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Plenty of strong Calder Trophy candidates as season looms

by Mike G. Morreale
When the Carolina Hurricanes' Jeff Skinner beat out Logan Couture of the San Jose Sharks for the Calder Memorial Trophy as the NHL's rookie of the year last season, it marked the closest margin of victory for the award in eight years.

Skinner received 94 of 127 first-place votes and 1,055 points to edge Couture, who had 41 first-place votes and 908 points. It was the closest finish since 2003, when St. Louis Blues defenseman Barret Jackman topped Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg, 506-462.

There are several reasons for the sudden success of first-year players throughout the league in recent seasons. A total of 11 players drafted in the first round in 2009 and 2010 successfully transitioned to the NHL four months after being chosen, including 2010 picks Skinner, Taylor Hall (Edmonton), Tyler Seguin (Boston), Cam Fowler (Anaheim) and Alexander Burmistrov (Atlanta). First and foremost, there's the coaching -- at the junior level and within the NHL. There's also the maturity factor and the mindset these young players take heading into their initial season.

For instance, when recently asked how he'd deal with the added pressure as a 19-year-old second-year player, Skinner offered this candid response:

"You want to be a guy who is sort of counted on and plays in all situations of the game and in the games when it matters most. To be a player like that, you'll kind of be marked by the other team and you just have to try and fight through it. I think that's what drives a lot of players. I'm looking forward to the challenge and I think as a team we've gotten better and I'm excited to start the season." -- Jeff Skinner

"I think that sort of thing comes with the territory," he told "You want to be a guy who is sort of counted on and plays in all situations of the game and in the games when it matters most. To be a player like that, you'll kind of be marked by the other team and you just have to try and fight through it. I think that's what drives a lot of players. I'm looking forward to the challenge and I think as a team we've gotten better and I'm excited to start the season."

Several media outlets already have targeted several players worthy of consideration for the 2012 Calder Trophy. Since it is early and because many first-year players likely will be sent back to their junior team following their nine-game tryout with the big club, there's no telling who will stick. Here's's list of potential candidates.

Jared Cowen, Ottawa Senators: Ottawa's first choice in 2009 (No. 9) has had a pretty impressive training camp. At 6-foot-5 and 228 pounds, Cowen would provide a big presence along the blue line. He skated in 10 playoff games for the Binghamton Senators of the American Hockey League last season, producing 4 assists and a plus-6 rating.

The 20-year-old Cowen had 18 goals, 48 points and a plus-44 rating in 58 games with the Spokane Chiefs of the WHL in 2010-11. He's one of two blue-chip prospects on defense for the Senators, as 6-foot-2 Swede David Rundblad also is in the running for quality playing time.

"He certainly looks like he's ready," Senators General Manager Bryan Murray told the Ottawa Sun. "He's been through different stages of development going back to junior. He played awfully well in Binghamton last year. We think he looks like a player and he'll get every chance to be that.

"When we drafted him, he came off a knee injury and it takes a lot of time to get back to 100 percent. Being a good player for Team Canada, being a good player in junior and then playing in Binghamton, gave him a chance to play a lot of games, and important games, to develop."


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Tim Erixon, New York Rangers: It's still early, but there's no question the 6-foot-2, 190-pounder is proving to be quite a pickup for the Rangers. In two victories at the Traverse City Prospect Tournament, Erixon had a goal, 4 points and 15 shots on goal. The smooth-skating Erixon was paired with rugged 6-5, 215-pound prospect Dylan McIlrath in Traverse City and, for the most part, with Dan Girardi during training camp.

The Calgary Flames had drafted Erixon with the 23rd pick of the 2009 draft, but were unable to sign him. Rather than allow him to re-enter the 2011 draft, the Flames dealt Erixon, along with a fifth-round pick in the 2011 draft, to the Rangers in exchange for prospect Roman Horak and a pair of 2011 second-round picks. The Rangers quickly signed Erixon.

He had 5 goals and 24 points in 48 games this past season for Skelleftea of the Swedish Elite League. In 140 games with the team, he has 14 goals and 44 points.

Erik Gudbranson, Florida Panthers: There's no reason to think the 6-foot-4, 195-pound defenseman couldn't earn a spot among the top six along Florida's back end.

If not for the fact the Panthers and Gudbranson couldn't agree on a contract prior to the start of last season, he might be prepping for his second NHL season in 2011-12. He had 12 goals, 34 points and 105 penalty minutes in 44 games with Kingston in the Ontario Hockey League last season, while also helping Team Canada to a silver medal at the World Junior Championship with 3 goals, 5 points and a plus-8 rating.

Gudbranson could round out a pretty formidable defensive corps in Florida, with veterans Brian Campbell and Ed Jovanovski and youngsters Keaton Ellerby, Dmitry Kulikov and Jason Garrison in the mix. He offers a fantastic blend of size and ability, not to mention a rocket shot from the point.

