We’re now 10 or 11 games into the season for just about everyone in the league, and already some of the wheat in the “Calder Consideration” pool is starting to separate from the chaff.
1. A look at the pack
Obviously the ostensible leader in this category since the day he was drafted is Connor McDavid, but rookie performances have grabbed plenty of attention in other parts of the league as well. Max Domi and Anthony Duclair are tearing it up in Arizona, Nik Ehlers has been revelatory for Winnipeg, Artemi Panarin is filling in ably for Chicago, Oscar Lindberg has been a decent-sized hit on Broadway, and so on. That doesn’t even count No. 2 pick Jack Eichel, whose Sabres are still bad and seems to be suffering production-wise because of it.
So the real question, then, is who has been the best to this point, and who has the most juice to continue being the best for the remainder of the season? The reason this becomes a pertinent question is that most rookies are now well past that crucial nine-game mark that ends their eligibility to be sent back to junior without having their ELC kick in, so we have a pretty good group to guess at as the Calder candidates.
In all, through Thursday night’s games, 23 rookies had crossed that nine-game threshold, and a few more were on the cusp of doing so. For the sake of argument, you just look at the top 25 or 30 and say they’re likely to be eligible by the end of the season, barring something like injury or, in some cases, demotion back to the AHL.
But this has been a year in which a lot of rookies are performing at a high level and getting the points to show for it. In addition, there are maybe 10 guys who, at the end of the year, you will be able to make an argument for their inclusion.
Based on past and potential future performance, this is the list I’ve cobbled together of probable Calder nominees (in alphabetical order). These aren’t necessarily my picks, but what would be selected based on play so far:
- Max Domi, Arizona
- Anthony Duclair, Arizona
- Nikolaj Ehlers, Winnipeg
- Jack Eichel, Buffalo
- Mattias Janmark, Dallas
- Dylan Larkin, Detroit
- Oscar Lindberg, New York
- Connor McDavid, Edmonton
- Artemi Panarin, Chicago
- Colton Parayko, St. Louis
Of this group, Eichel is the only one not in the top-10 in rookie scoring, but he’s in there kind of speculatively. One imagines the puck starts going in for his line quite soon. Given his talent level alone, it kind of just has to.
2. What have they done?
Obviously a lot of what goes into NHL voting, at least as far as rookies are concerned, is just examining the leaderboard and deciding that the guy with the most points, or perhaps points per game, is the best player. It’s not always fair, necessarily (especially to defensemen) but it does often produce the a pretty good approximation of who had the best rookie campaign.
I asterisked Parayko because he’s the only defenseman in the group and that should earn him some special consideration in and of itself, given the numbers he’s putting up.
But other than that, obviously the big takeaway here is that McDavid only seems likely to widen that gap between himself and the rest of the pack in a lot of ways. Now that he’s with Benoit Pouliot (to play defense) and Nail Yakupov (to be the trigger man), McDavid’s production is likely to take off. He’s north of a point a game, but specifically has 11 points in his last seven contests. Slowing him down seems unlikely.
And here’s the crazy part: McDavid’s on-ice shooting percentage (11.01 percent) is actually just sixth among these rookies. Dylan Larkin is actually way out in front at 15.57 percent, followed by Duclair, Lindberg, Domi, and Panarin. Also of note, Parayko is putting up these numbers despite the second-lowest on-ice shooting efficiency (9.28 percent), just behind Ehlers at 9.62 percent.
At least as far as Larkin and Panarin go, you could make a convincing argument that they’re going to get their points regardless of PDO because of who they play with. Larkin’s getting most of his time with Henrik Zetterberg and Justin Abdelkader, and Panarin is famously playing hop-along to Patrick Kane. That’s going to get you your points.
Janmark (10.16 percent) and McDavid seem a little high, but if the former continues getting minutes with Seguin/Benn/Spezza, a still-elevated number doesn’t feel too out of place.
3. The Arizona kids
Perhaps no one has been more of a surprise than Domi and Duclair, however, as they’ve propelled their team to more points in the month of October than I think most people would have had them getting before Christmas.
Domi is point-a-game, and Duclair isn’t far behind, but he also has five goals already, which helps. The thing with them is there’s basically no way this run of production lasts, fun though it may have been.
But here’s the amazing stat: Combined, they’ve gotten into high-danger areas and put a shot attempt toward the net just seven times in 10 games. Duclair has three goals and three high-danger chances. Domi has three on four.
Duclair is currently shooting almost 43 percent at 5-on-5, and Domi’s 27.27 percent isn’t much more sustainable. Are these players very, very talented? Yes. Are they on a team of bums that will at some point just allow opposing defenses to key in on the rookies pretty quickly? Also yes.
However, you have to give credit to Dave Tippett, who isn’t usually one to coddle rookies. He’s deploying his two young wards a lot more judiciously than most of the other guys on this list, and getting rewarded for it early on:
So if these usages hold (and that’s a big supposition, but okay), we can safely say that McDavid and perhaps Parayko are doing the most with their extremely difficult circumstances. For reference, Patrice Bergeron’s usage bubble would slot in to the left of Janmark on that chart but still be right around the same spot on the Y axis as McDavid and Eichel. Pretty safe to say that the guys hovering around the 17-minute competition TOI% aren’t getting the easiest of rides.
Not that there’s anything wrong with teenagers getting easy rides, but again, it’s all about separating wheat from chaff.
4. Poor Jack Eichel
Meanwhile, Eichel is way up at the top of that usage chart, and has shown flashes of mega-brilliance. The puck is in good parts of the ice when it’s on his stick, he generates a lot of offense all by himself, and still has somehow only been on the ice for two goals-for at full strength.
He scored one of them himself.
And it’s for all these reasons that I find it very difficult to believe Eichel will remain so far down the rookie scoring list, currently 14th overall. His on-ice shooting percentage will not hover in the two percent range forever, and when it stops doing that, and normalizes even to the league average instead of the current rookie average (which is slightly higher), then it’s going to be a goal festival in Buffalo, both at 5-on-5 and, especially, on the power play.
The stats all speak pretty loudly on the subject. They say, “Boy, Eichel should have a lot more points than this.” If production rates from Eichel and the Arizona kids flipped around for the remainder of the year, would anyone be all that surprised?
5. Some guys to also consider
In addition to all this, there are a number of other guys who might be able to weasel their way into the conversation before the end of the season. Guys who, like Eichel, aren’t getting the bounces to go their way or are on bad teams.
Sam Bennett is a perfectly reasonable Calder candidate if Calgary ever figures things out (big if). Likewise, any one of the kids on the Canucks could end up acquitting themselves very well. Ben Hutton in particular seems like a guy who could end up pushing Parayko as “best rookie defenseman,” though it must be said that he’s getting much softer treatment from Willie Desjardins than his St. Louis counterpart is from Ken Hitchcock.
But I mean, let’s be realistic: This is McDavid’s trophy to lose, and everyone else is competing for a runner-up prize of a free trip to Vegas and maybe getting a signed McDavid jersey. The kid is literally that good. You hate to use the term “foregone conclusion,” but barring disaster this is as close as things in the NHL get to it.