There is something old school about New York Islanders rookie Trent Hunter and his quiet ascension to the top of the rookie scoring heap, just as there is something "Old School" about his new life as an NHLer.
Of all the first-year players whose names were bandied about at the start of the season as possible Calder Trophy candidates -- Tuomo Ruutu, Joni Pitkanen, Nathan Horton, Marc-Andre Fleury, etc. -- it's safe to say Trent Hunter's name was not among them. In fact, you can include Hunter in the 'just happy to be here and I really, really mean that' group of young players.
The 150th pick overall in the 1998 draft has not just managed to hang around with the Islanders, he approaches the All-Star break as the leading rookie in goal scoring with 18, including a pair Tuesday night in a 2-2 tie with Boston, and is second overall in rookie points behind Montreal's Michael Ryder with 34 in 45 games. Not only that, Hunter leads an experienced Islanders team in scoring and is tied for the league lead with six game-winning goals.
And while his offensive numbers are impressive, it is his overall game, his commitment to the little things that have made him invaluable to coach Steve Stirling and the trap-happy, resurgent Islanders, and earned him a spot in the annual YoungStars Game.
"He's actually gone good all year, but when he's really going good I have absolutely no hesitation putting him out there late in the game with a goal lead," said Stirling, who coached Hunter the past two years with the Islanders' minor-league affiliate in Bridgeport of the American Hockey League. "A lot of times I get down to two lines with five minutes to go in the game and more often than not he's out there so that should tell you something right there."
Perhaps the highest compliment paid Hunter, who leads all rookies in plus/minus rating, is that his coach no longer looks down the bench and sees a rookie wearing No. 7.
"At the beginning of the year I treated him like a rookie," Stirling said. "The first five games when he didn't play, and that was out of respect for the veterans.
"When Hunter went in for the first time, he went in with a purpose and he's been there ever since. He's just gotten better and better, and more reliable at both ends of the ice. I knew the one end he could do it (offensively), the other end at this level I didn't know, but he's certainly proved night in and night out he can play at both ends. So, no, I don't treat him like a rookie anymore, I treat him like a guy that's made real good progress and a real important member of our hockey club"
Hunter's path to a full-time NHL job, and now a hint of national recognition, hardly follows the path of your average phenom. The Red Deer, Alberta, native was acquired by the Islanders in May 2000 for a fourth-round draft pick. After a solid 65-point season in Bridgeport in 2001-02, he was called up and performed admirably in the Islanders' bitter seven-game elimination at the hands of the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round of the playoffs. His rambunctious, tenacious play earned kudos from teammates, opponents and the media.
But Hunter did not have a stellar camp the next fall and played only eight games with the big club all of last season.
"As disappointing as it was a year ago coming out of camp, he really was given every opportunity to make the club," said Stirling. "He'll be the first to tell you he didn't have a good camp. He was trying to be something that he isn't. I think he'll tell you that, too, because we had enough conversations when he joined me in Bridgeport early in the season.
"But he's such a quality young man and he knows how hard he's worked to get to where he is and how hard he needs to work to get to the next level, let alone stick."
This season Hunter arrived in camp with a different agenda and different mindset.
Still, it's one thing to have enough security to find a place to live on Long Island, it's another to look in the paper and find yourself keeping pace with the best first-year players in the game.
"I didn't expect it to go this well," Hunter admitted with a shy smile. "Once I was in (the lineup) I was just having fun out there. That's when the puck started going in for me.
"When you're brought in as a rookie, there's lots of things to contend with. There's a lot of wide-eyed moments and you're just looking around."
At 6-foot-3, 210-lbs, Hunter has the size to go into traffic and surprisingly gifted hands. Although he starred with Prince George of the Western Hockey League before turning pro, Hunter remains grounded, a Red Deer boy at heart. Located almost smack-dab between Calgary and Edmonton, the small city of 67,000 remains Hunter's refuge, the place where he seems most comfortable. He returns there in the offseason and his father, Stan, a carpenter, is building Hunter a house there.
At 23, Hunter is the oldest of three boys. His younger brother Tyler, 21, is an extreme sport aficionado while his youngest brother Todd, 15, has had to deal with heart problems since he was a small child. He now wears a pacemaker which limits his ability to take part in athletics.
