who outweigh him by 40 pounds or more.
Adam Henrique, 3:1 - I guess I owe you, my faithful readers, an apology on this one. I'm on record as a repeat Henrique basher. Okay, I didn't really bash the guy, but I said he'd never score at a particularly fantasy-relevant pace, and he's proven me wrong right away, racking up 34 points in 40 games - a far better scoring clip than he posted last season as a rookie in the AHL. It certainly doesn't hurt that he gets to play with Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise. Henrique has been everything you could possibly ask from a 21-year-old rookie, but he is nursing one of those dreaded groin injuries right now.
Jhonas Enroth, 5:1 - The only goalie with anything resembling a reasonable shot at the Calder, Enroth is held back by limited playing time (he's made 18 starts as Ryan Miller's backup) and a horrendous offense that's tied for the second-lowest goal total in the Eastern Conference. Despite all that, the 23-year-old netminder has put up a .924 save percentage and 2.42 GAA, sparkling figures both. If Miller continues to struggle (he allowed five goals Monday, the fourth time that's happened this year in 27 starts), Enroth could see a bigger share of the time and play his way into stronger Calder consideration.
Cody Hodgson, 6:1 - At 21 years old, the 10th overall pick in 2008 was not a hot commodity coming into this season after a fairly ugly AHL debut last year (just 30 points and a minus-12 rating in 52 games). This year, after another sluggish start - just three points in his first 11 outings - Hodgson has righted the ship and become a steady contributor for a Canucks team that's just swimming with scoring talent. Since that atrocious start, he's got 23 points in 35 games, a much more reasonable pace, and has been especially solid early in 2012, scoring six points in seven January games thus far.
Matt Read, 9:1 - The 25-year-old Read came to the Flyers unheralded and undrafted, which won't do him any favors, but he's been an offensive force for a team that's had to deal with both turnover and injuries up front this year. With 27 points and a plus-10 in 40 games, Read's outpacing Hodgson, but that lack of pedigree will hold him back when it comes to trophy time. I'll be the first to admit that, had I not looked it up just now, I wouldn't even know where Read's alma mater, Bemidji State University, is located. Ignore him at your own risk in fantasy, though.
Ryan Ellis, 12:1 - The dark horse has a major disadvantage: While the rest of the group has been playing in the big leagues all year, Ellis toiled in the AHL for 26 games before getting the call and has just nine NHL games to his credit so far. However, those nine games have gone about as well as you could ask - he's got two goals and five points (all in the last five games) and is plus-5 - not bad for an undersized defenseman whose ability to contribute on the NHL level was questioned by a lot of scouts. Ellis has forward skills and now he has opportunity with Ryan Suter hurting. How many points will he need over the second half of the season for him to shock the world and win the Calder? I'd guess a lot. But if there was ever a good bet to put up that many, it's Ellis. The shot and the offensive awareness are top-notch.
A few even darker horses: Gabriel Landeskog, Craig Smith, Slava Voynov.
T.J. Brennan, D, BUF - The main thing to know about Brennan is that he's got a big shot. The guy can put the puck in the net; he did it 15 times for AHL Portland last year, and he's done it another seven times for Buffalo's new affiliate in Rochester this year. The Sabres have a lot of defensemen who can put up points, although they don't have a lot who actually are putting up points. The result is that Brennan is going to see limited ice time for now - he played 11:39 Monday in his first game back - but there's potential for an increased role on the struggling Buffalo blue line.
Jake Gardiner, D, TOR - Sent down Sunday, called up Monday. That's what happens when your AHL and NHL franchises are in the same city. Gardiner had been scratched for a few games before the send-down, so this is odd timing. A point-per-game scorer last season as a junior at Wisconsin, the former first-rounder (No. 17 in 2008 by the Ducks) picked up an assist in his lone AHL game Sunday.
