Could Faulk be next for the Calder?

calexander@newsobserver.comFebruary 7, 2012 

— Jeff Skinner of the Carolina Hurricanes won the Calder Trophy last year as the NHL's best rookie.

Could Justin Faulk be next?

The odds are against it. Faulk, 19, is a defenseman, and only two defensive players - Tyler Myers of the Buffalo Sabres (2010) and Barret Jackman of the St. Louis Blues (2003) - have claimed the trophy since 1997.

Then again, while there are strong candidates for the award - flashy forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of the Edmonton Oilers is a Calder front-runner - a case can be made for Faulk.

No rookie is averaging more ice time this season than Faulk's 22 minutes, 34 seconds a game and he was Carolina's lone representative at the NHL All-Star Weekend in Ottawa. He was one of 12 rookies selected to participate.

"His confidence has really grown," Canes captain Eric Staal said last week. "He has been given opportunities to grow that confidence, and he has arguably been our best defenseman all year.

"He has been real solid. For a 19-year-old, that's impressive. Any time you get into talk about the Calder and other awards, they want the points and goals, but as far as his overall game goes Justin should be considered, no question."

Skinner became the first Calder winner in franchise history after a 31-goal, 63-point season.

He led all rookies in scoring and at 18 became the youngest player ever selected for an All-Star Game.

Skinner won out over Logan Couture of the San Jose Sharks and Michael Grabner of the New York Islanders. Both are forwards.

"But what Justin has done has been impressive," Skinner said. "Being a defenseman in this league, at that age, is tough, and especially the minutes he's playing. I didn't play nearly as many minutes last year and didn't face the top lines as much as he has.

"He's getting some recognition, and especially lately with the All-Star stuff, and he deserves it."

ESPN.com recently listed five leading candidates for the Calder. Nugent-Hopkins, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2011 NHL entry draft, was on the list.

The others were forwards Adam Henrique of the New Jersey Devils, Matt Read of the Philadelphia Flyers and Cody Hodgson of the Vancouver Canucks. Then there is Faulk, the only defenseman.

"To be a 19-year-old defenseman, to play the way he has and the amount of minutes he has, he's way ahead of his years," general manager Jim Rutherford said.

A native of South St. Paul, Minn., Faulk was a second-round draft pick by the Canes in 2010 and played for Team USA in World Junior Championships. As a college freshman, he helped Minnesota-Duluth to its first NCAA title in 2011. Soon after, he was playing for the Charlotte Checkers in the American Hockey League playoffs.

After a strong training camp, Faulk began his rookie season as a top-four defenseman.

He played the first three games, then was sent down to the Checkers. He was recalled by the Canes in mid-November and has become a fixture in the lineup.

Faulk has four goals and seven assists, scoring twice on the power play. Since Jan. 1, he has a plus-6 rating in the past 14 games.

"He's got the skill," coach Kirk Muller said. "He's on the power play, on the penalty kill. He plays against the top players. But it's how he knows how to play without the puck that impresses me."

Faulk hardly acknowledges the Calder talk. But his eyes widened late last week when the subject came up.

"I haven't thought about it, really," he said. "Obviously it would be an honor just to be considered for it, but I'm not focusing on that at all.

"I just want to go out, play my game every night and play the best I can. You can never get comfortable. There's always another level you want to get to."

Alexander: 919-829-8945

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