John Tavares was the No. 1 pick in the 2009 NHL Draft and already has played three seasons with the New York Islanders. He finished in the top 10 in scoring this past season and is on his way to becoming one of hockey's elite players.
Often forgotten is the fact that the Islanders had a second first-rounder that year. But Calvin de Haan's path to the NHL hasn't been nearly as smooth -- even though he was taken just 11 picks after Tavares and the Islanders traded up twice to get him.
Though he checked in at just 6-feet and about 160 pounds, the Isles were impressed by de Haan's offensive abilities, hockey knowledge and composure -- so much so that he nearly made the team as an 18-year-old in 2009; he stayed with the Islanders all the way through training camp before being reassigned to his junior team, the Oshawa Generals of the Ontario Hockey League, just before the start of the season. But since making a good first impression, not much has gone right for the 21-year-old defenseman.
He missed half of the 2009-10 season with a shoulder injury, and more injuries limited him to 55 games in 2010-11, his last junior season. He began his pro career last season with the Isles' AHL affiliate in Bridgeport, but again was hit by injuries -- more shoulder problems cost him 20 games and a trip to the AHL All-Star Game.
With openings on the Islanders' blue line this fall, de Haan -- now listed at 6-1 and 187 pounds and considerably stronger than the 18-year-old who arrived on Long Island three years ago -- knows the time has come for him to show why the Isles went to so much trouble to get him. He had a one-game taste of the NHL last season when he was called up for a game against Dallas, but wants more. However, despite the departures of veterans Mark Eaton and Milan Jurcina, de Haan realizes that he's not going to be handed a job despite being the No. 12 pick in the draft three years ago.
"It was incredible. It was my dream come true. I've always wanted to play in the NHL," he said of his appearance in the Dec. 15, 2011, game at the Nassau Coliseum, in which he went plus-1 in 13:01 of ice time and didn't look out of place. "Now the next step is to get a full season in. There's some opportunities here, but I've got to work as hard as the next guy, or even more, to get a spot."
He'll face plenty of competition for those spots. The Islanders are awash in young defensemen -- among them Aaron Ness and Matt Donovan, who played with him at Bridgeport. They also acquired veteran Lubomir Visnovsky on draft night, minutes before taking another defenseman, Griffin Reinhart, with their No. 1 pick at the 2012 NHL Draft -- the first of seven defensemen they chose last weekend.
De Haan's first pro season was acceptable but hardly one for the record books. He scored twice and added 14 assists in 56 games, losing two weeks to a shoulder injury in November and six weeks in January and February to a different shoulder injury.
"It happened right after I got sent down [after his one-game NHL appearance]," he said. "I dove for a puck and got hurt -- more bad luck than anything. It's kind of frustrating, but at the same time it's part of the game."
Proving that he's strong enough to withstand the NHL will be a key to his success.
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"I have to keep working hard off the ice," de Haan said. "The stronger you are off the ice, the stronger you are on the ice. I have to really focus on the gym and also make sure to get on the ice every day."
Despite the injury, he said he enjoyed the experience of being a first-year professional -- even though he spent that season in Bridgeport, Conn., rather than on Long Island.
"It was a lot of fun," he said. "It was a little different -- you've got to cook for yourself, actually become a grownup, instead of living at home. I got hurt again, but for the most part I played pretty well. I was playing against the top lines every night. My stats weren't the best, but I thought I had a pretty good season."
Brent Thompson, his coach at Bridgeport and a newly named assistant with the Islanders, agreed that de Haan has made progress, singling him out after the Sound Tigers' playoff elimination as having "elevated his whole game."
Though de Haan spent this week attending his fourth rookie camp with the Islanders -- "I'm one of the veterans here now," he said -- he's very aware that a lot of other players from his draft class already are playing in the NHL and making contributions. But he feels he'd rather make sure he's ready to make an impact before he becomes a full-time NHL player.
"Oh yeah," he said when asked if he's frustrated that his NHL career hasn't really begun. "I want to get there as soon as I can -- but at the same time, I want to have an immediate impact. If it takes me a couple more years to develop, that's fine with me. I just want to be the best player I can and be an impact [player] right away.
"It takes time. Maybe I won't start the year in the NHL, but my goal is to finish [there], for sure."