Paul Postma, D, WPG - As usual, Postma's shown us a combination of high-flying offense (27 points in 30 games for AHL St. John's) and unimpressive defense (minus-5). You can deal with some defensive lapses if a guy is putting up points, though, and the 2007 seventh-round draft pick has racked up 33 goals and 93 points in 152 games over the last three seasons. That translates to 17 goals and 32 assists per 82 games. That's borderline elite production from the blue line. Four NHL games (one last year, three earlier this year) yielded nothing thus far for Postma, and he was scratched on Sunday, but the potential is there and the Jets need to give the kid some ice time to work with. What are Mark Flood, Randy Jones and Johnny Oduya giving Winnipeg that Postma can't?
Jordan Caron, RW, BOS - Caron is kind of like Zac Dalpe, except (arguably) not as good. The No. 25 overall pick in 2009 has made quite a few appearances in this space, as he's been asked to make the trip from Boston to Providence and back quite a few times in his two years in the league. Caron's got a fairly big body and some two-way skills, but he never really lit it up in juniors, nor did he in the AHL last year (28 points in 47 games). He's collected a somewhat respectable nine points in 12 AHL games this season, including three in his last three before the recall, but the 21-year-old's skills are more those of a grinder than a scorer. He doesn't seem to be showing signs of developing into anything more than a checking forward with occasional scoring punch.
Cody Eakin, C, WAS - One of the few Hershey players I thought was truly noticeable on the ice at the AHL Winter Classic, the 20-year-old Eakin has had a very impressive start to his pro career. Two years ago, the ginger-haired Winnipeg native scored two goals in four games in an AHL trial after the end of his junior season, and he's returned with 15 points (seven goals, eight assists) in 18 games this season. It hasn't been as easy to contribute on the NHL level, where Eakin's got six points in 22 games despite averaging just 9:36 of ice time. He's seen even less time since this recall, averaging just less than seven minutes in two games.
Erik Gustafsson, D, PHI - Gustafsson's been up to his playmaking ways in AHL Adirondack this year, picking up nine points (all assists) in 13 games. After a 44-assist season last year, it's no surprise to see the 23-year-old Swede piling up helpers when healthy. He'd been out since mid-November with a wrist injury, just returning to Adirondack for five games before getting the call back to Philadelphia. He's stuck in that sixth/seventh defenseman mix for now and he's a little small for defense, but the playmaking upside is undeniable.
Simon Despres, D, PIT - Despres went scoreless in his three-game visit back in the AHL, continuing a season-long trend - he has just seven points in 25 AHL games and four in 14 on the NHL level. The plus side is that the 20-year-old showed offensive upside in juniors (88 points in 110 games over the last two seasons) and hasn't been overmatched in the big leagues, largely thanks to his size - at 6-4, 225, the kid is quite a load. He's gonna be a good one for the Pens, and he's fairly polished defensively already, but the scoring will probably take a few years to come along.
Jacob Josefson, C, NJD - Sent down early last week and called up from his rehab stint Tuesday (he had a broken clavicle that cost him most of the first half), Josefson is slated to play Tuesday night against Winnipeg. The 20-year-old former first-rounder (20th overall in '09) has offensive upside, or so we're told, but hasn't shown it yet - he has just 13 points in 20 AHL games and 11 in 33 in the bigs.
Andre Petersson, RW, OTT - A fourth-round pick by the Sens in '08, Petersson didn't come to North America until this year, but he's been quite successful with AHL Binghamton, totaling 25 points (12 goals, 13 assists) in 30 games. He's a small guy at 5-9, 172, and his commitment to the defensive aspects of the game has been questioned, but there's no question that Petersson has high-end offensive talent. The question is whether his size and his playing style (best described as cherry-picking) will work in the NHL. My thinking is that it might, but it's going to take some time for the 21-year-old to develop further. He wasn't in Tuesday's lineup after being recalled.
