Entering the start of the 2015-16 season, the media hype was in full effect for Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, the two top picks in the 2015 NHL Draft. The words “phenom”, “superstar”, and “franchise player”, were being thrown around before they had set foot in an NHL rink and from what we’ve seen from those two so far, those descriptions would be correct. Many people thought the Calder Trophy would be a two-horse race.
Then a few unexpected events started taking place. McDavid suffered a broken collarbone in early November and missed three months. Eichel has been productive with the Buffalo Sabres, but while he has been toiling on a team that is still building after bottoming out over the last couple of years, an impressive crop of rookies has come to the forefront and stolen some of the spotlight from him and McDavid. And while McDavid, the Edmonton Oilers’ star rookie, hasn’t missed a beat since returning from injury, first-year players like Artemi Panarin, Dylan Larkin, and Shayne Gostisbehere have emerged to make even stronger cases for the Calder Trophy than McDavid or Eichel. Those are just a few of the rookies that have made a big impact with their teams this year, as this season’s rookie class has proven to be one of the deeper ones in recent history. Here are my top candidates, in order of least-likely to most-likely, to walk away as the NHL’s top rookie.
8. ANTHONY DUCLAIR, LW, ARIZONA COYOTES
The 20-year-old Duclair, who was originally a third round selection by the New York Rangers in 2013, was one of the more highly-touted prospects in North America not playing in the NHL when the Coyotes acquired him at last season’s trade deadline as part of the Keith Yandle trade. He had a brief cup of coffee with the Rangers last season, and Arizona acquired him with the belief that he would be a big part of their future plans. In his first full season in the NHL, Duclair has 16 goals and 33 points heading into Thursday night, putting him at sixth-place among rookies in both categories. On a young team that is one of the worst in the league when it comes to puck-possession, Duclair has been one of the few Coyotes that has been proficient in that department, in addition to having the best plus-minus mark on the team at plus-8. Duclair has been prone to some scoring droughts this season, something a lot of rookies have to deal with, but when he’s on his game and gets on the score sheet, he’s been as good as any rookie in the league this year. Even though Duclair is a long-shot to win the Calder, the Coyotes pulled a coup when they got him from the Rangers, as he and teammate Max Domi (more on him later) are two major building blocks for Arizona moving.
7. COLTON PARAYKO, D, ST. LOUIS BLUES
The towering 6’6″, 226-lb rookie defenseman, who the Blues selected in the third round in 2012, has been a revelation for St. Louis in his first season in the NHL. Going into Thursday night, he’s second among rookie defenseman in scoring with 26 points (7 goals, 19 assists), but is also a plus-21, which is the highest mark on the Blues, tied for the highest among rookies with Dylan Larkin, and puts him in the top-10 in the entire league in that department. Among rookie defensemen, he’s fourth in average ice-time per game at 19:23, and has proven to be reliable in both the offensive and defensive zones. The 22-year-old has gained the trust of his veteran head coach, Ken Hitchcock, something that is not easy for a first-year player to accomplish, as he has quickly become a player that can play in any situation. In addition, he’s got three game-winning goals and he’s not afraid to shoot the puck, as his 124 shots on goal going into Thursday night are the highest among rookie blue-liners. Overall, his stats may not be eye-popping, and he’s a guy that’s a long shot to bring home the Calder, but there’s no doubt that the Blues have found a gem on their blue line for the long haul.
6. CONNOR MCDAVID, C, EDMONTON OILERS
Before the season started, the notion of having McDavid, 2015’s number-one overall pick, any lower than second on this list would have been absolutely preposterous. He was the most hyped rookie entering the NHL since Sidney Crosby in 2005, and in his first 12 games, he picked up 12 points (5 goals, 7 assists). It looked like the hype was justified. Unfortunately for McDavid and the Oilers, he suffered a broken collarbone against the Philadelphia Flyers on November 3rd and had to sit out 37 games. When you’ve missed that much time, it’s tough to make up ground in the race for the Calder, but he deserves all the credit in the world for trying, as he hasn’t missed a beat since returning from the injury. He’s racked up 16 points in 12 games since coming back on February 2nd, and although he’s still a viable candidate for the Calder, I think he’s missed too many games to be able to bring home the hardware. Barring further injury, however, he’ll probably have the most productive career out of anyone on this list. However, I just don’t see him taking the Calder unless he puts the Oilers on his back and leads them from the Western Conference basement on a miracle run to either a playoff spot or on the brink of a playoff berth. In that case, he would rocket to the top of this list. Although the Calder Trophy probably won’t end up on his mantle, his 1.17 point-per-game pace will make him fun to watch down the stretch.