"We have a real close family," Hunter said. "Stuff like that brought us closer together."
Hunter's parents have visited Hunter in Long Island but they are wise enough to have given him lots of notice given that he's bunked in with fellow rookie Eric Godard, 23, and veteran Shawn Bates, 28.
Perhaps there's a little of the popular frat-house movie in the day-to-day lives of the three Islanders bachelors.
"There isn't a lot of cooking that gets done in the house," Hunter admitted. "But we look out for each other."
Added Bates, diplomatically: "It's not real orderly, but it's not chaos"
If the needling that takes place in the dressing room between the three is any indication, everything is fair game. Bates, the veteran of the three, is the quasi-den father, taking care of the bills and the rent. He is also the one the rookies turn to with questions about life in the NHL.
"He's a great kid," Bates said of Hunter. "Obviously a pretty respectful kid as well. He's played great. He's helped us out a lot. He's been, actually, one of the better players all year for us. It's been exciting to watch."
As for the Calder Trophy talk, Hunter's still not entirely comfortable with those conversations.
"I was in quite a bit of shock the first time it came up," he said. "It's not something I want to focus on."
If he keeps producing at his current rate, the trophy talk may be out of his control.
Other rookie YoungStars to watch
Paul Martin, defense, New Jersey Devils: A popular choice to take part in the four-on-four game, Martin is both a native of Minneapolis and for the past two years a member of the NCAA champion Golden Gophers hockey team. Martin, 22, has made the jump from college hockey to the NHL under one of the league's most demanding defensive coaches, Pat Burns, on a team that's built its reputation on almost flawless defensive play. Although he has but two goals in 38 games, Martin has earned Burns' confidence and averages a solid 18:43 a night. In the absence of captain Scott Stevens, Martin will be getting even more opportunity to prove he belongs, not just at the YoungStars game but with the defending Stanley Cup champions.
Michael Ryder, right wing, Montreal Canadiens: Ryder leads all rookies in scoring with 37 points in 50 games. The St. John's, Newfoundland, native was the Habs' ninth choice, 216th overall, in the 1998 draft, but has blossomed this year, revealing a terrific play making side to his game. His 23 assists lead all rookies. He also has a terrific shot. Ryder's play, along with that of another youngster, Mike Ribeiro, have been key components in the Habs' surprising move into the middle of the Eastern Conference standings.
Nikolai Zherdev, right wing, Columbus Blue Jackets: For a young man who arrived in the NHL like a character in a Le Carre novel, the flashy forward has done well to make the transition to big-league hockey. The fourth choice overall in last spring's draft has great acceleration and a keen scoring touch that is reminiscent of another Russian star, Ilya Kovalchuk. The 19-year-old has counted six goals and 13 points in his first 27 games. While his status with the Russian hockey federation remains in a state of flux (his previous hockey masters insist Zherdev has yet to fulfill his military obligations), look for Zherdev to continue to carve out a place for himself in the NHL.
Andrew Raycroft, goaltender, Boston Bruins: One of the key factors in the Bruins pulling out of their annual midseason swoon has been the surprising, sometimes spectacular play of rookie netminder Andrew Raycroft. Although he's lost two in a row (giving up five goals in all), Raycroft had won six straight and turned in a 1.33 goals against average over that span. The native of Belleville, Ontario, has a 2.00 GAA overall, ninth among NHL goalies, and his .927 save percentage ranks seventh. He is the runaway leader in rookie goaltending victories with 15. Not bad for a 23-year-old drafted 135th overall in 1998.
Matthew Lombardi, center, Calgary Flames: You have to love the perseverance of Matthew Lombardi. Taken in the 2000 draft by Edmonton (215th overall), Lombardi landed back in the draft pool when the Oilers didn't tender a contract. After finishing second in the Quebec Major Junior League with 130 points during his final year with Victoria, he was selected 90th overall by the Flames in 2002 and spent the 2002-03 season in the minors. Still, he was given little chance to make the NHL Flames this fall. Not only has he stuck with the big club, the 5-foot-11, 191-pound center has risen to seventh in rookie scoring with 11 goals and 21 points, impressive numbers given the tight style of play employed by Calgary coach and GM Darryl Sutter.
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.