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Brassard, Versteeg among surprise NHL rookies making an impact this season

Derick Brassard has a standard answer whenever the topic is broached.

The Columbus Blue Jackets centre finds himself leading all NHL rookies in scoring with 15 points and has already heard from more than a few friends who are thrilled they selected him in their fantasy hockey pools.

Brassard always responds with caution.

"Some people have told me, 'Oh, I made the right choice to pick you in my pool,' and I say, 'Wait, there's 82 games in the season,"' he said with a laugh Thursday.

It's not that Brassard is forecasting a drastic drop in production, he just knows better than to get too far ahead of himself.

That's probably a wise strategy for any first-year player but it seems especially relevant for this season's NHL rookie class. Steven Stamkos and Kyle Turris dominated pre-season picks for the Calder Trophy race, but the most impressive freshmen so far have been the less-heralded guys.

Brassard spent the bulk of last season in the American Hockey League. Chicago Blackhawks forward Kris Versteeg - second in rookie scoring entering Thursday's games - spent parts of the past three seasons in the AHL.

Now 22, Versteeg is getting his first full-time shot in the big leagues and figures that as a fifth-round draft pick he was held back by being low on the depth chart - first in Boston, later in Chicago.

"First-rounders are always going to get their chances a lot quicker, especially than later-round guys," said Versteeg. "You see guys like the Datsyuk's and Zetterberg's, those are guys that I look up to. They're late-rounders and came into the league around 22, 23, and you see what they can do now.

"They're late bloomers. There's a lot of guys like that."

Brassard isn't necessarily a late bloomer but it did take him an extra year to start making his mark with the Jackets. The 21-year-old was drafted sixth overall in 2006 and bounced between Columbus and Syracuse last season.

He spent the summer working with the NHL team's strength coach and came to training camp in the best shape of his life. Brassard is now thriving on a line with fellow rookie Jakub Voracek and veteran Jason Chimera.

It's helped that coach Ken Hitchcock has been patient with the two rookie forwards.

"We know sometimes we're going to make mistakes," said Brassard. "But we're learning and things are going pretty good right now."

Life could hardly be better for Versteeg in Chicago.

The native of Lethbridge, Alta., currently finds himself playing with Jonathan Toews and last season's rookie of the year Patrick Kane. It's the kind of opportunity he's spent a couple years hoping for and one he intends to take full advantage of.

However, that doesn't mean he has to maintain the scoring pace that has seen him put up 12 points in 14 games this season.

"I'm not necessarily going to get points like Patrick Kane and those guys," said Versteeg. "I'll have to penalty kill and play a great all-around game. If I go out there and I'm not worried about the defensive zone, if I'm not killing penalties properly, then that's when I'm going to get sent down (to the minors). ...

"Mainly, I just have to perfect my all-around game, that's what a rookie year's more for."

This year's rookie class also features a few teenaged defencemen - Luca Sbisa in Philadelphia, Drew Doughty in Los Angeles and Luke Schenn in Toronto. The St. Louis Blues sent Alex Pietrangelo back to the OHL on Thursday while Atlanta's Zach Bogosian remains sidelined with a broken leg.

Since the NHL lockout, fans have become accustomed to seeing rookies put up great offensive numbers. Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby each had more than 100 points in 2005-06, Evgeni Malkin had 85 a season after that and Kane finished with 72 last year.

Many predicted similar things for Stamkos and Turris this season, but each is still taking time to get comfortable offensively. Ovechkin understands why it can be difficult for first-year players.

"Probably all young guys dream to play in the NHL and it's hard to realize that (you're there)," said Ovechkin. "It's no more little kids - (you can't) take the puck and beat five guys, beat the goalie and put it in the empty net.

"It's hard work here, nobody gives you an easy way. You have to fight, you have to live for this, you know?"

It's something guys like Brassard and Versteeg have learned first-hand after taking some time to reach the NHL.

Brassard once had 44 goals and 116 points with Drummondville of the QMJHL and was named to the league's first all-star team at the end of that season.

Clearly, he can score. But it's too soon for him start thinking about being a factor in the race for the Calder Trophy.

"I've won some awards before in the past," said Brassard. "You can't think about that. It just comes if I put the effort in and I'm serious and my discipline is good outside of the ice. The awards are going to come by themselves.

"If I win some awards at the end of the year, it's because I'm going to deserve it."



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