Treasure Hunting, the Hockey Edition
By Rob Aquino
Do you remember the days when you could name more than one rookie in the NHL? Years where you’d look at the leader board and there would actually be a rookie or two in the top 20 in scoring for the league? No? Ah, the joys of living in an era of Mike Johnson and Tyler Arnason…
OK, that’s a cheap shot. I don’t think it’s necessarily a knock on the quality of rookies by any means; more so it is and has been the system they play in. My pointing out of Johnson (who tied for the rookie scoring lead in 1998 with a whopping 47 points) and Arnason (39 points in 2003, second behind Henrik Zetterberg) is that it just hasn’t been exciting to take a flyer on rookies in the past decade or so - drafting or acquiring rookies has been a risky proposition at best. While the league was seeing a nearly historic dearth of scoring, it also meant that it was difficult for rookies to make a strong offensive impact. Once upon a time it wasn’t so rare for rookies to be among the overall point leaders – players such as Peter Stastny, Dale Hawerchuk, and even Joe Juneau all scored over 100 points in their rookie seasons. By my count, the past seven seasons have only seen eight rookies even hit the 50 point mark.
This year is shaping up to be one of the better rookie classes in recent memory, bringing to mind such seasons as 1993 when Eric Lindros made his much anticipated debut with 41 goals, Joe Juneau had 102 points for Boston, and Teemu Selanne shocked the hockey world in Winnipeg by obliterating the rookie goal scoring record with an outrageous 76 goals. I won’t suggest that we’ll see totals that high but with the amazing starts this year of Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, we will once again see rookies among the best players in the entire league. Others like Thomas Vanek, Pavel Vorobiev, Alex Steen, and Calgary’s Dion Phaneuf (profiled here two weeks ago and in any other year the runaway Calder favorite at this point) are all making a significant impact already.
Why so many this year? Seemingly the most obvious reason for this is that those who would have been rookies last year had an extra year to develop their games in leagues such as the American Hockey League, Canadian Hockey League, or overseas due to the NHL lockout. Alexander Ovechkin would undoubtedly have been playing for the Capitals last year had there been a season. So as fans we get a gift of getting two years’ worth of rookies packed into this one season.
Another reason that rookies are succeeding this year more than in recent seasons would undoubtedly be due to the new emphasis on skill. I think it’s safe to say that guys like Ovechkin and Crosby would excel in any era but I also think it’s fair to say it’s likely they wouldn’t have the scoring success they do this year under the so-called “old” rules of the NHL. Players have more of a chance to establish themselves without, frankly, getting mugged on the ice. Creativity is more encouraged this year as opposed to it being stifled in years past where you were more likely to “make it” in the NHL by simply surviving.
This week I’m taking a look at two other rookies on the rise, as well as a young second-year player who is on a roll this month.
Jeff Carter, Center, Philadelphia Flyers
Jeff Carter was Philadelphia’s first of two first round picks in the 2003 draft, at number 11 overall. Carter played a full four years in the Soo (Sault St. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League) leading the team in scoring in each of the last three seasons. In his last three seasons Carter tallied 211 points in only 173 games, including 105 goals.
Carter seemed ready to turn pro last year. However, as with many rookies this year, last year’s lockout might have been beneficial to Carter’s development. He’s a big guy, and typically big centers have taken a few years before they develop their scoring touch at the NHL level. For a good example of this, see teammate Keith Primeau who was picked third overall in 1990 – it took him until his fourth season to find the touch when he potted 31 goals for Detroit.
Last year he returned to Sault St. Marie in the OHL and after the Hounds were bounced in the first round of the OHL playoffs in seven games (in which Carter potted five goals and five assists), he was signed by the Flyers and assigned to the AHL Phantoms. After only three regular season games, he helped them in 21 playoffs games by scoring 12 goals and 23 points. Remember last year this was arguably the highest league in the world overall.
Ironically Primeau might be a rather unwilling key to Carter’s further NHL development – the veteran center went down with a concussion at the end of October and has yet to return – his absence has given others a chance to play and step up, and Carter has filled that absence. In the 11 games since Primeau’s injury, Carter has registered ten points and has been getting a much more regular shift. Jeff Carter hasn’t averaged a lot of ice time yet this year, with just over ten minutes per game overall to this point. However, that number is a bit deceiving as over his past four games he’s increased his ice time to between 12 and 18 minutes.
Primeau’s concussion isn’t his first, and there have been rumors of his retirement. This is only important in that if Primeau comes back, Carter will possibly see his ice time revert to the lower numbers from earlier in the season. Frankly, if I’m Bobby Clarke I’d be engraving Keith Primeau’s gold watch, thanking him for the service, and then kicking him to the curb to make room for the youngsters like Carter. If Carter continues to play as well as he has in the past few weeks he will force his way onto a permanent spot on the top three lines.
