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Brad Kurtzberg

Brad Kurtzberg

Posted: December 10, 2009 02:38 PM

Top Rookies Making Major Impact

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The New York Islanders were facing a difficult decision this past summer as they held the top choice in the NHL Entry Draft.

The big dilemma facing GM Garth Snow was whether to use the first pick on sniper John Tavares, big Swedish defenseman Victor Hedman or all around center Matt Duchene. The Isles chose Tavares. While the final verdict on all three players won't be in for many years, here's a look at all three roughly 30 games into their NHL careers:

John Tavares

The new face of the New York Islanders is off to a solid start to his NHL career. The 19-year-old leads all rookies with 13 goals and 24 points on the season. While he has not been a dominant player, he has played consistently well during the course of the season. He already has two multiple goal games and a game winning goal to his credit. Six of his scores have come on the power play and he is averaging nearly 19 minutes of ice time per game.

Other top players have taken notice of Tavares' ability. "From what I've seen, even from the first game, he's looked pretty comfortable out there," Sidney Crosby said after the last time the Islanders and Penguins met. "It's a confidence thing. You have to believe the things you do will work."

Tavares is a natural goal scorer. He has shown good hockey sense, isn't afraid to go to the net and has established a favorite area near the right circle where he likes to establish himself on the power play.

In addition to his own strong play, Tavares has shown the tendency to do what only truly elite players can do: make the players around him better. Line mate Matt Moulson has really blossomed in part due to the outstanding chemistry he has with Tavares. Prior to this season, Moulson scored six goals and ten points in 29 career NHL games. Even in the AHL, Moulson had never tallied more than 28 goals in a single campaign. This year, playing with Tavares, Moulson already has 14 goals and 23 points in just 30 games. Clearly playing with Tavares is a major factor in Moulson's career-best start.

Isles' Coach Scott Gordon is also pleased with the way Tavares plays in his own zone, noting that he is "committed to the defensive side of the game." The Isles' rookie also works hard to learn from his mistakes and to improve all aspects of his play.

While Tavares does not appear to be as dominant as Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin or Evgeni Malkin, his future looks very bright and he has the potential to be one of the league's top ten scorers for years to come. This year, he has already helped the Islanders go from the worst record in the league to a team right around the .500 mark.

Victor Hedman

A defenseman with size, mobility and offensive talent comes along only once every decade or so. Scouts touted Victor Hedman as one of those rare players. The Tampa Bay Lightning were only too happy to gobble him up with the second pick in the draft after the Islanders took Tavares first overall.

Thus far, Hedman has one goal and eight points in 28 games with an even plus-minus ranking. His first NHL goal ironically came against the Islanders on December 5 in a 4-0 Tampa Bay win.

Hedman leads all rookies with 22:23 of ice time per game and is seeing significant time on both the power play and the penalty killing units.

His teammates have been impressed with the way he has handled himself on and off the ice thus far. "As good as these young guys have been coming into the league lately, you're always a little skeptical of an 18-year old," explained Lightning center Jeff Halpern earlier this season. "But he hasn't just stepped in, he's stepped in and contributed in games and has been someone we can rely on. Off the ice, he just does everything that he's supposed to ... He stays quiet and just blends in. He looks like he wants to learn, he's humble and he understands he's got to put his time in. It's amazing he's been able to do that from day one. He's a professional at 18."

Defensemen typically take longer to reach their potential than forwards do and blueliners typically have less margin for error. But Hedman has already played two seasons in the Swedish Elite League against adults while Tavares and Duchene were playing against teenagers in Canada. This accelerated his development and maturity and helped make him more effective from day one in the NHL.

"Victor is an excellent player," Lightning Head Coach Rick Tocchet said. "He makes mistakes like everybody, and we'll work with him. But the poise of his is something you don't teach."
At 6'6" and 220, Hedman also has the size and raw physical ability to excel. If he continues to work hard, there is little doubt he can fulfill his potential and develop into an elite NHL defenseman.

Matt Duchene

The Colorado Avalanche had the third overall pick in the draft which meant they were going to take the member of the "Big Three" that the two teams drafting ahead of them passed on. That meant that Matt Duchene was heading to Denver.

In 32 games this season, Duchene has nine goals and 19 points. Four of his goals have come on the power play and one while the Avs were shorthanded. He has been a part of the rejuvenation of the Avalanche this season. Colorado remains in first place in the Northwest Division this season after finishing last overall in the Western Conference a year ago.

The rookie from Haliburton, Ontario, has picked up his play lately, scoring six goals and nine points in his last seven games including back-to-back two-goal games during the Avs' recent road trip to Florida.

Duchene has admitted he was a bit frustrated during his first few games. "At the beginning of the season I had a ton of opportunities and I don't think I was used to shooting on NHL goalies," Duchene admitted.

Now he is learning what he needs to do to score dirty goals in the NHL: go to the net.
The more he plays, the more confident Duchene becomes. "Things are starting to open up and the game is starting to slow down for me," Duchene explained. "It's starting to become easier, so I just have to keep it going. The points are good, but it's just a start. More importantly we want to get the team back on track."

Scouts said Duchene had the best all-around game of the big three, with excellent vision, hockey sense and passing skills. Thus far, he has shown why scouts were so high on him last summer.

The Islanders faced a very difficult decision last summer choosing between Tavares, Hedman and Duchene. Thus far, all three look like they will be making a big impact on the NHL for years to come.

 

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