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EJ Express: Rising youngsters making big impact

Wednesday, 03.07.2012 / 9:33 AM / NHL.Countdown

By EJ Hradek - NHL.com Analyst

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EJ Express: Rising youngsters making big impact
Developing youngsters highlight Hradek's latest take.
Watching the slumping San Jose Sharks, who are currently hanging onto the eighth spot in the West after a 3-2 shootout loss to the Oilers last night, I wonder if some of their core players are just worn down after playing a lot of hockey during the past few seasons.

Remember, Todd McLellan's team has travelled the long road to the Western Conference Final in each of the past two seasons. Perhaps, that heavy schedule is catching up with key vets like Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau.

Whatever the case, the Sharks had better figure things out in their final 18 games or they'll have a lot more rest than they want.

Here's this week's edition of the EJ Express.

1
In the run-up to the 2009 NHL Draft, former Flames GM/NHL Network analyst Craig Button told me he was extremely impressed with Swedish-born defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who was later selected by the Coyotes with the No. 6 pick. So impressed, Button thought Ekman-Larsson might prove to be even better than highly-touted fellow countryman Victor Hedman, who went No. 2 to the Lightning.

Nearly three years later, Button's assessment might prove to be spot on. At least, Coyotes captain Shane Doan sees it that way.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson
Defense - PHX
GOALS: 8 | ASST: 16 | PTS: 24
SOG: 109 | +/-: -3
"He (Ekman-Larsson) could be the best defenseman in the League in the next couple of years," Doan says. "The kid is absolutely phenomenal and nobody even knows it. He's special. You'll be talking about him for the next 15 years as, if not the premier defensemen in the League, one of the top three or four."

In his first full NHL season, the 6-foot-2, 190-pound Ekman-Larsson, just 20, is averaging 21:33 minutes per game – ranking him second on the club behind fellow defender Keith Yandle, who plays 22:49. In 67 games, OEL has eight goals, 16 assists, 24 points and a minus-3 rating.

If Doan is right about his young teammate, I'd expect those numbers to make a steady climb north in the coming seasons.
 
2
While Tampa Bay remains in the fight for a Stanley Cup Playoff spot in the East (the Bolts currently sit in 10th place, four points behind the eighth-seeded Jets), GM Steve Yzerman hasn't been kidding himself about his team. That's why he looked to re-tool at the NHL Trade Deadline, rather than make any significant additions.

Yzerman was particularly anxious to attack one area of organizational weakness.

"We don't have a lot of depth in young defensemen coming who are close to playing in the NHL in the next two to three years," Yzerman says. "So we really thought, in acquiring Keith Aulie (from the Leafs) that we got a player that's ready to play in the NHL. We need to get younger on the blue line and we need prospects coming in."

The Bolts also acquired another young defenseman, former first-round pick Brian Lee from the Senators, as well as several draft picks in deals for vets Dominic Moore and Pavel Kubina.

"Our defense hasn't been good enough this year," Yzerman says. "We've got to try something different. We can't just stand pat and go to the end of the season, regardless of what happens, and go into the summer thinking we're going to acquire five defensemen in the summer. That would be a tough thing to do."
 
3
High-scoring Senators' defenseman Erik Karlsson was taking notes when he saw Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang, another mobile, puck-moving D, take a nasty shot from Stars forward Erik Nystrom last Wednesday. The devastating blow sidelined Letang, who is suffering from concussion symptoms for the second time this season.

Erik Karlsson
Defense - OTT
GOALS: 16 | ASST: 51 | PTS: 67
SOG: 217 | +/-: 14
"You got to be aware out there," Karlsson said. "It's a tough game to play sometimes. It's a part of the game. There are times that you put yourself in a vulnerable position to make a play, but you have to protect yourself the best you can."

The No. 15 pick in the 2008 Draft, Karlsson has built a 23-point cushion on Florida's Brian Campbell in the scoring race among defensemen. The 21-year-old Swede is playing to an impressive plus-14 rating, too. At this point, he has to be considered among the front-runners for the Norris Trophy.
 
4
With last night's 4-3 OT win in Washington, Carolina improved to 12-6-8 since the calendar turned to 2012. Hurricanes captain Eric Staal believes new coach Kirk Muller deserves a lot of credit for the turnaround.

"He (Kirk) came in with a new attitude and an excitement for the opportunity. I think it has kind of rubbed off on our team," Staal says. "We're starting to do things better as a group and it's resulting in some good games and some wins."

Staal's personal resurgence hasn't hurt matters, either. Since Jan. 1, the Canes' top center has totaled 34 points in 26 games. He had just 25 points in his first 40 games.
 
6
With a pair of assists in Tuesday night's 7-1 rout of the Wild in Denver, Avalanche freshman winger Gabriel Landeskog caught Devils rookie center Adam Henrique atop the rookie scoring chart at 43 points. Technically, Landeskog holds the top spot because he has more goals (18) than Henrique (15).

The No. 2 pick (behind Edmonton's Ryan Nugent-Hopkins), Landeskog earned Rookie of the Month honors in February, putting up seven goals and 13 points in 12 games. With his strong play, the 19-year-old Swede has pushed his name into the Calder Trophy race.

