Members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association may have a few tough choices to make when it comes time to vote for the NHL rookie of the year.
The Calder Trophy was supposed to be a lock for Connor McDavid, the first pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft by the Edmonton Oilers, but that plan was shelved when he suffered a fractured clavicle Nov. 3. McDavid had 12 points in 13 games.
With McDavid temporarily out of the mix, our focus turns to the next wave of rookies and, even though it is still early days in the 2015-16 season, a solid second tier is emerging.
Start with left winger Artemi Panarin of the Chicago Blackhawks who was leading all freshmen in scoring with seven goals and 23 points in 22 game, and left winger Max Domi of the Arizona Coyotes who is tied for the rookie lead in goals with eight and stands second in points with 18 in 20 games. Another solid candidate is center Dylan Larkin of the Detroit Red Wings.
You never know how these things go. Other rookies such as Anthony Duclair of the Coyotes, Oscar Lindberg of the New York Rangers, Sam Bennett of the Calgary Flames and Jack Eichel of the Buffalo Sabres still have plenty of time to impress the voters.
The first complication for voters comes when McDavid makes his return. Let’s say, just for fun, McDavid comes back showing no signs of a long layoff and lights it up. Let’s say at the end of the season his points per game is significantly higher than all the other rookies. Would he merit strong consideration for the Calder even if he only plays half a season?
If McDavid is obviously the best rookie in the NHL, it seems a little unfair to penalize him for being injured.
The Calder Trophy should go to the best rookie, but that is not always the case. The most glaring example is when Wayne Gretzky was not awarded the Calder in his rookie season in 1979-80.
Gretzky tied for the scoring lead with Marcel Dionne of the Los Angeles Kings, each of them scoring 137 points. The NHL, however, said Gretzky wasn’t eligible for the rookie of the year award because he played in the World Hockey Association the season before. Never mind the fact he was only 17 years old when he started with the Indianapolis Racers before being dealt to the Edmonton Oilers.
The Calder instead went to Boston Bruins defenceman Ray Bourque, an 18-year-old who scored 17 goals and 65 points in 80 games. Bourque went on to have a Hall of Fame career of his own, but Gretzky deserved to be the NHL’s top rookie.
Another complication for voters this season, should McDavid not miraculously emerge as the obvious choice to win the Calder, is the age of the contenders. If Panarin wins the rookie scoring race by a nose over Domi, I’d be inclined to vote for Domi.
Panarin is 24 years old and played six seasons in the KHL. Domi is 20 and played the past four years with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League. For that matter, Larkin is just 19 years old.
My good pal Ken Campbell, the senior writer at The Hockey News, disagrees with my thinking. The Little Ball of Hate, as he is affectionately known, said it is about who is the best rookie – and that’s it. He said age should not enter the equation. I get his point of view, but I think there’s more to it.
When it comes time to vote for anything one often takes many things into consideration. And for me, when it is voting for the NHL’s rookie of the year, age is a significant factor. Need proof? Not long after 31-year-old Sergei Makarov was awarded the Calder Trophy in 1990, the league decided to limit eligibility to players who are under 26 by Sept. 15. So age does matter.
I can’t help but ask myself, if Panarin finishes with only a handful of points more than Domi or Larkin, but is older, more experienced and plays on a line with the league’s top scorer, Patrick Kane, is he really that much better than the other two players? Or, what if Domi/Larkin was 24 and playing on a line with Kane…on a Stanley Cup contender? Might either of them not have out-scored the rest of the rookie pack?
Age is not always the deciding factor. In 1992-93 rookie Teemu Selanne finished fifth in NHL scoring with a league-high 76 goals (tied with Alexander Mogilny of the Buffalo Sabres) and 132 points. He deserved the Calder even though he was 22 and had played three years in Finland’s best professional league before joining the NHL.
With so much yet to be determined this season, I am particularly excited about watching the Calder Trophy race unfold.