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NHL rookie race opens up after DeBrincat’s hat trick, Connor’s three-point night

Mathew Barzal, Brock Boeser and Clayton Keller are still your rookie scoring leaders, but the rest of the freshman class isn't going away quietly.

Last week, over a stretch of four days, the title of Leading Rookie Scorer changed hands three times. First, Mathew Barzal took the throne. Then it was Clayton Keller reclaiming top spot. Shortly thereafter, Brock Boeser propelled himself to No. 1 in rookie scoring. And the three successive changes atop the rookie points lead prompted us to proclaim that the rookie race would go down to the wire with three players, Barzal, Keller and Boeser, battling it out night after night for the Calder Trophy crown.

We’re not ready to state otherwise just yet. After all, Barzal, Boeser and Keller are still 1-2-3 in scoring, in that order, with the former two players, members of the New York Islanders and Vancouver Canucks, respectively, continuing to put up points at a staggering pace even while the latter, their Arizona Coyotes counterpart, has slowed somewhat in recent outings. 

Barzal, for instance, is on a six-game tear over which time he has notched three goals and nine points, and his current hot streak is part of a run of 18 games that has seen Barzal blast home six goals and 23 points. Putting up points at his current rate has also allowed Barzal to stake an even greater claim to his place among the top two lines for the Islanders. 

Boeser, currently the next-best rookie scorer in the league, has been similarly streaking for the Canucks. His six-game scoring streak recently came to an end in an outing against the New York Rangers, but over his scoring run he potted six goals and eight points while emerging as possibly the greatest pure goal-scoring threat on the Vancouver roster. Boeser’s 11 goals are tied for the most of any rookie and he’s scoring at more than a half-goal-per-game rate.

Which brings us to Keller, who has managed no goals and just three points in his past 10 games, but has all the while maintained his standing as one of the top threats in Arizona. He continues to skate on the top line, averaging upwards of 18:30 per game over his past 10 outings, and remains the top goal- and point-producer for the Coyotes. He’s the only skater in Arizona with more than 10 goals and the only played with 20 points. The next-best scorer? All-star defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who has 17 points. Keller is even outscoring the Coyotes’ big off-season acquisition, Derek Stepan, by five points.

The amazing thing about this season’s crop of rookies, though, is that even with Barzal, Boeser and Keller as the clear-cut top three candidates right now, there’s no shortage of rookies who could make the race even more interesting. Truth be told, over the past month, several other freshmen have been making their case. So, who are the outsiders who could close the gap and potentially overtake the early Calder Trophy leaders?

Charlie McAvoy, Boston Bruins

There’s a lot to love about McAvoy’s game and he’s already becoming a standout in Boston. Zdeno Chara is the only Bruins blueliner averaging more ice time and Torey Krug is the only rearguard in Boston with more points. McAvoy has everything a team could want in a young defenseman. But is it going to be enough to propel him into the Calder conversation?

The difficulty for McAvoy is that it’s awfully difficult to stand out as a top-tier Calder candidate as a defenseman in a year with so many high-scoring rookie forwards. McAvoy is producing rather well, though, and his two goals and 11 points have him on pace to complete the campaign with seven goals and 41 points. That’s fewer goals but more points than Aaron Ekblad scored when he won the Calder in 2014-15, but the difference is Ekblad was an 18-year-old. This is technically McAvoy’s 20-year-old campaign, as he’s less than a month from leaving his teens.

If McAvoy continues to score and picks up his point pace, however, he should earn far more consideration than he has thus far. He seems to be the forgotten man in the Calder race, but his defensive prowess and point production from the back end at such a young age is as impressive as any freshman performance to this point.

Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks

It’s right there in the headline: DeBrincat potted his first career hat trick Monday night and, with it, became one of only three rookies with at least 10 goals this campaign. Most of those have come in recent weeks, too. After scoring one goal in his first 11 games, DeBrincat has picked up nine in his past 11 outings along with three helpers for a total of 12 points in November. The only freshmen with more points this month are Barzal and Boeser, so that puts DeBrincat in some good company.

The reason to watch DeBrincat isn’t just that he’s producing, though. Over his past several outings, he’s simply looked more dangerous with the puck on his stick, more confident in his offensive ability. That’s a scary thought for opposing defenders, too, because the soon-to-be 20-year-old winger was basically the physical embodiment of goal-scoring in the OHL. He scored 116 goals in 123 games over the past two seasons with the Erie Otters, making his current 36-goal pace as a rookie seem not all that far-fetched.

If DeBrincat can continue to score as he has and sees his opportunities increase at even strength and on the power play, there’s no reason to doubt he could battle Boeser and Keller for the rookie goal-scoring lead.

Alexander Kerfoot, Colorado Avalanche

Kerfoot is a curious case. On the night of the Matt Duchene trade, the Avalanche moved Kerfoot into a top-six role and it looked like that might be his place to stay for the foreseeable future. After all, he potted two goals that evening in nearly 21 minutes of work. It was arguably his best game of the season. The next two games, though, Kerfoot’s ice time dipped down into the 15-minute range and that’s where it has stayed for the past two weeks.

Offensively, Kerfoot, 23, hasn’t had the out-and-out success of some other rookies — he has 15 points in 22 games — and he’s stuck in a four-game drought, but he has potential to do so much more as the season wears on, particularly if coach Jared Bednar takes the chains off and allows Kerfoot even more ice time. It was evident during Kerfoot’s run of four goals and nine points across the first seven games in November that the offensive talent is there. Now, it’s simply a matter of finding a way to tap into that all season long. 

