- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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The NHL's rookie race looks nothing like what the preseason pundits predicted.
Fellow rookie forwards Blake Wheeler, Mikkel Boedker and Oscar Moller also have been impressive as the NHL season reaches its quarter pole, as have first-year blueliners Alex Goligoski, Drew Doughty and Luca Sbisa.
Still, let's be honest here. For the first time since the lockout, the NHL has a wide-open rookie race without the big-name attraction. Alex Ovechkin edged out Sidney Crosby in a compelling 2005-06 Calder race that featured the league's two post-lockout poster boys. Evgeni Malkin beat Paul Stastny for the award in 2006-07. And last season saw a thrilling competition between Chicago Blackhawks linemates Patrick Kane (the winner) and Jonathan Toews, chased closely by impressive Capitals forward Nicklas Backstrom.
You could easily argue that the most impressive rookie right now is not among the top scorers. At only 18, Doughty leads all NHL rookies in ice time at nearly 23 minutes per game, easing his way into the world's top hockey league in what many believe is the most difficult position to learn at that level.
"There's no doubt that he's getting it. He's a very special young player," Terry Murray, Doughty's coach with the Los Angeles Kings, told ESPN.com. "He handles those minutes with composure. It's like he's been in the league for several years."
That's exactly what Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock said of 21-year-old Brassard, who leads all rookies with 19 points (8 goals, 11 assists) through 18 games.
"The biggest compliment a young player can get is when the coaching staff treats him like a veteran player, and that's how we treat him," Hitchcock said. "We just count on him every day. His performance isn't a bonus for us. It's needed. And he hasn't let us down."
Brassard was taken sixth overall in the 2006 NHL draft, but unlike some high picks in recent years, he didn't make the jump as an 18-year-old. He went back to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League for another season and spent most of last season in the AHL. He came to camp ready this summer. The Jackets had openings at center, and Brassard didn't miss his chance.
"He's grabbed it and taken it," Hitchcock said. "Every person in this organization knew how qualified he was offensively. We knew he had really good offensive tools. I think the thing that's been impressive is his responsibility when the other team has the puck. I think that's what has made him have the season he's had so far. He's been really accountable and really competitive when he's checking people. I think that's the part that's impressed everybody. His competitive level has really given him a chance to be a competitive player."
Music to Hitchcock's ears? Brassard's being plus-8.
Versteeg took even more time than Brassard in developing. A fifth-round pick of the Bruins in 2004, the 22-year-old played three-plus seasons in the AHL (he had a minor taste of the NHL in 2007-08) before making the jump this season. He has made it count so far, sitting second in the rookie scoring race with 16 points (6-10) through 17 games while playing alongside star NHL sophomores Kane and Toews. He's plus-10.
"He's been really good," Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said of Versteeg. "I like him in all aspects of the game. He's smart, he's quick, he's tricky. The physical stuff doesn't bother him. His awareness with and without the puck is very high end. Obviously, he's fortunate to be playing with two great young players, but he definitely holds up his end of the bargain.
"We use him in all situations; he kills penalties and plays the power play and plays on the top line. He's fortunate to be where he's at, but he's earned the opportunity based on how he's played and how he's been playing."
Grabovski is next on the rookie points list with 13, but his nine goals led all first-year players through Wednesday night. He was a nice offseason pickup by Toronto Maple Leafs veteran GM Cliff Fletcher. The 24-year-old did play 24 games last season with the Canadiens, but he is finally getting a full-time shot in his first full NHL campaign.
"He has great offensive skill in the way he sees the ice, passes the puck and shoots the puck," Fletcher said. "But the thing that impresses me the most about him is his competitiveness. He's a very competitive player at both ends of the rink. As he develops as a player, his offensive part of the game is going to take care of itself, but I believe he's also going to become a strong defensive player.
"If I had to compare him to another player in the league -- and I know he's not in the same category at this stage -- but he looks an awful lot like Henrik Zetterberg did in his development years in the league."
Another Jackets rookie is next on the scoring list with 11 points (3-8) through 19 games. Voracek, only 19, is a deeply talented offensive player taken seventh overall in the 2007 NHL draft.
"Voracek last year almost made our team as an 18-year-old," Hitchcock said. "We could see what he was capable of playing. He's a big rangy player, he's great off the rush. He's really, really dangerous in the offensive zone when he gets time with the puck. He's a guy that just needed to physically mature.
"We saw last year at camp how good he would be. We knew there was no way he would go back to junior this time. He was just that good."
Wheeler, 22, hasn't been as consistent on offense as the rookies above, but he has shown flashes of his potential, including a hat trick Nov. 6 against the Leafs. He's 6-foot-5 and 205 pounds, and there's a belief that he'll develop into a big-time power forward with soft hands.
"He's gradually, game to game and day to day, accumulating knowledge and experience, but more importantly using it and applying it," Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli said. "Blake obviously has his assets, his size, his strength, his skating, but he's a very smart player.
"He's been playing well, he protects the puck well, he's got tremendous speed for his size. But for me, the ability to think the game and to adapt to different situations has been the biggest thing that I've seen."
In the end, let's not forget about Stamkos, the first pick in the draft this past June. He's only 18. His coach for the first 16 games of his career, Barry Melrose, didn't want to play him very much. He played a season-high 17:55 under new bench boss Rick Tocchet on Tuesday night, collecting his fifth point of the season on an assist.
There are still 64 games left in Stamkos' rookie season. Plenty of time to get back in the Calder race.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
9dScott Burnside and Craig Custance