We’ve seen the exploits of rookies like Sidney Crosby
, Alex Ovechkin
, Evgeni Malkin
and Jordan Staal
over the past two seasons and sometimes think there’s an “on” switch that kicks in and success just follows happily along. But the fact of the matter is that most young players struggle to find their way the first time around the NHL before settle in and begin to show off their skills.
Rick Nash wasn’t a star as a rookie in Columbus. Nor was Vinny Lecavalier, Joe Thornton or Mike Modano – all of whom were first overall picks in the annual NHL Entry Draft.
Entering the NHL is not a skate in the park. Most players need to get bigger, stronger or faster. And most need to see how things work up close and personal in the big time before they truly get it. Some of the best coaches in the game, in fact, have always wanted to see how a young player reacts to NHL life and then assess what he needs to work on to make it in the big leagues. Sometimes the trek is a little easier the second time around.
We talk about a player getting his feet wet or a player being around long enough for a cup of coffee. But there is a real purpose for having a young kid around to watch and learn just what’s what at the big-league level, from the size and speed of the players to what is expected in practice or a game in terms of discipline and responsibilities.
That’s why coaches so often want to have their best prospects around to watch and learn in the playoffs – to see first-hand just what a giant step it is from college or juniors to the NHL. I’ll never forget first hearing this theory back in the spring of 1986, when “Badger” Bob Johnson was still reveling in the Calgary Flames’ 5-2 victory against the Montreal Canadiens in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.
Johnson talked about Mike Vernon and his work in goal and Al MacInnis and Paul Reinhart on defense and Lanny McDonald and Jim Peplinski up front. But he didn’t stop talking hockey at that point.
"See those kids over there?" he told me, eyes bulging and hands gesturing about a mile a minute. "Look at their eyes. They're eating up every minute of this. That's what I love so much about this game – seeing the kids soak up the game and learn from it.
"Mark my words. You'll hear a lot from those three. I wanted them here, even if they don't play, to see how every playoff game is like climbing to the top of Mt. Everest, how it's a marathon, a survival of the fittest, and how you have to take your game to a completely different level to win in the playoffs.
"It takes a different kind of player to win in May and June…and I would bet that those three kids will be that kind of player."
The Flames lost that Final to Montreal, but as Badger Bob predicted, the three players he talked about – Gary Roberts, Joe Nieuwendyk and Brett Hull – helped the Flames win their only Stanley Cup in 1989 and all went on to glorious NHL careers.
Is there another group of young players out there to match that threesome? Probably not in my lifetime. But there is good reason to believe that quite a few youngsters who got to play – or watch – in last spring’s exciting playoff run could be showing off for us and maybe surprising a few people when training camps begin in September.
I thought about Johnson’s analogy as I watched the Detroit Red Wings
make it to the Western Conference Finals. There, coach Mike Babcock gave plenty of key minutes to rookies Valtteri Filppula
, Jiri Hudler
, Tomas Kopecky
, Kyle Quincey
and Johan Franzen
. None of them came close to the production of Pavel Datsyuk
and Henrik Zetterberg
, but boy did they begin to blossom under the pressure of a good playoff run.
In Nashville, Alexander Radulov continued his great rookie season for the Nashville Predators by scoring three goals in just four playoff games after 18 goals in limited minutes in his first NHL season.
"The more times I produce, the more ice time I will get," a confident Radulov said during that first-round series against the San Jose Sharks. "I’ve got to make (coach) Barry Trotz want to put me out there. I’ve got to show him that he needs to play me more."
Well the proof of the pudding is here and Trotz, you can bet, will be tapping Radulov on the shoulder more and more often this season in crucial situations, especially without a big-minute player like Paul Kariya, who signed as a free agent in St. Louis.
In the Central Division alone, we watched at least one second-time-around player break out last season. On the offensive side of things, St. Louis’ Lee Stempniak went from 14 goals in 2005-06 to 27 last season, Chicago’s Patrick Sharp go from 14 goals to 20 and Columbus’ Dan Fritsche improve from six to 12.
Young defensemen were really prevalent in the division, when you consider the improvement of players like Detroit’s Niklas Kronwall, Nashville’s Shea Weber (17 goals) and Chicago’s Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook.
Here’s a broader look at how the presumed sophomore jinx can actually turn into sophomore sizzle for some young players in the Central Division this season.
Jiri Hudler, Detroit – He averaged just over 10 minutes of ice time per game last season and scored 15 goals after getting 36 goals and 96 points for the Wings’ American Hockey League affiliate in Grand Rapids in 2005-06. He’s quick and explosive and you can bet he will get minutes on left wing on a line with either Zetterberg and Tomas Holmstrom or with Datsyuk and Mikael Samuelsson.
