In what is shaping up as a highly competitive race for the Calder Trophy, two potential candidates are set to face off against each other Thursday when the Dallas Stars visit the Nashville Predators, with the momentum of each team's standout rookie swinging in the opposite direction -- for the moment.
Playing on the Stars' top line with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, Valeri Nichushkin -- like his linemates -- is riding a hot streak. He enters with two goals and five assists in his past four games, including a four-point outburst in a 5-1 win against the Philadelphia Flyers this past Saturday.
Nichushkin, selected with the 10th pick of the 2013 NHL Draft, ranks second in the League among rookies in assists with 11 and his 15 points tie him for seventh in rookie scoring. The 6-foot-4, 205-pound Russian, who speaks little English, has slowly learned through his first 28 games to protect the puck better against opponents and has shown flashes of dominance. At times, the frustrations of being only 18 years old and playing in the top League in the world have also visibly frustrated him.
The goals have yet to come for Nichushkin in a big way -- he has four -- but Stars coach Lindy Ruff said that will come with time.
"I think he's had some great chances that he hasn't finished on," Ruff said. "Once he gets a little bit better finish, you'll see the goals go up. Almost every game, he's in on one or two 'Grade A' opportunities. He's probably had 10 breakaways this year and hasn't scored on one, and a penalty shot too."
At 24, Benn is the elder statesmen of the line. Seguin, the Stars' 21-year-old center, said of the group and Nichushkin specifically, "When we're going well, when he's got a fire in him, he's definitely a different player."
As with most rookies, it's about the struggle for consistency.
"I'm still a young player, so I'm still figuring that out as well," Seguin said. "You see sparks of his skill and his compete level, so when he's doing that he's a pretty dominant player."
In the other dressing room, Nashville defenseman Seth Jones, selected at No. 4, has been the talk of the rookie class for much of the season. He continues to lead all rookies in average time on ice by a wide margin at 23:07.
However, in a 4-1 win against the New York Rangers on Tuesday, Jones played a season-low 9:29. That came on the heels of his other season low, 12:42 in a 5-2 loss against the Washington Capitals. (His previous low was 16:44.)
Prior to the past two games, Predators' top defenseman Shea Weber had missed three games with an eye injury and Jones logged 30:43, 29:40 and 24:40. Predators coach Barry Trotz said that rookies often hit lows, and then gradually climb the latter to get back to peak performance. With each successive time the rookie falls back, his low is not as steep of a dive until, eventually, consistency arrives.
That is where Trotz said Jones is right now.
"The valleys become smaller and smaller, if you handle them right," Trotz said. "… It's [assistant coach Phil Housley] talking to him, I'm talking to him. We reduced minutes a little bit and we put him in a tough spot. We had [Roman Josi] out for 10, 12 games and [Weber] and [No. 3 defenseman Kevin Klein] out, and here's Jonesy playing 28 minutes a night as a 19-year-old. There's not that many 19-year-olds even in the League and when you're playing that 28, you're not playing against the third and fourth lines. You're playing against the best in the business.
"I'm very happy with where Jonesy is. It's not unexpected. But he's fine now. He's actually playing pretty well now. … His minutes will increase and increase as he plays. He's a good player."
Jones said that when the coaching staff came to him and told him his minutes would be cut, he was a willing listener.
"I'm still a young guy in this League and I was playing a lot," he said. "This kind of stuff happens and I think whether [Trotz] is seeing how I bounce back or something like that, I mean, I'm just working hard every day and doing what I can to help the team."
With rookies being rookies, even top ones, it's possible or even likely that the momentum for each could rock back in the opposite direction in just a matter of days.