Every season brings new faces to the ice that are looking to make an impact on their NHL club right away. Some rookies take off and help their teams contend for playoff spots, while other rookies disappoint. We are still in the early part of the season, but at least ten first year players have made significant impacts so far. Everyone knew about John Tavares and Victor Hedman going into the season, but did we know what kind of impact rookies such as Michael Del Zotto, Tyler Myers, Ryan O'Reilly, James van Riemsdyk and Jamie Benn would have? Taking into account all of the first year players through yesterday, who has become the favorite to win the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year?
Michael Del Zotto, D, New York Rangers
Richard Pollock: In my mind the most impactful rookie so far this season has been Michael Del Zotto of the New York Rangers. First off, being a rookie defenseman in the National Hockey League carries with it a lot more pressure than being an NHL rookie forward. There are only six defensemen on a roster per night; it is far more difficult to “hide” a defenseman against weaker competition than it is with forwards. Defense mistakes are apparent to the regular fan; forward mistakes are far less noticeable. That is what makes Michael Del Zotto’s start to the season so notable.
Sure the 19 year old is playing the least amount of even strength ice-time on the Rangers’ defense, but he is leading the Rangers’ ice-time category when it comes to the power play. Think about that for a second; Del Zotto is getting more power play ice-time than Wade Redden, Michal Rozsival and Matt Gilroy. For a player only drafted last summer that is clearly a reflection of his ability. What’s more, he has already tallied three power play goals and has twelve points overall. Those twelve points, place him second overall in the NHL in rookie scoring—only behind James Van Riemsdyk. Also of note, his points are not all from the power play, as he has posted a 1.14 points-per-60 even strength minutes so far this season.
Del Zotto may not be rookie of the year at season’s end, but he is going to be a very good defenseman for some time. Not only does he post impressive stats but he is just as impressive when you watch him play.
Tyler Myers, D, Buffalo Sabres
Timo Seppa: Michael Del Zotto of the Rangers has been on a magic carpet ride over the first 15 games of his NHL career, his gaudy stats inflated by 55 minutes of power play time with the likes of Marian Gaborik and Ales Kotalik. Look to even strength, though, and you’ll see the impact of Sabres’ top prospect Tyler Myers, whose +0.64 plus/minus per game is tied for 7th amongst NHL defensemen, significantly better than Del Zotto’s +0.20. At 6’8”, Myers is an imposing physical presence defensively, but he’s also got offensive skills normally associated with a much smaller man, as proven with his slick shootout winner against Tampa Bay – the only shot of six to beat netminder Mike Smith. The comparisons to Zdeno Chara are often made, but the 19 year old rookie is further along offensively than the big Slovak was at this stage of his career. Starting off with 2 Goals, 3 Assists, 5 Points, +7 plus/minus and 10 blocked shots over his first 11 games while averaging 20:44 time on ice, look for the 12th overall pick of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft to be a major contributor to a postseason run for the Sabres, and a contender for the Calder Trophy when all is said and done.
Robert Vollman: The league's best rookie so far is a 19-year-old defenseman that has taken everyone by surprise. Am I talking about Michael Del Zotto of the New York Rangers? No, I'm actually talking about Tyler Myers of the Buffalo Sabres. The impact of his amazing contributions have helped his team off to an unexpectedly good start and a first place hold on the Northeast Division through the first month of the season.
Tyler Myers was the 12th overall pick in the 2008 draft, and helped the Kelowna Rockets of the WHL with 20 points in 22 games in last year's playoffs. He's got 5 points so far in 11 games for the Sabres, but it's not his offense that's helping Buffalo out most this year, it's his defense. Buffalo has allowed only 24 goals against, lowest in the NHL, due in no small part to two the league leaders in defensive GVT and plus-minus, Tyler Myers and his partner Henrik Tallinder.
Hopefully Myers is setting the pace that he intends to keep for the whole season. At somewhere between 6'6" and 6'8" depending on who you ask, Myers has the imposing defensive presence that reminds us of last year's Norris Trophy winner Zdeno Chara. Young defensemen like Del Zotto, Victor Hedman (Tampa Bay) and Jason Demers (San Jose) may be getting more press, but Tyler Myers is also getting the job done, albeit far more quietly.
Ryan O'Reilly, C, Colorado Avalanche
Andrew Rothstein: Michael Del Zotto and Tyler Myers have both had great starts to the season, but I'm going with that other rookie on the Avalanche: Ryan O'Reilly. At the Bell Centre in Montreal in June for the draft, there were rumors floating around that the Islanders were thinking about selecting Matt Duchene with the first overall pick. When Colorado selected him at third overall, many thought he would end up being the best player in the draft, except for the hockey sabermetrics community. However, when O'Reilly was picked in the second round, the first word I heard from people within earshot was, "Who?"
The Clinton, Ontario native has scored 11 points in his first 15 games, while averaging 15:57 minutes of ice time per game. The 33rd overall selection this past summer also managed to post a 4.8 relative plus/minus, which adjusts plus/minus for goaltending, special teams play and linemates, in addition to a 2.4 GVT. His GVT is the fifth best on his team, while his relative plus/minus is second on the Avalanche, behind only Wojtek Wolski's 6.1. Avalanche coach Joe Sacco has also been using the 6'0'' 200 lbs. center on the penalty kill as well as in defensive zone faceoffs. The Avalanche will likely face a losing streak with their weak shots for to shots against ratio, but nonetheless Ryan O'Reilly has established himself as the favorite for the Calder Trophy through one month of play.
This column was authored by the staff of Puck Prospectus.