Rookie Jonathan Bernier, an NHL.com pick for early Calder candidate. (Photo by Noah Graham/Getty Images)
The last few seasons has seen a remarkable crop of young players not just make the NHL, but turn into stars younger and more successful than players of past generations. And one look at the list of players eligible for the 2010-11 Calder Trophy, given to the NHL's best first-year player, and it shows a vast array of talent that ranks with any other season since the work stoppage.
NHL.com takes a look at some of the top candidates -- in alphabetical order only. We'll avoid the prediction business, because no one could have predicted Tyler Myers (2009) or Steve Mason (2008) -- neither of whom started the season in the NHL – would be Calder winners.
Jonathan Bernier, G, Kings --Jonathan Quick helped backstop the Kings to their first Stanley Cup Playoff appearance since 2002 last season, but that doesn't mean he's got the top job cemented. That's because the long-awaited arrival of Bernier, the 11th pick of the 2006 Entry Draft, has come.
Playing three late-season games in place of Quick, Bernier, 22, allowed four goals and had a shutout in winning all three games. This came after he dominated in the American Hockey League, leading the league with a .936 save percentage and nine shutouts, finishing second with a 2.03 goals-against average and third with 30 wins. This season he's expected to win the backup spot behind Quick, with more being possible.
"When we broke training camp last year, Bernier just wasn't ready for the job and I think he would admit to that," Kings coach Terry Murray said. "Now, getting through last season and seeing how he's developed as a player and at the maturity level he's now at, there's been tremendous growth in the fundamentals of his game, in his work habits and in that calmness that goaltenders need to have. He's taken it to the next level and he's knocking on the door now."
Bernier could become the second King to ever win the award following Luc Robitaille in 1986-87. (Click here for a list of Kings NHL Award winners.)
John Carlson, D, Capitals -- You'd be hard-pressed to find any hockey player at any level who had a better season than the one Carlson, the 27th pick of the 2008 Entry Draft, had last season. He scored the overtime goal to help Team USA beat Canada for the gold medal at the World Junior Championship and he scored the winning goal in Game 4 of the Calder Cup finals to help Hershey win its second-straight title. He was a plus-11 in 22 regular-season games for the Capitals, and scored 4 points with a plus-6 rating in seven games of the Caps' first-round playoff loss to the Canadiens.
Mike Green will get the headlines for his over-arching offensive abilities, but Carlson could be on the way to become the team's best all-round defenseman at the tender age of 20. Coach Bruce Boudreau must trust him; Carlson went from an average of 15 minutes per game during the regular season to 20:14 in the playoffs.
"Looking back, every team that I've played on now I've played a big role and I hope to have those kinds of minutes. That's my goal here," Carlson told the Washington Post. "Will it be over 20 right off the bat? Maybe not, but maybe it will be, too. I'm obviously working toward that goal of knowing that every game I will be relied upon."
Oliver Ekman-Larsson, D, Coyotes -- After playing an extra season in his native Sweden, the sixth pick of the 2009 Entry Draft looks to be ready for the NHL. A potentially elite-level puck-moving defenseman, Ekman-Larsson, 19, had 27 points in 42 games for Leksand last season, plus 2 goals and 5 points in six games to help Sweden win a bronze medal at the 2010 World Junior Championship.
He's also shown he can produce at the NHL level, with 2 assists --including the primary assist on the game-winning goal in last Thursday's 2-1 preseason win against the Kings.
It's not a stretch to envision the 6-foot-2, 176-pounder playing on the second pairing and seeing lots of time on the second power-play unit. He's been paired with Adrian Aucoin through most of training camp, and the veteran has been impressed.
"He's played really good," Aucoin wrote in a blog on the team's Web site. "He's just a really smart and smooth defenseman. To find a young guy with talent like that is not that easy."
Taylor Hall, LW, Oilers -- The first pick of the 2010 Entry Draft, the Oilers have made Hall the centerpiece of their rebuilding plan. It's quite a burden to place on an 18-year-old, but by now Hall is used to out-sized expectations -- and living up to them. He was pegged as the first pick of the 2010 Draft for years, and did nothing to disappoint -- last season tying for the Ontario Hockey League scoring title, leading the Windsor Spitfires to a second-straight Memorial Cup and winning an unprecedented second-straight Memorial Cup MVP.
