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Five rookies who aren’t getting enough attention this season

The trio of Patrik Laine, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner have had a firm grip on the rookie scoring race, but they shouldn’t be the only freshmen you pay attention to down the stretch.

Patrik Laine moved into a tie for first place in rookie goal scoring Tuesday night, wiring home his 23rd tally of the season, and now sits tied atop the rookie scoring lead with 41 points in 45 games. That he sits along Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner is fitting, because there’s a fair chance that by the time the season comes to a close, that’ll be the trio of finalists for the Calder Trophy.

As we’ve written before around these parts, the Calder race could theoretically be one of the tightest of all-time if Laine keeps up his scoring pace and pull away from the pack by the time the season ends or should he start a goal scoring run that puts him in the mid-40s by the time the campaign comes to a close.

But Laine’s scoring paired with the incredible play of Matthews and the somewhat unexpected production of Marner in his rookie campaign has overshadowed what has been an excellent rookie crop. Throughout the league, there are at least a dozen rookies who will at least get some consideration from voters when it comes to the Calder, and here are five players not named Matthews, Marner or Laine that you should keep an eye on the rest of the way.

Zach Werenski, Columbus Blue Jackets

Calder afterthought isn’t exactly how one would describe Werenski, but the play of the top three scorers has made some forget about everything Werenski has done for the Blue Jackets this season. Part of that has to do with location — as in, the three top scorers are in Canada and two are in Toronto — and there’s also the matter of Matthews and Laine being top two picks battling it out blow for blow.

If Marner’s points aren’t enough to impress voters, though, Werenski should be a near lock for a finalist spot. He won’t turn 20 until the off-season and already he’s become a top four blueliner for an NHL club in contention for a division title in the toughest grouping in the league. Some would say we could have seen it coming with his five-goal, 14-point post-season performance with the Calder Cup champion Lake Erie Monsters, but even the biggest Werenski believers couldn't have predicted just how good he'd be at the NHL level.

Werenski not making the Metropolitan all-star team was an oversight, especially with Seth Jones going in his place. Werenski not only leads all rookie defenders in scoring, he’s tied for third among all freshman. As far as the league is concerned, Werenski is a top-10 scorer among all blueliners in both goals and points. The Blue Jackets have a young core, and Werenski has the future looking awfully bright.

William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs

It’d sure be something if the Maple Leafs could have a clean sweep of Calder finalists. If anyone is capable of turning it on and making that a reality, Nylander might be the one. Most would have expected that it would be he, not Marner, who was right alongside Matthews in the rookie scoring race, but Nylander hasn’t seen near the minutes of his Maple Leafs teammates and his production hasn’t been in quite the same category.

Nylander has game-breaking ability, though. Take his rookie AHL campaign. Nylander scored at a torrid 1.18 points per game pace, netting 18 goals and 45 points in 38 games with the Toronto Marlies. He slowed in the post-season, but he still added another seven goals and 14 points in his first taste of the playoffs at the professional level.

No one’s cheering for an injury, but a knock to someone in the Maple Leafs’ top six could result in Nylander earning himself a spot higher in the lineup. If that comes to pass and he catches fire, he could get himself right back in the points race and a solid second half could vault him into the Calder conversation, especially if he contributes as Toronto earns a playoff berth.

Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes

A hat trick on Tuesday night put Aho into sole possession of third among all rookie goal scorers with 15 tallies, and he sits seventh overall with 30 points. Not only that, but he trails only Jeff Skinner and Victor Rask in scoring on the entire Hurricanes roster. At just 19, there’s a lot for the Hurricanes to be excited about. He was the 18th-ranked prospect in THN’s 2016 Future Watch issue, but he’s proven he was deserving of top-10 spot with his play this season.

When it comes to Aho, the one difficulty he's faced is some inconsistency in his ice time. That’s starting to move in the right direction, however. From the start of December onward, Aho has averaged 16:40 per game and he’s come through with 12 goals and 19 points over that 27-game span. That he’s getting more opportunity stands to help him put more points on the board. One aspect of Aho’s game that has been especially impressive is his ability to find the net. He ranks 11th in average ice time, but only Skinner and defenseman Justin Faulk have put more pucks on net.

The Hurricanes have slowly been building towards playoff contention through the draft and some savvy salary cap maneuvering, and Aho serves to be one of the pieces that puts the team over the top in their chase to get back into the post-season.

Matthew Tkachuk, Calgary Flames

He’s not posting huge numbers, but Tkachuk is making his mark as the type of pesky player that other teams hate to play against. He’s far and away the rookie leader in penalty minutes, but he’s paired that with nine goals and 31 points in 48 games. That’s good for fourth in rookie scoring, and his 22 assists rank behind only Marner and Werenski.

Like Aho, Tkachuk has had a tough time finding consistent minutes, but that almost makes his scoring all the more impressive. He’s only averaging 14:17, and if he were up the lineup further, there’s almost no doubt he’d find himself that much closer to the top of the heap in terms of scoring. 

The one place Tkachuk has found a fit, though, is on the Flames’ power play. Tkachuk has spent much of the season manning the second unit, but he’s made the most of his opportunities. Tkachuk has 10 points with the man advantage, three of which are goals, and the only Flames who’ve been more productive up a man are Mark Giordano and Mikael Backlund.

Tkachuk could probably use some work on his defensive game, but that’ll come with time. And when he gets there, he could be one of the players who stars when the Battle of Alberta really starts to heat up again.

Anthony Mantha, Detroit Red Wings

Mantha’s journey to the NHL had to have been a frustrating one. A stud in major junior, Mantha came to the Red Wings’ AHL club, the Grand Rapids Griffins, in 2014-15 and had a solid year for a pro rookie with 15 goals and 33 points in 62 games. That he didn’t get so much as a sniff of the Detroit lineup in his rookie year isn't altogether shocking given the Red Wings’ dedication to development. 

However, when he followed that up with a 21-goal, 45-point 2015-16 campaign that saw him get into 10 games in Detroit, the thought was he’d be a near lock for the lineup come 2016-17. That wasn’t the case. Instead, he started the season in Grand Rapids and it took a month for him to get the call back up. He’s not going anywhere now, though.

In his 35 games, Mantha has buried 11 goals and 23 points, ranks seventh on the Red Wings in scoring, boasts the third-best points per game rate on the club and is on pace for a 20-goal, 40-point rookie year. He’s also getting a good chance at success in Detroit, too, skating nearly 17 minutes per game.

As far as the five rookies listed above, Mantha has the most outside of outside shot at actually winning the Calder, but his potential rise up the rookie scoring ranks will be something to watch.

Honorable mentions: 

Ivan Provorov, Philadelphia Flyers: Had some tough outings to start the season, but has found his game as a top-four defender in Philadelphia.

Nikita Zaitsev, Toronto Maple Leafs: The Maple Leafs had high hopes, but even they couldn’t have expected Zaitsev to be a top-pairing defenseman so soon.

Brandon Carlo, Boston Bruins: Boston might miss Dougie Hamilton still, but Carlo is doing his best to make the Bruins faithful forget.

Matt Murray, Pittsburgh Penguins: Already has the Stanley Cup on his resume and has been solid for the Penguins again this season.

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