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Old 09-28-2007, 08:22 PM   #6
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Default The rookie race by Terry Frei

Next spring, when writers sit down at their computers and vote for some of the NHL trophies for the 2007-08 season, they will have, as they always do, reams and/or megabytes of information at their disposal.

Offensive production is always most persuasive, and usually with considerable justification. But I have the feeling that if minds are open to a defenseman who doesn't necessarily making eye-popping contributions at the offensive end, as they were in 2003 when the Blues' Barret Jackman won the Calder Trophy, the 2008 rookie of the year voting could come down to the All-American Johnson boys.

Jack Johnson, left, played a five-game stint with the Kings last season after Michigan bowed out of the NCAA Tournament.

Erik Johnson of the Blues.

Jack Johnson of the Kings.

They're not related, but share some crossed paths and similarities of background. Both played for the U.S. National Team Development program before heading off to brief forays in college, Erik for one season with the Minnesota Gophers and Jack for two seasons with the Michigan Wolverines. They also have been World Junior Championship teammates.

In the past 30 years, five defensemen have won the Calder: Jackman, the Islanders' Bryan Berard in 1997, the Rangers' Brian Leetch in 1989, the Flames' Gary Suter in 1986 and the Bruins' Ray Bourque in 1980. (In 1978, Barry Beck, menacing on virtually every level as a rookie at age 20 before injuries derailed his career, had a Calder-worthy season with the Colorado Rockies, scoring 22 goals and shining defensively for a team that finished with 59 points. The only problem was that Mike Bossy burst onto the scene with the Islanders the same season and rightfully won the award.)

Not that it means anything, but three of the five defensemen among that group -- Berard, Leetch and Suter -- are American, like the Johnsons. It's perhaps more significant that Leetch, Suter and Bourque, while undeniably elite all-around defensemen (Suter to a lesser degree), helped their Calder causes by posting an average of 19 goals and 68 points in their rookie seasons.

So the odds may be against the Johnsons, even if they play well when thrown into the mix with previously struggling franchises.

Jack, the smaller of the Johnsons at 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, likely will have more significant offensive numbers with the Kings, both because of the nature of his game and the role he will play. He got his feet wet during a five-game stint with the Kings last season after Michigan didn't advance out of the NCAA West Regional, and that can't hurt Johnson. The Hurricanes will be kicking themselves for trading his rights (and Oleg Tverdovsky) to the Kings in September 2006 in the deal that landed them Eric Belanger and Tim Gleason, a decent prospect who had been the Senators' No. 1 pick in 2003. That's not nearly enough to justify a largely unjustifiable deal in the first place. Hurricanes fans should be griping about it in the RBC Center tailgates for years.

The trick, of course, will be for Johnson not to get beaten down by what is likely to be the Kings' continued 2007-08 struggles, beginning in London, albeit in a rebuilding process headed in the right direction. His plus/minus could get ugly, and that could offset his offensive production for some voters.

And Erik Johnson? At 6-foot-4 and 222 pounds, and still only 19, he's more commanding physically and any judgment of him will have to take into consideration the immeasurables, including his sweeping work in the defensive end and his ability to get the puck up the ice. It's hard for a teenager to be imposing, but he will be able to pull it off for a Blues team that actually was decent under coach Andy Murray in the second half.

The Calder Trophy race also will include some dynamite young forwards who will put up significant offensive numbers. If it's Patrick Kane of the Blackhawks, for example, he might get extra credit (subconsciously, but this is the way it works) for doing it immediately after his draft year, and perhaps for helping re-energize the NHL in Chicago, with its huge pool of knowledgeable and passionate fans holding the Hawks at arm's length because of disillusion.

That kind of reinvigoration would get my attention, and I'm rooting for it, whether it comes from Kane or ex-University of North Dakota center Jonathan Toews, a terrific two-way player who helped Canada to the 2006 and 2007 World Junior Championship titles and is recovering from a broken finger suffered in an early exhibition game. And certainly, if Kane and/or Toews are instrumental in getting the United Center full and rocking again, they'll be worthy of major consideration.

There are a handful of other possible Calder candidates, of course, and listing them would be perilous, in part because a couple of them are going to be at least a bit surprising. A year ago, was anyone expecting Colorado's Paul Stastny to be among the Calder finalists, regardless of his lineage? Even Anze Kopitar's strong season at Los Angeles was more than expected.

So if anyone wants to get into tossing in the "what-abouts" ("Wait a minute, what about ?"), there are other names to throw into the mix.

The Capitals' Nicklas Backstrom, who will likely have a productive rookie season, and would get more YouTube and "SportsCenter" time if he beats Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom at Washington on Feb. 26.

Edmonton center Andrew Cogliano has joined the Oilers from the University of Michigan and played on Canada's WJC winners.

There's also ex-Wolverines center T.J. Hensick, who is likely to stick with the Avalanche.

Thrashers center Bryan Little could step up.

With Phoenix still rebuilding, young centers Martin Hanzal and Peter Mueller could get enough work and be productive enough to be in the mix.

Speaking of genes, Ottawa winger Nick Foligno (Mike's son) and Rangers defenseman Marc Staal also have the right ones. Even among defensemen, the Penguins' prominence will help rookie Kristopher Letang.

But I'm going to stick with this: If voters are willing to take hard looks back to the blue line and consider the big picture, the winner will be a Johnson.
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