The race for the Calder Trophy could wind up being the most tantalizing thing about the 2016-17 NHL season.
Already we are seeing indications that not only will there be a handful of serious candidates for the rookie of the year award, some of these kids might even challenge for the Art Ross Trophy, awarded to the NHL’s top scorer.
Austin Matthews, the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL draft by the Toronto Maple Leafs, kicked his NHL career off in spectacular fashion with a four-goal game in his debut and through games played Oct. 27, he was tied for second in league scoring with six goals and 10 points.
Right behind him in rookie scoring was his linemate, 20-year-old William Nylander, with four goals and nine points in seven games. That also had him sitting in the NHL’s Top 10.
If that weren’t enough, the Maple Leafs have another rookie who, while not shooting the lights out, has indicated he too might be a serious threat to challenge for the Calder Trophy. Mitchell Marner, 19, has looked terrific with a capital ‘T’ in scoring a goal and six points in his first seven games. That included a three-assist effort Thursday in a 3-2 Toronto victory over the Florida Panthers.
Patrick Laine of the Winnipeg Jets, the No. 2 pick in the draft behind Matthews, demonstrated that he needed no time to become acclimatized to the NHL, scoring a goal and an assist in his first game. The 6-foot-5, 206-pound 18-year-old Finn had six goals and eight points in seven games and makes the game – especially scoring goals – look easy. Laine has a maturity about his game that takes most pros months, if not years, to acquire.
And there are others who are making wonderful first impressions. Travis Konecny of the Philadelphia Flyers had a goal and seven goals in seven games; Devin Shore of the Dallas Stars had a goal and six points in seven games while Jimmy Vesey, the much sought-after free agent center this past summer, had four goals (three more than his dad, also Jim, scored in 15 NHL games) and five points in seven games.
Defenseman Zach Werenski of the Columbus Blue Jackets made his mark with two goals and five points in six games.
The NHL desperately needs these kids to continue to flourish. For we all know that even though teams were combining for nearly six goals a game throughout the first few weeks of the season, coaches will find a way to get scoring out of the game before too long. They always do.
So on the dog days of the season, when checking once again sucks the life out of the game, hopefully all – or at least some – of these kids can continue to defy the odds and make the Calder Trophy race worth monitoring.
The funny thing about today’s youth is, most of them enter the NHL already schooled on how to play team defense, unlike the young players from previous eras. They have been taught in junior or college hockey the value of playing a 200-foot game.
And yet today’s young players are able to work magic with the puck at very high speed like few others that came before them. A youngster like Marner, for example, stood out in his first few games with the Maple Leafs because of his speed, dogged determination and creativity with the puck even though the points didn’t come at the same rate they did when he was the CHL player of the year last season.
Without getting too bubbly about a player who has yet to play 10 games in the NHL, the people that have made comparisons between Marner and a young Doug Gilmour are not that far off. Those who thought the Maple Leafs would play him nine games in the NHL and then ship him back to junior can forget about that.
Who knows, maybe this crop of rookies will succeed in making coaches change their way of thinking. Instead of sending the players home from practice and then gathering for five hours in the coaches’ offices to figure out new ways of getting scoring out of the game, they can challenge themselves to invent ways to make it easier for such amazingly skilled players to score more often. Might take a little more work for the coaches, but the rewards will be worth it.
I have been bemoaning the lack of excitement in the NHL the past few years, yet I am encouraged by the start to this season and the spectacular young players that are taking ownership of the sport.
So, three cheers for the rookies!