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Meet the West's playoff go-to youngsters

Tuesday, 04.15.2008 / 9:00 AM / 2008 Stanley Cup Playoffs

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer


Matt Niskanen has proven himself as a steady defenseman that Dallas coach Dave Tippet can rely on. Matt Niskanen highlights
Without Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, the group of Western Conference rookies in the Stanley Cup Playoffs doesn't have nearly as much star power as its counterparts from the East.

However, it does possess the intangibles teams need from their role players at this time of the season. If a team lacks these kinds of young, eager, tough and talented players, a Stanley Cup run is usually out of the question.

So while Kane and Toews are preparing for what will be highly anticipated sophomore seasons in the Windy City, here are five rookies that are already having an impact for their respective teams in the NHL playoffs.

Matt Niskanen, Dallas Stars: Forget about star power. The Stars need Niskanen to be a power player this postseason. There isn't another rookie in the playoffs who is at the top of his team's defensive depth chart.

Of course, Niskanen got there because of recurring injuries to his former defensive partner, veteran puck-rusher Sergei Zubov. Nevertheless, Niskanen has to be a major asset for the Stars if they harbor any hopes of advancing deep into the tournament.
   
So far, so good.
   
Niskanen has done nothing spectacular yet; but also nothing to make coach Dave Tippett question playing him nearly 22 minutes a night. He's been as steady as they come, especially on the power play, where Dallas had scored six of its nine playoff goals in jumping out to a 2-0 series lead against the Anaheim Ducks. Anaheim won Tuesday to make it a 2-1 series. Entering Monday night, only New York Rangers defenseman Marc Staal had more average-time-on-ice in the playoffs among rookies than Niskanen.

Tippett and Co. should really have expected nothing less from Niskanen, who was super throughout the regular season. He averaged more than 20 minutes of ice time per game, including roughly four and a half minutes of special-teams' time per game. He moves the puck up the ice like a veteran, and is equally good at positioning and playing the man.

Torrey Mitchell, San Jose Sharks: On a team that has its fair share of star power -- Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Jonathan Cheechoo, Jeremy Roenick, Brian Campbell and Evgeni Nabokov -- Mitchell is the youngster who does a little bit of everything.

Through four playoff games, he's given the Calgary Flames all they can handle. Mitchell has a goal, which came on a San Jose power play in Game 2. He has nine shots on goal. He's averaging slightly less than 15 minutes of ice time per game. He's won 58.5 percent of his faceoffs (24-41). He also has four hits.

Mitchell, though, was this kind of all-around third-line guy for the entire season.

He killed penalties -- and scored shorthanded goals (two). He shot the puck and scored goals, finishing with 10. He played gritty. He played fearless. He played with the puck. He played fast. He hit, logging 113 shots. He blocked shots (66). He stole the puck, causing 43 turnovers. And, he won faceoffs, compiling a 49.4 percent success rate.

James Sheppard, Minnesota Wild: The Wild are an older team, but the 19-year-old Sheppard has fit right in thanks to his mixture of smooth offensive ability and rugged physicality. This budding power forward hasn't lit up the scoreboard too much (four goals in the regular season, none through four playoff games), but he set two Wild rookie records with 78 games played and 15 assists in the regular season. He was a factor in plenty of games by blending his speed, hockey sense, stick skills, shot, and tenacity in his fourth-line role.
   
Sheppard doesn't appear long for the fourth line. He was the ninth-overall selection in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft and projects to be an upper-echelon power forward in the League.

Although Minnesota's James Sheppard is still developing as a player, he has all the makings of a top-line power forward.
This season, he even spent time on the top line with wings Marian Gaborik and Pavol Demitra. However, for now, Sheppard lets his energy, skill and muscle show for about 13 important minutes a night.

Nicklas Grossman, Dallas Stars: You can bet that Tippett would rather have veteran Zubov in his lineup than yet another rookie. Without a choice in the matter right now, though, Tippett is going with Grossman as the team's sixth D-man.

Grossman doesn't come close to possessing the offensive skills of Zubov, but he has been a solid contributor so far in the 15-plus minutes per game he's playing.
   
He was summoned to the big club from Iowa of the AHL in November and played in every game until he was a healthy scratch on March 5. He missed two more games in late March, but has been a key component to Dallas' defensive corps in its first-round matchup against the Anaheim Ducks because, at 6-foot-3, he can hit and he's not afraid to fall down to block a shot. He has five hits and three blocks through three games.

Cody McLeod, Colorado Avalanche: Since being called up to the big club on Dec. 18 from Lake Erie of the AHL -- where he had 13 points and 101 penalty minutes in 27 games -- McLeod has played in all 51 of Colorado's games.

In every one he has thrown his body around like a rag doll gone berserk, giving much-needed energy and toughness to the Avalanche for those 10 minutes he plays every game.
   
McLeod finished the regular season second on the Avalanche with 120 penalty minutes and 12 fighting majors. Ian Laperriere was first in both categories with 140 PIM and 19 fights, but he played in 21 more games.

Through four postseason games McLeod has 18 penalty minutes. He has some offensive punch to him, though, finishing the regular season with four goals and five assists. He has yet to contribute in that fashion against Minnesota in the playoffs, although he does have 10 shots on goal and is playing 17 shifts per game.

Contact Dan Rosen at
drosen@nhl.com.



Quote of the Day

It's really exciting. I'm pretty sure that when I play my first game I'm going to be emotional. To be back on the ice playing a game, being in game situations, with all the routines and rituals I do before games and during the game, I feel like I'm going to be emotional. I'm going to be really happy.

— Montreal Canadiens forward Tim Bozon on playing for the first time since his life-threaning illness