Entering training camp, it was easy to forget that not too long ago, Calvin de Haan was at the head of the class when it came to Islanders defense prospects.
Garth Snow moved up the draft board twice in 2009 to select de Haan 12th overall. The big catch that day in Montreal was John Tavares at No. 1, of course, but de Haan, who played with Tavares for Oshawa in the Ontario League, was the sort of unflashy, rock-solid defenseman who could become a steady lineup presence for years.
However, two shoulder surgeries, including one that cost de Haan all but three AHL games of 2012-13, prevented the 22-year-old prospect from developing as fast as he probably would have had he remained healthy. Matt Donovan had the lone NHL defense spot to lose coming into camp. Griffin Reinhart, the fourth overall pick in 2012, had the new "first-round stud" label attached. Aaron Ness had more NHL experience, however brief.
But here the Islanders are, just past the midway point of a disappointing but improving season, with de Haan about as entrenched on their top defense pair as can be.
How did he get there in a season that was supposed to be spent entirely in Bridgeport?
"It's definitely tough to envision him not just being here but playing the way he has," Jack Capuano said. "Coming off a major injury, we all felt this was a development year for him. But we had injuries and some guys not playing as well, he came up and he's been what we always expected him to be from day one."
De Haan has had a few rookie moments -- he was on the wrong end of a couple of NHL Network highlights of the season's first half, victimized by Sidney Crosby for a Penguins overtime winner in his second NHL game, then by Corey Perry for a goal in Anaheim a week later -- but he's shaken off those plays and any other mistakes he's made.
"For me, when you've got a young defenseman, it's how he plays that next shift after a mistake," Capuano said. "Calvin's shown that ability to forget quickly."
He showed enough in his first four games after his Thanksgiving Day recall that Capuano broke up the longtime top pair of Andrew MacDonald and Travis Hamonic to give de Haan a shot with Hamonic, who is only nine months older than de Haan but has a few more years of NHL experience.
Since that pairing was made Dec. 7 in Los Angeles, the Islanders are 8-6-2, including 7-3-0 in their last 10. De Haan had his first two NHL points on Monday against the Stars, then scored his first goal on Tuesday, and his 60-footer that deflected off Maple Leafs defenseman Dion Phaneuf's stick proved to be the game-winner.
"You can see how he's improved every game," Hamonic said. "We have really good communication and he's asking questions about how to play certain guys. It's neat to see that happening right in front of you."
De Haan's emergence isn't only good for this season. MacDonald is due to be an unrestricted free agent at season's end, and he might be a trade chip at the March 5 deadline. With de Haan playing steadily against opponents' top lines, MacDonald might be more expendable, particularly if Lubomir Visnovsky returns from a concussion before the trade deadline.
"People forget he was close to making the team as an 18-year-old. I remember how good he was in that camp [in 2009]," Hamonic said. "I think we would have seen this sooner if it weren't for the injury bug with him."