Be it injuries, slumps or simply levelling off of offensive totals, a lot can happen over the course of 66 games. That’s why, despite Elias Pettersson’s absolutely stunning 10-goal, 16-point performance through his first 10 NHL contests, it would be unwise to assert that we already know who’s going to win the Calder Trophy.
Sure, the Vancouver Canucks rookie is the frontrunner and the disparity between his play — and his hype — and that of the rest of the rookie class looks less like a gap and more like a chasm, but any number of things could happen to level the playing field in the coming months. His eye-popping 35.7 shooting percentage could come crashing down to earth, the Canucks’ offense could hit a dry spell as a whole or another short hot streak from another freshman could see the race tighten.
Need proof? Well, at this time last season, Clayton Keller was leading the rookie scoring race by four points, his 11 goals were nearly double that of any other freshman and some people — admittedly, very foolish people — were openly wondering whether anyone was going be able to catch Keller in the Calder Trophy race. Turns out that by season’s end, not only was Keller no longer leading the rookie scoring race, he trailed eventual Calder winner Mat Barzal by 20 points. Barzal captured all but four first place votes for the rookie of the year honor and had more than three-times the vote count of Keller. The Arizona Coyotes newcomer was passed by Canucks freshman Brock Boeser, as well, and Keller wound up third in the Calder race.
That’s to say that while betting odds, were you to get them today, might look something like Pettersson against the entire rookie field, there are still a number of first-year players who could play their way into the Calder conversation or, at the very least, pop up on the radar. So, who are 10 rookies you should be keeping an eye on?
Maxime Comtois, Anaheim Ducks
Few players forced their organization’s hand quite like Comtois. Not projected to even sniff the big league lineup this season, the 19-year-old managed to make the cut out of camp in large part thanks to a string of injuries that limited Anaheim’s options. Comtois made his chances count, though, and after goals in back-to-back games to start the season proceeded to add five assists in his next nine games while playing limited minutes. Of course, because this is the Ducks and Anaheim has been bitten hard and often by the injury bug this season, Comtois suffered a lower-body and has been sidelined for two weeks.
It appears Comtois is nearing a return, though, and he could slot right back into the bottom-six role he was holding down prior to landing on the shelf. He’s probably not going to end up in the mix for the rookie scoring crown, but Comtois has certainly been worth the attention.
Rasmus Dahlin, Buffalo Sabres
At least through the first month of the season, Dahlin’s rookie campaign has been completely overshadowed by Pettersson’s performance despite boatloads of hype surrounding the Swedish blueliner. The thing is the 18-year-old has actually been quiet good for the Sabres, even if he has been a bit quieter than most expected. Offensively, maybe his totals haven’t matched those of other first-year defensemen quite yet — he has one goal and five points in 15 games — but he’s bringing all of his best attributes to the Buffalo blueline. He’s the smooth-skating, puck-distributing defender that he was projected to be.
In order for Dahlin to really get into the rookie race, though, he’s going to need to see an uptick in production, which might come along with an uptick in ice time. He’s got all the tools and he’s going to put them together sooner or later.
Casey Mittelstadt, Buffalo Sabres
Look, it would have been easy to write Mittelstadt’s season off when he had a single point, an assist, through the first nine games of the season after being projected as the Sabres’ second-line center. There were signs of Phil Housley’s waning faith in Mittelstadt, too, with his ice time closer to fourth-line minutes than anything that even resembled a top-six pivot. But while the ice time average still points to a player who’s not quite cracking the top six — he’s at 13:47 over his past six games — the offense has started to come along with Mittelstadt scoring two goals and four points over the same span.
What gives us reason to believe Mittelstadt, 19, can see continued offensive success is that he’s not all that far removed from a five-point performance in a six-game look with the Sabres to end last season. That gives him 10 points in 21 big league games, and Mittelstadt might only be getting started.
Henri Jokiharju, Chicago Blackhawks
The Blackhawks’ thin blueline needed reinforcements, that much was true, but the belief was that thrusting Jokiharju into the big league might be too much, too soon for the 19-year-old. When the season began, though, Jokiharju was thrown into the fire alongside Blackhawks mainstay Duncan Keith and given the opportunity to sink or swim. And while Chicago, as a whole, has its defensive issues and Jokiharju has had some growing pains, he’s acquitted himself quite well.
In fact, in his first three games, Jokiharju was off to a white-hot start with five assists. He’s continued to contribute at all strengths, too, adding to his point total with another three helpers, and in his past five games, Jokiharju has averaged upwards of 23 minutes per game. A coaching change in Chicago could alter Jokiharju’s role, but Jeremy Colliton could also choose to double down on the youngster given his steady performance.
Miro Heiskanen, Dallas Stars
Heiskanen’s can’t help but remind one of Charlie McAvoy last season. Did McAvoy put up gargantuan point totals? Not quite. Did he finish in the top three in Calder voting? No, sir. But McAvoy was arguably the most complete rookie in the NHL last season, sound at both ends of the ice and was able to make a massive impact on a nightly basis. The same could be said about Heiskanen, too, through the early part of the campaign. Offensively, he’s chipped in with two goals and six points in 15 games, and he’s seen time on both the power play and penalty kill. And when it comes to ice time, no other rookie comes close.
