The Calder Trophy race was all but over the minute Elias Pettersson made his debut with the Vancouver Canucks in October, scoring with a wicked release midway through his first NHL period and posting his first multi-point game with a helper later in the contest. If you dig a bit deeper, though, there have been some impressive performances by freshmen this season.
Up front, Brady Tkachuk has impressed with the Ottawa Senators, cracking the big club and scoring 22 goals and 45 points in his rookie campaign. Teammate Colin White has joined Tkachuk, too, as one of four 40-point freshman forwards, netting 14 goals and 41 points of his own. Andreas Johnsson rounds out the group of 40-point rookies, his 20-goal, 42-point season making him a valuable asset to the speedy and skilled Toronto Maple Leafs.
But for as many forwards have stood out, this season has brought with it quite the class of first-year defenders, and a few of those rookie rearguards have put up point totals worthy of recognition.
Take Miro Heiskanen, for example. Last Thursday, the Dallas Stars defenseman scored his 12th goal of the season, which was enough to put him into a tie for sixth in goals by a rookie defenseman in the post-lockout era and three shy of sole possession of third place on that list, which is led by Shayne Gostisbehere’s 17-goal output in 2015-16 and Dion Phaneuf’s 20-goal total during the 2005-06 season. Heiskanen’s production has been rather impressive beyond his lamp-lighting ability, as well. Entering the final games of the campaign with 33 points in 80 games – he’s on pace to add one more point before the season is through – Heiskanen has become the fourth-highest scoring rookie defenseman in Stars history and the highest scoring 19-year-old blueliner the franchise has ever had. Furthermore, Heiskanen’s point total makes him the 20th highest scoring teenaged defenseman in NHL history.
Heiskanen, who has teamed up with Roman Polak on the Stars’ second pairing for most of the season, has been a vital factor in helping Dallas make the playoffs for the third time in the past six years. Heiskanen was thrown to the wolves with Texas-sized pressure this season, but he has lived up to the hype, and Stars fans have to be excited about the chance to see Heiskanen and John Klingberg become pillars on the back end down the road.
With Heiskanen’s season in mind, let’s take a look at other superb rookie defensemen making noise this season:
Rasmus Dahlin, Buffalo Sabres – 41 points
Buffalo’s defense was thin enough that Dahlin had no issue becoming an impact player in his rookie campaign. Drafted first-overall by the Sabres in June, Dahlin’s 18-year-old season has been one of the best in NHL history. His 41 points tied Bobby Orr for the second most in league history behind Phil Housley’s 66-point effort in 1982-83. Dahlin’s smart two-way play has made him an immediate threat on Buffalo’s blue line and he’ll be a fixture on the team’s top pairing next year, no doubt. The Sabres haven’t given him much to work with this season and changes need to be made to the organization if Buffalo is to be a true contender anytime soon, but Dahlin is the defensive centerpiece that the club will build around for years to come.
Marcus Pettersson, Pittsburgh Penguins – 24 points
Pettersson was shipped out by the Anaheim Ducks back in December and instantly made an impact on a Pittsburgh blueline that was searching for consistency. Pairing up with Erik Gudbranson while Brian Dumoulin, Kris Letang and Chad Ruhwedel are injured, Pettersson has tallied a respectable 18 points in 55 games with the Penguins to go along with his six assists in 27 games with the Ducks earlier in the season. Pettersson, 22, is a big man who won’t wow you with dazzling offensive numbers, but he’s a reliable defender who can throw big hits and move up in the lineup in a pinch.
Filip Hronek, Detroit Red Wings – 21 points
Detroit’s back end is rather inexperienced, with the likes of Joe Hicketts, Madison Bowey and Dennis Cholowoski all playing at points this season. But Hronek, 21, has been one of the most effective offensive defensemen for the team this year, recording 21 points in just 44 games on a non-playoff team. Currently playing top minutes with veteran Niklas Kronwall, Hronek has averaged just under 20 minutes per game in recent weeks with Mike Green and Danny DeKeyser sidelined, and the Wings haven’t hesitated to put Hronek on the ice for power-play opportunities, either. Hronek has potential to be a top-four defensemen with the Wings in the long term and will provide a nice offensive kick from the blueline.
Rasmus Andersson, Calgary Flames – 19 points
It’s amazing to that in a year where the Calgary Flames have become one of the top teams in the NHL, Andersson, 22, has become a fixture of the back end. Though he has primarily played bottom-pairing minutes – his most common defense partner has been Oliver Kylington – he has had moments where he has slid up the lineup to play a more important, top-four role. Andersson has had a great start to his career after earning a spot on the roster full-time this year, posting 19 points in 78 games while bringing power, a great work ethic and smart decision making to the team’s back end.
Devon Toews, New York Islanders – 17 points
No, he’s not related to Jonathan. Yes, the Islanders blueliner is good at hockey. Toews’ run to the NHL wasn’t quick: after a three-year career with Quinnipiac University, Toews embarked on a two-year run with the AHL’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers before making the full-time jump to the NHL this season. In 46 games, Toews – playing recently on the third pairing with Scott Mayfield – has recorded five goals and 17 points, respectable numbers given the fact that he also spent 24 games in the AHL this year. Toews is a mobile defender who will have his work cut out for him if he wants to stay with the Islanders once Noah Dobson and Bode Wilde make their way to the NHL. Toews has looked sharp this season, though.
Honorable Mention: Erik Cernak (Tampa Bay Lightning, 15 points), Christian Wolanin (Ottawa Senators, 12 points), Sean Walker (Los Angeles Kings, 10 points).