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Get ready for three-horse rookie race as Boeser, Barzal, Keller battle for freshman scoring lead

After the NHL rookie scoring lead changed hands for the third time in four nights, we might need to prepare for a photo finish in the Calder Trophy race.

How tight is this season’s NHL rookie race? Well, look at it this way: over the past four nights, the scoring lead — and quite possibly the favorite for the Calder Trophy — has changed hands three different times. 

The rapid-fire changes began Sunday night in Carolina. In the midst of an incredible stretch of play, New York Islanders youngster Mathew Barzal took over the freshman scoring lead when he registered his 19th point of the season. But Barzal’s time atop the leaderboard was short-lived, as Monday night in Toronto, Clayton Keller fired back. The Arizona Coyotes standout picked up two assists against the Maple Leafs and pushed his point total to 20, one more than Barzal at the time, and reclaimed No. 1 in rookie scoring, a spot he has held almost from the outset of the season. After Wednesday night’s game in Pittsburgh, though, Barzal and Keller both found themselves trailing, this time to Vancouver Canucks sniper Brock Boeser. On a white-hot scoring streak, with goals in three straight games, Boeser found twine twice and pushed his point total to 21 to reach the head of the class. 

So, with Boeser taking over, it sure looks like we’ve got ourselves as good a three-horse race for top rookie as we’ve seen in years.

We’ve come to understand over the past several seasons that one of the best indicators of who's leading in the chase for the Calder Trophy is the scoring race among the first-year pros. Reason being is that, generally speaking, the player who finishes as the highest-scoring freshman ends up taking home the hardware. In the past seven seasons, that has rung especially true. From Auston Matthews to Artemi Panarin and Gabriel Landeskog and Jeff Skinner, six of the past seven Calders have gone to the rookie who has led their class in scoring. The lone exception in the past seven seasons is blueliner Aaron Ekblad, whose 2014-15 victory was built on impressive numbers and a mountain of minutes at a position where teenage players tend not to excel.

As one might expect, though, the correlation between leading scorer and Calder winner exists most when it’s a forward who wins the award. Over the past 20 years, the Calder has been awarded to a forward 13 times and only once was the forward not the top scorer. (That distinction belongs to Chris Drury in 1998-99, but it should be noted he was the only rookie with both 20 goals and 40 points that season.) And it seems like a race between the best rookie forwards to the top of the scoring register could be what decides the Calder this year.

Early on, and as recently as this week, there was no reason to believe that the top spot in rookie scoring wouldn’t belong to Keller. After all, he had been consistent in his scoring and his impact on a struggling Coyotes attack was remarkable. He broke out to an early lead in the rookie goal-scoring race, was shooting the lights out when he got his chances and has been Arizona’s leading scorer from the start. None of this is to mention he’s also playing big minutes for the Coyotes, and the opportunity he was being given offered him the chance to find the scoresheet more often than his rookie counterparts.

All of that, however, was before Barzal took off. After five games, he had yet to find the scoresheet, but there are few players in the league who’ve been on a tear better than Barzal since mid-October. Over his past 16 games, he’s scored five goals and 20 points, including a monster five-assist outing that saw him shoot up among the rookie scoring leaders. Like Keller, Barzal has also earned himself a greater role. He started the season skating about 15 minutes per game, but he’s since averaging nearly 17 minutes per outing and flourishing in a top-six role.

Which brings us to Boeser, who has had the most meteoric rise given how his campaign started. In the Canucks’ first two games, Boeser literally didn’t see the ice. He was scratched, forced to watch from the press box. Since getting into his first game of the season, though, Boeser has done nothing but drive the offense. He registered at least a point in each of his first four games, had nine points in his first eight games and has collected 11 goals and 21 points across the 19 games he’s seen this season. He leads the Canucks in both scoring categories and he’s only getting more opportunity as he continues to produce.

Maybe the most remarkable thing about all three rookies, though, is that they’re all better or close to point-per-game players at the quarter mark of the campaign. Boeser leads the way with 1.11 points per game, Barzal ranks second at 0.95 points per game and Keller, the early leader, now trails with 0.83 points per game. If those rates were to continue, all three would produce some incredible totals. Boeser, for instance, would finish with 46 goals and 88 points, the most goals and points by a rookie since Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby duelled in 2005-06. Barzal, meanwhile, would finish with 59 assists, the second-most by a rookie since Crosby’s freshman campaign. As for Keller, he’s on pace to match the totals that led Matthews to the Calder last season.

None of this is to say there are no other candidates outside of Boeser, Barzal and Keller, of course, but, through the first quarter of the campaign, there’s no forward who has quite yet shown the offensive impact of the aforementioned trio, nor a defender or goaltender who checks the boxes necessary. Take New Jersey Devils defenseman Will Butcher. He’s produced a stellar point total, but he lacks the ice time and responsibility that would make him stand above the rest of the class. The same goes for Tampa Bay Lightning rearguard Mikhail Sergachev. Charlie McAvoy, on the other hand, has shown the latter without the former in his short time with the Boston Bruins. His 23-plus minutes per night leads all rookies — and is 31st among all NHL defensemen — but he doesn’t yet have the points to rate with the high-scoring trio. In goal, Charlie Lindgren is the only rookie who could truly be considered for Calder, but he’s on borrowed time as Carey Price heads towards a return to the Montreal Canadiens.

If the award is going to go to a forward, though, recent history has shown us it’s most likely going to be handed to the one who leads the league in rookie scoring. And if the past week has taught us anything, it’s that we might not have a clear-cut frontrunner in this three-horse race until the final game of the campaign.

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