5. MAX DOMI, C/LW, ARIZONA COYOTES
The soon-to-be 21-year-old 2013 first round pick got off to a tremendous start to his career, as he tallied 11 points in his first 11 games, propelling the Coyotes to a surprising 13-9-1 record into the beginning of December after many considered them to be a lottery team before the season started. Since then, Arizona has faltered, falling further and further back in the playoff hunt. Their struggles have mirrored those of Domi, who recently broke a 14-game goalless drought with back-to-back two-goal games. Don’t let that recent drought sour your opinion of Domi, who is tied with Jack Eichel for second place in rookie scoring with 41 points (17 goals, 24 assists) heading into Thursday night’s action. Like Anthony Duclair, his teammate and fellow rookie, Domi has experienced the typical ups-and-downs that seem to accompany the majority of first-year NHL players. He’s had bursts of offense balanced out by equally frustrating lulls in production, which is not surprising considering his status as a rookie and the fact that Arizona has a young team that entered the season with very low expectations. Domi is also third among rookies with 13 power play points and is a plus-3 on a team that has the 7th-worst goal differential in the NHL at minus-22. Like Duclair, Domi is also on pace to top the 20-goal mark, and he is still a viable threat to win the Calder, particularly if the Coyotes can rebound and make a late push for a playoff spot. He’s a player to watch in the coming years, as he’s a huge part of Arizona’s future.
4. JACK EICHEL, C, BUFFALO SABRES
The second overall selection in the 2015 NHL Draft, Eichel arrived in Buffalo with a ton of hype, as he was considered a franchise cornerstone just like McDavid. Like McDavid, he has proven to be worth all the preseason chatter. Unlike McDavid, he has stayed healthy and is currently tied with Domi for second-place in rookie scoring with 17 goals and 24 assists. Eichel has been one of the few bright spots on a Sabres team that has improved over the last couple of years, but still has a long way to go to get back to respectability. Eichel’s plus-minus has suffered this year, as he’s currently a minus-13, but that’s a product of being a team that is near the bottom of the NHL standings. On the other hand, Eichel leads all rookies with 175 shots on goal, is tied for second among rookies with 15 power play points, and leads all first-year forwards in ice time with an average of 18:47 a game. The 19-year-old Eichel’s game is very similar to that of Evgeni Malkin and Ryan Getzlaf, one based on being a power forward that is blessed with plenty of speed and skill, but also able to create offense for his linemates. He may not have as much flash to his game as McDavid, Dylan Larkin, or Artemi Panarin, but he’s still capable of producing highlight-reel level plays. He’s also hit a bit of a wall recently, as he only has one goal in his last 11 games despite tallying six assists in that time. Even with the Sabres struggling this season, it’s easy to forget about Eichel as a Calder candidate, yet he still remains a strong favorite in the discussion. Calder Trophy or not, the Sabres have found their franchise center that they can build around for a very long time.
3. SHAYNE GOSTISBEHERE, D, PHILADELPHIA FLYERS
If you knew who Shayne Gostisbehere’s name before this season began, you are either a die-hard Philadelphia Flyers fan, a reporter that covers the Flyers on a daily basis, or you work for the team. As we reach the final stretch of the regular season, everyone in the hockey world now knows Gostisbehere’s name, as the rookie defenseman has taken the league by storm since being recalled from the Lehigh Valley Phantoms of the AHL in November. In addition to scoring three overtime-winning goals and leading all rookie defensemen in goals (12) and points (34), Gostisbehere has caught the attention of hockey fans in North America by setting the NHL record for longest point streak by a rookie defenseman, a string of 15 consecutive games in which he tallied five goals and 13 assists. Gostisbehere also leads all rookies with 18 power play points and is third among rookies in ice time, averaging 19:25 a game. He may not be an elite player when it comes to puck-possession, but he still has a plus-4 rating, and is averaging 0.83 points-per-game, the highest rate for a rookie defenseman in the NHL since the New York Rangers’ Brian Leetch in the 1988-89 season. In a league that has seen offense hard to come by, especially on the blue line, Gostisbehere’s level of point production from the back end is all the more impressive, especially for a rookie on a team that is trying to stay afloat in the playoff hunt. The only thing that may hold back Gostisbehere is the fact that he hasn’t been in the NHL for the entire season. Some may feel that being a defenseman could hold him back, but Florida’s Aaron Ekblad won the Calder Trophy last season as an 18-year-old rookie blue-liner. So there is precedent despite the fact that Ekblad was the first-overall pick in 2014 that was in the Panthers’ opening night lineup as a rookie, while Gostisbehere was a previously unheralded third-round pick in 2012 that didn’t get the call-up to the NHL until the season was a month old. Whether or not he actually wins the Calder Trophy remains to be seen, but Gostisbehere has as good a chance to win it as anyone else on this list.
