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Future Watch: The top five rookies off to hot starts in 2019-20

The Calder Trophy race is in full swing, and while a few high-profile rookies have struggled in the early going, a handful of unlikely names have forced their way into the conversation.

We can't blame you if you didn't know who Sam Lafferty was before the season started.

He didn't even make the Pittsburgh Penguins out of training camp, instead starting the campaign in the AHL. He was called up to Pittsburgh on an emergency basis in the first week due to the injuries to Nick Bjugstad and Evgeni Malkin, but his role, and time spent up in the NHL, was undetermined.

But after posting five points in two games last weekend, Lafferty has seized the opportunity and given it everything he has. Not too bad for the forward who never was a big point producer in the NCAA before embarking on his pro career last year.

Lafferty, a fourth-round pick by Pittsburgh in 2014 (113th overall), might have some further staying power in the NHL, despite the production coming in such a short span. If his 49-point AHL rookie season is any indication, it's that Lafferty has untapped potential that could lead the Penguins to keep him up once the team returns to full strength. He projects to be a strong utility bottom-six forward with the Pens, and he's showing off his scoring ability at a time when top prospects Jack Hughes and Kakko Kappo are struggling to find the scoresheet themselves.

The Calder Trophy race is in full swing, and while a few high-profile rookies have stumbled in the early going, a few unlikely names have risen up into the conversation. Let's take a look at five rookies who are off to strong starts in 2019-20:

Ilya Samsonov, G, 22 (Washington)
Are Braden Holtby's days numbered in Washington? Samsonov beat out Pheonix Copley for the backup role to start the season and has outperformed Holtby early on, with Samsonov holding a 3-1-0 record and a .933 save percentage. Holtby, on the other hand, was pulled after allowing goals on all three shots he faced on Monday, giving way for Samsonov to prove himself. Holtby is a pending UFA, while Samsonov is the clear goalie of the future in Washington, but it wasn't expected to happen this quickly. Goalies always have a tough time competing for the Calder Trophy and if Holtby regains his form, then Samsonov won't be a threat for the trophy, but it's clear the future is now in Caps land.

Victor Olofsson, LW, 24 (Buffalo)
Since we wrote about Olofsson earlier this season, he has only gotten better for a new and improved Sabres team. Earlier this week, Olofsson became the first NHLer to score his first seven goals on the power play, dating back to his first two goals from last season. Of course, there's still some room to improve on the 5-on-5 side of things, but Olofsson has shown the potential to be a trusty goal-scorer. As the Sabres continue to toil near the top of the Eastern Conference, Olofsson has quickly emerged as a Calder Trophy favorite thanks to his deadly shot and chemistry on the top line with Jack Eichel. Obviously, it's a little unrealistic that he keeps up with his 82-point pace, but he's off to a fantastic start for the Sabres.

Cale Makar, D, 20 (Colorado)
Could Makar become just the fourth defenseman to win the Calder Trophy since 2000? He has lived up to the hype early on in his career, with six points in as many games, including assists in every outing but the season opener against Pittsburgh. He's still chasing his first goal, but the Avs haven't hesitated in giving Makar plenty of power-play minutes and have opted to give him heavy offensive zone starts (65.1 percent), something that isn't often offered to 20-year-old defenders. His first goal isn't far away.

Ilya Mikheyev, LW, 25 (Toronto)
Mikheyev has been an early-season phenom in Toronto, gaining fans and acclaim for his love for soup, and then maintaining his profile with stout on-ice play. Currently skating on a line with Alex Kerfoot and Kasperi Kapanen, Mikheyev, an undrafted free-agent signing this past off-season, has three goals and six points through eight games as a solid secondary scoring option for the Leafs. Mikheyev's high-flying nature has mixed in well with Kerfoot, and Mikheyev didn't miss a beat when he lined up with Mitch Marner and John Tavares against Washington, so it's good to see that coach Mike Babcock has faith in the young Russian.

Trevor Moore, RW, 24 (Toronto)
Mikheyev isn't the only Leafs rookie off to a hot start. Moore just missed the cutoff that would have made him inelgible for the Calder Trophy this season by playing 25 games in a depth role for the Leafs last year. In eight contests this season, his five points are just three shy of tying his total from 2018-19. Moore and Mikheyev hit it off in the early days of the season, and Moore has recently seen time with Tavares on Toronto's second line. The Leafs have an influx of secondary options on the wing, and Zach Hyman's eventual return could shuffle things around, but for now Moore has cemented his spot in the Leafs lineup for the long run.

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