With the Flyers thus far being the second-highest scoring team in the league, having a premier player on their squad will help any fantasy team. In sum, at this point Carter wouldn’t project as a starter in most fantasy leagues but I would definitely recommend a bench spot for him in the event that he does become one of the top Flyer centers by mid-season.
Marek Svatos, Right Wing, Colorado Avalanche
Colorado right winger Marek Svatos has the pedigree of a prolific scorer - in two years of junior with the Western Hockey League’s Kootenay Ice he had 118 points in 92 games – he’s not just a setup man – he’s a goal scorer, potting 38 in only 53 games in his Memorial Cup winning season of 2002, with an extra 12 goals in the playoffs.
Of all the “unheralded” rookie forwards, Svatos might be having the most impressive season. His raw numbers alone are quite good, with ten goals and 18 points in 19 games. He is third in rookie scoring behind the “big two” but with relatively very little ice time – while Ovechkin and Crosby have both played over 19 minutes per game, Svatos is only averaging 13 minutes per game which ranks 42nd among rookies. Compare this to teammate and future Hall of Famer Joe Sakic who also has 19 points this season while playing 20 minutes per game.
Svatos could be one of the true sleepers this year if his ice time increases and his present numbers project even a little bit. He’s been remarkably consistent, getting points in 13 games – only once has been held without a shot. He’s proving himself to be a clutch scorer as he is tops in the entire league in game-winning goals with five. Playing on a line with veterans Pierre Turgeon and Steve Konowalchuk is a great way to give him guidance as well as watching one of the all-time great scoring touches in Turgeon. I expect his ice time to increase, due to the results he’s already posted and the confidence the club shows in him by playing him with respected veterans Turgeon and Konowalchuk. Marek Svatos is a player who could start and contribute in your lineup right now.
Chuck Kobasew, Left/Right Wing, Calgary Flames
OK, OK, I cheated. Chuck Kobasew isn’t a rookie, but I wanted to talk about him this week as he and his team have both been making some big noise of late. Plus the other guy I was going to discuss was Philly center Mike Richards and frankly, one Flyer per week is enough. (…and it’s not like we’re talking about Sergei Makarov here, who won the Calder Trophy in 1990 at age 73; Kobasew is the same age as Svatos.)
The Calgary Flames were a hip pick to win the Cup this year after their surprising run to the finals in 2004. Yet the way they started off the year was more reminiscent of the Atlanta Flames, circa 1974 (Tom Lysiak was nowhere to be found) in losing nine of their first 14 games. Coach Darryl Sutter juggled the lines in November, trying to get all-world winger Jarome Iginla started after he was off to another slow start. The Flames started to win in November and after a few games Sutter put Iginla with Steve Reinprecht and Kobasew. Their first three games together were the team’s highest scoring games of the year and the team – as well as Kobasew – has been on fire ever since.
Kobasew came to prominence in the hockey world – and especially in New England – when as a freshman in 2001 with the Boston College Eagles he helped them end a 52 year drought as they won the NCAA title. On a stacked team he rose to prominence and ended up second on the team in goals with 27 (behind fellow NHL rising star Brian Gionta). After the season Kobasew was selected 14th overall in the NHL draft by Calgary and made a controversial move by leaving BC and joining the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets where he scored 41 goals in only 55 games. He progressed nicely the next season after signing with the Flames by playing in the AHL and scoring 21 times.
Kobasew probably wasn’t high on many poolies’ charts this season as in his first and only full NHL season he only scored 17 points in 70 games, and just one point in the long playoff march to the finals. Those 12 of us that paid attention to hockey during last year’s NHL freeze out may have noticed that there was some quality hockey being played in the American Hockey League and Kobasew was one of the league’s stars, ending up fourth in goals with 38.
Overall this year, Kobasew has nine goals and 12 points in 23 games. Decent but not overwhelming numbers, but the key here is his new opportunity – playing on a line with arguably the best player in the league in Iginla. In the six games since the Iginla/Kobasew/Reinprecht line has been together Kobasew has five points and as a result of being on the top line has played more often. Oh by the way, the Flames have won five of those six games moving to within two points of the Northwest division lead. I expect this line to stay together due to many reasons: Iginla’s resurgence, the team’s return to their aggressive play that was so successful in last season’s playoffs. Count on Kobasew to continue to put points on the board as long as he stays on this line, and with his otherwise overall average numbers you might be able to pick up Kobasew from an opponent rather cheaply.
Finally, congratulations to Danny Gare, who this week had his number 18 retired by the Buffalo Sabres. Ah, you’ve gotta love the old blue and gold jerseys…. Gare was the feisty captain of the high-flying 1970s Buffalo Sabres and played as an early version of Doug Gilmour. Furthermore, he was the last Detroit captain before Steve Yzerman. Win a bar bet or two with that fact.
Thanks for reading – comments and suggestions are always welcome.
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