In fact, at 22:08, Heiskanen, 19, has more than 30 seconds than the rookie with the next-highest average ice time, and only Esa Lindell and John Klingberg have logged heavier minutes in Dallas. If his ice time holds, it would be among the 15 highest for a rookie blueliner in the post-lockout era.
Dennis Cholowski, Detroit Red Wings
The Red Wings were in desperate need of defensive help entering the campaign, which opened up spots on the blueline for a few rookies, including Filip Hronek, Joe Hicketts and Libor Sulak. The only freshman defender who has been a regular, though, is Cholowski, and calling him simply a “regular” might be selling him short. Twice this season, Cholowski’s ice time has come close to the 25-minute mark and his 20:41 ice time average puts him second among all Red Wings this season.
Cholowski isn’t just playing, though. He’s contributing. While it might speak a bit to the sorry state of affairs in Detroit, Cholowski’s two goals and eight points put him into a tie for third among all Red Wings. Only Gustav Nyquist and Dylan Larkin have found the scoresheet more often than the 20-year-old rearguard.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Montreal Canadiens
We’re not going to go out on a limb and say there’s no chance the Canadiens don’t decide to send Kotkaniemi back to Finland — Montreal has burnt a year of his entry-level deal, but they can still hold onto his restricted free agent rights for an additional season if he’s sent back before mid-season — but it sure seems as though the 18-year-old rookie is in the NHL to stay. While he’s had an up-and-down season in terms of ice time, with a high of 16:04 and low of 11:24, Kotkaniemi has consistently found the scoresheet and his play hasn’t raised any major red flags.
There’s definitely room for improvement in a few areas, of course, and Claude Julien hasn’t been keen on throwing Kotkaniemi tough zone starts, but sheltering him while letting him find his legs with the big club might be the best bet for the young gun’s development.
Brett Howden, New York Rangers
At the time of the Rangers’ deadline swap with the Lightning, one which sent Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller to Tampa Bay, the cornerstones of the deal appeared to be Vladislav Namestnikov and the two high draft picks, a 2018 first-rounder and 2019 conditional second-rounder that could become a first. But Namestnikov has slowed down significantly in the Big Apple while Howden, a surprise addition to the big club out of camp, has been excellent.
With three goals and nine points in 14 games, Howden, 20, is second in rookie scoring and his ice time is steadily increasing. At this rate, he could be a fixture on the second line by season’s end. An injury Sunday may force him out of a game or two, but if he can get back and maintain his scoring pace, he could be a 40-some point player by year’s end.
Brady Tkachuk, Ottawa Senators
Given Tkachuk has only played four games, and given he’s been sidelined for the better part of the past month, it’s easy to forget just how impressive he had been out of the gate for the Senators. In four games, he scored three goals and six points and was easily the most entertaining part of tuning into an Ottawa game in the first two weeks of the season. And for a team desperate for some good news, there is some when it comes to Tkachuk: the 19-year-old is projected to be back in the Senators’ lineup by the end of the week.
Obviously, Tkachuk isn’t going to keep scoring at a 1.5 points per game clip for the remainder of the season. That borders on impossible for even the most elite talents in the NHL. But if he can come back and contribute at even half that rate for the remainder of the season, Tkachuk might be the most obvious challenger to Pettersson.
Colin White, Ottawa Senators
A thin stable of talent in Ottawa has resulted in additional opportunities for young Senators, and that includes White, 21, who spent the 2017-18 campaign bouncing between the NHL and the AHL. His performance with the Belleville Senators — 11 goals, 27 points in 47 games — offered glimpses of what he could contribute with the big club, and he’s made good on some of that potential in the early going in Ottawa. Through 15 games, he has five goals and nine points, which puts him sixth in team scoring.
Most promising for White, however, is that he’s really getting a chance to showcase his ability. Previously, he had been saddled with a steady dose of fourth-line minutes, and in recent outings, that hasn’t quite been the case. His average ice time is 15:30 across his past eight games, and that includes a season-high 17:37 in a late-October game against the Boston Bruins.
Oskar Lindblom, Philadelphia Flyers
Last season’s 23-game look with the big club kept Lindblom under the necessary cut off for the award last season, but his performance this campaign as a by-the-book rookie may be one of the most underrated in the NHL through the first month of the season. He’s really one of the best kept secrets in the league right now. In 15 games, Lindblom’s four-goal, eight-point output puts in a four-way tie for fourth in freshman scoring, and while he’s not necessarily a top-line player, he’s seeing his role increase and has been skating alongside Nolan Patrick and Jakub Voracek in recent outings.
The most impressive thing about Lindblom, though? He’s been an effective play driver. He’s taken a heavier slant of defensive zone starts but boasts a positive possession rate, and that’s a sign that the 22-year-old is doing the little things right.