If Colorado falls out of the playoff race, maybe Kerfoot gets a better opportunity and starts piling up the points. And if he can stay at least close to the top of the pack, he could steal away some Calder votes.

Jesper Bratt, New Jersey Devils

The Devils have a trio of rookies who are in the Calder conversation, but let’s start with the least publicized of the three: Bratt. An early season scoring surge saw Bratt post three goals and six points in his first three games, which was then followed by a five-game scoring slump and then another of two goals and six points in five games. The streaky scoring has persisted, too, as Bratt has gone a few games without a point, then put up one or two before another drought. Scoring like that is going to make it difficult for Bratt to really stick around atop the rookie scoring race, and, as such, in the Calder conversation.

What also hurts Bratt’s candidacy, though, is that few are going to regard him as the best rookie on his own team. Those comparisons, as much as anything, could be what rob him of a few extra votes, no matter the place. Is anyone going to select Bratt over, say, Nico Hischier? Tough to see that happening, especially with the role Hischier took on to start the season and the fact the two are neck-and-neck in scoring. The best bet for Bratt is to pull away in the scoring race, but that’s far easier said than done.

Will Butcher, New Jersey Devils

If the Calder was handed out in the first couple weeks of the season, it would've been impossible to ignore what Butcher had done. In his first six games, he had three multi-assist games and a total of nine helpers to his name while helping power a surprising Devils offense and an even more surprising New Jersey team. It’s not as if Butcher has even really slowed all that much, either. It’s just the forward group that he’s competing with is scoring at a pace that has overshadowed Butcher’s accomplishments.

That said, after 24 games, Butcher, 22, has two goals and 18 points, putting him fifth in rookie scoring. He’s averaging 0.75 points per game, which is incredibly impressive. Butcher would finish the season with seven goals and 62 points were he to keep this up for 82 games, making him the highest-scoring rookie defender since Brian Leetch notched 71 points in 198-89.

If there’s one knock against Butcher’s candidacy, though, it’s his ice time, though his average has gone up as the season has worn on. He averaged of 15:23 over his first dozen games, but is up to 16:45 over the past dozen. Add in the scoring and he could be right in the mix.

Nico Hischier, New Jersey Devils

Given that he’s only months removed from being selected first overall by the Devils, Hischier has a certain clout that few other rookies possess. That said, performance matters, which is why you won’t find No. 2 overall pick Nolan Patrick on this list. Hischier certainly has performed, too. Taking on top-six minutes for the Devils, the 18-year-old has been excellent, and his five goals and 18 points are proof positive that he was more than ready to make the leap to the big leagues. Only linemate Taylor Hall has more points among the Devils forwards.

Hischier’s November performance has been quite impressive. Across the 14 games the Devils have played this month, Hischier has registered three goals and 11 points, contributing at both even strength and on the power play. He seems to be improving with each passing game, as well, and if that continues, he could find himself right up alongside Barzal, Boeser and Keller in scoring in short order.

The one thing you have to give Hischier, too, is that he’s part of the rejuvenation of a franchise. His impact has that little bit extra to it because he’s helped New Jersey become relevant again. And while each rookie has contributed in their own way, if Hischier is among the Devils' leading scorers in a year in which they return to the post-season, it might earn him a few extra votes. 

Mikhail Sergachev, Tampa Bay Lightning

Calder candidacy, as you may have noticed, is much harder to figure out for defensemen than forwards. It’s why it’s tough to figure out where McAvoy and Butcher stand. Sergachev is no different, either.

On one hand, Sergachev has been brilliant as an offensive rearguard, piling up five goals and 15 points in 23 games for a high-powered Lightning club. Like Butcher, were Sergachev to keep this up, he’d find himself in some rare company. His current 18-goal, 54-point pace would give him more goals than any rookie since Dion Phaneuf’s 20-goal debut in 2005-06 and 54 points would be the most since Nicklas Lidstrom’s 60-point rookie season in 1991-92.

On the other, Sergachev has been incredibly sheltered. He’s averaging just 14:17 per night, though that seems to be slowly increasing as the season progresses, and Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper has ensured the 19-year-old won’t be exposed to tough defensive minutes. In fact, aging Detroit Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall is the only blueliner who has played as many minutes as Sergachev to have as heavy a slant of offensive-zone starts. Voters might take that into consideration.

Kyle Connor, Winnipeg Jets

After starting the season in the AHL, where he scored three goals and five points in four games, Connor earned a chance to showcase himself in the NHL. Suffice to say, he’s made the most of his opportunity and is quickly putting himself into the Calder conversation.

Consider this: Connor is the only top-10 scorer among rookies to have played fewer than 21 games — he’s at 19 — and the only first-year players with a better points-per-game rate than Connor are Boeser and Barzal. At 0.79 points per game, which he reached Monday with a three-point effort against the Minnesota Wild, Connor has surpassed Keller in that category, even if he hasn’t quite caught up to the Coyotes rookie’s point total. Connor’s current rate of production would actually put him on pace for 28 goals and 60 points in 77 games. That would be only four fewer points than Patrik Laine scored last season, albeit in four more games.

What Connor really has going for him, though, is that he’s found a fit alongside Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele in Winnipeg’s top-six. The 20-year-old’s 17:52 per game is the second-most among all rookie forwards and he’s getting quality ice time alongside two of the league’s top-10 scorers. That’s a recipe for success, and while he’s not quite in the same category as Barzal, Boeser and Keller yet, he could be hot on their tail by the time we reach mid-season.

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