Don't look now but the two Av rookies are finally getting a mention....
The race for the Calder Trophy boasts another bumper crop of rookies this season including forward Evgeni Malkin, who is providing spark for the Pittsburgh Penguins, Matthew Carle, an offensively gifted defenseman who is averaging 19 minutes of ice time per game with the San Jose Sharks, and center Anze Kopitar, who has been a standout with the Los Angeles Kings. But don’t think any player has a lock on the award. Not by a long shot.
Keep an eye on Paul Stastny of the Colorado Avalanche and Dustin Penner of the Anaheim Ducks; both are enjoying outstanding freshman campaigns. And don’t forget the Avalanche’s other rookie phenom - Wojtek Wolski, who got off to a great start with three goals in his first four games. Today, Wolski ranks among the league’s rookie leaders in all offensive categories including goals, assists, points and shooting percentage. He joins Stastny to form one of the elite young tandems in the league and provide the Avalanche plenty of reason to be optimistic about the future.
"They are both young kids that we think have tremendous offensive upside,” says Colorado head coach Joel Quenneville. "Wolski has an NHL shot that is quick and has some pace to it. He is big and strong and he can also make plays. He and Stastny had some chemistry right out of training camp. Wolski’s future is great.”
His past is not too shabby either.
Colorado’s first-round pick (21st overall) in the 2004 Entry Draft earned the Red Tilson Trophy as the most outstanding player in the Ontario Hockey League last season where he collected 47 goals and 81 assists in only 56 games with the Brampton Battalion. He added a second piece of silverware last season as the recipient of the William Hanley Trophy for being the league’s most gentlemanly player. All of these awards came after he made an impressive NHL debut in 2005-06 by notching six points in nine regular-season games with the Avs.
That type of production would usually mean “Go get an apartment kid, you’re staying with the big team.” But patience is a mantra in Colorado and being a minus player during his debut last season, Wolski returned to his junior club for an extra year of seasoning.
Did Wolski sulk about the detour? No. The kid has too much character. That character comes to him naturally as the son of a Polish stonemason who journeyed to Canada after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Wojtek was only 4-years-old when he moved with his family to Mississauga, Ontario. They were short on money when they arrived in their new land, but long on character. That quality showed through in Wolski last season as he embraced the challenge of returning to junior hockey - much to the chagrin of his OHL opponents.
"Character… that’s why he was able to go back to junior and take off,” says San Jose Sharks Chief Scout Tim Burke. “He comes from a good family, a hard-working family that came over from Poland. He’s a good kid. You don’t get ‘I’m this and I’m that.’ He didn’t go back (to junior) with an attitude that 'I’m coming back from the NHL.' Being sent down … that’s a rude awakening. He wasn’t in the NHL last year for just a week. Wolski was there longer than most guys and then when Colorado sent him back he led that Brampton team and he didn’t miss a beat.
“There was no lackluster play,” continues Burke. “What a year he had last year! He dominated the league and people talk about him on the power play, well, you should have seen him in junior. You name it … shoot … look away and shoot … bang … he surprises you … quick diagonal passes. Wolski is gifted. He’s exciting. I watched him a lot in Brampton because we had a kid that was drafted there. Wolski played pretty good in Colorado last year and then they sent him back to junior and he tore that league up. That’s the good thing about this kid, when he came back he was exciting.”
The 6-foot-3, 200 pound winger again showed his character after being a healthy scratch against the Anaheim Ducks on Nov. 22. What did Wolski do about it? He let his actions do the talking, responding with a four point night on Nov. 25 and figured in all goals in the Avalanche's 4-1 victory over the Vancouver Canucks. That takes character. But not character alone. It also takes a ton of talent.
"He’s got a lot of moves,” Burke said. “He’s got stronger and he can really find secondary options. This kid is a good player, a real good player. I don’t know if he is going to end up being a center or a wing, but from an offensive standpoint of a hockey player being able to make quick plays and use the puck with speed this kid has got it. I think he’s like a hybrid because he can both shoot and pass.”
Wojtek Wolski scored three goals in his first four games, and is among the League leaders in all rookie offensive categories.
The Avalanche team captain agrees.
"Wojtek is big, he’s crafty with the puck and he has a lot of speed,” says Joe Sakic. “He used his size well and he has a great shot. There’s not too many guys that go to the net like him. He gets that puck and he challenges the defense. He is an exciting player and is always in the right spot.”
Wolski admits to being in the right spot in more ways than one.
“Every chance I could have got to succeed I definitely got,” says Wolski. “Right from the beginning of junior hockey I got to stay home and I got a good opportunity to play on the power play for four years. I’ve been working hard with the Avalanche and the guys on my team have definitely welcomed me. My teammates have tried to help me along and the coaching staff has given me a great opportunity to do well and to stay in the NHL. I’ve got such a good chance to play with so many great players here to help me along. Players like Joe (Sakic) and Pierre (Turgeon) tell me about their experiences as a young player so the support from the players around you really helps.”
Support is important when you’re winning but it’s even more critical when you are not winning hockey games.
“That’s so true,” says Wolski. “When you are not winning games people are not happy and the organization isn’t happy so things can change pretty quickly. But if you have that support with guys helping you out and everybody is working hard there’s not much more you can ask as a team.”
And what is expected from Wolski as an individual?
“I’m trying to create as many opportunities as I can every time I’m on the ice,” says Wolski. “But I have to realize that the better you play defensively the more you have the puck. That’s the one thing that the coaching staff try to make sure that I remember. I try to make sure that we get the puck back as quickly as possible. Keeping a third guy high in the offensive zone is definitely helping with that and getting back and picking up a guy is important. I’m expected to score goals more than being a defensive force but I try my best in all areas of the game.”
The talented winger is big enough to compete in the trenches, along the wall and in front of the net, but there is one element of play in the NHL that surprised him a little.
"The quickness of the game,” says Wolski. “It’s a long season with 82 games, but guys seem to come in every single night and play hard. You definitely have to be ready both physically and mentally for each game. Sometimes it wears on you with so much going on but there’s no place I would rather be than playing in the NHL. I look forward to it every day.”