Barring any unforeseen circumstances, you can go ahead and fill out two-thirds of your Calder Trophy ballot right about now. That’s how good Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes have been this season, as the two highest-scoring freshmen defensemen in the NHL are locked into a battle for first and second place in the rookie of the year race.
That third spot, though, seems to be up for grabs.
True, there’s still a somewhat clear-cut favorite. Buffalo Sabres rookie Victor Olofsson has managed to hold onto first place in rookie scoring – his 35 points are two more than Makar’s 33 – despite missing the past several games with a lower-body injury. But Olofsson’s grip on the third spot could be loosening with each passing contest and that he won’t be back for another few weeks at the earliest means the door has opened for another standout first-year player to earn the final Calder nod.
If Olofsson is unseated from his current spot among the Calder favorites, however, who is it that sneaks into his place? Here are five rookies who could become more than fringe candidates for the end-of-season hardware:
Martin Necas, Carolina Hurricanes
Through his first 20 games of the campaign, Necas’ four goals and 14 points put him in the conversation with the top contenders, even if slightly behind the creme de la creme of the Calder crop. Barring a four-point night that has bolstered his numbers in the 22 games he’s played following mid-November, though, Necas’ rate of production has dropped off. He went on an eight-game point drought and his up-and-down ice time has made it difficult for him to find the scoresheet with any consistency. That said, he still remains in the rookie scoring race with 25 points in 42 games.
The concern about his candidacy moving forward, however, is that Necas could lose some minutes upon the return of Justin Williams to the lineup. It’s almost certainly going to eat into the time Necas has spent on the power play. The fewer opportunities he has to put up points, the harder it’s going to be for Necas to claw his way back into real Calder contention, too. But the one thing his early season and four-point-game production indicated is that Necas can score in bunches. A few big games and he’s right back in the thick of things.
Dominik Kubalik, Chicago Blackhawks
Given that Olofsson’s absence has allowed Kubalik to overtake the Sabres winger for the rookie goal-scoring lead and that Kubalik is currently the only freshman on pace to find the back of the net 30 times this season, the Blackhawks winger seems the likeliest candidate to slip into the third spot in Calder voting. Entering action Thursday, he’s also only four points back of Hughes for third in rookie scoring and his 28 points put him in line to finish the campaign with 48 points.
But can Kubalik climb even higher? His recent promotion onto a unit with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane certainly won’t hurt, of course, and it also won’t hurt Kubalik’s case that he finds himself on something of a heater in recent weeks. Since Dec. 19, the Blackhawks have played 13 games, and Kubalik has posted a remarkable 10 goals and 15 points over that span. Three of those tallies, it should be noted, are game-winning goals and all but one of those points have been at even strength. He’s gaining the trust of the Blackhawks’ coaching staff in the absence of Brandon Saad, and the top-six minutes have been a boon to Kubalik’s production.
Elvis Merzlikins, Columbus Blue Jackets
He might be the darkest of the dark horse candidates, but we can’t count Merzlikins out, at least not after Jordan Binnington’s miraculous half-season performance that led to the St. Louis Blues keeper finishing second in Calder voting. With Joonas Korpisalo sidelined, Merzlikins has been thrust into the No. 1 role in Columbus since New Year’s Eve, during which time he has posted a 6-2-0 record and incredible .950 save percentage and 1.64 goals-against average marks. Those are among the best numbers of any goaltender with three or more games played over that span, and Merzlikins now finds himself with a .921 SP, 2.53 GAA and 6-6-4 record on the season.
In order to get into the Calder conversation, of course, he’s going to need to build upon those numbers, cling to the crease even upon Korpisalo’s return and help guide Columbus, a team most expected to be a playoff outsider, to the dance. If his recent play is any indication, there’s a chance Merzlikins can do exactly that and, in doing so, sneak into the third spot in voting.
Nick Suzuki, Montreal Canadiens
Kubalik’s recent performance is what’s vaulted him into the conversation, but it should be said that Suzuki has been as good and quite possibly better than his Blackhawks freshman counterpart over the past dozen or so games. Yes, Kubalik has put the points on the board, but Suzuki’s not far behind with 12 points in his past 14 games and 27 points on the season. Suzuki has unquestionably been leaned on harder than Kubalik, too, due to the injury situation in Montreal. Suzuki has slid into a consistent top-six role over the past month, averaging nearly 18 minutes per game over that same 14-game sample. That includes three games with 20-plus minutes.
In order for Suzuki to slip ahead of Olofsson or Kubalik in voting – Makar and Hughes are incredibly likely to finish one-two – the Canadiens pivot will need to continue to score as he has in recent weeks. Given the additional ice time and that help isn’t necessarily on the way, he’ll be in the right situation to make that happen.
John Marino, Pittsburgh Penguins
I’ll let you in on a little secret: when colleague Matt Larkin compiled his mid-season awards, Makar, Hughes and Olofsson received all but one Calder vote, but there was one stray vote for Marino. I cast that vote. And the thinking was that Olofsson is sidelined for several weeks, so mid-season leader or not, he’s likely to slip in the race for the top rookie honors, which opens the door for the next-most likely candidate. To me, that’s Marino.
But why? While he doesn’t have 30-plus points like either Hughes or Makar, Marino does have four goals and 23 points in 44 games and his average ice time (20:22) is only a hair behind the Avalanche defender (20:40) for third in the league. But it’s what Marino has done when on the ice that matters most. He’s helped stabilize a blueline that many saw as the Penguins’ greatest weakness, and is posting a 5-on-5 relative goals percentage that ranks 64th (1.86) and relative expected goals for percentage (2.64) that ranks 42nd among all defenders with at least 500 minutes played. Both put him ahead of Makar but behind Hughes. Marino has been excellent.
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