Philadelphia, PA – Although Gabriel Landeskog was billed as the most complete player available heading into the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, some experts were concerned his offensive game wouldn't translate at the next level.
Nearly a full season into his NHL career, last summer's second overall pick is not only making a strong case for the Calder Memorial Trophy, he's also proving to be the most important piece for Colorado in its run to the playoffs.
With his team locked in an extremely tight battle for the eighth seed in the West, Landeskog delivered his signature moment Monday night against the Anaheim Ducks, scoring the first overtime game-winner of his nascent NHL career.
After helping force a turnover in the Anaheim zone, Landeskog received a pass near the left boards, then skated into the left circle and fired a slap shot over the glove hand of Jonas Hiller. He then fell to the ice in a move that may have had as much to do with exhaustion as it did with celebrating his important score.
The goal was important in pure hockey terms because Colorado needs every point it can get down the stretch to ensure a postseason berth, but the moment also spoke volumes about the qualities that make Landeskog a special player.
Hours before experiencing what it was like to score an OT game-winner in the NHL, Landeskog was held out of his team's morning skate due to illness and he wound up skating for just 16 minutes, 47 seconds on Monday -- nearly two minutes less than his average this season.
"I was fighting a little bit, fighting a lot out there," Landeskog said after the game. "My teammates hung in there for me and we tried to help each other out as much as possible."
Much of the conversation about Landeskog prior to last summer's draft was centered around the young Swede's intangible qualities. Listed at 6-foot-1, 204 pounds by Central Scouting, he was called NHL-ready in part because of his size. But his maturity and determination to play every shift likes it's his last also had something to do with the scouts' assessment.
Landeskog entered the draft season as the clear second-best option to top prospect Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who was taken first overall by Edmonton. If Nugent-Hopkins could've stayed healthy, he'd likely by the front runner for Rookie of the Year, but his 41 points in 49 games for a last-place team is not as impressive as Landeskog's strong performance while playing in all 71 of his team's games.
The offensive side of the game is clearly not a problem for the extremely gifted Nugent-Hopkins, but he has plenty of work to do to reach Landeskog's level as a complete NHLer.
And, it's not just Landeskog's ability to play through injuries and remain at the top of his game while doing so that makes him special. The 19-year-old Stockholm native entered the league with a strong reputation as a two-way player and he has been able to carry over that part of his game while making a seamless jump from the OHL to the NHL.
Although plus-minus is a statistic that is rightfully criticized for not telling the whole picture, it's hard not to be impressed with Landeskog's plus-20 rating. He's compiled that number despite playing on a team that has allowed more goals than it's scored this season and Landeskog is one of just two Avalanche players with a plus-rating of better than three.
After his important goal on Monday, Landeskog is tied for with Philadelphia's Matt Read for the NHL lead among rookies with 19 tallies. Yet, while Read is the fourth-leading goal scorer on a Flyers team with 10 guys in double figures, Landeskog is Colorado's leader in that category.
Landeskog's average ice time of 18:27 a game also is tops among the NHL's rookie forwards. That has everything to do with his ability to play a solid game at both end of the ice, a quality that gets more important as the season wears on and the playoffs begin.
There may be faster and more-skilled rookies in the NHL this season, but nobody has become more essential to their team's success than Landeskog. Take Read away from the Flyers and they're still likely a playoff team. The same probably goes for New Jersey and Adam Henrique, who has two more points (46) than Landeskog for the rookie scoring lead.
If Nugent-Hopkins managed to stay healthy this entire season, the only race the Oilers would be involved in is the one they're in now -- the battle to land yet another No. 1 overall pick.
In Landeskog, however, the Avs have found more than a scorer, they've picked up somebody to build a winning franchise around.
Colorado already had a top-notch offensive talent in 21-year-old forward Matt Duchene, but Landeskog projects as a steadying force who could someday captain Colorado to a Stanley Cup or two. Landeskog is the player the Avs have missed since Joe Sakic retired following the 2008-09 season, leaving a leadership void that current captain Milan Hejduk and assistant Paul Stastny have done their best to fill.
Landeskog may never develop into as productive a scorer as Sakic, but just like the great No. 19, the Swedish phenom already has shown the ability to carry his team when it needs him most. And, really, what skill is more valuable than that?