Johan Franzen, Detroit – He wound up getting close to 17 minutes a game in the playoffs and had momentum-building a three goals and four assists. He’s a big body and loves to get nasty and play on the edge and is likely to play on a grind line with Kris Draper and Daniel Cleary, but I’ll be he gets close to 20 goals along the way.
Alexander Radulov, Nashville – He had 18 goals in just 11 minutes-plus of ice time in 64 games as a rookie, but his plus-19 and four game-winning goals were eye-popping numbers for a first-year player. He was hardly ever on the power play (five power-play goals). You can be sure he’ll get those important minutes that will push him close to 30 goals this season.
Vernon Fiddler, Nashville – He wasn’t a rookie last season, but he too started to get some good ice time in a fill-in role while players like Steve Sullivan and Scott Hartnell were out of the lineup with injuries. Those 11 goals he had last season could very well turn into 20 this season with all of the departures from last season’s Predators lineup.
David Backes, St. Louis – Lee Stempniak was smart and hungry to succeed and he went from 14 goals as a rookie to 27 last season for the Blues. Well, Backes is also smart and hungry. He had 10 goals in 49 games in St. Louis last season, and 20-25 is a very real possibility for this potential top-flight power forward.
Jiri Novotny, Columbus – He was around for four playoff games for Buffalo in 2006 and spent enough time in that highly competitive, high-energy offense of the Sabres over the past two seasons to be ready for the opportunity he’ll be given by the Blue Jackets this season. The six goals and 13 assists he had in 68 combined games at Buffalo and Washington last season only served to peak this playmaker’s hunger to play – and play a lot – in the NHL.
Around the Central Division – You’re probably tired of reading about Steve Sullivan and his on-and-off again return to the Nashville Predators lineup. The latest report suggests that he will be out until at least the early part of December following more back surgery (he hasn’t played since he first hurt his back Feb. 22). The Preds were already looking for a replacement for Paul Kariya on the No. 1 line with David Legwand and Martin Erat. Now, there’s a spot open beside Jason Arnott and J.P. Dumont on the second line. Veteran Martin Gelinas will get a crack at one of those assignments, as will Alexander Radulov. Other contenders for offensive ice time include Scott Nichol and Jordin Tootoo. There is still a chance that GM David Poile will be allowed to make a late addition to the roster after the new local owners take over the team from Craig Leipold (maybe as early as this weekend). Anson Carter’s name has popped up in rumors. ... Look for Niklas Kronwall to join Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski to eat up the minutes on defense this season, with Chris Chelios and Andreas Lilja rotating around those
three. Coach Mike Babcock has already mentioned how much Kronwall improved last season – and that he will really step up his power-play time this season. ... St. Louis Blues
coach Andy Murray never really got a chance to see what veteran defenseman Jay McKee
could do for his team after Murray took over for Mike Kitchen in December. McKee played in just a handful of his 23 games under Murray after leaving Buffalo for a huge free-agent contract last summer. Ditto for leader/checker Dan Hinote
. McKee reports good health from his knee problems as Hinote does from his shoulder woes. Those are two players whom Murray is really counting on to improve St. Louis’ 25th-ranked penalty-killing unit and next-to-last in the 30-team NHL last season. ... All successful coaches employ at least two players as shutdown defensemen, sometimes they play them together. Columbus Blue Jackets
coach Ken Hitchcock did that with Derian Hatcher
and Richard Matvichuk
when he coached in Dallas. Of course, he had the best of both worlds with two skilled guys – Sergei Zubov
and Darryl Sydor
– as well. The makeup of his defense in Columbus is yet unidentified. If he can keep Adam Foote
and Duvie Westcott
healthy, he had one gritty stopper and one talented puck-rusher. Up to now, Ron Hainsey
has filled the other push-mover role. So where does that put Rusty Klesla? That’s what Hitchcock has to figure out. That, plus which of the other D-men – Ole-Kristian Tollefsen
, Marc Methot
and high draft choice Kris Russell
– will make the Jackets defense stronger. ... Did you realize that no one – not even Martin Havlat
(25 goals) – had more than five power-play goals for the Chicago Blackhawks
last season? Coach Denis Savard
even tried Havlat on the point along with veteran pickup Peter Bondra
. With more to choose from up front this season with veteran center Robert Lang
and rookies Jonathan Toews
and Patrick Kane
, Havlat can come in off the point and really become a weapon for Savard this time around.