Lost in the immediate aftermath of Andrei Svechnikov’s overtime winner against the Montreal Canadiens, in part because everyone in attendance and watching the broadcast was waiting with bated breath to see what the Hurricanes had in store for the latest Storm Surge, was that Carolina’s freshman sensation had fired himself into exclusive company.
With the goal – an extra-frame tally that was whipped between the wickets of all-world keeper Carey Price and pushed the Hurricanes one step closer to snapping a nine-season playoff drought – Svechnikov reached the 20-goal plateau, becoming one of 20 players in NHL history to find twine 20 time as an 18-year-old rookie. And the stable of talent he’s now included among is nothing to shake a stick at. Included in the class that Svechnikov joined are recent entrants Patrik Laine, Nathan MacKinnon, Jeff Skinner and Steven Stamkos, but the roster of 18-year-old 20-goal scorers also includes Sidney Crosby, Ilya Kovalchuk, Jaromir Jagr, Steve Yzerman, Dale Hawerchuk and Ron Francis. Not bad.
The thing is, though, that it's at times overlooked how much success Svechnikov, who celebrates his 19th birthday Tuesday, has had this season, because there’s been very little ink given to Carolina’s rookie sensation. Making the leap straight to the NHL this season after being selected second overall in June, Svechnikov’s impressive debut campaign has been largely overshadowed by the play of other top rookies. To wit, Vancouver Canucks rookie Elias Pettersson is considered the far-and-away frontrunner for the Calder Trophy, a shoo-in to win the award. Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, the only player picked ahead of Svechnikov, has drawn attention for his offensive output and rapid adjustment to the big-league game. Even Dallas Stars rearguard Miro Heiskanen, who has excelled in his first NHL season, has gotten more Calder love than Svechnikov.
That’s not to say Svechnikov hasn’t shone, however. Like any first-year skater, Svechnikov has had his ups and downs. He’s made his mistakes and he’s suffered through a couple rough patches, such as his eight- and nine-game scoring droughts this season. On the whole, though, Svechnikov has rarely looked out of place. Be it the physicality – would it shock you to learn he’s been credited with 115 hits? – or the offensive ability, Svechnikov has shown it all. And in recent weeks, he’s been at his best.
The overtime goal against the Canadiens, for instance? That was the second consecutive game Svechnikov had lit the lamp, and the fifth time he had dented twine over the past two weeks. Over that same span, Svechnikov has registered seven points, managed his second multi-goal effort of the season and posted his second three-point contest of the campaign. None of this to mention that Svechnikov has fit perfectly into the possession-heavy game the Hurricanes play. He has a 56.6 Corsi percentage at 5-on-5 this season, 57.5 scoring chance percentage and 52.2 goals percentage on the season. And while yes, Carolina’s coaching staff has done its best to shelter the new kid on the block at times, his 59.4 offensive zone start percentage ranks below that of Teuvo Teravainen, Sebastian Aho and Micheal Ferland. Svechnikov isn’t being babied.
Still, it’s unlikely that Svechnikov draws much Calder attention, despite his output and overall play as an 18-year-old. But disappointing as that might be, award attention and freshman success are not one and the same. The same holds true for these five other first-year skaters, who aren’t truly on the Calder radar but should earn mention among the best rookies of the 2018-19 campaign:
Dominik Kahun, Chicago Blackhawks
The Blackhawks have made a point of scouring Europe to find talent to bolster organizational depth since the dawn of the Stan Bowman era, and while Kahun doesn’t exactly rise to the Artemi Panarin level of success, the 23-year-old has made the most of limited minutes in his freshman campaign. Kahun’s 14:25 average ice time ranks sixth among forwards who have played at least 50 games in Chicago this season, and he has matched veteran center Artem Anisimov’s output. Both players have 34 points, though Anisimov holds the edge with 14 goals to Kahun’s 12 tallies.
On pace to end the season with 37 points, a budget-conscious Chicago club can chalk Kahun’s season up as a win. His standout performance at the Olympics with the silver medal-winning German side put him on the map, but his rookie performance is what will keep him there.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Montreal Canadiens
We’ll concede that Kotkaniemi has gotten some press, including a feature in The Hockey News earlier this season. He’s not oft mentioned among the top rookies this season, though, usually a second- or third-tier mention behind Pettersson, Dahlin and Heiskanen. Heck, throw St. Louis Blues goaltender Jordan Binnington in there, too. Kotkaniemi has proven GM Marc Bergevin right for making what was then considered a bold pick, though. Not only has he contributed well offensively, potting 11 goals and 33 points in 74 games, but Kotkaniemi has shown himself to be a responsible and reliable two-way player.
Case in point, while sheltered with a favorable slant of offensive zone starts, Kotkaniemi boasts a 57.7 Corsi percentage at 5-on-5 to go along with a 56.5 scoring chance percentage and 56.6 goals for percentage. If this is how he performs when he’s just getting his feet wet, Kotkaniemi has all the makings of a future cornerstone in Montreal.
Colin White, Ottawa Senators
Given it’s an abridged list that could rightfully include a dozen or so first-year players, there was a choice to make here: include Brady Tkachuk or give this spot to White. The reasoning behind White making the cut is that Tkachuk was an early Calder frontrunner and his bloodline brings with it a certain spotlight. Make no mistake, though. White has been every bit as fantastic as Tkachuk, and it is clearer now than it had been at any point prior why the Senators were so high on him after selecting him 21st overall back in 2015. In 64 games this season, the 22-year-old has 13 goals and 36 points.
In the time since Matt Duchene’s departure at the trade deadline, the only Senators forwards with a higher average ice time than White are J-G Pageau and Zack Smith. White is stepping up as a top-line center, and he’s going to be a fixture of the top-six for years to come.
Anthony Cirelli, Tampa Bay Lightning
Just when you think the well has run dry in Tampa Bay, the Lightning go out and bring another overnight sensation into the fold. A third-round pick by the Bolts in 2015, 72nd overall, Cirelli’s development has been marvellous. His standout campaign with the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch last season gave the Lightning reason to offer Cirelli a cup of coffee in the bigs. That turned into a full-time spot with the Bolts this season, and the 21-year-old has flourished, contributing 18 goals and 37 points in 77 games, good for a 19-goal, 39-point pace.
Most impressive about Cirelli’s output isn’t his base goal or point total, though. Rather, it’s his contributions as a penalty killer. On a star-studded roster, skilled role players make the difference, and Cirelli has done his part when the Lightning are down a skater. Not only has he contributed to the league’s second-ranked as the primary penalty-killing forward, but his five shorthanded goals are tied for the second most in the NHL.
Andreas Johnsson, Toronto Maple Leafs
Hard to fly under the radar in the Center of the Hockey Universe, but Johnsson’s rookie exploits have been overshadowed by the play of other, younger freshmen who belong to the same class. It’s a shame, too, because Johnsson, 24, is quite the success story.
A seventh-round pick, 202nd overall, by the Maple Leafs in 2013, no player selected later than Johnsson in his draft has been able to crack the NHL and his offensive output already eclipses all but 34 skaters taken the same year. And when measured on per-game production, Johnsson has bested all but Anthony Mantha, Bo Horvat, Elias Lindholm, Jonathan Drouin, Max Domi, Jake Guentzel, Sean Monahan, Aleksander Barkov and Nathan MacKinnon. Good company to be keeping.
If Johnsson maintains his current scoring rate through the remainder of the season, he’s set to finish the season with 22 goals and 46 points, both of which would be the second-best totals among rookies.