Tarasenko leads early-impact rookies

Vladimir Tarasenko has gotten off to a flying start. Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

During the first game of the season, Detroit Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard spotted St. Louis Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko, only he didn't know it was Tarasenko, the highly touted rookie from Russia.

"I thought it was another guy from last year that they had," Howard said.

Two goals on five shots later from the 21-year-old, Howard figured it out.

"No idea who he was," Howard said. "I know who he is now."

These performances are the kind typically saved for preseason games where rookies seize ice time to make an impression and opponents build up scouting reports in the process. But this season, the league's newcomers are doing it in real time.

As the 2013 season gets underway, there's a group of impressive rookies already taking advantage of being in midseason form as veterans find their timing or nurse early injuries.

It starts with Tarasenko, who followed his two-goal opener with a three-point effort against the Nashville Predators. He's quickly earning the trust of veteran coach Ken Hitchcock, as his ice time has grown from 13:52 in the opener to 15:33 against the Blackhawks in Game 3.

His second goal of the season was a great example of his immense skill set. He built up speed through the neutral zone, took a pass from Kevin Shattenkirk then went to his backhand to beat Kyle Quincey, who looked like he was standing still. To score, Tarasenko went back to his forehand over Howard's blocker. All in a matter of seconds. "He's very slick," Howard said. "He's fast. Very speedy. He's got good hands. He displayed it twice on me."

Tarasenko had 31 points in 31 games during the lockout while playing in the KHL, a good indication that he was ready to compete with polished players. Now the challenge, as Ken Hitchcock pointed out before the season, is maintaining it over the grind of a condensed season.

"It's not just the hockey that is different, this schedule is going to be something," Hitchcock said.

When the regular season is done, Tarasenko will have played 79 games if he stays healthy. The Blues are expected to make a long playoff run, so that's another 20 or so games depending on the length of the postseason run. Managing a way around a rookie wall that is bound to come for a player who hasn't played more than 42 regular season games in a year will be the challenge for the Blues and Tarasenko.

• If the plan in Boston was to ease in defenseman Dougie Hamilton, that's already been scrapped. In his NHL debut, he played 13:40 against the New York Rangers. That total jumped to 23:27 the following game. Last night in the Bruins' second meeting with the Rangers, he led Bruins defensemen in power play time with 4:23. His four shots led the team and one was tipped in by Brad Marchand for Hamilton's first NHL point.

"Anybody who watched the game tonight had to see this guy. It was outstanding -- not good, outstanding," Bruins coach Claude Julien told reporters in New York. "He was so poised and confident. If anybody thinks he can't play in this league, they should just take some time to watch this game."

Julien indicated that Hamilton will continue to see significant minutes at crucial times for the Bruins this season.

"Right now we have to keep him going with lots of confidence," Julien said. "That's what he's showing and it's paying off."

Tampa Bay Lightning forward Cory Conacher earned the nickname Honey Badger for his relentless attitude while playing in the AHL, and that hasn't changed an ounce after he earned a spot with the Lightning. He's 5-foot-8 and fearless.

"He will be the first guy to go into the corner," said Syracuse coach Jon Cooper, who helped mold Conacher into a player who scored 39 goals last year in the AHL. "If you're small, you have to be way better than everybody else at something. He doesn't play with fear. He's really, really fast and he's a hard guy to defend."

When he was lighting up the AHL, it was easy to lump Conacher in with other smallish AHL players who were good enough for stardom in that league but whose game might not translate into the NHL. He's an undrafted player who spent four years at Canisius, earning every promotion he's ever gotten in hockey. Cooper sees Conacher as someone who can succeed at hockey's highest level. He thinks with more skill around him, Conacher will thrive.

"The kid, he can see the game and can make big-time skilled plays at a really high rate of speed," Cooper said. "When he plays with the Vinnys [Lecavalier], Martys [St. Louis], [Steven] Stamkos -- he can make plays at a high speed like those guys can."

One area of concern with Conacher will be staying out of the penalty box. Last season in the AHL, he had 114 penalty minutes with his tenacity getting the better of him at times. So far this season, he has five points in three games for the Lightning to go with four penalty minutes.

• Technically, Damien Brunner is too old to qualify as a rookie, but he's certainly worth mentioning among the newcomers in the league this year. Because of the failure of Fabian Brunnstrom, the last big European star who signed as an NHL free agent, Brunner's move to North America was met with skepticism after lighting up the Swiss league. Playing with Henrik Zetterberg in Switzerland, Brunner had 25 goals in 33 games, nearly equaling last year's point total in 12 fewer games. He displayed his skill with an impressive shootout goal against Columbus and his best attribute is his quick shot, which beat Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen on Tuesday night for his first NHL goal.

One of Lehtonen's first questions about him was to ask his age, because he noticed that Brunner played with the maturity of a veteran.

"He feels quite confident out there, wants to make moves," Lehtonen said. "He has an elite skill level. He's going to play well in this league."

He's been playing on the point for Detroit's power play, and there's still been an adjustment to the speed of the NHL game, with the Stars jumping on a couple short-handed opportunities when Brunner was out there.

• Minnesota's Mikael Granlund hasn't put up the numbers that Conacher and Tarasenko have -- one goal in three games -- but he's shown flashes that he'll be in the Calder conversation this season. It took all of one practice for Zach Parise to realize that this kid was a special player.

"He's creative with the puck. He holds on to it and you don't see that in a lot of young guys," Parise said. "He's a really good player."

It was impressive enough that he scored in his first NHL game, but equally impressive was his willingness to hit the ice and block a Colorado shot in the third period while the Wild were protecting a lead in that game. Minnesota's top line of Dany Heatley, Mikko Koivu and Parise has been great, so it'll be key for the Wild to get more production out of the second line anchored by Granlund with Matt Cullen and Devin Setoguchi.

Lehtonen got to know Granlund well while playing with him in the World Championships for Team Finland and predicts stardom for a player who has already reached that level in his home country.

"People don't quite get how popular he is in Finland. He's like a legend over there at the age of 20," Lehtonen said. "He became a huge star and the way he carries himself is just amazing for a young guy like that. He could let that all go to his head. The ladies are after him but his focus is there."

Lehtonen sees a player with incredible vision and a skill set to join the league's elite.

"I don't think he's shown it yet in the NHL," Lehtonen said, "but I think it's coming, what he's [done] in Finland. He sees the ice so well."