Rookie Rankings: Conacher No. 1

Grit, scoring surge from Bolts winger propel him to top spot

Updated: February 5, 2013, 1:35 PM ET
By Grant Sonier | ESPN Insider
ConacherKim Klement/USA TODAY SportsCory Conacher has had a big impact on the Bolts early.

St. Louis Blues rookie right winger Vladimir Tarasenko continues to impress me with his early point production, but there is more to projecting rookies than looking on the stat sheet. What has impressed me the most in Tarasenko's first tour through the Western Conference is that he's doing more than just lighting the lamp. He's contributing at both ends of the ice and displaying a veteran level of grit in the process. But Tarasenko isn't the only rook turning my head early.

This week we look a little deeper into the 2013 NHL Calder Trophy race, keeping in mind quality of play is measured in many different ways. If you've frequented the comment field of past articles, I have often explained why offensive stats cannot tell the full story, nor should they outweigh other important areas of the game. We'll get into those areas a little more this time around.

As I follow this year's crop of NHL rookies closely, I am also focusing on this year's draft-eligible players, and between those two groups, it's clear the future of the league should be filled with stars.

Here's the latest update as of Tuesday, Feb. 5, based on my own viewing of their performances as well as my talking with many contacts within the game.

1. F Cory Conacher, Tampa Bay Lightning
Previous: No. 2
The diminutive Conacher is producing like a heavyweight. Conacher and Tarasenko are very similar players in that they both add energy, they both have excellent hockey IQs, and -- most important for me -- they have true grit to their game. These two could end up going back and forth all season, challenging for the title right until the final game. With five goals and seven assists in eight games, Conacher is leading the rookie points race. The points are exceptional, but my experience tells me his willingness to play in high-traffic areas is what trumps his production and also fuels the offensive numbers. "Someone forgot to tell Conacher he is not 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds," one member of the Lightning staff told me. He is a small player (just 5-8) who is playing a big-man's game on the biggest of stages ... and thriving.


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