Coming into the season, the big question in St. Louis was how the Blues were going to overcome the absence of Chris Pronger. A team just doesn't replace an MVP defenseman who logs about 30 minutes a game. Right?
Enter Barret Jackman, seemingly out of nowhere, to team up with Al MacInnis and emerge as a front-runner for the Calder Trophy as the league's rookie of the year. The 17th overall pick in 1999, Jackman had all of two NHL games under his belt before this season. But he has picked up right where Pronger left off with 18 points, 143 penalty minutes and a plus-19 rating through 72 games. And he plays just a shade under 20 minutes a game.
"The management in St. Louis, they feel he probably has played better this year than any time in his career, whether it was in juniors or at Worcester last year," said the veteran MacInnis. "Here's a guy who has a lot of poise, he shows a lot of control with the puck, always seems to make a good first play, has a tremendous amount of composure out there for a young guy.
"Honestly, he plays like a guy who has been in the league for 10 years. He's strong on the puck. He protects the puck well. You know, again I can't say enough about the impact this guy has had on our team. He's literally been an impact player."
MacInnis wasn't shy about casting his vote for Jackman as the "hands-down" rookie of the year. And he'd be a good one to judge. He was right next to Pronger when he emerged as an impact player, culminating with an MVP award after the 1999-2000 season.
MacInnis said the key to Pronger's development was the trial-by-fire treatment of then-head coach Mike Keenan. And Jackman got similar treatment this year from Joel Quenneville … even if it was out of desperation and not by design.
"What Mike Keenan did with Chris gave him a lot of confidence," MacInnis said. "I think what happens, with a young defenseman, obviously they are going to make mistakes. You can't play being afraid to make a mistake. Keenan did that with Chris. Regardless of how many mistakes, he kept throwing him out there, throwing him out there. He gained a lot of confidence from that. Certainly his career took off.
"Mike Kitchen, who is the defense coach for us here in St. Louis, has done the same thing for Barret. He's given him a lot of confidence, created an environment not to be afraid to make a mistake because we all make mistakes. He knows he's going to get back out there. I think that's where the confidence comes from."
If Jackman does pull in the Calder Trophy, he will be the only the fifth blueliner to win the award since 1980, joining Ray Bourque, Gary Suter, Brian Leetch and Bryan Berard.
"I can't say enough about the year he's had," MacInnis said. "He's a throw-back. He's a physical defenseman. He's a tough defenseman. He fights. He certainly has made his mark around the league."