2. DYLAN LARKIN, C, DETROIT RED WINGS
The Detroit Red Wings are not known for putting teenagers into their lineup. They’re known for drafting and patiently developing players in the AHL, often longer than most other teams, before bringing them up to the NHL for good. The last teenager to make the Wings’ opening night roster? Jiri Fischer in 1999-2000. The most successful teenager to ever suit up for Detroit? A fellow by the name of Steve Yzerman. Last time I checked, he was pretty good. We can officially add Dylan Larkin to that list. The 19-year-old Larkin, a Michigan native who was chosen in the first round of the 2014 NHL Draft, made the Wings’ roster out of training camp and hasn’t looked back. He’s second among rookies in goals (19), fourth in points (39), and tied with Colton Parayko for first among rookies with a plus-21 rating. That plus-minus rating also puts him in the top-10 among all players in the league in that category. Larkin’s point total is the second-highest on the Red Wings, trailing only Henrik Zetterberg, and he leads the team in goals. His contributions have been crucial for a team that is in the bottom-10 in the league in total goals scored. He was Detroit’s only representative in this year’s All-Star Game, where he broke Mike Gartner’s 20-year-old record for fastest time in the fastest skater competition. That speed has served him well this season, as he is capable of making a highlight-reel quality play on any given night, giving the Wings an offensive boost no matter who has been on his line. Detroit has made the playoffs for 24 consecutive seasons, and seeing as they are in a fight to keep that streak alive, they’ll need every bit of production they can muster from Larkin over the final month-and-a-half of the season in order to make it to the postseason once again. Larkin will be a fun player to watch for the Red Wings for a long, long time, and is a strong candidate to take home the Calder Trophy.
1. ARTEMI PANARIN, LW, CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
Panarin is a very interesting case, as he is the oldest player on this list, clocking in at 24-years-old. He was also signed as a free agent by the Blackhawks after playing two seasons for SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL, so he already had professional experience before entering the NHL. I went back and forth in regards to putting Panarin or Larkin at the top of this list, but at the end of the day, Panarin is not only a rookie in NHL terms, but he’s also been the most productive rookie in the league this season. He leads all first-year players in goals (22), assists (35), points (57), and game-winning goals (6). Domi and Eichel are tied for second-place in the rookie points with 41, a whopping 16 behind Panarin, whose point total is also the seventh-highest in the league. Panarin has spent the whole season on a line with Patrick Kane and Artem Anisimov, and they have been the best line in the entire NHL this year, with Kane the leading candidate for the Hart Trophy. Some people have held that against Panarin, believing that his numbers have been boosted by playing with Kane. While that might be true to some degree, and there’s no denying that playing with Kane helps, Panarin has proven capable of creating offense by himself. Entering this season, there were some questions as to who would step up and help guys like Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Marian Hossa create offense following the offseason departures of Patrick Sharp, Brandon Saad, and Brad Richards. Panarin has taken over that role seamlessly, and he’s been an important cog on a Blackhawks team that is a strong contender for the Stanley Cup yet again. He might benefit from playing with talented linemates, but Panarin is no slouch himself. His numbers speak for themselves, and as a result, he’s my favorite to win the Calder Trophy when the season is over.
HONORABLE MENTION: John Gibson, Anaheim; Robby Fabbri, St. Louis; Sam Bennett, Calgary; Nikolaj Ehlers, Winnipeg; San Reinhart, Buffalo; Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg