While the Stanley Cup Hangover is plainly visible in Boston's TD Garden, the anticipated "Sophomore Slump" is nowhere to be found for the three rookies who burst into the NHL league in 2010-11 and earned nominations for the Calder Trophy.
Last season’s competition among rookies to win the 2011 Calder Trophy was one of the closest in recent history, as three forwards ended up as finalists: Logan Couture, Michael Grabner and Jeff Skinner. When the 2011 Rookie All-star team was announced, those three were joined by defensemen John Carlson and P.K. Subban and Chicago goaltender Corey Crawford, all of whom had tremendous seasons.
Skinner, who turned 19 in May, was the youngest ever to win the Calder Trophy, only adding to the speculation before this current season began that he wouldn’t be able to build on his remarkable freshman campaign. Further, the media buzz that seemed as enthralled with his boyish looks as his gaudy stats seemed to add to the pressure, as he went from lesser-known OHL sniper one season to finding himself showcased as one of the best known faces in the NHL’s marketing efforts only 12 months later.
With two more goals on Tuesday, including a ridiculous move on Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman, Skinner continues to dazzle and get the clutch goals that endeared him to Carolina hockey fans all last season. If anything, only 12 games in, it looks like he’s going to perform even better this year than last.
|Jeff Skinner (Carolina Hurricanes) Drafted 2010, 7th overall|
Skinner is earning more ice time from his coach, and while he is unlikely to ever get pegged as a PK specialist, his ability to find the net in the most unlikely circumstances has given him more time with the man advantage than ever. On the matter of earning power play minutes, the teenager with the unorthodox skating style finished 2010-11 at the top of the league in giving his team power play opportunities, drawing 2.6 penalties/60 min TOI. Checking on that stat so far this year, he ranks 4th in the league at 3.5/60, as opponents target the slippery skater in an effort to shut him down anywhere near the net, but often enough find themselves called for tripping, hooking or interference.
The other two Calder finalists, Couture and Grabner, had been in the minor leagues for a few years and perhaps their rookie accomplishments were considered more the products of maturity and deliberately seizing a long-awaited opportunity. Couture had been a standout for the San Jose Sharks' AHL affiliated. Grabner, at 23, was hardly the perennial star at any level since he was drafted by Vancouver in 2006, finding himself last October on his 3rd team since signing his entry level contract.
|Logan Couture (San Jose Sharks) Drafted 2007, 9th overall|
|Michael Grabner (NY Islanders) Drafted 2006, 14th overall|
An overview of their numbers above shows both are doing well enough this year. I read Couture’s year-to-year consistency to be a sign that a slump is unlikely -- he's found his NHL game. While Grabner’s point production is at half last year’s pace, it’s too early to say if that’s on him or should be blamed on the Islanders overall struggles (with just 18 team goals in 9 games). His shorthanded and man-advantage TOI are up significantly, suggesting his coach’s confidence in his game has only increased.
In recent years, Calder winners Steve Mason (Goalie, Columbus) and Tyler Myers (Defenseman, Buffalo) demonstrated how hard it is to play to one’s full potential consistently at a young age. The pressure, the distractions, the spotlight can all undercut performance and confidence for youngsters still developing into NHL veterans. For both, their sophomore seasons were forgettable in many ways.
So far this year, the three who rose to the top of a very talented crop of rookies in 2010-11, and particularly the youngest of all who brought home the Trophy, have shown they are steady professionals despite their youth and inexperience. The best part for hockey fans is knowing we will be following their achievements for many NHL seasons to come.
Photo credit: Getty Images