The excitement over the play of those rookies starring in the National Hockey League from the 2013 draft class has certainly been a major talking point this season, but don't overlook the sudden impact exhibited by several first-round picks chosen just one year earlier.
There were actually two first-round selections in the 2012 draft who spent a full season with their respective teams immediately after being selected – Nail Yakupov of the Edmonton Oilers and Alex Galchenyuk of the Montreal Canadiens. Both players, coincidentally, spent their major-junior career as linemates for the Sarnia Sting in the Ontario Hockey League.
Yakupov, the No. 1 pick in the draft, finished fifth in the voting for the Calder Trophy last season as the NHL’s rookie of the year. Galchenyuk, the No. 3 pick, was ninth in the voting.
The former teammates faced each other on Oct. 10 for the first time since being drafted, and Galchenyuk got the best of his good friend with a goal and one assist in a 4-1 victory in Edmonton.
"We lived together for two years and we’re great friends," Galchenyuk told Montreal’s website. "It was a unique experience. I didn’t talk to him at all before, but we saw each other in warmup and gave each other a little nod. It was fun."
In his rookie year, Yakupov earned time among the top-six forwards in Edmonton and also paid his dues on the third and fourth lines, learning from veterans Shawn Horcoff and Ryan Smyth. He finished with 17 goals, 31 points and a minus-4 rating in 48 games.
"I'm not so sure if it's becoming a younger League," Yzerman told NHL.com. "I think it's important for teams to have young players because, quite simply, you need guys playing on entry-level contracts because there's a salary cap. In a player’s second and third contract, they’re already becoming very expensive. So you need young guys to fill out your roster."
Here are the players from the 2012 draft class currently providing reason for optimism with their respective franchise. The number in parenthesis represents the slot in which that player was drafted in the first round.
Nail Yakupov, F, Edmonton Oilers (No. 1): The flashy Russian has had a rough start to the season, and has been a healthy scratch for the past two games. Despite earning time on the team’s second power-play unit in the first four contests, Yakupov is still seeking his first point of the 2013-14 campaign. He also bristled at the benching, and his remarks to the Edmonton Journal about not wanting to change how he plays likely drew the ire of Edmonton's coaching staff and management.
He did have four goals in his first six games last season and seven in the final six, so he's proven can be a streaky scorer once he gets going.
"The danger of [Yakupov] is he doesn’t need five chances to score one goal," Edmonton coach Dallas Eakins told the Edmonton Journal. "If he gets five chances, it might be five goals. He’s clearly a guy the other team should be nervous about. We just have to get him to a level where he’s dangerous offensively every shift and making the right decisions when we don’t have it.
"The more experienced a player the more level, even-keel they play every night. The more inexperienced the player, the more ups and downs, from game to game and from shift to shift. We’ve got a lot of work to do with Yak, but he’s got so much upside."
*Ryan Murray, D, Columbus Blue Jackets (No. 2): The 6-foot-1, 205-pound defenseman is proving to be a pretty valuable asset despite the fact he missed most of the 2012-13 campaign because of shoulder surgery. Paired with James Wisnieweski, Murray has averaged more than 15:30 in ice time this season.
"The thing that impresses me the most about Ryan is here's a player who hasn't played for a long time because of his shoulder surgery, yet he is such a quick thinking, creative brain with the puck," Blue Jackets president of hockey operations John Davidson told NHL.com. "He's smart and strong, but it's his puck play, whether on the power play or breakouts, that impresses me. He's quick and concise and creative and against the grain sometimes. Those are instincts you can't teach. He's got some things that make him really fun to watch."
Alex Galchenyuk, F, Montreal Canadiens (No. 3): Galchenyuk opened the season strong, posting seven points and a plus-5 rating in five games to earn a share of the League scoring lead before Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby overtook him. Many believe he might turn out to be the best player from the 2012 class. He’s certainly benefitted on a line centered by Lars Eller and feisty right wing Brendan Gallagher.
What made Galchenyuk’s 2012-13 season most impressive was the fact he missed his entire draft year with a torn ACL, yet earned 12:19 of ice time per game and finished with nine goals, 27 points and a plus-14 rating in 48 games with the Canadiens.
"I didn't really expect Galchenyuk to come in and produce right away the way he did [in 2012-13] because he missed the previous season, but the work stoppage certainly played to his benefit," Canadiens director of amateur scouting Trevor Timmins told NHL.com. "He was able to get some games under his belt at the amateur level and the World Junior level, and when we did start to play again, was able to step right in and continue forward."
*Morgan Rielly, D, Toronto Maple Leafs (No. 5): Whether or not he remains with Toronto for the full season remains to be seen, but Rielly has played well alongside Cody Franson for the Maple Leafs this season. In four games, the 19-year-old left-handed shot has one assist and has generated nine shots.
