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02-14-2013, 10:28 AM
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Monday, February 11, 2013
Updated: February 12, 10:41 AM ET
Rookie Rankings: Conacher on top

By Grant Sonier
ESPN Insider

The 2013 NHL Calder Trophy race continues to be a hotly debated topic in the NHL, but statistically speaking, the top rookie of the year candidates have finally slowed down. Out of the gates, forwards such as Tampa Bay's Cory Conacher and St. Louis' Vladimir Tarasenko took the league by storm, but even they have slowed (in terms of scoring), as opposing teams are increasingly paying attention to this season's top rookies.

Here's the Calder Trophy race update as of Tuesday, Feb. 12, based on my own viewing of their performances, as well as my talking with contacts within the game.

1. Cory Conacher, forward, Tampa Bay Lightning
Previous rank: No. 1

Following Sunday's game against the New York Rangers in which the Lightning lost 5-1, Tampa Bay has lost four in a row and this year's Calder Trophy race leader was quiet like most of his teammates. Conacher's offensive numbers are still impressive, as he leads all rookies with 12 points in 11 games, including two game-winning goals. One Western Conference Scout who was at the Lighting-Rangers game said Conacher's play is the least of Tampa's problems, and that overall the team is playing flat. The 5-foot-8 forward continues to play with high-end energy, something the entire roster better start doing as losing streaks in a shortened season could prove deadly.

2. Vladimir Tarasenko, forward, St. Louis Blues
Previous rank: No. 2

The Blues found themselves on the end of coach Ken Hitchcock's latest rant after back-to-back poor performances, and you have to wonder how young players respond to such a public tongue lashing. The Blues have now lost five straight, with only one of those coming in a shootout. Like many of the top rookies, the Russian winger has cooled offensively after a torrid start to the season, but his dynamic skills and one-on-one play always make him dangerous.

3. Justin Schultz, defenseman, Edmonton Oilers
Previous rank: No. 3

Averaging more than 23 minutes a game and anchoring an NHL power play as a rookie is a tall order, but that is what this smooth-skating offensive D-man continues to do for the Oilers. He has played in 12 games with a total of four goals and three assists, with all four goals coming on the power play. He leads all rookies in shots with 32. ESPN's Craig Custance recently had a chance to talk with teammate Devan Dubnyk about the young rookie. "He gets the puck and can move it up so quickly," Dubnyk said. "That ability to move the puck and to jump up, I think, has an effect on the entire ice."

4. Dougie Hamilton, defenseman, Boston Bruins
Previous rank: No. 4

Quietly going about his business as if he has played in the NHL for the past 10 season seems to be the norm for the big blueliner. Hamilton continues to play the game with intelligence and ease, while displaying great range, skating and decision-making. It's only a matter of time before he scores his first NHL goal. He is currently stuck at four assists after 10 games played, but the Bruins have no concerns offensively while he continues to eat minutes (18:46 ATOI).

5. Nail Yakupov, forward, Edmonton Oilers
Previous rank: No. 5

Tied for the most goals scored by a rookie (5), Yakupov continues with his usual flare for the dramatic. In a recent game against the Detroit Red Wings, he was assessed his first unsportsmanlike minor, which led to veteran teammate Ryan Smyth coming to his aid and receiving a 10-minute misconduct on the same stoppage. Playing on a line with former No. 1 overall pick Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle, Yakupov and his linemates are exciting fans around the league with creativity and skillful play. "[Yakupov's] explosiveness with and without the puck makes things happen for Edmonton, and defenders are often lost in body position, which is very impressive," said a high-ranking executive who recently watched Edmonton play.

6. Alex Galchenyuk, forward, Montreal Canadiens
Previous rank: No. 6

Last week was not one the Habs will want to dwell on after letting a game slip away against Buffalo (which they led 4-2) and suffering a 6-0 loss to Toronto. With no points to show for his efforts, the highly skilled center is still making plays. "He is so skilled and so capable of making the big play, it is exciting to watch him," said a member of the Canadiens' staff. The team continues to manage his playing time, limiting him to about 12 minutes per game, but as time moves on in the season, I can see him getting more and more responsibility.

7. Marcus Foligno, forward, Buffalo Sabres
Previous rank: No. 7

Foligno's 16:53 ATOI leads all rookie forwards, and the big, scrappy winger continues to bang his way around the ice for the Sabres. Tied for fourth overall in rookie scoring with one goal and six assists, the son of former NHLer Mike Foligno continues to have the confidence of his coach. He has impressed others around the league, as well: "[Foligno] is heavy on the puck and is capable of making things happen coming out of the cycle," said an Eastern Conference scout.

8. Brendan Gallagher, forward, Montreal Canadiens
Previous rank: No. 9

As we talked about last week, this small, gritty forward has won the hearts of his teammates and the fans in Montreal because of his willingness to do whatever it takes to make an impact. In the team's 6-0 blowout loss to the Leafs, Gallagher found himself engaged in his first NHL fight, another sign of his drive and determination (though not something the Habs want him doing, in my opinion). He makes a positive impression on me every time I watch him play.

9. Jonas Brodin, defenseman, Minnesota Wild
Previous rank: No. 10

Cracking the top 10 last week was not a fluke, as Brodin excels at puck retrieval and his first pass out of the zone. The Wild have struggled to put up wins, but not due to the play of Brodin, who is now fully recovered from the broken clavicle he suffered while playing in Houston (AHL) during the lockout. "We are watching [Brodin] very closely to make sure he does not lose confidence," said a Wild staff member, "and thus far he has responded like a veteran pro."

10. Mikael Granlund, forward, Minnesota Wild
Previous rank: No. 8

Granlund seems to be falling out of the Calder Trophy race, but as mentioned before, he is the type of player who always finds a way to succeed. After recently being a healthy scratch, he made it back on the playing roster and from all accounts played better. "Had a few great chances and looked to have some needed jump," said a Western Conference scout who attended the game. The Finnish center is stuck on one goal and two assists while playing nearly 15 minutes per game. He stays in the top 10 for now but will need to break through and help his team win some more games if he wants to push forward in this rookie race.

Also considered

Jonathan Huberdeau, forward, Florida Panthers
Previous rank: NR

Huberdeau is creeping back into the top-10 conversation after posting three goals and three assists while averaging more than 15 minutes of ice time in 11 games.

Simon Despres, defenseman, Pittsburgh Penguins
Previous rank: NR

In 11 games, Despres has tallied two goals and three assists in 14:30 of ice time per game. Also, he's tied for second among rookie D-men in scoring and has a plus-4 rating.


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