Being dubbed as the best prospect since Sidney Crosby and a generational talent, Connor McDavid is the favorite to win the 2016 Calder Trophy.
Let’s say he gets off to a slow start or gets injured and misses some playing time though. Or gets outplayed by an older rookie further along in his development. That could leave the door open for another young player to swoop in and snag the Calder.
Here are some names to look out for that could also challenge for the this year’s Calder Trophy.
1. Jack Eichel – C – Buffalo Sabres
The second-overall pick after McDavid is seen by some scouts as the best prospect in the last decade not named McDavid. The notion is that he’s a player who would have been the first-overall pick in any other year. That’s high praise considering John Tavares and Steven Stamkos were top picks, but nonetheless Eichel is an A+ prospect with superstar potential.
One thing Eichel has working for him is that Tim Murray spent the past year acquiring high-end talent to go along with his top prospect. Eichel will be making his Sabres debut with both Evander Kane and Ryan O’Reilly — a trio that will push the Sabres up the standings next season.
They are still not a playoff team, but the Sabres have a lot of young talent to grow with and Eichel is at the center of that. More physically mature than McDavid, Eichel will have to overcome the grind of a full season that often takes a toll on players coming out of the NCAA. If everything goes his way, it’s conceivable to see Eichel having an offensive season that resembles that of Nathan MacKinnon’s rookie campaign; something in the 25 goal/60 point range.
2. Sam Bennett – F – Calgary Flames
Had he not got injured last fall, Sam Bennett likely would have been with the Calgary Flames for all of the 2014-15 season. After shoulder surgery that saw him miss all but 11 games of the OHL regular campaign, Bennett returned like a man possessed, putting up 24 points in only 11 games with the Kingston Frontenacs.
After a first-round sweep in the OHL playoffs, Bennett was called up to Calgary for the last game of the season and a spot on the playoff roster. The biggest knock on Bennett has always been his strength. He showed during the Stanley Cup playoffs that this is far less of an issue than it was when he was drafted.
Barring something unforeseen, Bennett will make the Flames out of training camp and will be a big part of the Flames’ hopes of avoiding a regression from last year’s surprising season. Bennett has tremendous talent and would have likely been the top pick in his draft year if he had 10 extra pounds of muscle on his frame at the combine.
3. Kevin Fiala – LW – Nashville Predators
Taken seven picks after Bennett in the 2016 draft, Kevin Fiala looks to become the second straight Nashville Predators forward to get Calder Trophy consideration. Like Filip Forsberg last year, Fiala looks to make an impact in Nashville right away.
While on the same team as Forsberg, it was another of last year’s rookies that makes you believe Fiala can hit the ground running. Last season Johnny Gaudreau showed that undersized rookies don’t have a problem making the leap to the NHL like they once did. At 5’9″ and only about 175 pounds, Fiala is an offensive dynamo who moves around the ice with an agility that’s rare to see. He has the ability to avoid checks and stay strong on his skates, and Fiala has a game suited for Peter Laviolette’s system.
Like Bennett, Fiala made his NHL debut late last season and even got into the lineup for a playoff game. He projects to start the season as a top-9 winger for the Preds and will likely gain some PP time that would help him show his talents with the puck.
4. Jakub Vrana – W – Washington Capitals
Another forward from the 2014 draft class, Vrana might start the season in Hershey but the offensively talented forward will beat out guys like Jason Chimera and Jay Beagle for a winger spot in Washington’s top-nine. The Czech forward had been playing pro hockey in Sweden before coming to North America late last year and had a tremendous showing in the AHL playoffs for the Hershey Bears.
He is strong on the puck and has a knack for driving the play when the puck is on his stick. If he gets enough games in the NHL next season he could be a true dark horse for the Calder.
5. Oliver Bjorkstrand – RW – Columbus Blue Jackets
Like Vrana, many believe Oliver Bjorkstrand is destined for the AHL next season. The Columbus Blue Jackets have shown with Boone Jenner, Alex Wennberg and others that they are not afraid to let a young player develop with the NHL team. Bjorkstrand is coming off a season where he put up his second straight 100-plus point campaign (63 goals, 118 points in only 59 games) while winning the WHL’s player of the year award.
If Bjorkstrand can find a spot on a Columbus roster, he will find himself in a secondary role and away from top opposition. His undeniable offensive talent combined with the right opportunity allow Bjorkstrand to contend for the rookie scoring title.
6. Artemi Panarin – LW – Chicago Blackhawks
The last player on the list is an undrafted winger who already has six years of professional hockey under his belt. Artemi Panarin is a 23-year-old who was signed out of the KHL by the Blackhawks and should go a long way in helping them get over the losses caused by their cap crunch.
Panarin has been a star in the KHL, putting up more than a point per game and is hoping to transition his game over to the NHL. He had a unique out clause in his contract that will allow him to go back to Russia if he doesn’t make the Blackhawks instead of being sent to the AHL.
The fear with Panarin is that he won’t have the space and time necessary to show the tremendous skill that let them produce offense. He could crash and burn in training camp and go back to being a superstar in Russia, but if he can figure the NHL game out the Blackhawks could have one heck of a player on their hands.