"Obviously we feel strongly that Morgan is a young kid that has shown a lot of potential and has played well in training camp," Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle told the team’s website. "There are a lot of positives taking place with a young player. We just have to measure if it's going to be productive both for him and for our hockey club for him to play in the NHL this year. It's a difficult decision.''
*Mathew Dumba, D, Minnesota Wild (No. 7): Dumba impressed the coaching staff in the preseason when he was paired with Clayton Stoner and he scored his first NHL goal Oct. 12 in a victory against the Dallas Stars. Dumba, who also performed well at the eight-team Traverse City Prospects Tournament in September, is trying his best to impress enough to make the decision of returning him to the Red Deer Rebels in the Western Hockey League a difficult one.
"Clearly he's played well at the junior level and has spent three seasons [with Red Deer], but we really believe he deserves a long look," Minnesota Wild GM Chuck Fletcher told NHL.com. "The things he does well we could use. He skates well, shoots the puck and has an ability out of zone to join the rush on the power play. The things he brings, every team could use. He's played well and defended well."
*Jacob Trouba, D, Winnipeg Jets (No. 9): The 6-foot-2, 187-pound defender has been paired with different players, including Zach Bogosian and Mark Stuart in the early part of the season. Trouba scored his first NHL goal and first assist Oct. 1 in a 5-4 victory against the Edmonton Oilers. He led the Jets in ice time in that contest, logging 25:02 and is currently averaging more than 23 minutes for coach Claude Noel.
"He's got a lot of poise with the puck," Noel told the Winnipeg Sun. "He plays in straight lines and makes good decisions. He's pretty much carried over the preseason into the regular season."
*Filip Forsberg, F, Nashville Predators (No. 11): Acquired by the Predators last April in a trade with the Washington Capitals, Forsberg had missed the team’s first two regular season games with a lower-body injury, but has since returned and been playing on a line alongside center Matt Cullen and left wing Craig Smith. The 19-year-old Swede has one goal in three games while averaging just less than 14 minutes of ice time.
"He’s got those magic hands," Nashville coach Barry Trotz told The Tennessean. "He’s slippery in tight spaces, and I think as he keeps growing as a player you’re going to see some of those qualities come out. He doesn’t seem to be intimidated by a whole heck of a lot."
*Mikhail Grigorenko, F, Buffalo Sabres (No. 12): Grigorenko has the goods needed to have an impact in the League, but patience is required on a team loaded with young talent. He had one goal and four assists in 25 games, generated 31 shots and averaged 10:14 of ice time while playing a bottom-six role with the Sabres in 2012-13. The 6-foot-3, 209-pound center was also a healthy scratch five times. It’s evident that Grigorenko just needs to regain that confidence he had playing with the Quebec Remparts in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
"I wasn't confident [in 2012-13]," he said. "I was a little nervous, even in the locker room. This year, I've got confidence and I've gotten used to the guys, and I've gotten adjusted a little more. I'm a little bit more comfortable this year."
*Zemgus Girgensons, F, Buffalo Sabres (No. 14): While his game is still evolving, Girgensons has had success and is considered one of the team’s bright spots at the forward position in the future. He’s logged bottom-six minutes for the most part, averaging a little more than 13 minutes of ice time, and has one goal in six games.
"He's getting the puck in and getting it out when he needs to, and he's in there and forechecking and getting to the net," veteran Sabres forward Kevin Porter said. "That's his game. He's going to score a lot of goals five feet, six feet in front the net. I think he's done a great job so far."
*Tomas Hertl, F, San Jose Sharks (No. 17): What more can be said of the high-flying Czech? Prior to sustaining an upper-body injury on Oct. 12, Hertl was leading the League with seven goals and eight points. The 6-foot-2 wing had four goals in a victory against the New York Rangers on Oct. 8, his fourth scored was a through-the-legs shot that made highlight reels of sports shows across North America.
"How he sees and plays the game is much like [Logan] Couture and [Joe] Pavelski," Sharks GM Doug Wilson told USA Today. "He just thinks the game at a higher level. He’s a pretty well-rounded player. He plays in all three zones. He’s defensively aware, he’s got the sense to play with some high-end players."
*Olli Maatta, D, Pittsburgh Penguins (No. 22): The 6-foot-1, 204-pound defender is making a strong impression on the Penguins management team and coach Dan Bylsma. It remains to be seen if the organization will decide to keep Maatta around following his nine-game trial, however, because Kris Letang is expected to return from his knee injury within the week. He has two assists while averaging just shy of 15 minutes of ice time per game along the blue line.
"He's a solid defender," Bylsma said. "He's dependable, he skates well. Good, solid execution with the puck and he's been that way in the opportunities he's had. He's very good at creating separation and making a play with the puck afterwards."
Maatta has 13 goals and 70 points in two seasons with the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights while helping the team win consecutive league championships.
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mikemorrealeNHL
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