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Five rookies who could crowd the Calder picture in the second half

Brock Boeser and Mathew Barzal were the mid-season favorites for the Calder Trophy, but they won't be able to run away with the end-of-season hardware if these five rookies have their say.

It wasn’t until late-October that Danton Heinen found his way into the Boston Bruins’ lineup. Sure, he had a brief look — three games in the second week of the season — but a full roster necessitated another trip down to Providence for Heinen as mid-month rolled around, and there was no certainty when he’d get a chance to rejoin the Bruins. Given his three-point performance across those early season outings, though, he was destined to get another shot. And when David Krejci went down with an injury as the opening month came to a close, it was Heinen got the call.

When he hit the ice for the Oct. 26 contest, with the Bruins pitted against the San Jose Sharks, Heinen did so with very little hype. As much as he had produced for the P-Bruins, and he had one goal and eight points in four games, it wasn’t as though anyone expected the 22-year-old to jump up to the big club and be a dominant offensive force. So, when he chipped in two goals on two shots in little more than eight minutes of work, it was a welcome surprise. To say visions of Calder Trophy contention were dancing around in the heads of Bruins fans wouldn’t be true, though. After all, prior to his two-goal outing, Heinen was six goals and seven points back of then-runaway rookie scoring leader Clayton Keller.

But a funny thing has happened over the past several weeks in Boston. As the Bruins have climbed up the Eastern Conference standings on the backs of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak and goaltender Tuukka Rask, Heinen has emerged as one of their most lethal weapons. In fact, he’s been one of the most consistent scorers in the league since his re-debut on Oct. 26, posting 10 goals and 27 points in 33 games since returning to the big club. That puts Heinen into a tie for 58th in league scoring over that span, not too far behind the likes of Jamie Benn, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Artemi Panarin.

And when it comes to the rookie race, Heinen has also managed to start raising some eyebrows and garner some attention. After starting several points back of Keller, Heinen has risen into a tie for fourth in rookie scoring — only three points back of the Arizona Coyotes freshman — and has the third-best points per game rate among rookies to go along with a role on the power play and penalty kill in Boston. And with the way the Bruins are performing and the rate at which Heinen is scoring, there’s no reason to believe he can’t start to press currently slumping Vancouver Canucks rookie Brock Boeser, who has only one goal and two points in his past six games, and New York Islanders freshman standout Mat Barzal for the rookie scoring lead.

Heinen isn’t the only fresh face who is starting to really push for Calder consideration as the second half begins, however. Here are four other first-year players who could contend with the Boesers, Kellers and Barzals of the rookie class if they continue playing the way they have:

Yanni Gourde, Tampa Bay Lightning

The Lightning have a frontrunner for the Art Ross, Rocket Richard and Hart Trophies in Nikita Kucherov. They have an excellent Norris Trophy candidate in Victor Hedman, even with his recent injury. Andrei Vasilevskiy has continued to make his case and is almost assuredly the present favorite for the Vezina Trophy. And, hey, given Tampa Bay’s dominance, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to see Jon Cooper in the running for the Jack Adams Award. So, you know, why not also give the Lightning — who already have a stellar rookie in rearguard Mikhail Sergachev — a second shot at adding the Calder at season’s end?

Gourde definitely has played his way into the conversation, too. In the early season, when he was up near the league scoring leaders, the assumption was he’d eventually come down to earth. He hadn’t really done all that much in prior looks in the NHL as it was. But it turns out there’s a consistency to Gourde’s game and Cooper has found the right fit for him in the lineup. With 14 goals and 30 points, Gourde is tied for fourth in the two major scoring categories, and he’s playing a consistent role. The only thing possibly holding Goudre back is his age. At 26, he’d be the oldest rookie of the bunch.

Kyle Connor, Winnipeg Jets

Some may have considered Connor a Calder contender ahead of the season, but most likely saw him as a player on the periphery of the race — close, but not quite among the best the class would have to offer. He’s quickly changed that perception, though, and it can’t be stressed enough how well he has fit in the Winnipeg lineup. He doesn’t look even the slightest bit out of place on the Jets’ top line and it’s not as though he’s had many hiccups along the way. Even when center Mark Scheifele fell injured, coach Paul Maurice saw fit to keep Connor on the top line alongside Blake Wheeler. And the rookie has rewarded the bench boss with continued production.

Statistically, Connor isn’t yet in the top five among rookie scorers, sitting just outside the group with 15 goals and 28 points. What could turn the tide for Connor, though, is that he’s seemingly improving with each passing game and he could see an uptick in production once Scheifele returns. It should also be noted that few rookie forwards are being relied upon as much as Connor. His 17:24 average ice time is second among freshman forwards.

Pierre-Luc Dubois, Columbus Blue Jackets

There’s no better example of a rookie finding his game this season. Just look at Dubois’ numbers. In his first 20 games, he had two goals and four points while playing a fourth-line role for the Blue Jackets. Thankfully, he showed enough in those minutes to stick around with the big club, because as the second-quarter of the campaign opened, coach John Tortorella experimented with Dubois moving up the lineup and unlocked a fantastic rookie performance. In his new role as a top-six pivot, Dubois has eight goals and 18 points in 26 games while skating nearly 19 minutes per night. It’s a tale of two seasons for the youngster.

Here’s the thing, though: Dubois has been great while the Blue Jackets’ offense has not. Thus, scoring in bunches has been difficult, especially on a team that boasts an almost inconceivably ineffective power play — Columbus has converted on a mere 13.5 percent of their chances with the man advantage. But if Dubois continues to get more ice time, and he’s over 20 minutes in seven of his past nine games, he’ll be given every opportunity to pick up his own scoring and that of the Blue Jackets. And the further he drives up the scoring race, the better his chances at being a Calder finalist, at the very least.

Charlie McAvoy, Boston Bruins

No defenseman up for the award this season is going to have the type of tangible success that usually decides the Calder winner, which is to say McAvoy isn’t going to finish in the top five in scoring, nor is he all that likely to finish in the top 10. As it stands, he’s tied for 14th among rookies, but it would only take one or two big games for a few freshmen forwards to surpass what McAvoy is able to produce as a defenseman. But here’s where McAvoy can gain some votes where others won’t be able to: his impact on the game.

As the season has worn on, McAvoy has proven time and again that he is capable of playing and succeeding against the opposition’s top line while playing massive minutes. Other than Zdeno Chara, no Bruins defenseman has faced a tougher quality of competition and McAvoy’s possession numbers have been brilliant given his competition. When it comes to other rookies, specifically, no player can claim to have had such a presence, either. Behind McAvoy, who has averaged nearly 23 minutes per game, the next-most utilized rookie skater is Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Robert Hagg. He hasn’t quite skated 19 minutes per game.

Statistically, McAvoy isn’t the most enticing Calder pick. But if the award is given to the best rookie based on overall play, there’s a serious conversation to be had about McAvoy.

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