Rookies; Tampa Bay Lightning versus Colorado Avalanche preview

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

More of an inconsistent ramble than a preview -- Tyler Johnson and Nathan Mackinnon are central figures in tonight's matchup... But don't forget the pair of top draft picks from 2009 and the roles they have on their teams.

Where:  Tampa Bay Times Forum, Tampa, Florida
When: 7:30 PM EST | Tickets: Check availability
Media:  Sun Sports (cable) | 970 AM WFLA (radio)
Opponent CoverageMile High Hockey

What makes for a rookie?  Is it a true, first-time-pro player in the NHL?  Is it a first-time NHL'er? This distinction isn't necessary in the rules for the Calder Award; it's pretty straight as well as ambiguous:

To be eligible for the award, a player cannot have played any more than 25 games previously in any single season, nor have played in more than six games in each of two separate preceding seasons in any major professional league.

By that definition, there really should be no perceived difference between the Tampa Bay Lightning's Tyler Johnson and the Colorado Avalanche's Nathan Mackinnon.  Of course, there are differences and that's going ot influence how the Hockey Writers Association cast their votes for the Calder Award, the NHL's rookie of the year trophy.

I shouldn't rehash what Erik Erlendsson and Joe Smith both have in the Tampa Bay papers today.  Tonight's game highlights the fact that two of the top young players this season are squaring off head-to-head.  The Erlendsson piece is more focused squarely on Johnson while the Smith piece is more on the matchup between hot rookies in the league.

Yet, while Tyler's flying high, a question was posed in comments on Raw Charge recently (and has likely popped up several times through the Internet in recent days):  What happens to Johnson upon the return of Steven Stamkos to the Lightning lineup?  Stammer could be back before the Olympic break, he could be back after... How will that affect Johnson's production?  How will the Lightning re-assemble the lineup?

It gives reason for accolades that Johnson has stepped in as a top-line center in his first full NHL season...  How long will he stay there though, and will these facts help him to at least be named a finalist for the Calder?

There's another story here, though, about the Avs and the lightning and two players who can be linked to accomplishments and how they're playing this season:  2009 #2 overall drafts pick Victor Hedman and #3 overall draft pick Matt Duchene.  Duchene is leading the Avalanche in scoring with 43 points (17 goals, 26 assists) while Hedman is playing as the top defenseman for the Bolts and showing the offensive touch that was long expected of him; he's sixth on the Bolts with 29 points (10 goals, 19 assists).

The argument that played out this summer with the Bolts selection of Jonathan Drouin over Seth Jones was that it was a safer pick in the draft.  The same argument could have been made for Tampa Bay selecting Duchene over Hedman... But I'll tell you, I'm damn glad former GM Brian Lawton didn't play it safe with the choice...  I'll take Hedman for what he is, and try not to wonder what would have happened with team development if he were not on the roster.

***

The Lightning don't have many season series' to open any more, most of the league has faced the Bolts at least once and some teams are no longer on the schedule because their series' are over (Chicago, Los Angeles, Anaheim, San Jose, Edmonton, the New York Rangers, Carolina).  The Avalanche, Dallas Stars and divisional-foe Toronto Maple Leafs are still to be faced for the first time.

Colorado started this season flying high with new coach Patrick Roy and GM Joe Sakic assembling...  Well, the Colorado Avalanche.  Multiple members of the team from successes of the past have been brought back to help shape the club going forward - in the front office and on the roster.

And the Avs are back to being the successful team they were in days of yore:  69 points on the season, 32-15-5 record in 50 games; that'd trump everyone in the Eastern Conference with the exception of Pittsburgh.  The one thing working against the Avs is they've achieved this feat in the Western Conference which is vastly more impressive than the East this year.  It's because of that which puts Colorado in third place in the central division behind Chicago and St. Louis and fifth overall in the Western Conference.

For the record, the lightning are 4-2-1 against the top of the Western Conference as it stands right now, so they've stood up against the top teams in the NHL.  Can they continue to show competitiveness against the best?

Ben Bishop starts in net for the Lightning while Sami Aittokallio.   Aittokallio has made 21 appearances for the Avalanche, posting an 8-9-1 record with a .900 save percentage and a 2.89 GAA.  I wouldn't get lost in thinking we're facing the backup; Tampa Bay struggled to solve Craig Anderson on Thursday and his numbers are close to Sami's - just with more starts.

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