It's easy to put all the focus on the big-name rookies each year. Cole Caufield, for example, was one many expected to run for the Calder Trophy. He's in the AHL now, helping to make the rookie class even more wide open than before.
What about the rookies who are playing smaller roles and excelling with what their teams give them? That’s exactly who we are here to talk about today as we dive into a few rookies who have made some noise with their team that deserve a bit more attention.
This month, the focus will be on a few players who have had interesting paths to their NHL rookie season with some immediate success. From a long, winding road to the show to a player prioritizing mental health, the stories behind these under-the-radar rookies are what really stand out.
Jonathan Dahlen, RW, San Jose Sharks
4G - 2A - 6Pts in 8 games | 54.8% CF% | 19% SH% | 14:29 TOI
Drafted in 2016 by the Ottawa Senators. Traded in 2017 to the Vancouver Canucks in exchange for Alex Burrows. Traded again in 2019 to the San Jose Sharks after not quite finding a fit in the Cancuks system. Including his tenure in Sweden with Timrå IK, Dahlen has played for six different teams across four organizations since his draft year.
There seemed to be multiple points throughout his development where fans and analysts pegged him as a really good European player who may not ever make the jump to the NHL. Canucks fans felt like he had given up on the organization when he made the trek back to Sweden and began to harass him online, forcing him to shut down his social media.
Dahlen made the move because he felt like his development wasn’t a priority for the Canucks AHL squad in Utica. Ultimately, this led to Dahlen’s trade to San Jose, which is around the time the luster started to wear off. Patience was key as the three-time MVP of the second Swedish league has finally begun to show the high-level skill that once made him a hot commodity as a teenage prospect.
The Sharks are lucky to have the skilled young Swede as he has become a key cog in their resurgent season. Dahlen has earned more ice time as the season has gone on, seeing some playing time with the Sharks’ top line most recently. It sounds odd to say that the third-highest rookie scorer – with six points in eight games – has flown under the radar, but with talk around players like Lucas Raymond, Moritz Seider, and Spencer Knight, there hasn’t been much discussion of the Swede playing on the west coast.
Connor Ingram, G, Nashville Predators
1-1-0 with one start | .906 SV% 3.02 GAA
Exactly nine months after stepping away from the game he loved, Ingram won his first NHL game. He had been struggling with his mental health and used alcohol to cope with it. Although he said that the drinking never became a full-blown addiction, he knew there was an issue and sought help through the NHLPA.
With the help of the NHL/NHLPA player assistance program, Ingram spent 40 days in a mental health treatment center and learned that he had been struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder, more commonly known as OCD.
He returned to the Milwaukee Admirals of the AHL for a few games last season, but he knew that this upcoming year would be the more important one as he looked to establish himself at the NHL level possibly. Ingram made his NHL debut on October 24th, stopping 33 of 35 shots and leading the Predators to a win. Filling in for David Rittich, who was on COVID-protocol at the time, Ingram was finally able to live his dream of playing in the NHL. Ingram was sent down to the AHL on Thursday, but with the first win behind him, the promising young goalie will look to find his way into more NHL action as the season goes on.
Alex Barré-Boulet, RW, Tampa Bay Lightning (Seattle Kraken)
1G - 3A - 4Pts in 6 games | 45.4% CF% | 10:41 TOI
What a ride it has been to start the year for Barré-Boulet. Fighting for a spot in the Lightning lineup after playing 5 games with Tampa last year, Barré-Boulet was placed on waivers just prior to the start of the NHL season. Seattle put in a claim and welcomed the former AHL all-star into its locker room. After playing in just two games, averaging under nine minutes between them, the Kraken placed Barré-Boulet on waivers yet again. Tampa Bay had just been dealt the unfortunate hand of losing Nikita Kucherov to another injury and saw Barré-Boulet as a familiar face they could bring back in so they made the claim.
What made this all the more difficult for Barré-Boulet was that his cross-country trek to Seattle and back was happening all while his wife is six months pregnant. His wife, Anne-Marie Labrecque, was at the airport in Toronto waiting for her connecting flight to Seattle when the temporary Kraken got the call that he was being placed back on waivers. The details of the Barré-Boulet waiver story are made for a sitcom, but this was real life.
With all of this going on, Barré-Boulet has still managed to find a way to produce while playing lower in the lineup and moving cross country – twice. The undrafted former QMJHLer has worked his way to the NHL thanks to excellent vision as a passer and a shot that has more pop than you’d expect from a 5-foot-10 winger. While he has played in the bottom-six primarily with the Lightning, he looks to be getting a shot with Stamkos on the second line in upcoming action. If the offensive dynamo can find the scoresheet a bit and continue to drive positive results, he might be difficult to take out of the lineup when the time comes.