May 06 2013 10:04AM
The NHL announced the finalists for the Calder Memorial Trophy today, for rookie of the year. The Professional Hockey Writers' Association chose Brendan Gallagher, Jonathan Huberdeau and Brandon Saad as finalists in a decision which can only be described as bizarre.
Not making the cut? Nail Yakupov, the rookie goal-leader (and co-points leader) who got better with each passing game. Justin Schultz, who finished four points out of the rookie scoring lead despite being a defenceman. Jonas Brodin, who played more than 23 minutes per game on a playoff-calibre blue line at the age of 19.
Yakupov vs. Saad
Brandon Saad, the lone rookie from the Western Conference to make the cut (it's funny how often the NHL's best conference gets overlooked in the voting process, but that's another story) is certainly a deserving member of the final group, but he's had some advantages. Playing in Chicago is one, but his specific linemates is another. Saad played just over 600 minutes this year at 5-on-5; more than 500 of them came with Jonathan Toews and almost 400 of those also came with Marian Hossa on the other wing. Landings don't get much softer than that.
Yakupov played just under 600 minutes in those situations, but there were no constants for him. His most regular partner was Sam Gagner, with whom he played slightly less than half of his even-strength shifts. Due respect to Sam Gagner, Magnus Paajarvi, Ales Hemsky, Shawn Horcoff, Ryan Jones, and Ryan Smyth (players he spent more than an hour with) but Toews/Hossa they aren't.
Despite that, at even-strength the battle was neck-and-neck; Saad finished with 2.22 points/60 and Yakupov with 2.20 points/60. On the power play, where both were regulars but Yakupov got a bit more ice-time, it wasn't close - Yakupov had six goals and 10 points, Saad had three points.
One of these guys had a very fine rookie season, playing alongside two of the game's best players. The other managed to make the same impact at even-strength playing with a rotation of guys, none of which are equal to Toews at this point in time, and then made an impact on the power play, too, despite being a year younger.
Brandon Saad was a fine rookie and will doubtless enjoy a strong career, but will it be better than Nail Yakupov's? Was he better than Yakupov this season? I don't think there's a strong case for it.
Yakupov vs. Huberdeau
In Jonathan Huberdeau comes a player with a similar context to his minutes as Yakupov. He played for a team that struggled this season, like Yakupov, and like Yakupov there was no Toews/Kane duo helping him along his way. The difference is that he played way more minutes than Yakupov did and wasn't able to have nearly the same scoring impact.
Huberdeau averaged 14:32 per night at even-strength and 2:21 on the power play. Yakupov averaged 12:04 at evens and 2:28 on the man advantage. Huberdeau scored 22 points at even-strength and nine on the power play; with Yakupov the numbers were 21/10. Those totals look close until expressed as points per hour:
- Yakupov: 2.20 PTS/60 5v5, 4.20 PTS/60 5v4
- Huberdeau: 1.68 PTS/60 5v5, 4.87 PTS/60 5v4
Add in the fact that Huberdeau was starting nearly two-thirds of his non-neutral shifts in the offensive zone (Yakupov had a 51/49 split) and it's pretty difficult to make a case that he was anywhere close to the same level of impact scorer that Yakupov was as a rookie.
Yakupov vs. Gallagher
This one I actually get, at least based on even-strength play.
Gallagher didn't do much on the power play (he played 2:21 per night, the same as Huberdeau, and ended up with just four points) but he was dynamite at even-strength. He had a favourable zone start but the Canadiens also dominated in every category with him on the ice, and no rookie scored more at evens relative to ice-time (2.86 points/60) than he did. Toss in the fact that he's chippy despite being undersized on the ice and basically the nicest guy you'll ever talk to off the ice, and he'd have everything going for him even if he didn't play in Montreal (which is a great market to have a solid rookie season in).
At this point, Gallagher's certainly the most deserving candidate still in the running.
The Bottom Line
Amazingly, the co-leader in point scoring and leader in goal-scoring likely won't even be on the NHL's all-rookie team. The PHWA also votes for the all-rookie team, and with Saad, Huberdeau and Gallagher in the top three for Calder voting it's a pretty good bet those guys will get the three forward slots on the all-rookie team.
The writers as a whole got this one wrong. The funny thing is that I wouldn't even have given Yakupov the top spot if it were up to me - another guy who didn't make the cut, Jonas Brodin in Minnesota, would have been my choice. Maybe Yakupov's exuberance rubbed the old-school guys the wrong way, maybe there were hurt feelings lingering back to the World Juniors - there was a lot of negativity surrounding the fact that he didn't talk to reporters at times there. As for Brodin, other than the fact that he's a defenceman in Minnesota I'm at a loss to explain why he was omitted.
But it's a bad year for voting, with Eastern Conference voters not seeing the West. It's going to be interesting to see the finalists in other categories for precisely this reason.
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