Until the votes are in and calculated, there's no such thing as a sure thing when it comes to the end-of-year awards. That said, it seems a near certainty that New York Islanders rookie Mathew Barzal will be handed the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie when the NHL congregates in Las Vegas to tie a bow on the 2017-18 campaign by handing out the final pieces of hardware.
Barzal’s numbers speak volumes about the type of season he has had. While he ranks fifth among rookies with 18 goals to his name, his 69 points put him 14 clear of the next-best freshman scorer following Monday's action. And given there are 17 games remaining in the Islanders’ season, Barzal has the opportunity to become the first rookie since Evgeni Malkin to break the 80-point barrier and, by doing so, he would become one of only five freshmen in the post-lockout era to average more than a point per game while playing more than half a season. That group presently includes Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Connor McDavid, so Barzal would be in good company, to be sure.
However, there was a possibility — albeit slim — that Barzal could have been overtaken in the Calder race at some point in the final five weeks of the campaign. On the opposite coast, Vancouver Canucks rookie Brock Boeser has been piecing together a dream freshman season of his own. Through 61 games, Boeser had accumulated 29 goals and 55 points, putting him on pace to become only the fifth rookie in the post-lockout era to score 35-plus goals in his debut season. Previously, only Crosby, Ovechkin, Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine had seen the same level of sniping success in their debut season, and Boeser’s pursuit of a potential 40-goal campaign had some of the Calder spotlight shining on him.
Unfortunately, the complexion of the Calder race was almost surely altered Monday night. During Boeser’s 62nd game — a tilt against Barzal’s Islanders, no less — the 21-year-old suffered what could potentially be a season-ending injury when he crashed into a partially opened bench gate. Boeser immediately grabbed at his back after the nasty collision, was taken to hospital for precautionary reasons and was later reported to have suffered “a soft-tissue injury and a small non-structural, non-displaced fracture of the transverse process in his lower back.” The injury will sideline him four-to-six weeks.
Boeser’s injury wasn’t the only knock that stands to alter the Calder race, however. Over the weekend, Boston Bruins rookie rearguard Charlie McAvoy suffered a lower-body injury which has since been diagnosed as an MCL sprain that will keep him out of action for four weeks.
Even though a cursory glance at the rookie scoring standings wouldn't suggest that McAvoy is in the running for the Calder, there may not be a better dark horse candidate. His seven goals, 32 points and 0.54 points per game ranks 24th, 12th and 11th among all rookies, respectively, while he led all freshmen defenders in scoring despite playing five fewer games than the next-highest scoring blueliner. But it’s his excellence for his age that really made him a worthwhile Calder candidate. It's generally accepted that young defenseman need time to develop, yet McAvoy has played a first-pairing role in Boston this season. He’s skating upwards of 22 minutes per game, which is the 50th-highest ice time among all defensemen in the league and second-most — behind Zdeno Chara but ahead of Torey Krug — among Bruins rearguards.
The four-week layoff undoubtedly damages McAvoy's chances of stealing some top-tier Calder votes, though. Add that to Boeser’s injury and two players who possessed potential to make the Calder race close might not even end up as finalists. It does, however, open the door for some other freshmen to make their respective cases and potentially earn tickets to Las Vegas as finalists for rookie of year.
Among the most likely to overtake either injured player is Tampa Bay Lightning rookie Yanni Gourde. An early contender, Gourde has hung around the race all season and continues to fly under the radar as one of the more impressive freshmen this season. Of course, he's going to garner a bit more attention after winning NHL rookie-of-the-month honors for February with five goals and 16 points in 14 games. That was simply the continuation of what he has achieved all season, though, as Gourde is tied for second among rookies with 22 goals and sits third in freshman scoring with 50 points. The only knock against Gourde is the age-old age debate. He’s been a pro for five full seasons and turned 26 in December. By definition he's a rookie, but some won't see him in the same light as other first-year players.
So, if that’s the case, what of other high-scoring rookies such as the Arizona Coyotes’ Clayton Keller, New Jersey Devils’ Nico Hischier, Winnipeg Jets’ Kyle Connor and Chicago Blackhawks’ Alex DeBrincat? That freshman quartet rounds out the group of rookies with more than 40 points as of Tuesday morning and each has a case.
Keller might have the best argument for a Calder nod among those 40-49 point rookies. Some may have cooled big-time on the Coyotes youngster, though, particularly given he was so hot early and has been relatively cold since. But it is worth noting that, among rookies, he has factored in on the third-highest percentage of his team’s total goals and he has a primary point on more than 20 percent of Arizona’s offense. The only rookie with a higher percentage in the latter is Boeser. Keller has been the lifeblood of the Arizona offense, which is a hefty responsibility for any first-year forward.
As for Connor and DeBrincat, the Calder case is somewhat similar. Both have 22 goals — tied with Gourde for second among rookies — and have shown flashes of being future offensive stars. Connor has scored at a slightly better per-game rate, but DeBrincat holds the edge in impact. He has scored 11.8 percent of the Blackhawks’ goals this season, with points on 21.4 percent and primary points on 17.7 percent. Those marks rank second, fifth and fourth among freshmen, respectively. Connor, on the other hand, sits fourth, 10th and seventh in the respective categories with marks of 10.1 percent, 18.8 percent and 14.7 percent.
Rounding out the group is Hischier, but his Calder contention at this point might on hinge on nothing more than a late hot streak. The 2017 draft’s first overall selection has been good, no doubt, but his 13 goals put him into a tie for 10th among rookies, while he sits knotted with DeBrincat and Connor for fifth with 41 points. But if you break down the percentages, Hischier rates 11th, fourth and sixth in the aforementioned categories. No top-three marks makes it hard to fathom him overtaking DeBrincat or Connor, especially with both holding a sizable edge in goals.
The final outside shot belongs to Mikhail Sergachev, who at one point looked to have the potential to blast his way into the Calder conversation. But as the Lightning blueliner’s offense slowed, his chances of sneaking away with the rookie-of-the-year honors diminished. A late charge could do wonders, however, particularly with McAvoy out. He does have just one fewer point than the Boston defender. However, given his limited ice time, it would take a Shayne-Gostisbehere-circa-2016-17 style charge for Sergachev to really re-enter the Calder conversation.
Most realistically, though, the biggest fallout from the injuries to Boeser and McAvoy is that Barzal’s case only stands to get stronger and his margin of victory greater. And if it’s Barzal who heats up to end the campaign and flirts with 90 points, there exists the possibility of the first clean sweep of first-place votes since Teemu Selanne dominated the 1992-93 Calder voting.
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.