The 2015-16 season has been one of the finest in recent memory in regards to rookies finding legitimate success in the NHL. What initially looked like the season of Connor McDavid vs. Jack Eichel has instead become a battle between an expanding field of talented young stars, as names like Artemi Panarin, Dylan Larkin, Max Domi and Shayne Gostisbehere have played key roles for their clubs.
But what of last year’s crop of Calder Trophy finalists? The 2014-15 campaign wasn’t short on its own share of first-year breakouts. With 2015-16 heading into its final stretch, let’s take a closer look at how last season’s top rookies have fared in their sophomore efforts.
Aaron Ekblad, Florida Panthers
Aaron Ekblad took home the 2015 Calder Memorial Trophy, earning the nod as the league’s top rookie as he became the highest-scoring 18-year-old defenseman since the legendary Bobby Orr. Ekblad’s 39 points were just two shy of tying Orr’s 41.
He hasn’t disappointed this season either. Ekblad has 11 goals and 24 points through 55 games thus far. While his overall points per game production has fallen slightly (from .48 last season to .44 this year), he has managed to score goals at a higher clip in 2015-16, holding a career-best mark of .20 goals per game.
Ekblad’s defensive play has also improved. His plus-17 ranks second on the Panthers’ roster after veteran defender Brian Campbell, and Ekblad leads all Panthers defensemen in regards to possession, holding a Corsi For percentage of 52.1. His veteran-like savvy on the blue line has earned him more responsibility from the Panthers’ coaching staff as well–evidenced by the fact that Ekblad is starting 43.8 percent of his shifts in his own zone this season, up from only 38.8 percent in his rookie year.
Most importantly, his stable play on Florida’s back end has been a key part of the Panthers’ overall success in 2015-16, and that success has been franchise-altering. After making the playoffs only once since the 2004-05 lockout (and zero times in the past three seasons), the Panthers currently lead the Atlantic Division with 77 points–five more than the Tampa Bay Lightning, who are fresh off a trip to the Stanley Cup Final.
Ekblad’s crucial role in that success can be summed up clearly by the Panthers’ subpar play without him in the lineup. While dealing with a concussion in mid-January, Ekblad was sidelined for four games–the Panthers went 0-3-1 over that span, a disappointing run that ended a 12-game winning streak with Ekblad on the blue line.
Mark Stone, Ottawa Senators
Finishing second in Calder votes last season was Ottawa Senators forward Mark Stone, who wrapped up the season on a blistering pace with 36 points over the final 34 games (and eight goals over the final nine).
Stone has continued to thrive in Ottawa in 2015-16. The 23-year-old has already racked up 20 goals and 46 total points, putting him on pace to top 60 points for the second straight campaign. He ranks third on the Senators this season in both goals and points, as he’s proven he has the skill to be a legitimate, consistent NHL goal-scorer.
That success has allowed Stone to earn a central role in Ottawa’s offensive scheme. He currently leads all Senators forwards in ice-time (despite being the third-youngest player on the team) and is the only forward on the roster who is averaging over 20 minutes per game–and he hasn’t put those minutes to waste.
The Winnipeg-born winger is tied with captain Erik Karlsson for second in the team with a Corsi For percentage of 52.2, ranks first in terms of goals-for per 60 minutes on the powerplay (8.1) and first among all Senators forwards with the lowest goals-against per 60 minutes while shorthanded (7.2). He also leads all NHL skaters with 100 takeaways so far this season.
He hasn’t been quite as fantastic in regards to his defensive play (he ranks last among all Senators in even-strength goals-against per 60 minutes and plus-minus) but even with these flaws, Stone has been an undeniable success in his second year, and one of the few bright spots for Ottawa.
Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames
No rookie from 2014-15 has exceeded expectations the way Johnny Gaudreau has this season.
After a fantastic first-year effort that saw Gaudreau tie for the rookie lead with 64 points, the star winger has hit an entirely new level this season. Through 59 games, Gaudreau has already amassed 22 goals and 59 points, putting him just five points off his rookie total with 22 games left on the Flames’ schedule.
Gaudreau’s 59 points not only lead the Flames in scoring, they also rank sixth among all NHL skaters. While his rookie year seemed to be his breakout campaign, it’s this current season that has given the hockey world a hint of his true level. He’s been one of the most consistent scorers in the league since game one, and has already outscored some of the biggest names in the sport. Among the 10 players who currently sit below him in the scoring race are Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Vladimir Tarasenko.
And Gaudreau has managed this feat on a team that currently ranks second last in their conference and fourth-last in the league.
The 22-year-old hasn’t received much help from his linemates either – both Sean Monahan and Jiri Hudler have regressed slightly, scoring at a lower clip than they did last year, when the trio became one of the most dangerous lines in the league. And yet, Gaudreau has continued to thrive, converting at a point-per-game pace in three of this season’s five months, including an exceptional December in which he led the league in goals (12) and points (18).
Gaudreau has also risen to become arguably the league’s best in the new 3-on-3 overtime format. He currently ranks third in the league with three overtime goals, and has already tied the all-time record for most overtime points in a season with seven to his name–Calgary has gone 8-2 in overtime this season.
If not for the Flames’ subpar goaltending and defense, then the undersized dynamo could be gearing up to lead his club on a storybook postseason run once again. However, even with the Flames’ season likely to end early, there’s no denying that Gaudreau has established himself as one of the top talents in the sport.