When the 2015-16 season kicked off in October, one thing became abundantly clear after the first handful of games – the NHL’s current crop of rookies is one of the finest we’ve seen in years.
As the season progressed, a myriad of names emerged as possible Calder Trophy nominees – from generational prospect Connor McDavid to relative unknowns like Nikolaj Ehlers. With over a third of the season now in the books, the field has become much more clear, and five candidates have carved out their names as the leading options:
5. Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres
Touted as the second-best prospect of the 2015 draft class, Jack Eichel wasted no time in proving his worth for the Buffalo Sabres after they selected him second-overall. Eichel started somewhat slow, tallying only three points through the first 10 games of the season. Some early injuries to key Sabres contributors like Evander Kane and Robin Lehner made matters worse, plummeting the Sabres into the basement of the league’s standings.
But things have been turning up for Eichel as of late – most notably over the last three games, which have seen him tally six points in total. Overall, the young centre ranks as one of the top rookies in the sport, sitting second among all first-year skaters with 11 goals. He’s also tallied the fourth-most points among rookies, with 20 in total through 35 games, and leads the way with 108 shots.
While Eichel’s numbers aren’t necessarily astounding, he’s still managed to establish himself as one of the premier offensive rookies in the league. The Massachusetts native has also been one of the most responsible rookies in the league so far, while still playing at a high level – evidenced by the fact that Eichel is the only one among the top seven rookie scorers with less than double-digit penalty minutes (having amassed only six penalty minutes thus far). That well-rounded game has been key for Buffalo this season, as the club seems to have finally found their franchise player.
4. Max Domi, Arizona Coyotes
The rise of Arizona’s Max Domi has been much more surprising. While the talented forward comes from elite pedigree and has been a highly touted prospect for years, it was widely assumed that playing for a subpar Coyotes team would make it near impossible for Domi to have a meaningful impact.
And yet, he’s been nothing short of exception so far, tallying 26 points in 34 games – a pace that projects to roughly 62 points over a full 82-game campaign. Domi’s noteworthy total sits second among all rookie skaters. He also ranks third in rookie goalscoring with 10 tallies, and second in powerplay points with seven.
Perhaps most impressive about Domi’s ascension is the fact that he’s been consistently putting up points with a much less impressive cast of linemates than his peers. While other top rookies suit up with legitimate bona fide NHL stars – or even All-Stars in some cases – Domi currently resides on the Coyotes’ second line with centreman Viktor Tikhonov and fellow rookie Anthony Duclair.
But even with the Coyotes housing a forward corps that is slim on elite scoring talent, they’ve managed to put up 93 goals so far this season, which puts them in the league’s top 10 in terms of goals-for per game. With Domi currently tied for the team scoring lead, and with he and Duclair ranking as the only two among Arizona’s top 12 scorers that have managed to stay above zero in the plus-minus department, it’s clear young pivot has been a crucial factor in Arizona’s success.
3. Artemi Panarin, Chicago Blackhawks
Ask most dedicated NHL fans who the leading Calder Trophy nominee is at the moment and you’ll likely hear Artemi Panarin’s name mentioned more than anyone else’s. This certainly isn’t an outrageous assertion, as the Chicago Blackhawks forward has been seemingly unstoppable this season. With 10 goals and 31 total points, Panarin leads all rookies in scoring as we approach the halfway point of the season, and has looked like a veteran NHL-er for much of his first taste of NHL action.
However, there do seem to be a lot of perks riding in Panarin’s favour that aren’t enjoyed by the 24-year-old’s fellow rookies. Firstly is the issue of the first-year star’s linemates. While other fresh-faced talents have been able to play alongside notable talent thus far, no one else has been given the golden opportunity that Panarin has. He currently suits up on a line with Patrick Kane – who leads the NHL’s scoring race with 50 points in 36 games and recently embarked on one of the longest point streaks in league history.
That plum assignment has undoubtedly contributed to Panarin leading his rookie class in assists (with 21). As is the case with Panarin’s powerplay production – he currently leads all rookies with eight man-advantage points, yet all eight have been assists, which can’t be too difficult to rack up when playing on powerplay unit with Kane, Jonathan Toews, Brent Seabrook, and Duncan Keith.
Make no mistake – Panarin is an exceptional talent, and he has surely played a significant role in allowing Kane to reach the level that he has this season. But there’s simply no denying that Panarin had less of a hill to climb in his first year given the fact that he was joining a team many had called a “modern dynasty” all summer long. Panarin has earned a key role on the team, sure, but the opportunity was seemingly there for the taking considering Chicago recently lost key offensive contributors like Patrick Sharp, Brandon Saad, and Brad Richards.
Suffice to say, Panarin’s performance could certainly earn him a Calder Trophy by the season’s end, but given how much help he’s had, it wouldn’t be much of a shock to see him get passed over either.
2. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers
The one name that’s been penciled into this list since draft day was that of Edmonton Oilers centreman Connor McDavid.
After a storied junior career that had prominent members of the hockey community hailing McDavid as the finest prospect the league has seen since Sidney Crosby (and perhaps even before him as well), all eyes were on McDavid when the first puck of 2015-16 finally dropped.
McDavid didn’t disappoint. While it took time to find the right linemates for the young centreman, head coach Todd McLellan stumbled on a golden trio of McDavid, Benoit Pouliot, and Nail Yakupov, giving the Oilers yet another potent scoring line to work with.
But after amassing 12 points through his first 13 NHL games, McDavid’s rookie campaign was sidelined by a broken clavicle suffered in an Oilers win over the Philadelphia Flyers. As soon as it became clear that McDavid would indeed be back this season – he’s reportedly slated to return after the All-Star break – the question then turned to whether or not he could still net the Calder Trophy despite missing a significant amount of time.
Though he remains out, all signs still point to ‘yes’. Firstly, it’s key to consider what exactly McDavid’s injury was. While a broken clavicle caused him to sit out, and surely affected McDavid’s shooting and passing movements, it had little effect on the one skill that defines the young star’s game – speed. McDavid’s greatest asset is his ability to pull off elite-level plays at top speed, which is bolstered by the fact that his top speed is among the fastest of any player in the NHL. That being the case, it seems that as soon as he regains his full range of motion and is able to return, he’ll likely pick up right where he left off, unhindered by the rust that would come from, for example, a lower-body injury.
McDavid still leads all rookies in points-per-game having scored at a clip of .92 points-per-game through his first 13 contests. That figures to only improve as his career progresses, and it certainly would not be absurd to think McDavid could score at a clip of .95–1.0 points-per-game for the rest of this season.
If he can regain that elite form and can continue to astound the hockey community, there’s surely still opportunity to net the Calder Trophy, especially considering the fact that he’ll benefit heavily from his pre-NHL status. McDavid already has the added benefit of every voting member pulling for him to be The Next One, the saviour of a league that has seen offense dwindling as of late. With so many of the league’s recent first-overall draft picks turning out to be disappointing from a team-success standpoint (thus leading to most of them residing in Edmonton), McDavid’s bid will be further solidified if he’s able to serve as the final piece that drags Edmonton out of the league’s basement and into the playoffs.
He’ll have to come flying out of the gate once he returns if he hopes to make enough of a late-season impact to earn a Calder nod, but given the context that he brings to the table, there will undoubtedly be an unavoidable bias towards naming McDavid the league’s top rookie, regardless of where he finishes in the scoring race.
1. Dylan Larkin, Detroit Red Wings
Any of the previous four skaters could earn the 2016 Calder Trophy, but there’s a case to be made for Detroit’s Dylan Larkin ending up as the one with the the prestigious award.
In terms of the numbers, Larkin has certainly measured up to his fellow young guns this season. He currently leads all rookies in goals with 13 tallies, while also ranking third in points, and first in game-winning markers. Simply put, he’s been an offensive revelation for the Red Wings this season. Suiting up alongside veteran forwards Henrik Zetterberg and Justin Abdelkader, Larkin has looked like a veteran for much of 2015-16, and has been rewarded in the form of a 30-goal scoring pace.
Larkin has also been the most responsible first-year skater by far. He currently leads the league (not the rookie class, but all NHL skaters) in plus-minus with a mark of plus-21, and is also pacing all rookies with 21 takeaways thus far.
But the key difference between Larkin and his peers is the context of his role within his organization. Larkin isn’t just impressing as a 19-year-old playing at the sport’s highest level – he’s doing it for the Detroit Red Wings, a franchise whose name has long been synonymous with veteran savvy. Detroit has always stuck to the gameplan of taking time with their teenaged players, ensuring they’re developed properly. Case in points – the last time Detroit had a teenager on their NHL roster at all was back in 1999-00, when 19-year-old Jiri Fischer scored eight points for the club in 52 games.
Despite this history, Larkin has made cutting him an impossibility for the team’s management, as he continues to reign as crucial contributor to Detroit’s success. He leads the Red Wings in goals and shots, and sits second in points behind linemate Zetterberg.
It’s this breakthrough performance that could very well take Larkin right to the top. The young centreman has managed to earn first-line minutes on a team almost comically dedicated to avoiding rushing young stars, and he’s scored with the best of them while doing so.
Considering the roles allotted to his fellow rookie scoring stars – with crucial holes in the roster creating prominent roles for Domi, Eichel, and Panarin – Larkin’s rise can arguably be seen as the more notable one, as he had much more to prove before cementing his name in the lineup.
He’s done so admirably thus far, however, and if he keeps up his current level, there’s a strong chance it could in fact be Larkin’s name called to the podium come awards time.