Ben Smith, RW, CHI - This year has been cathartic for Smith, who's got 21 points in 22 games for AHL Rockford. Once upon a time (okay, 2008), the Blackhawks thought they committed highway robbery by drafting Smith, a 25-goal, 50-point scorer as a sophomore at Boston College, in the sixth round. His stock was boosted in '07-'08 by playing next to undersized wunderkind Nathan Gerbe, who racked up 68 points that year and went on to AHL stardom and (so far) NHL anonymity. Meanwhile, Smith stayed at BC and struggled badly, scoring just 17 points in 37 games as a junior. He did bounce back somewhat in his final season, but an unimpressive AHL debut took the shine off even that. This year's been a different story, though, and a long road has brought him to the NHL. He fits that third- or fourth-line role the 'Hawks will ask him to play.
Matt Hackett, G, MIN - Hackett was called up with Niklas Backstrom feeling ill, but with Backstrom on the mend, back to the minors he goes. The former third-round pick backed up Josh Harding for a few games, making eight saves on eight shots in his lone appearance. In first his three NHL appearances, Hackett has stopped 84 of 86 shots for a .977 save percentage and 0.85 GAA. It's a small sample for the 21-year-old netminder, but one that's supported by the work he's done at AHL Houston, where he's 13-6-3 with a .922 save percentage and 2.29 GAA. There's a lot to like here for the future, assuming he can find some playing time.
Kevin Poulin, G, NYI - As I noted last week, Poulin was white-hot before being called up, piling up shutouts and reversing a season's worth of bad feeling, and then sat on the Islanders' bench while Evgeni Nabokov took most of the starts. Poulin did finally get into one on Monday, stopping 29 of 32 in a loss to Nashville. The Islanders' ability to mismanage almost every single thing about their franchise remains uncanny.
Evgeny Grachev, C, STL - Once a hot prospect, Grachev wrote his ticket out of the Rangers' organization with two substandard seasons in the AHL, and things haven't been a whole load better with the Blues. After impressing in camp, he made the roster, mostly played on the fourth line, and never showed much offensively. He's got just four points and 13 shots on goal in 24 NHL games this season. You don't expect much from 9:19 of average ice time, but you can certainly expect more than that. He's also scoreless in six AHL tilts. Not promising.
David Rundblad, D, PHO - Rundblad actually has assists in both of his games for Phoenix, but the 'Yotes are staying patient with him and giving him time in AHL Portland, where he has two goals in two games thus far. Things are pointing up for the Swedish blue-liner, whose star potential shouldn't be ignored just because two organizations (the Blues and the Senators) have traded him already. Remember, this is a kid who put up 50 points in the Swedish league last year at age 20.
The Future to Come
Every week in this space, I'll feature one college player and one junior player who are making their mark.
This week's college prospect is Juho Olkinuora, a freshman goalie for the University of Denver. An older freshman at 21, Olkinuora comes from Finland and played a season with the Sioux Falls Stampede of the USHL before landing at a respectable college program in Denver. Olkinuora struggled early last year with Sioux Falls, but found his game late in the season and earned himself some attention from major college programs. He's carried that confidence and success forward with Denver, posting a terrific 2.24 GAA and .921 save percentage through 16 games this season. Olkinuora will have a long road to the NHL, as he wasn't drafted, but the late bloomer's name is a good one for fantasy owners to keep in mind. He'd be playing professionally in Finland right now if he wasn't in college, and if he keeps this up, he'll more than likely sign on with an NHL franchise sometime late in his college career. He could be a sneaky fantasy add in a few years.
I think I may start working some international players into this. The college well is running dry.
Our junior prospect of the week is right wing Patrick Holland of the WHL's Tri-City Americans. You may recall hearing the 20-year-old's name recently - indeed, his rights came along with Rene Bourque to the Canadiens in the Michael Cammalleri trade. Calgary claimed Holland in the seventh round, No. 193 overall in 2010, and he's paid off with two seasons of significant growth. After raising his point total from 36 two years ago to 62 in 71 games last year, he's already put up 62 this season in just 43 contests. Holland has developed into a terrific playmaker with great ice vision, but his challenge remains adding more size and strength if he wants to become an NHL player. At six feet tall, he's got a frame to build on, and the Habs clearly saw something they liked - even if he doesn't speak French, as far as I know.
Something to ask? Something to say? Prospects you're dying to hear about? You can contact me here.