John Tavares. Victor Hedman. Ville Leino. Semyon Varlamov.
The Calder race is the most difficult trophy chase to predict because out-of-nowhere stellar performances are common. Bobby Ryan and Drew Doughty had been highly touted prospects coming into last season and while golden world junior goalie Steve Mason is no slouch either, no one thought he’d lead the NHL in shutouts with 10 – not to mention Kris Versteeg’s surprise performance.
It’s guys like Mason, Versteeg and Anisimov who throw this yearly exuberant debate into a speed wobble.
When I was doing my due diligence for a “Fab Freshman” article for our annual Poolbook in the summer, I grabbed the opinions of a couple NHL scouts on which players they thought would impress the most in their inaugural run through The Circuit. Names on the list included Tavares, Nikita Filatov, Cody Hodgson, Matt Gilroy, Colin Wilson and more, but when the name Artem Anisimov came up, there was an underlining pause.
The Rangers prospect is the guy to watch out for.
“Honestly, I think he’s the best of the ones you’ve named so far,” said one scout.
Now, we’re not necessarily talking long-term potential here – though with what Anisimov brings to the table, it’s entirely possible he could bloom into a superstar. This is purely about Year 1 and how this year’s Calder Trophy race will most likely play out.
Even if you stay away from NHL games until the real season begins – because, come on, watching pre-season hockey is like opening your Christmas gift a week before December 25 – you’ve probably still seen highlights. And if you have, Anisimov has been front and center, scoring four goals thus far.
It’s not as though they have been soft pre-season goals either. Anisimov showed his offensive touch against Boston by blowing past Jeff Penner and scoring a beauty. Sure, Penner is a young blueliner destined for the American League this season, but what Anisimov showed on that particular goal was his willingness to cut towards and crash the net, rather than shooting from the periphery, making a pass, or just cutting to the middle of the ice where another defender was waiting. It was a goal-scorer’s goal.
Plus, he put it past last year’s Vezina winner, Tim Thomas.
“He’ll explode as a rookie if his hybrid Russian-North American game can strike a balance,” explained the scout.
Against the Red Wings, Anisimov scored another dazzler. Taking the puck off a teammate’s pass from his own blueline, Anisimov dangled his way into the Red Wings zone, made a nifty move back towards the center of the ice and away from three clustered Red Wings defenders before sniping a wrister past Chris Osgood that resembled an Alex Ovechkin moment.
But you know what the most impressive play of that whole rush was? How the Russian rookie showed some intuitive defensive awareness by coming back to the boards down low to help out Michal Rozsival, who had just won a foot race against Jan Mursak.
Anisimov picked up Rozsival’s relay behind the net, quickly passed it off to his winger in transition before the checking Red Wing could recover and rushed out quick enough with the play to reclaim control of the puck at the blueline.
Sure, Mursak is another AHL-bound player, but if you have the natural skills – which Anisimov undoubtedly does – it’s your grasp of the fundamentals that will sustain your NHL career.
His camp performance demonstrates he can do it all at the top levels after finishing fifth in AHL scoring last season with 37 goals and 81 points in 80 games.
A second-rounder of New York’s in 2006, Anisimov was taken four picks after Boston’s Milan Lucic and part of the reason he didn’t go earlier was because he was lacing them up for Yaroslavl in Russia and his future was uncertain.
Well, he’s here now and everyone is taking notice.
It must feel like Christmas Eve for Ranger fans.
Rory Boylen is TheHockeyNews.com’s web content specialist and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear regularly in the off-season.
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