Before the 2015-16 NHL season began, most experts thought the battle for the Calder Trophy would be a two-horse race between Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. What a difference two months makes. The top two picks from the 2015 draft have had varying degrees of success, but another crop of under-the-radar rookies have really stepped forward and made the award race interesting to watch.
The field is now so wide open that it’s becoming complicated. Does prior experience matter? Does a teenager get more credit for a great season than a 20-something first-timer? Is it simply a matter of points? Does playing on a good team help or hinder? It’s only December and these questions have all been asked.
In the first edition of the THN.com Roundtable, we debate who will, or should, win the NHL’s rookie-of-the-year award.
Max Domi, LW, Arizona Coyotes
If we’re talking about maximum impact on a team, let’s look at Max Domi. To me, his contributions warrant him the Calder. Not only is he the leading scorer on the Coyotes (23 points in 28 games), but his speed (along with Anthony Duclair) gives the team a new, excitingly brisk pace. Keep in mind, most of us thought Arizona would be one of the worst teams in the NHL this year, but they’ve been in and out of a playoff spot all year. If they had better goaltending, they’d be on easy street and Domi has been one of the biggest factors. He’s four years younger than Artemi Panarin, doesn’t play with Patrick Kane and is still only five points behind the Russian rookie. For me, Domi is a perfect candidate to win it all. (Ryan Kennedy)
Shayne Gostisbehere, D, Philadelphia Flyers
The rest of the class had a one-month head start on Shayne Gostisbehere in the race for the Calder Trophy, but ‘The Ghost’ is starting to creep up on people. The undersized defenseman, by NHL standards, is already fourth in scoring among rookie defensemen despite having played far fewer games than the three players ahead of him. And of his four goals, Gostisbehere certainly knows when to make his mark. Two of his goals were the first goal of the game and two of them have come in overtime.
Gostisbehere is making a name for himself as a dynamic puck mover with a great head for the game and the ability to run a power play. He’s already become a fan favorite in Philadelphia. And remember, this award doesn’t go to the best teenager in the NHL, it goes to the best first-year player. Just because he’s 22 and has a little more life experience than Max Domi, Jack Eichel or Connor McDavid, that doesn’t take into account that he missed most of last season with a knee injury.
It will be interesting to see how Gostisbehere holds up. He hasn’t played more than 42 games a season in any of the past five. But if he keeps up this pace, he could hear Calder calling by the end of the season. (Ken Campbell)
Artemi Panarin, LW, Chicago Blackhawks
Artemi Panarin’s signing flew under the radar for the Blackhawks. Reason being Panarin signed in the midst of the post-season and that was only weeks before a Chicago Stanley Cup victory. Then his acquisition was overshadowed by the trades of franchise cornerstones Patrick Sharp and Brandon Saad. Panarin has been nothing short outstanding for Chicago, though, and is leading all rookies in scoring with nine goals and 28 points in 28 games. Some will point to his age or his experience as reasons he shouldn’t win the Calder Trophy — he’s 24 and played three seasons in the KHL prior to joining the Blackhawks — but Panarin’s ability to adjust and excel in the North American game makes him the clear-cut leader for rookie of the year honors. (Jared Clinton)
Connor McDavid, C, Edmonton Oilers
No matter how many games he ends up playing, based on his early play, few will be able to deny that Connor McDavid was the best rookie on the ice this year. Numbers always get in the way, but if it comes down to an eye-ball test of points, there’s still a case to be made. The last five forwards to win the Calder did so with an average of 56.2 points. McDavid had 12 points in 13 games, 0.92 points per game. But in his last eight games before the injury he was playing at a 1.37 points per game pace. Rookie scoring leader Artemi Panarin is right at a point per game (28 in 28), Max Domi is second at 0.82 (23 in 28). Let’s say, for arguments sake, McDavid returns to the Oilers’ lineup on January 10 after missing 30 games. If he plays the rest of the season at a point-per-game pace, or better, he could still end up with 60+ points. And any additional boost he gives the Oilers in the standings would be icing on the cake. Here’s hoping he returns soon and leaves no doubt. (Ian Denomme)
Dylan Larkin, C, Detroit Red Wings
LARKIN. Dylan Larkin. Ah, feels good to see those surnames together. I have to show some bias toward my faux-bloodline. Seriously, though, Larkin outplayed Jack Eichel at the world juniors last year despite considerably less fanfare and has done it again this season. Larkin plays with discipline and grit in all three zone and is on pace to top 30 goals as a teenager. I’d bet my (minuscule) life savings he succeeds Henrik Zetterberg as captain someday. I don’t see the Jonathan Toews comparisons as hyperbole. Everything about Larkin screams “winner.” He’s already a franchise pillar. (Matt Larkin)