The question I’ve been asked most this summer: “Who will win the Calder Trophy?”
Our readers and my fellow pundits seem particularly fascinated with the 2017-18 rookie class. That’s an ironic sentiment for what, on paper, is the least fascinating field in years.
But that’s just it. No one knows what to expect. The 2015 draft yielded Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. The 2016 draft gave us Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine. The 2017 draft class provided some talented kids at the top in Nico Hischier and Nolan Patrick, but their ceilings aren’t nearly as high. There’s a decent chance the league’s best rookies in 2017-18 are older kids drafted before 2017. Who are the top candidates? Keep an eye on these 10 names. But remember, some of them could wind up not making their teams this year. Think of the list as “best chance to win the Calder – if they do make the team.”
1. Clayton Keller, C, Arizona Coyotes
The Derek Stepan acquisition doesn’t scare me away nor does the presence of Dylan Strome or Christian Dvorak in Arizona. You can’t keep Keller’s shifty, dynamic talent down. Whether he ends up playing center or gets shoehorned into a wing spot this year to ensure he plays on a scoring line, Keller should get a major opportunity. He has the upside to become a Patrick-Kane-like scorer. He’s my pick to lead rookies in points this season and win the Calder. That said, in a relatively modest year for freshmen, I see something like 55 points pacing the class.
2. Charlie McAvoy, D, Boston Bruins
That the Bruins could toss McAvoy right into playoff action to make his NHL debut on a pair with Zdeno Chara says a lot about how much they need and value McAvoy. He’s a gifted offensive player and a real leader, too. His coach at Boston University, David Quinn, told me everyone on the team worshipped McAvoy. He has a bright NHL future and has the poise and swagger to handle big minutes and pressure right away. He’s my pick to lead all rookies in ice time.
3. Nico Hischier, C, New Jersey Devils
The bigger, stronger Patrick was deemed the more NHL-ready draft prospect by most scouts, but Hischier possesses the niftier offensive skill set and landed on a team that needs him more right away. Patrick will have a tough time cracking Philly’s top two lines, whereas Hischier could realistically start the year centering the Devils’ top line with Taylor Hall riding shotgun. It’ll depend on what Hischier shows in camp and the pre-season.
4. Joel Eriksson Ek, C, Minnesota Wild
There’s no more polished rookie in 2017-18 than Eriksson Ek, a two-way center who was good enough to amass seven points in 15 games last year. He spent most of the year back in Sweden because Minnesota wanted him to play more minutes. With Erik Haula and Martin Hanzal gone, Eriksson Ek has a chance to step right in as the Wild’s No. 3 center this year. Some rookie forwards have the skill sets that only allow them to play “scoring line or bust,” but not Eriksson Ek. He has nice scoring ability but can also play a defensive role. He should earn Bruce Boudreau’s trust quicker than most rookies do. He’s less of a “sexy” Calder pick than most but is probably the safest bet to finish top-five in voting.
5. Thomas Chabot, D, Ottawa Senators
Chabot isn’t a guarantee to crack the Senators this season, but Marc Methot’s departure helps. Yes, the Senators added left-shot Johnny Oduya, but he’ll be 36 when the season starts. Chabot can force the issue with a strong camp. He’s built to be a true horse on defense, capable of chewing up massive minutes while providing nice mobility and puck-moving acumen. Chabot had a monster 2016-17, winning MVP at the world juniors with Team Canada and reaching the Memorial Cup with QMJHL Saint John.
6. Nolan Patrick, C, Philadelphia Flyers
Patrick lands in a tougher situation than some of the other rookies on this list. There’s no way he unseats Claude Giroux for No. 1 center duties, and even if Sean Couturier is listed as a No. 3, his role is major and secure. He’ll play a lot. The Flyers thus don’t have to rush Patrick into a high-leverage gig right away. More concerning are Patrick’s multiple off-season abdominal surgeries, which kept him off the ice into the summer. Ideally, a teenage rookie gets to put hard work in all off-season in hopes of getting his body ready to compete against grown men in the NHL. Patrick had some of that time stolen from him.
7. Brock Boeser, RW, Vancouver Canucks
Don’t sleep on Boeser. He arrived in Vancouver late last season with NHL-ready polish, joining the Canucks after a great college career at North Dakota. Boeser scored four goals in nine games. He doesn’t have stiff competition for playing time on a rebuilding Canucks team. He’s a legit threat to lead Vancouver in goals as a rookie.
8. Mathew Barzal, C, New York Islanders
Barzal’s ceiling is as high as anyone’s on this list. He racks up points with aplomb in major junior, including 79 in 41 games with WHL Seattle last season. He’s the ideal fit to become the Isles’ No. 2 center behind John Tavares. But so far Barzal has looked physically overmatched when given tastes of the NHL. He has to show he’s matured and gotten stronger if he finally wants to stick. If he does, though, he could be a special player right away.
9. Kyle Connor, LW, Winnipeg Jets
Connor has breathtaking speed and really put it to use in the AHL after he failed to impress in 20 NHL games with the Jets last year. The demotion did Connor a lot of good and he enjoyed a nice goal-scoring spree in the second half with the Manitoba Moose. Connor immediately becomes a Calder threat if he (a) makes the Jets and especially if (b) he can unseat Mathieu Perreault for the left wing spot on Winnipeg’s second line, likely with Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler. Connor could easily score 25 goals playing with those two.
10. Alex DeBrincat, RW, Chicago Blackhawks
DeBrincat’s odds of making the veteran Hawks aren’t outstanding compared to other rookies on this list, but DeBrincat’s potential is too tantalizing not to discuss. He is just the second OHL player ever with three straight 50-goal campaigns. He’s a compact scoring wizard who skated laps around his competition, as Mitch Marner did the season prior. Chicago’s right wing depth behind Kane isn’t great with Marian Hossa gone. DeBrincat could make an immediate impact if he makes the Hawks, especially because his game reminds many of Artemi Panarin’s. DeBrincat can play either wing, too, further upping his odds of cracking the lineup.
Other Calder Trophy candidates to watch:
Julius Honka, Stars; Tyson Jost, Avalanche; Josh Ho-Sang, Islanders; Ryan Pulock, Islanders; Dylan Strome, Coyotes, Evgeny Svechnikov, Red Wings; Mikhail Sergachev, Lightning; Jakub Vrana, Capitals; Pierre-Luc Dubois, Blue Jackets; Adrian Kempe, Kings; Klim Kostin, Blues; Luke Kunin, Wild