By Nicholas J. Cotsonika
You don't want to put too much on the kid, because no matter how he looks, no matter how he plays, he's still only 19 years old.
You don't want to keep comparing him to Peter Forsberg,his childhood hero, just because Forsberg was Swedish and played for the Colorado Avalanche. You don't want to keep comparing him to Jeff Skinner, either, just because they played together in junior and remain close friends.
It's too easy. It's not fair.
But then you see Gabriel Landeskog score two goals in a recent 4-3 victory over the Detroit Red Wings – coming within a split-second of a hat trick, slipping the puck into an empty net just after the horn, on the ice to protect a one-goal lead – and you hear veteran Avs goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere.
"You just see it," said Giguere, who has seen a lot in his 14 NHL seasons. "You see it on a guy. You see it the way he carries himself, the way he talks, the way he's not afraid to talk to guys and speak his mind between periods, the way he practices and the way it's in his eyes.
"You see it. You see that he's hungry for the net. You see that he's going to be …"
"He reminds me a lot of a guy like Peter Forsberg."
And now you see the numbers:
Among rookies, Landeskog was tied for first in goals (18) and second in points (40) heading into the weekend.
He was first in plus-minus rating (plus-21), first in shots (208), first in takeaways (49). Among forwards, he was first in hits (169) and second in average ice time (18:23).
He was named the NHL's rookie of the month for February, in which he racked up 10 points in his final six games. As Avs coach Joe Sacco said: "He's playing like he's the rookie of the year." It's a tight competition with several good candidates, but if he keeps this up, Landeskog could win the Calder Trophy – the way Forsberg did with the Quebec Nordiques in 1995, the way Skinner did with the Carolina Hurricanes last year.
Skinner played with Landeskog for the Ontario Hockey League's Kitchener Rangers in 2009-10 before making the leap to the NHL. They still talk every week or two. Landeskog told the Denver Post that Skinner helped him, telling him not to get too high or too low, to stay in the moment. Skinner laughed.
"He doesn't really need my advice," Skinner said. "Obviously he was talked about coming into the year as being a guy that's NHL-ready, and I think he's shown that. He's got all the tools. He's strong. He's fast. He can shoot. Beyond that, I think he has the intangibles that are hard to come by. He thinks the game well, and I think guys like to play on his team."
Entering the draft last June, scouts considered Landeskog the prospect most prepared to make an immediate impact. Growing up, he had learned English with an eye on the NHL. At 16, he had left Sweden for Canada. At 17, he had become Kitchener's youngest captain in 30 years and the Rangers' first European captain in their 48-year history. He had a 6-foot-1, 207-pound frame and an all-around game.
After going second overall to Colorado, Landeskog spent the summer training for the NHL – training to face bigger opponents, training to face guys who are stronger on their sticks, training to fight his way to the net. "Trying to do everything at as high a pace as possible," he said.
He lives with a billet family in Denver, as if he were still playing junior hockey. But now he has a Range Rover, a $3.575-million salary-cap hit and a key role on an NHL team competing for a playoff spot. He plays left wing on the top line. He plays power play, penalty kill, 4-on-4 – "every possible situation," Sacco said.
Unlike Skinner and the Edmonton Oilers' Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the only player picked before him in June, he isn't a skilled center. He's a power forward. He plays in front of the net on the power play.
That's a man's job. You have to have the courage to take a beating while pucks rocket in from the point. You have to have the composure to stay on task. You have to have the skill, quickness and savvy to make plays in close.
"It's something that is not easy," Giguere said. "The defensemen in this league are big. It's hard to get to that space. You've got to be strong. You've got to be physical. Most young guys when they're 19, 20 years old are skill guys. They're not very big and stuff like that. This guy has got the body of a 25-year-old already."
The mind, too.
"He's not just a big body out there sort of tipping pucks and screening goalies," Skinner said. "I think he's smart about it, and I think that's why he's producing so well."
Landeskog leads the Avs in goals. He leads them in plus-minus rating by a puzzling amount. While he's plus-21, no one else is better than plus-8. Linemate Ryan O'Reilly is only plus-4. Huh? "I don't have an answer for that," Sacco said.
And he leads in the room.
It's not that he has the confidence to talk. It's not even that he has the credibility to talk, though that is certainly critical. "He's so easy-going and he works so hard that everyone respects him," O'Reilly said. It's that along with the confidence and credibility, he knows what to say and how to say it.
"It's easier to say stuff because you back it up with your play, but it's also in your delivery, and he's just got that way about him where it's positive," Sacco said. "It's not in a negative way. For a 19-year-old kid turning 20, to show that kind of leadership at a young age, it's a good quality to have and it bodes well for the future of this franchise."
After that two-goal game in Detroit, Landeskog was asked about the Calder. "Nah, I don't know," he said, before saying the Avs were trying to make the playoffs, that he was just trying to help the team, that he was just having a lot of fun playing hockey, that we'll see what happens after the season. Told that was a veteran answer, he just laughed and looked at his feet. He knows when to shut up, too.
"I definitely think he's going to be a future captain in this league," Giguere said.
OK. But a future Forsberg?
"I don't want to put too much pressure on the kid, obviously," Giguere said. "It's obviously a lot to live up to. But he's got the potential. There's no doubt about that. He's already one of our top players at 19 years old. What else can you say?"