The New York Islanders’ Mathew Barzal, Vancouver Canucks’ Brock Boeser and Arizona Coyotes’ Clayton Keller were announced as finalists for the Calder Trophy on Sunday, though some would call the announcement more of a formality than anything.
You see, despite Boeser and Keller having excellent seasons, Barzal pieced together one of the best rookie campaigns in recent memory, up there with players who have gone on to become perennial all-stars and Hart Trophy candidates. And with that kind of production — Barzal finished 20 points clear of the next-best rookie scorer — it’s likely to be a landslide Calder victory for the Islanders’ slick skating playmaker.
However, in the interest of laying out the cases for each of the rookies in the same we have other award nominees, here’s what has made each of the three Calder contenders finalists for the award:
THE CASE FOR BARZAL
Where do you want to start? With Barzal’s 22 goals? With his 85 points? His better than point per game scoring as a second-line center on one of the most offensively gifted outfits in the NHL? There are countless reasons why this is Barzal’s award to lose. Maybe most impressive, though, is the company Barzal now keeps in terms of rookie production. That alone could — and probably should — win him the award.
Entering this season, there were only four players in the post-lockout era who had scored more than one point per game while playing more than half a campaign. That list wasn’t just star-studded, either, it was superstar-studded, including Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and, most recently, Connor McDavid. And while no few are about to doubt McDavid would have gone 82-for-82 had he played the full season, the fact that Barzal remained healthy all season allowed him to skip ahead of the Edmonton Oilers’ phenom and into a category alongside the trio of Ovechkin, Crosby and Malkin as one of only four rookies in the post-lockout NHL to score at least 85 points in a season.
For those keeping track of these things, too, it should be noted that Ovechkin and Malkin were indeed Calder winners after their brilliant freshman campaigns. Crosby missed out because, well, he was up against Ovechkin, who scored 52 goals and 106 points, and McDavid finished third in voting despite being sidelined for nearly half a season.
So, yeah, Barzal should be standing on stage in June to accept the Calder. That’s the smart money.
THE CASE FOR BOESER
There were high hopes for Boeser to start the season, so it was surprising to see him start the campaign watching from the press box. By the third night of the season, though, Boeser was front and center in the Canucks’ offense and it didn’t take long for him to become Vancouver’s great hope for the future. He started on a four-game point streak, had a hat trick in his 10th game and turned out to be one of the brightest rookie snipers the league has seen in some time. Despite missing one-quarter of the season, he finished second in rookie goal scoring — only six freshmen in the post-lockout era have scored at a higher goals per game rate — and fifth in points.
But if you really want to make a case for Boeser as the league’s top rookie, some consideration has to go to how important he was to the Canucks’ offense. With Boeser in the lineup, Vancouver scored 2.79 goals per game. Without him, that dipped to 2.25 goals per game. And when you look at the percentage of offense for which Boeser was responsible, it makes sense that the Canucks saw such a precipitous dip in scoring once he was sidelined.
When Boeser was healthy, he accounted for 16.8 percent of all goals Vancouver scored. He also registered a primary point on nearly one-quarter of every single Canucks goal and, all told, had a point of some variety on 31.8 percent of the 173 goals Vancouver scored with a healthy Boeser in the lineup. By comparison, Barzal accounted for 8.4 percent of the Islanders’ goals, had a primary point on 21.8 percent of all scoring and finished with a point of any variety on 32.6 percent of the total New York offense. By those metrics, the gap between the two is awfully small.
THE CASE FOR KELLER
Keller was the early favorite for the Calder with good reason. Right out of the gate, Keller found himself on the Coyotes’ top line and across the first 16 games of the season, it appeared as though the rookie of the year honor was his to lose. He had 11 goals, 17 points and was skating ice time that was commensurate with other star wingers.
But just as it looked like Keller was going to run away with the award, Arizona’s youngster started to slide and slide fairly hard. Over his next 37 games, Keller scored just three goals — yes, three — and registered 19 points. So, as Barzal and Boeser started to run away with the rookie scoring lead, Keller came back to the pack.
So, why is he in the running for the Calder? Well, a late run took care of that for Keller. Across his final 29 games, Keller found his touch again and scored nine goals and 29 points to close out the season, bringing his point total to 65 on the year. That was good enough to put him into second spot among freshmen scorers. He did have another feather in his cap, too, when it came to responsibility: no rookie forward saw more ice time than Keller, who averaged 18:05 per outing in Arizona.
WHO GOT SNUBBED?
For the second straight season, Winnipeg Jets faithful watched as a rookie scorer blasted home at least 30 goals. The difference this time, though, is that Kyle Connor isn’t going to be up for the Calder when the awards show rolls around in Vegas. It’s a shame, too, because the case could be made that he was deserving of a third-place finish (presumably ahead of Keller).
Consider his case quickly: 31 goals, the most of any rookie, and 57 points, good enough for fourth among freshmen. Bette yet, Connor accounted for 15.9 percent of Winnipeg’s totals goals in the 76 games he played, only Boeser had a higher rate of primary points in the games he played and Connor finished fourth in points-to-team goals at 29.2 percent. The case is there for him. Playing with Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler for much of the year may have hurt his case in the eyes of some, though.
Simply by the scoring table, it’s also safe to say some Tampa Bay Lightning fans will feel Yanni Gourde was overlooked, though that may be because of age more than anything. Gourde has several years of pro experience in North America, and despite his 25-goal, 64-point season, the feeling might have been that his years in the AHL put him slightly behind other members of the high-scoring rookie class. The same can’t be said of Nico Hischier, however, who stepped into a top-six role immediately out of the draft and turned in a solid season for the Devils. He was second in scoring in New Jersey and played an integral role in the Devils returning the post-season.
Some will also feel the Chicago Blackhawks’ Alex DeBrincat, Columbus Blue Jackets’ Pierre-Luc Dubois or Boston Bruins’ tandem of Danton Heinen and Jake DeBrusk were overlooked. Each has his case — DeBrincat had the 25th-highest goals per 60 rate at 5-on-5, for instance, and Dubois’ two-way play was remarkable in the second half of the campaign — but they fell just short.
What will be most interesting to see, though, is where Charlie McAvoy finished in voting. The Bruins rookie rearguard was phenomenal, scoring seven goals and 32 points in 63 games, all the while skating 22:09 minutes per night — that’s the 14th-highest average ice time for a rookie in the post-lockout era. He was a possession monster and he blossomed early as Zdeno Chara’s protege on the Boston blueline. But missing roughly a quarter of the campaign seemd to irreparably damage his case for Calder, even if he did see more action than Boeser.
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