The NHL rookie race is looking more and more like a two-kid competition as Vancouver Canucks sniper Brock Boeser and New York Islanders dazzler Mathew Barzal have started to pull away from the pack. There’s a still a long way to go, however, with about one-third of the season left to be played, so don’t count out the likes of Yanni Gourde, Clayton Keller or Charlie McAvoy quite yet.
The top 10 Calder Trophy candidates so far this season? Well, since you asked:
1. Brock Boeser, Vancouver Canucks
He’s leading all rookies in goals, with a half-dozen more than the next young guy, and he ranks in the NHL’s top 10 overall. Boeser also leads NHL freshmen in power play goals, power play points and shots. He’s third in average ice time among rookie forwards, which isn’t bad for a guy who started the season as a healthy scratch in Vancouver’s first two games. He’s gone from the bench to a beacon of hope for the Canucks’ future. Bottom line, he’s a big shooter with great hair. What more do you want?
2. Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders
He’s pacing the kids in points, thanks in part to the rare rookie feat of
a pair of (updated) three five-point games. A superb skater, puckhandler and playmaker, he can fly through the neutral zone and he’s a dynamo in the offensive end. As you’d expect, he’s a force on the power play, but Barzal’s 5-on-5 production shouldn’t be overlooked – he’s nearly 10 points up on the next-best rookie in even-strength scoring. He’s got 10 more assists than the second-most generous rookie, too. He’ll probably have to win the rookie scoring race to beat out Boeser for the Calder Trophy, but that’s a definite possibility given his point-per-game pace.
3. Yanni Gourde, Tampa Bay Lightning
He was never drafted, he’s too small (5-foot-9, 172 pounds), and, for a rookie, he’s too old. Well, almost. Gourde turned 26 in December, beating the NHL’s rookie eligibility deadline by three months. Ever so quietly, he has climbed into third place in freshman scoring – and he’s second only to Boeser with 20 goals, including five game-winners, which is tied with Lightning teammate Mikhail Sergachev for the most among first-year players. Gourde kills penalties and he’s lapping the rookie field with a plus-24 rating. The fact he was able to crack a loaded Lightning lineup is a great story in itself; that he’s clawed his way into the Calder conversation is a testament to his perseverance and all-around game.
4. Clayton Keller, Arizona Coyotes
The early favorite after he started with a bang, putting up 11 goals and 17 points in his first 16 games, Keller has fallen off the pace with just four goals and 20 points in his past 38 outings. Like Gourde, he’s undersized (5-foot-10, 170 pounds); unlike Gourde, he arrived in the NHL with a pedigree (drafted seventh overall in 2016) and he’s still a teenager (he doesn’t turn 20 until July). He leads NHL rookie forwards in ice time, playing more than 18 minutes per game, which is a reflection of his top-end talent as well as the talent-thin Coyotes. Suffice to say, as an Arizona first-liner he’s facing tougher matchups than most of his sheltered rookie brethren. As his plus/minus sinks into the minus-20s, the Calder is getting further away, but he might turn out to be the most exciting offensive player of this rookie class in a few years’ time.
5. Danton Heinen, Boston Bruins
He has been overshadowed in Boston by the play of another Bruins rookie, defenseman Charlie McAvoy, but McAvoy’s recent health-related absence (see below) shifted the spotlight to Heinen. He’s been a steady producer since the start of the season, working his way up the list into fourth overall in rookie scoring. The 116th overall pick in the 2014 draft, Heinen flashed his offensive upside with two prolific NCAA seasons at Denver before putting up 44 points in 64 games as an AHL rookie last year. He’s produced at every level and, so far, he’s been able to do it in the NHL, too.
6. Charlie McAvoy, Boston Bruins
It’s shaping up to be an impressive rookie class, and McAvoy might turn out to be the best of the bunch. A two-way defenseman who can rush the puck, quarterback the power play, take care of business in his own end and log big minutes night after night? Yes, please. Zdeno Chara won’t play forever (well, probably not) and McAvoy looks like he’s ready to take over as Boston’s No. 1 defenseman whenever required. McAvoy missed four games after undergoing a procedure for an irregular heartbeat in January. Doctors are hopeful that the health issue has been resolved, so that’s great news. McAvoy would be a leading Calder candidate and a shoo-in finalist if not for the two weeks on the sidelines – and he’s still a good bet to be nominated.
7. Kyle Connor, Winnipeg Jets
Winnipeg has been a hot spot for high-end rookie forwards the past few years – from Mark Scheifele to Nikolaj Ehlers to Patrik Laine – and Connor is the latest example. He has all kinds of speed, but didn’t break out as anticipated last year, and then was returned to the AHL at the start of this season. Once he got the NHL call a couple weeks into the campaign, however, Connor stepped onto one of the Jets’ top lines and he hasn’t looked back. He’s vying for the non-Boeser rookie goal lead with 17 in 48 games, and he’s third in even-strength points among first-year players.
8. Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks
The Blackhawks wanted him to infuse some offense into a roster that had undergone its annual hollowing out due to salary cap constraints, and DeBrincat has delivered. The 5-foot-7, 165-pound former OHL scoring whiz has potted a pair of hat tricks on his way to 19 goals (and 34 points) in 54 games. DeBrincat isn’t cutting any corners, either, as he’s tied for fourth among NHL freshmen in even-strength points (27).
9. Mikhail Sergachev, Tampa Bay Lightning
Yes, the 19-year-old defenseman is being brought along slowly in Tampa Bay, playing less than 16 minutes per game while receiving favorable matchups and zone starts. But give the kid some credit, he’s making the most of his opportunity. Sergachev is tied with New Jersey Devils’ Will Butcher for the most points among rookie defensemen (29), and he leads all freshmen blueliners in goals (eight), game-winning goals (five) and shots (97). He’s 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds and still a teenager. Move over, McAvoy, you’ve got some competition for best rookie defenseman of 2017-18.
10. Nico Hischier, New Jersey Devils
You can’t have a top-10 list of the NHL’s best rookies this season without the presence of the Devils. Hischier is the pick here, though Butcher and Jesper Bratt also deserve recognition (and Blake Coleman has performed commendably in a depth role, too). Hischier, of course, was the No. 1 overall draft pick last June, and a preseason injury to Travis Zajac pressed the Swiss teen into top-line duty right out of the gate. Given the green light to showcase his speed and elite skill, Hischier quickly developed chemistry with Taylor Hall, helping New Jersey emerge as a surprising playoff contender in the East. Even if they don’t make the post-season, this year has already been a big success as the Devils have been able to fast-track the franchise’s rebuild. Hischier deserves the credit as much as any other player on the roster.