Each year, the league recognizes the best newcomers to the NHL with the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year. Many of us debate the merits of players like Jeff Skinner of the Hurricanes or Michael Grabner of the Islanders. However, we often overlook the progress of other young players on NHL rosters. Second year skaters in particular have been known to either suffer the "sophomore slump" or at times make a "leap" in performance as they graduate to more power play time or get used to the speed of the NHL game.
I'm calling these the Rob Brown Awards, after the former Pittsburgh Penguins forward who jumped from a rookie season with 44 points to a sophomore season in which he tallied 115 points in only 68 games. Sure, he racked up those totals playing with Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, but he still had the talent to skate on that line and make the most of his chances. It also points out a valuable lesson when looking at a young player's performance: it's not just about the talent they possess, but the situations they're put in.
All GVT totals are as of March 27th and the data mining for players in their second season was done using the Player Season Finder on hockey-reference.com. All Corsi, Quality of Competition and Zone Start data is courtesy of BehindTheNet.ca.
Best season by a second year skater
The top three sophomores by GVT are the Islanders' John Tavares (10.5), the Stars' Jamie Benn (10.1) and the Avalanche's Matt Duchene (9.0). All three have been extremely impressive but Benn's total was earned playing 10 less games than the other two, giving him the victory for this category.
On the other hand, consider that Benn has the advantage of a zone start ratio that tops 57% while playing against third line competition for most of the season. Tavares and Duchene haven't had it quite so easy. That said, the young Stars winger has taken advantage of his situation by scoring 2.3 points per 60 minutes at even strength and 4.5 points per 60 minutes on the power play. For a second year player, that's pretty impressive. He has earned himself and extra three minutes of playing time per game over last season while improving his scoring rate. His jump into top six forward territory is likely what gave general manager Joe Nieuwendyk the confidence to trade James Neal at the deadline.
Best combined first and second seasons for a skater
Using both 2009-10 and 2010-11, the Sabres' Tyler Myers (24.0 GVT) is well ahead of Tavares (18.0), Benn (18.0) and Matt Duchene (17.7) despite a huge drop-off in production this year.
Last year at this time, Myers was an easy vote for most people as rookie of the year. He racked up a GVT of 15.8 and clearly was the best defenseman on a Sabres squad loaded with veteran blueliners. This season, Myers has taken a step backward (GVT of 8.2) but remains a very good player. In fact, some of his regression has been purely due to a bad bout of puck luck.
Myers' PDO in 2009-10 was 1016 while this season it has plummeted to 989. A swing of 27 points isn't out of line for any NHL player, but it certainly skews the results to some degree. For those unfamiliar with PDO, it is merely the sum of any player's on-ice save percentage and on-ice shooting percentage. Because it heavily regresses to the mean of 1000, having a high number can be an indicator of good luck, while a low number can indicate someone suffering a few bad bounces.
Outside of luck, it's very hard to find fault in Myers progression as a top-pairing defenseman. He played against the opposition's best players in his rookie season and is doing it again. His zone starts have been maintained as middle of the pack for the squad. If anything, Myers has made a huge leap in his ability to control puck possession. His Relative Corsi rate, which is Corsi compared to teammates, has improved by 14 shot attempts per 60 minutes! This season, he has been a profoundly positive possession player (Corsi = 8.9) while facing the best forwards on the other team. While Myers GVT may have dipped this season, he fully deserves the award for two year contribution and will likely be in the mix for the Norris in the future.
Biggest improvement from first to second season by a skater
Obviously, it's difficult to have the biggest improvement without struggling a little as a rookie. That's what makes Victor Hedman's progress so impressive. Despite logging a solid GVT of 4.7 in his rookie year, he's still improved by 3.8 in his second year, which was good enough for third on the list.
Viktor Stalberg, who was recently traded to the Chicago Blackhawks, came in second with an improvement of 4.4 GVT while the winner of the category is his former teammate, Dmitry Kulikov, with an improvement of 4.5 GVT.
Kulikov cracked the Panthers lineup last season for 68 games. His rookie season was adequate but far from exciting. While he logged close to 17 minutes per game, the level of competition he faced and the ratio of starts in the offensive zone indicated he was a third-pairing defender on a weak team. Despite playing easy minutes, he only averaged a third the scoring rate Myers did against much tougher competition. The lone bright spot to his season was a Relative Plus-Minus of 0.32, indicating he could drive positive results without racking up the points himself.
This season, Kulikov has found his offense at even strength. His scoring rate has jumped from just 0.37 points per 60 minutes to 1.1 points per 60 minutes. That has come while playing against third line competition again, but it shows progression. At the very least, Kulikov has shown he can be an offensive player from the point, and has proven he can be a quality third-pairing player with the potential to move up in the lineup for next season.
Ryan Popilchak is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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