The Rookie Factor
There’s just something special about rookies. They capture the hearts of fans more easily than grizzled veterans. Perhaps we expect less of them and thus are elated when they deliver goods that we never planned on ordering. Maybe we just like to see kids succeed because our culture is increasingly more hell-bent on destroying our youths. Maybe we treat our hockey players the way we treat our women… we can’t help but want a new, younger one every year or so, even if the new one is a much bigger pain in the ass than the old one.
Recently we’ve seen this rookie heart-throb phenomena with our own Wayne Simmonds, Kyle Clifford, Alec Martinez, Trevor Lewis and Drew Doughty. We’ve been teased with Andrei Loktionov and more recently Slava Voynov. We almost instantly fell in love with these players, though this cloth cuts both ways. I also remember a time not too long ago when Tomas Zizka captured my imagination and Jaroslav Bednar momentarily stole my breath away. Oh, Pavel Rosa, we could have done great things together.
Not all rookies work out, yet still, without fail they represent infinite possibilities.
When Voynov was recently sent down to Manchester, immediately after a string of great games by the Kings and immediately preceding some bad ones, I took a look at the team and noticed that for the first time in a long time, we have no rookies. Martinez is yesterday’s rookie news. Clifford is past his NHL-pubescent prime. Lewis has his spot all locked down and Loktionov didn’t make the team.
This is supposed to be great, right?
I mean, no rookies means more experience. It means we have turned the corner from not having enough established NHL talent to fill out a roster. Still, I couldn’t help but think, as nice as it is not to have to rely on performance of a green-eyed little devil to buoy the team, that a roster with more experience is also a roster with less to prove.
Now hold on. That last statement is a little overblown. But that’s how my thoughts begin, with an extreme. From there temperance can commence.
OK so a lack of rookies does not equate to a lack of vigor, even 40 year veterans can play with vigor. Thought tempered… no rookies means no one is fighting to establish themselves. No one is striving to carve an identity out of the stone of their coach’s eyes. That’s closer to ration.
This something something about rookies, this little dash of pizazz that engages us fans, I can not help but feel it is tangible, or at the very least, palpable. Can a team feed off rookie exuberance much like we can as fans? I can’t see where this is a ridiculous thought. I’m not only speaking of the uber-talented rookies, or the standouts – your Doughtys or your Skinners or Meyers, etc. Just a kid who steps into a locker room of men and onto an ice of monsters and stares them all in the face with steely reserve and bristling anticipation. Can this mere idea of novice intensity infect those around him whose days of torrid trepidation have since past? We can’t prove this, but we can take a look around the league.
I went through the Stanley Cup teams after the lockout to see how many rookies they had and how much they contributed, just to get an idea and to prove to myself that a team without rookies does not automatically equate to a team that is better off.
The Bruins are a prime example. Brad Marchand made waves through the regular season and tidally crashed through ships in the playoffs. With just 20 previous game of NHL hockey under his belt, Marchand played 77 games last year, scoring 21 goals and 20 assists. In the Bruins’ conquest of the Cup, he tallied 11 goals and 8 assists in 25 games while playing an average of 16:49 per game. That’s an impact rookie. But the Eastern team that took it all home boasted two other notable rookies in their lineup. Adam McQuiad played 67 games on the blueline during the regular season and another 23 in the playoffs, scoring 15 and 8 points respectively. He managed an impressive +30 in the regular and notched a +8 in the post playing bottom pairing minutes. Finally, Tyler Seguin dressed for 74 games of the regular season, with 11 goals and 11 assists to his rookie year, and 13 games in the playoffs, scoring a respectable 3 goals and 4 assists.
Going back to the Blackhawks, we find the one team with very little rookie help, even though their three star players in Toews, Keith and Kane were all still hoping their beards would fill in their next trip to the post season. Their only real rookie was Bryan Bickell, who played 16 games in the regular season and 4 in the post. Moving on past our one major anomaly.
Looking at the Penguins of 08-09, we see Alex Goligoski as the main rookie presence, playing in 45 games of the regular season while tallying 6 goals and 14 assists. He did, however, only appear in 2 playoff games. Throughout their season, the Penguins dressed 3 other rookies worth mentioning in Dustin Jeffrey, Tim Wallace and Paul Bissonette, with 14, 16 and 15 games respectively. None had a big direct statistical impact, but that all adds up to another 45 man-games of rookie play beyond Goligoski.
The Red Wings in 07-8 had Derek Meech in the lineup for 32 games, Jonathan Ericsson for 8 and the now King-killing Darren Helm for 7. Helm stepped up in the playoffs and played a surprising 18 games, scoring 2 goals and 2 assists on the way to hoisting the Cup in his rookie year.
The black year of 06-07 in which that other Southern Californian team won a Cup gives us a prime example of rookie impact. Our very own underachieving Dustin Penner set the bar to which we still hold him in his rookie year, playing in all 82 games and scoring 29 goals and 16 assists for 45 points. He added another 3 goals and 5 assists in 21 games of post season play. The Ducks also sported Ryan Shannon for 53 games in the regular season and 11 in the post.
Finally we have the Carolina Hurricanes who in 05-06 had the pleasure of ingratiating 4 rookies to the league. In the regular season, Andrew Ladd played 29 games, Chad LaRose 49, defenseman Andrew Hutchinson 36 and the legendary Anton Babchuck had 39. LaRose and Ladd played most of the post season as well, with 21 games and 17 games respectively. Though none of these players were a dominant factor on the scoresheet, that is quite a fair share of green blood in the lineup for a team that bested all the rest.