Ryan Johansen, Columbus Blue Jackets: The acquisition of Carter will enable coach Scott Arniel to ease the organization's coveted 2010 pick (No. 4) into the rotation, if he earns a role. He has good size and exceptional vision. In the team's preseason opener, Johansen centered a line with R.J. Umberger and captain Rick Nash.

Arniel told the Columbus Dispatch that Johansen, who starred for the silver medal-winning Canadian national junior team at the 2011 World Junior Championship, still needs to adjust to the pace of the NHL game and increase his leg strength. In addition to Carter, the Blue Jackets have Derick Brassard, Antoine Vermette, Samuel Pahlsson and Derek MacKenzie down the middle, so Johansen could be a year away.

"Obviously, we're in a different position than maybe we would have been two months ago prior to the Jeff Carter trade," Arniel told "We drafted Ryan because we needed to get stronger through the middle of the ice. He has an opportunity to come in and battle for a job on our hockey team, but at the same time he doesn't have to be one of our top two centers if he does make our hockey club. He's a talented kid who can play in a lot of situations."

The Avalanche selected Gabriel Landeskog second overall at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. (Getty Images)
Gabriel Landeskog, Colorado Avalanche: Of all the players drafted in June, the Swedish power forward always was viewed as the one sure thing to stick with his team after training camp. The second pick could receive quality minutes as the Avalanche are thin on wing. At 6-foot-1 and 207 pounds, Landeskog is an awfully attractive prospect to fill in at left wing alongside center Paul Stastny and Joakim Lindstrom.

Landeskog also has flanked center Ryan O'Reilly and right wing Daniel Winnik during training camp.

"(Landeskog is) very strong on the puck, goes to the net well, does a lot of good work in the corners," Avalanche coach Joe Sacco said. "I like a lot of the little things he does and he's a little bit more mature beyond his years as far as that goes."

Adam Larsson, New Jersey Devils: The fourth pick of the 2011 draft has exhibited plenty of poise and confidence during training camp. New coach Peter DeBoer is utilizing Larsson in all situations while pairing him with veteran Henrik Tallinder.

Larsson certainly hasn't looked intimidated on the smaller North American ice surfaces and will get every opportunity to earn plenty of minutes in a primary role along the Devils' blue line.

In his first preseason game he had an assist and four shots on goal in a 2-1 victory against the New York Rangers, and DeBoer was impressed.

"I thought he was real solid," he said. "He moved the puck, competed hard. It's not an easy game for your first game. At ice-level, it was a hard-fought game. There was good pace and it was pretty physical. I thought he held up really well."

Nino Niederreiter, New York Islanders: It's all systems go for "El Nino," the Swiss-born forward who has spent most of his time on a line with Matt Moulson and John Tavares during training camp. He spent the first nine games with the Islanders to start last season and undoubtedly will last much longer, barring injury, this season.

Niederreiter dominated in the Western Hockey League once again with the Portland Winterhawks last season, producing 41 goals and 70 points in 55 games. He had 36 goals and 60 points in 65 games during the 2009-10 season.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton Oilers: The jury is out on whether the first pick in the 2011 Entry Draft will earn a spot on the club or be returned to the Western Hockey League's Red Deer Rebels. He seems to be doing all the right things so far in training camp, playing mostly on a line with Ryan Smyth and Jordan Eberle. He might be a little undersized, but the common theme when discussing Nugent-Hopkins is his extraordinary vision and ability to outskate anyone on the ice.

"We want to make sure that the circumstances don't stifle him from being the great player that he is," Oilers coach Tom Renney told the team's website. "In other words, being proactive, having fun, being instinctive, using his linemates and making the plays that he's certainly capable of."

It also appears Smyth, a 17-year veteran, has taken a special interest in Nugent-Hopkins.

"(Nugent-Hopkins is) very humble and he's got his head on his shoulders," Smyth said. "I think he's really eager and excited to play this game, too. He's got a long career in front of him, there's no question. I'm privileged to play with him right now and hopefully we can get something going. We want him to enjoy it."

Brayden Schenn, Philadelphia Flyers: Flyers GM Paul Holmgren made it known at the time he dealt for Schenn that the 20-year-old center was the leading candidate to start the season in the NHL.

It certainly makes sense, considering Holmgren dealt centers Mike Richards (Los Angeles) and Jeff Carter (Columbus) in the offseason and Claude Giroux and Danny Briere are penciled in as the leading candidates at center on the first two lines.

Schenn has proven himself at every level, starring in the Western Hockey League and internationally for Team Canada. He was named MVP of the 2011 World Junior Championship after producing 8 goals and 18 points in seven games for Team Canada, tying a Canadian record for points in one WJC (Dale McCourt, 1977).

He also played seven games with the Kings' AHL affiliate in Manchester last season, connecting for 3 goals and 7 points. In five playoff games with the Monarchs, he had 3 assists, 4 points and plus-2 rating.

Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale
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