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NHL rookie race: Can anyone catch Clayton Keller in chase for Calder Trophy?

Clayton Keller has looked unstoppable through his first month in the NHL, but he hasn't run away with the Calder Trophy just yet.

Ahead of the 2017-18 NHL season, it was fair to suggest there was no clear-cut frontrunner for the Calder Trophy. No Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel. No Auston Matthews or Patrik Laine. In fact, despite both being near locks to make their respective NHL clubs, it was believed Nico Hischier and Nolan Patrick would be in the running for the trophy without actually taking home the hardware. 

That said, it was fairly common to hear Clayton Keller’s name mentioned among the handful of true Calder hopefuls. Keller had popped up with the Arizona Coyotes at the tail end of the 2016-17 campaign, skating in three games and registering two assists, but it was his play at the World Championship that really made him stand out. Only 18 at the time of the tournament, Keller skated big minutes for Team USA and put up five goals and seven points in eight games. Among his American teammates, only Anders Lee, Dylan Larkin and Johnny Gaudreau had more points.

It was a sign of things to come, too, and Keller hasn’t slowed in the slightest through the first month of the campaign. As of Wednesday, he’s been absolutely dynamite, scoring 11 goals and 17 points in 17 games, with only three of those points — two goals and one helper — coming on the power play. Every shift he has played, and he’s played a lot of them given Derek Stepan is the only Coyotes forward with more ice time, Keller has looked dangerous, using his speed and playmaking prowess to prove he’s more than ready for the big leagues.

So, with each passing game, it has felt as though Keller taking home the Calder is a near-certainty. After all, he’s fourth in goal-scoring among all players, behind a group that includes elite players Nikita Kucherov, Alex Ovechkin and John Tavares. But Keller winning the Calder is far from guaranteed, and there’s still a lot of season to be played. With that in mind, who might rise up and overtake him for the hardware?

Charlie McAvoy, D, Boston Bruins

Here, for your viewing, is a complete list of Bruins averaging more ice time than McAvoy: Zdeno Chara. That’s it. McAvoy impressed during the 2017 playoffs, jumping from college right into the NHL post-season fray, and he hasn’t stopped flashing moments of brilliance on the Boston blueline. His one goal and eight points put him third in scoring on the Bruins and third among rookie rearguards league-wide. It’s unlikely that McAvoy wins the Calder based on pure points alone, but if we take an Aaron Ekblad-esque look at the rookie race, it’s hard to overlook McAvoy even now. He won’t lead all freshmen in scoring, but he could be the NHL's most impactful rookie this season.

Alexander Kerfoot, C, Colorado Avalanche

The Harvard product didn’t come to the Avalanche with outsized expectations this season, but he was certain to, at the very least, get a chance to shine in Colorado. And, while he’s been far from a top-line pivot for the somewhat surprising Avalanche, Kerfoot has been one heck of a point producer. In 14 games, he has five goals and nine points, which includes three power play points, and he’s going to get a chance to move up the lineup now that Matt Duchene has moved on. How did he do in his first test? Well, with Duchene leaving mid-game, Kerfoot saw nearly 21 minutes, eight more than his average, and fired home two goals.

Adrian Kempe, LW, Los Angeles Kings

A lot has gone right for the Kings through the early part of the campaign. Anze Kopitar is scoring again, Dustin Brown has turned back the clock and Jonathan Quick is rebounding from a lost season with some impressive numbers. But Kempe has been one of the more impressive aspects of the early season for Los Angeles. He was given time to grow in the minors and that patience is paying off for the Kings as Kempe has potted seven goals and 11 points in 15 outings. Better yet, he’s stepping up of late. He’s found a spot in the top-six and held it for much of the past five outings.

Will Butcher, D, New Jersey Devils

Butcher was the hottest college free agent and he showed exactly why in the early going. In his first six games, he racked up nine assists, including a three-helper debut. His ice time has bounced up and down, though, as the Devils seek to shelter him as he adjusts to the pro game. He’s been most effective as a power play quaterback — New Jersey has benefitted with a 23.4-percent success rate with the man advantage — and Butcher is now up to 12 assists in 14 outings. What hurts Butcher’s case is his ice time, though. At 15:29, he’d need to be a top point-getter to really get into the Calder conversation.

Nico Hischier, C, New Jersey Devils

Only months removed from being selected first overall, Hischier is putting together a respectable start to his NHL career. He hasn’t been able to get many favorable bounces and has only two goals to his name, but his vision and playmaking ability has allowed him to notch eight assists for 10 points in his first 14 games. One has to wonder what happens to Hischier’s ice time once Travis Zajac returns, but if Hischier can consistently produce and gets more comfortable as the season wears on, he certainly has all the talent in the world to help him challenge for the rookie crown. 

Mathew Barzal, C, New York Islanders

If it was a matter of what have you done for me lately, Barzal would be the Calder frontrunner right now. Yes, Keller continues to pile up points, but Barzal has done so in bunches while absolutely dazzling with his skill. After being held without a point in his first five games, Barzal has found the scoresheet in nine of his past 10 outings with points in six straight. Included in that is a five-assist night that helped Barzal rocket up rookie scoring standings. He now sits second among NHL freshmen, three points back of Keller, with 14 points in 15 games.

Mikahil Sergachev, D, Tampa Bay Lightning

Jonathan Drouin has been exactly who the Montreal Canadiens were hoping for through the early part of the season, but so, too, has Sergachev for the Tampa Bay Lightning. In fact, he’s probably been more of an offensive threat as a rookie than anyone in Tampa Bay could've imagined. Though he’s primarily been used as a third-pairing rearguard – and second PP unit – Sergachev has made the most of every single second of ice time he’s been given, potting four goals and 12 points in 15 games. More impressive yet is that he’s a point-per-game player over his past 11 games.

Yanni Gourde, LW, Tampa Bay Lightning

He doesn’t get the press Sergachev does, nor does he get anywhere near the ink of other rookies around the league, but Gourde, who has fought his way up through the ECHL and AHL to earn his spot on the Lightning roster, has had a sneaky successful debut in Tampa Bay. In 15 games, he’s averaging top-six minutes and has slotted home four goals and nine points. He’s the fourth-oldest among qualifying rookies and set to turn 26 before season’s end, but Gourde has earned the right to get his moment in the spotlight with the way he’s performing.

Brock Boeser, RW, Vancouver Canucks

On opening night, the Canucks scratched Boeser. They did the same in the second game of the season. But in every outing since, Boeser has done nothing but show the Canucks how boneheaded a decision that was. In the 12 games he’s played, Boeser has fired home five goals — including a hat trick against the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins — and picked up 14 points, all the while earning an increasingly bigger role in the lineup. Over the past three games, he’s averaged 16:50 and had two 18-plus minute outings, up a fair amount from his seasonal average of 15:44 per game.

Kyle Connor, LW, Winnipeg Jets

By virtue of a logjam on the roster, Connor started his season in the AHL and proceeded to score three goals and five points in four games. Then, when Mathieu Perreault fell injured, Connor was given the chance to come up to the big club. And now, with Perreault inching closer to a return, the Jets will need to figure out what exactly to do because Connor is playing far too well to send him back to the minors. Skating on the top line with Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler, Connor has knocked home three goals and seven points in nine games and he’s looking better with each passing game. If he keeps this up, he could be in the conversation for Calder by season’s end.

(All statistics as of Wednesday, Nov. 8)

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