It’s best to wait until the last possible second to make realistic Calder Trophy predictions, as it’s never a given which prospects make their respective teams aside from the elite blue-chippers picked at the very top of a draft year.
With opening night of the 2019-20 NHL season here, we now know the finalized versions of every roster. A few hyped older rookies were surprising cuts from their squads, from Filip Zadina to Eeli Tolvanen, while some true peach fuzzers blew away expectations to crack their NHL parent clubs, from Ville Heinola to Rasmus Sandin.
So who has the strongest chance at the Calder? In this era of hyper-accurate scouting, the players projected to become the best get picked the highest in the draft and most commonly become the league’s next wave of stars. Since the dawn of the salary-cap era in 2005-06, 12 of the 14 Calder winners have been first-round picks, and five were first-overall picks. The award doesn’t always go to a big-time prospect jumping directly to the NHL from the draft, however. The past two winners, Elias Pettersson and Mathew Barzal, were first-round picks but were older rookies with one or more extra years of seasoning. Same goes for Jonathan Huberdeau in 2012-13 and Tyler Myers in in 2009-10. So we can’t overlook the “mature” rookies in this year’s class of Calder candidates.
Who are the best picks to win the award this season? Here are my top 10.
1. CALE MAKAR, COLORADO AVALANCHE
His puck-moving skill and all-around offensive ceiling have been compared to Erik Karlsson’s. Makar, one of the smartest, most talented blueline prospects to come around in quite some time, got a taste of NHL duty via trial by fire in the 2019 playoffs. He didn’t look out of place at all, picking up six points in 10 games. He’ll work as the primary quarterback on a Colorado power play that includes the all-world forward line of Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen, meaning Makar is set up to post a big-time point total by rookie D-man standards.
No rookie defenseman has even cleared 50 points since Vladimir Malakhov in 1992-93, but Makar has the setup to do it. He has the best chance in years with a big role on a contending team with some elite offensive players surrounding him.
2. JACK HUGHES, NEW JERSEY DEVILS
If we’re ranking the rookie class on long-term upside, Hughes has as strong a claim as anyone’s to the No. 1 spot, and it wouldn’t be remotely surprising to see him light it up from Day 1. He has a speedy, nifty skill set that tailors him beautifully to today’s NHL. He possesses the upside to win multiple scoring titles in his career. Think Patrick Kane, but a center. Still, Hughes is 5-foot-10, 170 pounds and 18 years old, so it’s possible he’ll take his lumps from time to time playing against grown men.
His team is also mid-rebuild and a long shot to make the playoffs, but that won’t dash his Calder hopes too much. Only two of the past five winners reached the post-season. Being a great rookie on a bad team comes with the territory. Chances are, the team has you because it was bad and picked you with a high draft slot.
3. KAAPO KAKKO, NEW YORK RANGERS
Of the rookie forwards, Kakko is probably the most NHL ready. His body is mature at 6-foot-3 and 199 pounds. He possesses tremendous puck control and general hockey awareness. He fits the “mature beyond his years” cliché.
“He can play with the puck, he can beat you 1-on-1, he can take hits, he can give hits, and he’s like a man already,” said Kalle Kaskinen, Kakko’s Finnish League coach with TPS, when we spoke just before the draft last year.
What keeps Kakko behind Makar and Hughes is situation. Pavel Buchnevich has beaten out Kakko for the first-line right wing job in Manhattan alongside Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad, and there’s a massive gap in linemate quality between Line 1 and 2. Kakko is slated to open 2019-20 with Chris Kreider and Ryan Strome. Kakko can still do damage on any line and will get some power-play looks, but he’s unlikely to post monster point totals in the Barzal/Pettersson range in Year 1. Kakko could easily overtake Buchnevich on the depth chart at some point, of course, and Kakko has the talent to win the Calder regardless of line assignment, as he doesn’t have to rely on others to generate offense. But his ceiling for Year 1 just isn’t quite as high as Jack Hughes’.
4. QUINN HUGHES, VANCOUVER CANUCKS
Jack’s older brother brings a similar scintillating skill set – to the blueline. Hughes possesses many similarities to Makar. Both are relatively undersized for their position and both already can move the puck like top-end offensive NHL defensemen. Hughes should be fascinating to watch in his first full season as part of the Canucks’ rebuild, especially after he flashed so much potential in a five-game trial with Vancouver at the end of last season. The biggest threat to Hughes' Calder bid is that Makar does so many of the same things well and plays on a better team at the moment, meaning Makar will likely post a better version of Hughes’ stat line. That said, Quinn, like Jack, belongs in the elite tier of Calder threats. It’s a pretty set quartet with a sizable gap afterward.
5. CODY GLASS, VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
Glass, a brainy center most commonly compared to Mark Scheifele, drew rave reviews in the pre-season for his work on the power play and along the boards. It’s thus not a huge surprise to see Glass slated to open the season on Vegas’ top power-play unit. The big shocker, however, is seeing Glass usurp Paul Stastny to skate with Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone on the projected opening-night lines. Glass always projected to become one of Vegas’ top two centers in the long term. But if he has that job on Day 1 and keeps it, he could post surprisingly great numbers and enter the Calder discussion.