The pressure will be ratcheted even higher now that he's going to be expected to be a top-line player in the NHL. He scored in his first preseason game, beating Tampa Bay's Dan Ellis last Thursday, and he had 2 assists in an 8-2 win against the Canucks Sunday. He's already shuffled between a few different linemates, skating with Sam Gagner and Ales Hemsky against Tampa Bay, and Shawn Horcoff and fellow rookie Jordan Eberle Sunday. Regardless of who he plays with, though, Hall should be fine.
"It's not easy to get adjusted, but he's a good player," Hemsky said. "He's fast. He's powerful. I don't think he's going to have a problem with anything. There's so much pressure on him, off the ice and on the ice, but he's handled it really well. He's a good kid, and really confident, too."
Michal Neuvirth, G, Capitals -- How much faith do the Caps have in Neuvirth? They gave the 2006 second-round pick (No. 34) a two-year contract extension during training camp, despite him still battling Semyon Varlamov for the starting role.
While many fans might know Varlamov from the past two seasons, when he replaced Jose Theodore in the playoffs, Neuvirth was busy stealing the show in the AHL, backstopping the Bears to back-to-back Calder Cups. Last season he posted a 2.07 GAA and .920 save percentage in the postseason, ranking in the top five in each category. In 22 regular-season games, he went 15-6-0 with a 2.24 GAA, which earned him a short promotion to the NHL, where he went 9-4-0 with a 2.75 GAA in 17 games.
"I consider him beyond his years in understanding how the game is supposed to be played from our position," Caps goalie coach Arturs Irbe told the Washington Post. "It's pretty interesting, pretty unique style for a young guy. Playing that way, he's always in position, he never sets himself up to fail and I think he knows what he needs to do to use that to his advantage."
The Caps have gone through training camp with Varlamov and Neuvirth, both 22, splitting time in net, something that's almost certainly going to carry over into the regular season, as coach Bruce Boudreau said he can envision each goalie playing 41 games. In his lone game of the preseason, he stopped 13 of 14 shots in 29 minutes of action against Nashville on Saturday
So can an even split with Varlamov hurt Neuvirth's Calder hopes? Only if he doesn't play well, according to GM George McPhee.
"Whoever is playing well, we'll play," he said.
Magnus Paajarvi, LW, Oilers -- The 10th pick of the 2009 Entry Draft stole the show in his first NHL preseason game, scoring a hat trick and picking up an assist in just 12:24 of ice time last Thursday against Tampa Bay.
Paajarvi is just 19, but he's no stranger to playing against top-level competition. He debuted in the Swedish Elite League at 16, and last season, with Timra IK, he had 12 goals and 29 points in 47 games. He also made the World Championship all-tournament team after scoring 9 points in nine games.
The 6-foot-1, 201-pound forward has the strength and ability to go around or through defenders to get to the scoring areas, and certainly knows what to do when he gets there.
"In the Swedish Elite League, which is really difficult to score in, he showed that with the numbers he was getting at his age, there was definitely some danger to his offense and to his attack," Oilers assistant coach Ralph Krueger told the Montreal Gazette. "And he's confirmed that (in the NHL)."
PK Subban (Gety Images)
P.K. Subban, D, Canadiens -- It might not seem like it because of all the attention he got last spring, but the flashy defenseman still counts as an NHL rookie -- he played just two regular-season games last season before his playoff explosion.
Subban's springtime exploits were well-chronicled, but deserved based on his performance. He entered the lineup in Game 6 of the first-round series against the Capitals, and was put into an even bigger spot when the Habs lost Andrei Markov in the second round against the Penguins. In 14 playoff games, he had 8 points and a plus-2 rating while playing more than 20 minutes nine times.
The goal now becomes carrying that high level of play through an 82-game NHL season. And while his offensive talent is without question -- he had a goal in his first preseason game, Friday against Ottawa -- he also needs to improve on the defensive end, as his turnover led to a Mike Fisher goal in the 4-2 Canadiens' win.
"P.K. has some good qualities with the puck," coach Jacques Martin said. "But he has to find a happy medium in terms of when to support the attack and when to focus on defense."
Others to watch: Tyler Ennis, LW, Sabres; Jordan Eberle, RW, Oilers; Erik Gudbranson, D, Panthers; Jeff Skinner, C, Hurricanes; Tyler Seguin, C, Bruins