The Calder Trophy is arguably the most difficult individual award in hockey to win. Sure, it’s not as prestigious as the Hart, Vezina or Norris, and the pool of competitors is restricted to a relatively small group. On the other hand, you only get one chance at it. Many all-time greats don’t have a Calder on their mantle, including Gordie Howe, Sidney Crosby, Bobby Hull, Maurice Richard, Jean Beliveau and Doug Harvey. Wayne Gretzky never won one, either, but that was due to a technicality. He wasn’t just the NHL’s best rookie in 1979-80, he was its best player, but was ineligible due to his WHA experience.
Some rookie classes are better than others. Many times in the NHL’s 100-year history, the second-best, and sometimes even the third-best rookie had such a great season it would have been Calder-worthy most other years. Here are the six most impressive rookie seasons ever posted that remarkably still fell short of Calder honors:
Ron Hextall, G(1987)
Following two seasons in the minors, the 22-year-old Hextall, who had never seen a minute of NHL action, immediately won the Flyers’ starting job and posted an incredibly dominant season. He led the NHL in games, minutes, shots and saves, while also compiling the league’s best save percentage: .902, eight points better than the runner-up. He won the Vezina Trophy and a berth on the first all-star team, both narrowly over Mike Liut. While Calder votes are cast before the playoffs begin, it should be noted Hextall enjoyed a post-season for the ages in 1987, recording a .908 save percentage, taking the dynasty Oilers to the brink and winning the Conn Smythe Trophy. Alas, he narrowly lost the Calder to L.A.’s Luc Robitaille, whose 84 points were just 17th in the league. Being the league’s best goalie is more significant than that, isn’t it?
Sidney Crosby, C(2006)
Crosby, who had been hyped as the next great prospect for what seemed like a decade, immediately lived up to the billing. His 102 points were sixth in the NHL, and he finished third in voting among centers for the end-of-season all-star teams. Scoring 102 points is impressive enough, but doing it when no one else on your team tops 58 points is astounding. Furthermore, he was only minus-1 on a terrible 58-point team where most regulars sported ugly double-digit minus marks. This performance would win almost any other Calder, but not in 2006, when Alex Ovechkin put up four more points and a spectacular highlight reel featuring dazzling goals and big hits.
Hy Buller, D(1952)
Buller was perhaps not ready for NHL action when Detroit called him up from the AHL for nine games during the Second World War. He was just 17 years old at the time. But after six more complete AHL seasons, including two in which he earned first-team all-star berths (1948-49 and ’50-51), Buller was a seasoned pro and 25 years old. In a THN story from 1950, Leafs president Conn Smythe said Buller was one of the top 10 defensemen in all of hockey, and better than anyone on two NHL teams. The article also references Eddie Shore, who had for years been saying Buller was the AHL’s best all-around defenseman. During Buller’s rookie season, his partner, the veteran Allan Stanley, went down for 20 games. In his absence, Buller was cited as being solely responsible for holding down the fort, often playing more than 15 minutes in a period, with a ragtag bunch of partners, almost all of whom were in their first or last NHL seasons. He finished the year second in points among defensemen and made the second all-star team. Just as surprising as his meteoric rise was his quick decline: he played one more average NHL season, split one more between the NHL and AHL, and was done with hockey by 28.
Roy Worters, G(1926)
Worters and Nels Stewart are the poster children for exemplary players mostly forgotten today, because they starred for now-defunct franchises. In our retro Vezina Trophy story (Nov. 5, 2018 issue), we highlighted how Worters should have had four Vezinas, but that’s not all he missed out on: his rookie NHL season coincided with Stewart’s, so he lost out on what should’ve been an easy (retro) Calder. How many rookies finish fourth in Hart voting? Worters did, after compiling an 18-16-1 record for a team lacking any other legitimate stars, aside from a young Lionel Conacher. An older NHL rookie at 25, Worters had been playing Ontario senior hockey before joining the USAHA’s Pittsburgh Yellowjackets, a team that almost player-for-player became the NHL’s Pirates in 1925-26.
Larry Murphy, D(1981)
Murphy lost the Calder to Peter Stastny’s record-breaking 109-point season, but what he did was nearly as remarkable. While his 76 points tied Denis Potvin for second among defensemen, it wasn’t just flashy offensive numbers that made this so impressive. According to estimates based on situational goals-for/goals-against data, Murphy played more than 25 minutes per game, in all situations, making him the Kings’ No. 1 blueliner. This edition of L.A. had 99 points, the most they’d get in a season between 1975 and 1991. Murphy’s incredible poise earned him seventh place in Norris voting and sixth place in all-star team voting, a rare achievement for a 19-year old rookie defenseman.
Patrik Laine, RW (2017)
On the surface, finishing 30th in points with 64 is not historically impressive for a rookie. But Laine was (and still is) a goal-scoring machine, and only six NHL players scored more goals than the 36 he potted in 2016-17. That’s significant enough, but Laine missed nine games that season, while the winner, Auston Matthews, played all 82, finishing with 40 goals and 69 points.
Barry Pederson, C(1982):Finished 18th in league scoring with 92 points and had a well-developed two-way game.
Dutch Reibel, C(1954):In his first of three seasons centering Howe, he finished seventh in points.
Joe Juneau, LW(1993):Ended up 18th in points with 102. Having Adam Oates for a center didn’t hurt.
Chris Chelios, D(1985):Played 25 minutes per game for 94-point Canadiens. Had 62 points; ninth in all-star voting.
Nicklas Lidstrom, D(1992): Played 23-plus minutes per game for 98-point Wings. 60 points; eighth in all-star voting.