Did we learn anything? I don’t know. I think this helps my point. What is my point? Young blood is a boon to any hockey team. No amount of experience can replace the magic that having one or two rookies in your lineup brings to the team’s table. We saw how differently the Kings played with Voynov on the blueline. I’m not going to attribute all the team’s success to one player, or their subsequent struggles to his absence, but I feel confident in saying that there is an effervescence that a rookie adds that no amount of experience or talent can duplicate.
I know that there are a slew of reasons not to have Voynov on this team. I’m not even really pleading strictly for Slava either. Loktionov or Kozun will do nicely too. I just want to see that spark that they bring, that spice that Clifford has lost, the fun that Lewis doesn’t have and the determination to stay with the big boys that Martinez need no longer show. This is not even a knock of any of those players. It’s a comment towards something emotional that is simply categorically impossible for them to now achieve. Going back to Voynov, as he makes the best and most recent example, the only reasons to send him back were logistical. Pragmatism prevailed. Hockey, however, is not a logistical game. Pragmatism counts for little when what matters is that extra burst of speed or that desperate dive to block a shot. Sometimes, I feel, emotional decisions must prevail in an emotional sport.
Let’s add that uncertainty and excitement of infinite possibility back onto our team. If it means that we lose Drewiske to waivers, I’m ready to handle that consequence. I’m ready sacrifice Trent Hunter. I’m ready to bench Martinez or Greene every so often and I’m ready to see someone challenge Stoll, Lewis, Richardson and Penner for their ice time.
I’m ready for a rookie on the Kings.
But let’s get practical here regarding our emotional whims. What rookie? To Voynov or to Loktionov?
I venture to say, to both.
Bring them both up. When Fraser must be activated, toss him on waivers. Make the tough decision and inevitable decision already and try to trade Drewiske. If you can’t, waive him. He may make it through, stranger things have happened, and if he doesn’t, well then that sucks but Drewiske is not the key to this team’s success. We can soldier on without him. If our rookie depth can’t step in when needed, well then our defensive pipeline is a sham. For the other lineup spot needed, let’s put Hunter on waivers. I bet you he doesn’t get claimed.
Now where do these guys play? Well, for Loktionov I am not happy with just assuming that Trevor Lewis, of whom I am a big champion, should play 82 games. So Loktionov should be slotting in there for him often enough to keep him on the roster. Either bench Moreau every few games and slide Lewis to the right, or bench Lewis altogether now and again. Furthermore, I think that Loktionov can learn to play just fine at left wing. I prefer him at center, he should play center, but can we please have more than just Richardson as a versatile forward? All of a sudden, Loktionov can fill several spots on the team when needed. At center to boost scoring and keep Lewis honest and at left wing for when Gagne can’t play, Parse stops scoring or when we finally decide it’s time to sit Penner’s ass on the bench. None of these should happen regularly, but at any given time, one of them is a reasonable decision to make. All in all this should get Loktionov roughly 30-40 games, plenty to warrant a roster spot. Boo-hoo if he sits a few games or plays some fourth line minutes. Does he make the Kings a better team? Hell yes I say he does. I like Jungle Dave well enough, but put a King to my head and I am happy to turn it on the Monarchs and pull the trigger.
I envision a few lines for Loki at center, depending on the situation of the week. Richardson-Loktionov-Moreau/Lewis. Or, Penner-Loktionov-Richardson. We don’t ever bench Richardson, you should know that. We love Richie. Imagine throwing Penner on a fourth line with those two. It’s a slap in the face but also a chance to perform with a high skill player and the team’s hardest worker. Pretty nice worst case scenario in my damaged head.
Finally, here’s an unpopular thought. Clifford doesn’t need to play every game. I make it no secret that I am one of Clifford’s biggest fans, but he isn’t playing up to his own snuff right now and even if he was, having some fluid rotation in the lineup other than Westgarth in, Westgarth out, can be a good thing.
As for Voynov, he should rotate with Martinez and even Greene every once in a while when we play a speedy team that doesn’t play a heavy board game. There is also nothing wrong with dressing 7 defensemen now and again. Not something I like to see too often, but it’s there as an option with Voynov on the roster, whereas with Drewiske it’s entirely pointless. Wait, I had a flashback to seeing Drewiske at forward… Where’s a friend to smack you upside your head when you need one?
What does all of this accomplish? It keeps the lineup fresh and invigorated. It keeps that young blood flowing through the team’s veins and gives a few different lines the opportunity to have that boost of adrenaline that a guy like Loktionov brings. It gives the Kings the options to have real different looks against different opponents. Moreau, Clifford and Westgarth are there when we play the big, bruising Ducks and Loktionov, Parse and Richardson are there when we take on the speedy Coyotes or Avalanche. The more weapons the better. Kopitar can’t carry this team’s offense by himself all year long, as hard as he will try, and Richards can’t create 5-on-5 offense consistently when Brown is weird and streaky and his line is being used primarily to shut down opponents’ top lines. It opens up Stoll to play more the blend of energy/skill game that he excels at, seeing as he is neither a skill player nor a shutdown forward. It keeps Lewis and Martinez honest and compels them to be more their 10-11 selves than the so far lackluster 11-12 iterations. It keeps the pipeline moving and the locker room energetic.
Most importantly, it will make me happy. That’s reason enough, damn it.