There's little doubt the number of first-year players finding success during this shortened NHL season will make choosing this year's Calder Memorial Trophy winner a painstaking task.
Several names already have been mentioned as viable candidates as the League's top rookie, but at the quarter-mark of the season, St. Louis Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko is our favorite to capture the award.
Not since Pittsburgh Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin burst upon the scene in 2006-07 has a Russian player started his career with such promise. During Malkin's Calder Trophy-winning season, he opened with seven goals and 11 points in six games.
Tarasenko had four goals and eight points in his first six games, leaving little doubt that the 2010 first-round NHL Draft pick (No. 16) was ready for the North American game. He's also earned the trust and respect of coach Ken Hitchcock, who has the 21-year-old earning quality minutes among the top-six forwards. He's played mostly on a line with Andy McDonald and Alexander Steen.
Tarasenko, who has been honing his skills in the KHL since he was 17, has six goals, 11 points and a minus-2 rating in 13 games, playing an average 14:27.
In his debut against the Detroit Red Wings on Jan. 19, Tarasenko scored goals on each of his first two shots in a 6-0 victory. He then had a goal and two assists two days later in a 4-3 shootout win against the Nashville Predators to become the first Blues rookie in nearly 35 years to record five points in his first two NHL games (Wayne Babych, 1978-79).
"[Tarasenko] just kind of wowed you with his tenacity on the puck, his ability to make plays in small spaces ... Jere was like that," Hitchcock told the St. Louis-Post Dispatch. "Vladie is still learning the game, like Jere was. Vladie is a much better checker than people think. He's a powerful man at 202 pounds and he's got that quick release like Lehtinen had. He makes plays every game."
Tarasenko's feistiness is evidenced by the fact he ranks in the top 10 in hits among rookies this season.
Cory Conacher, Tampa Bay Lightning: The undrafted 5-foot-8, 170-pound forward out of Canisius College leads all rookies in points (12) and is tied for second in goals (five). Conacher has five multipoint games playing mostly on a line with Vincent Lecavalier and Teddy Purcell. He was named the winner of the Les Cunningham Award as the American Hockey League's Most Valuable Player last season after totaling 39 goals and 80 points for the Calder Trophy-winning Norfolk Admirals, becoming the fourth rookie to win the award since it was first presented in 1947-48. Conacher spent four seasons at Canisius before signing an AHL contract with Norfolk. He signed a two-year NHL deal with the Lightning in March 2012.
Justin Schultz, Edmonton Oilers: Schultz, a Hobey Baker Award finalist in each of the past two seasons at the University of Wisconsin, leads all rookie defensemen in goals, points, power-play goals, shots on goal and average ice time. Drafted in the second round by the Anaheim Ducks in 2008, he signed with the Oilers as a free agent in July. He started his season with 18 goals, 48 points and a plus-8 rating in 34 games with the Oilers' American Hockey League team, the Oklahoma City Barons.
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mikemorrealeNHL
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