Barry Beck, D(1978): Played nearly 29 minutes per game for 59-point Rockies. 60 points; sixth in all-star voting.
Don Edwards, G(1978): Led NHL in games and wins. Second all-star team; fourth in Hart vote. But third in Calder behind Mike Bossy and Beck.
Grant Fuhr, G(1982):Only 48 games, but second in save percentage, second-team all-star and Vezina runner-up. Calder finalist behind Dale Hawerchuk and Pederson.
Glenn Resch, G(1976):Just 44 games, but led NHL in SP and was second-team all-star. Lost the Calder to Islanders teammate Bryan Trottier.
Bill Durnan, G(1944):Runaway first-team all-star berth with depleted Second World War competition. Lost the Calder to Gus Bodnar, who finished 10th in scoring.
The Calder Memorial Trophy was first awarded in 1933. When selecting retroactive winners for the previous 15 seasons going back to the NHL’s inception in 1917-18, many factors had to be considered: statistics, team results, Hart Trophy and all-star voting, and most importantly, eligibility.
The NHL now has an age limit for the Calder Trophy, but that wasn’t the case until 1990, so no age limit was used for 1918 to 1932. But we were very careful to ensure all players considered were not established pros who had previously played in a “major professional league” as defined by the NHL. As far as we know, this hasn’t been clearly defined, but past results indicate that the NHL does not consider the KHL, AHL, IHL, Soviet, Czech and older leagues such as the AHA and CAHL as major leagues, but they did give the WHA of the 1970s that distinction. For the purposes of this project, the NHL’s predecessor, the NHA, as well as its western counterparts, the PCHA and WCHL/WHL, were counted as major pro leagues. The final consideration for eligibility was games played. In a nutshell, the NHL has long used the rule that says 25 games in a major pro league means a player is no longer Calder-eligible. But in the NHL’s first 15 seasons, 25 games accounted for a large portion of a season (or even more than a full season), so for these early seasons, the games-played threshold was adjusted to half a season.Aside from a few wonky results early on – when the league had only three or four teams and it was clearly difficult for a true rookie to break in – the seasons these rookies had are all truly Calder-worthy.
1917-18 Jack Adams — Toronto Arenas, C, 23
Adams, who had no points in eight games, wins this virtually by default because the new three-team NHL had almost nobody who hadn’t previously played a full NHA season.
1918-19 Jack Adams — Toronto Arenas, C, 24
Like Jamie Storr making two all-rookie teams, Adams was, in theory, still technically eligible in 1919, and there was almost nobody else to consider.
1919-20 Thomas McCarthy — Quebec Bulldogs, RW, 26
Babe Dye and Mickey Roach had solid full seasons with Toronto, but flash-in-the-pan McCarthy posted eye-popping numbers in half a season with Quebec.
1920-21 Jake Forbes — Toronto St. Pats, G, 23
With only five NHL games to his credit prior to ’20-21, Forbes played nearly a full season and went 13-7-0 with a 3.87 goals-against average, second-best in the league.
1921-22, Leo Reise Sr. — Hamilton Tigers, D, 29
An old rookie at 29, he had only played senior hockey (and six NHL games) prior to this season. He posted 23 points, which ranked 11th in the NHL and fourth among defensemen.
1922-23 Aurele Joliat — Montreal Canadiens, LW, 21
Little sparkplug began his Hall of Fame career with a 23-point season, good for ninth in the NHL. Formed a potent line with Odie Cleghorn and Billy Boucher.
1923-24 Billy Burch — Hamilton Tigers, C, 24
Let’s say his 10 games the previous season don’t exclude him. Twenty-two points tied for third in NHL. Fifth in Hart Trophy voting (he won the following season).
1924-25 Hap Day — Toronto St. Pats, LW, 23
Made it to the Hall of Fame as a defenseman but played first two NHL seasons on the wing. As a rookie, he led the league in assists and was eighth in points and sixth in Hart voting.
1925-26 Nels Stewart — Montreal Maroons, C, 23
Maybe the best rookie season ever. Led NHL in goals and points, won Hart, Stanley Cup and earned retro Conn Smythe with superb two-way performance from blueline in final.
1926-27 Lorne Chabot — New York Rangers, G, 26
Expansion Rangers were led by the ‘Bread Line,’ all WCHL veterans, but Chabot had only played senior. Thanks to these four players, the team was an instant success.
1927-28 Marty Burke — Montreal/Pittsburgh, D, 23
Underrated, undersized defensive D-man was a regular for Habs and Pirates. With him, his teams went 27-11-8. Without him, they went 18-17-7. Twelve games missed in 11 seasons.
1928-29 Andy Blair — Toronto Maple Leafs, C, 20
Future member of Leafs’ ‘Pepper Boys’ line with Bob Gracie and Frank Finnigan. His rookie season was his best: 27 points, third in NHL scoring, sixth in Hart race.
1929-30 Ebbie Goodfellow — Detroit Cougars, C, 22
Edges out Leafs’ Charlie Conacher. Fewer goals but five more points and more balanced all-around game. Later became an all-star at both center and on defense.
1930-31 Johnny Gagnon — Montreal Canadiens, RW, 25
Modest 26 points good for 24th in NHL scoring. Eighteen goals placed 12th. Exploded in playoffs with six goals and eight points in 10 games to earn retro Conn Smythe.
1931-32 Earl Seibert — New York Rangers, D, 20
The second-youngest NHLer this season and the only rookie even close to being a standout. Not the force he’d soon be, but placed eighth among D-men in all-star team voting.
This story appears in the Prospects Unlimited 2018 issue of The Hockey News magazine.