6. NICK SUZUKI, MONTREAL CANADIENS
Going into the pre-season, Suzuki fell under the category of “Not a lock to make the team but very interesting if he does.” Here we are in October, and Suzuki has beaten out fellow (injured) prospect Ryan Poehling to make the Habs. Suzuki always had the higher offensive ceiling than Poehling, despite Poehling getting a hat trick in his NHL debut last year, and Suzuki’s intelligence at both ends of the rink means he can play center or wing and on any line. At the moment, he’s slated to work on Max Domi’s right wing. Suzuki is ready to become a high-impact NHL player. All he needed was an opportunity, and now he has it.
7. VICTOR OLOFSSON, BUFFALO SABRES
Olofsson checks none of the typical rookie boxes. He’s a seventh-round pick, he’s 24 and, as recently as last winter, our panel of NHL scouts rated him merely as Buffalo’s seventh-best prospect in our Future Watch publication. But Olofsson has slowly seeped into our consciousness. He led the Swedish League in goals two seasons ago. Last season, he ripped 30 goals in 66 AHL games and found the net twice in six NHL games. Blessed with a deadly shot, he won new Sabres coach Ralph Krueger over quickly in training camp. Olofsson wound up on Buffalo’s first line, flanking Jack Eichel, by the end of the pre-season.
We must be careful not to base Calder picks too much on line deployments, but all Olofsson does is snipe, and he has a dream situation to start his rookie campaign. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he paced all freshmen in goals this season. (Ignore his demotion to the AHL. That’s just some salary-cap juggling. He’ll be back up for the opener.)
8. ALEXANDRE TEXIER, COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
What a fun story Texier is. The Jackets picked him in the second round of the 2017 draft right out of France. He hadn’t played at a level any higher, and Columbus took a chance on him anyway. He was playing in the Finnish League a year later and, last season, Texier jumped from the Liiga to the AHL, where he ripped off five goals in five games, and then the NHL, where he scored three times in 10 games, eight of which were playoff games.
It was evident coach John Tortorella trusted Texier, a kid who cut his teeth playing against grown men when he was a teenager, and that carried over to training camp and the pre-season. Texier has earned a coveted spot replacing UFA departure Artemi Panarin on the top line with Pierre-Luc Dubois and Cam Atkinson. Texier is no 'Bread Man' but brings an intriguing blend of playmaking and feistiness. Texier is experienced enough to stick at the NHL level going forward, and the current assignment sets him up for a hot start.
9. SAM STEEL, ANAHEIM DUCKS
The Ducks have done a nice job slow-playing Steel after picking him 30th overall in 2016. They returned him to major junior, where he posted video-game stats for a couple more seasons, then developed him in the AHL for the majority of last season, where he managed 20 goals and 41 points in 53 games and six goals and 13 points in 16 playoff games. Mixed in as well were 22 NHL games, in which he held his own with six goals and 11 points, albeit the possession numbers suggested he was a bit overmatched. Steel’s AHL coach, Dallas Eakins, is now his NHL coach, and Steel got some plum assignments in the pre-season, working most frequently as the Ducks’ No. 2 center between Rickard Rakell and Jakob Silfverberg.
The Ducks are committed to youth. They need Steel. He’s set up to succeed, having been given time to develop at his own pace and opening the year with quality linemates. It’s just a matter of getting healthy, as a lower-body injury cost Steel much of the pre-season and will force him to the IR to open the year. The hope is that, when he returns, it’s to second-line NHL job and not an AHL demotion.
10. BARRETT HAYTON, ARIZONA COYOTES
The Coyotes got some heat for picking Hayton fifth overall in 2018, leaving Filip Zadina on the board. But the Red Wings just demoted Zadina, and Hayton made the Coyotes. He grew into quite a leader last season, captaining OHL Sault Ste. Marie, and projects to be a leader someday in Arizona. Hayton is still eligible to return to major junior after nine games, but he has potential to slot anywhere in the Coyotes lineup, which lacks high-end forward depth beyond Clayton Keller and Phil Kessel. Following a running theme on this list: Hayton has a good two-way hockey mind, which should endear him to coach Rick Tocchet and decrease the odds of a demotion.
Other 2019-20 Calder Trophy candidates to consider: Erik Brannstrom, Alexander Nylander, Mackenzie Blackwood, Adam Fox, Rasmus Sandin, Dante Fabbro, Max Comtois, Drake Batherson, Noah Dobson, Ville Heinola, Thatcher Demko, Kristian Vesalainen, Tobias Bjornfot, Ryan Poehling, Nic Hague, Martin Necas, Kirby Dach, Dillon Dube, Elvis Merzlikins, Jesper Boqvist, Ilya Samsonov
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