Gabriel Landeskog
Left Wing - COL
GOALS: 18 | ASST: 25 | PTS: 43
SOG: 227 | +/-: 22
"That's flattering," Landeskog said, "but my focus right now is winning hockey games and getting that playoff spot. At the end of the year, we'll see where things are at with points or whatever it might be."

While Landeskog might not win the rookie scoring race, he's going to finish with more shots on goal than any of his rookie peers. Through 68 games, Langeskog has 227 shots. That's 69 more shots than the next best rookie sniper, Craig Smith of Nashville. In fact, the Avalanche freshman stands No. 14 among all players in the League in that statistical category.

"I know that I'm a shooter," Landeskog said. "I play with Ryan O'Reilly and he's a great playmaker. I'm just trying to find open ice out there and I know that I have to use my shot to be successful and to score goals in this League and I have to get to the net, so I think I've found my role on this line, especially playing with Ryan."
 
6
Despite a weak 11-17-4 road record, Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff is taking an optimistic approach to the club's finishing schedule, which will have them away from the wild MTS Centre for nine of their final 15 games.

"Statistics are funny things," Cheveldayoff said. "If I take out a bunch of the games in the early part of the season where we were just trying to come together as a team and we were very unsuccessful on the road, then our road record doesn't look as bad."

While I don't know if that's necessarily true, the Jets have split their past six road games. That might be something to build on.

"At this point, it's really about moving forward," said the first-year GM. "It's about what we can do. We had a great road game in Minnesota (a 4-3 SO win Feb. 16) and we're hoping when we get on the road again, we can pick things up from there."
 
7
St. Louis head coach Ken Hitchcock, who has to be among front-runners for the Jack Adams Trophy, has really leaned on captain David Backes since arriving in early November to replace Davis Payne behind the Blues' bench.

David Backes
Center - STL
GOALS: 19 | ASST: 26 | PTS: 45
SOG: 191 | +/-: 19
"He's kind of used me as a go-between, where the message comes from him to me and then it gets out to the guys," Backes said. "He expects me to be the first one out of the trenches, leading the way and showing what to do and how to play by example.

"There's also times where he's asking for some of my feedback because he puts so much responsibility on me. He asking me how I'm feeling, if we need days off, if we need to just do a workout instead of skate and things like that. He's giving us plenty of rest, so when we are in the game, we should be fresh and ready to go."

With a Western Conference leading 91 points, the Blues' coach-captain duo has found the formula for success.
 
8
This past summer, Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk signed free agent Michael Ryder to a two-year, $7 million deal ($3.5 million cap hit). Several months later, Ryder is making his boss look good.
In 67 games, the 31-year-old has totaled a team-best 28 goals and 51 points while playing to a smart plus-18 rating. In Dallas, Ryder has been re-united with former Montreal linemate Mike Ribiero and they clearly still have a nice chemistry.

Headed for the third 30-goal season of his career, Ryder seemed to take his game up a notch during the Bruins' championship run. He netted eight goals and posted 17 points in 25 playoff games.

Beyond the numbers, Ryder seemed harder on the puck and more focused on a shift-to-shift basis. He's brought that same approach to Texas and he's been an important part of the Stars' run to the top of the Pacific Division.
 
9
Rugged Wings D Niklas Kronwall stands among the most physical body-checkers in the game. Just ask Flyers winger Jakub Voracek, who found himself on the wrong end of a Kronwall hit in Tuesday night's 3-2 win against the Wings in Philly.

Niklas Kronwall
Defense - DET
GOALS: 14 | ASST: 17 | PTS: 31
SOG: 117 | +/-: 0
But, Kronwall can provide a little offense, too. On Monday, he was named the League's Second Star of the Week (for the seven-day period ending March 4) after racking up seven points in three games. Through 67 games, the Swedish defender has already tallied a career-best 14 goals -- three more than his previous single-season high.

Why the increase in his goal production?

"I don't know," said Kronwall, a first-round pick (No. 29) in 2000. "In the past, I've had a lot of chances, but this year, for some reason, the puck has just been going in."

There is one factor that he can point to that's helped his goal production

"I think our forwards are doing a great job of screening the goaltender," Kronwall said. "They are making it tough for goalies to see the shot. That definitely helps."
 
10
In the wreckage of a lost season in Montreal, 23-year-old Max Pacioretty has emerged as a top power forward. In 64 games, the Connecticut native has already netted a career-best 28 goals, including a pair of markers in Tuesday's 5-4 loss to Calgary.

A first-round pick (No. 22) in 2007, Pacioretty has bounced back nicely from a significant neck injury suffered March 8, 2011, as a result of a controversial collision with big Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara.

In the off-season, I suspect the Canadiens will make several changes – both on the ice and within their management group. Pacioretty, however, is going to be a big part of the club's future.

Quote of the Day

A piece of scar tissue breaks off, pinches the nerve, and every time you move your leg it's almost like having a root canal in your stomach and groin.

— Detroit Red Wings center Stephen Weiss on his sports hernia surgery