Last year, the fight for NHL Rookie of the Year honors felt like it was over before it ever even really started. Yes, Ondrej Palat had a nice year. He delivered a 59-point campaign that was made that much more remarkable when you consider he was a former seventh-round pick. And sure, the case can be made that Tyler Johnson actually did him one better, racking up 50 points of his own – after going completely undrafted.
The fact that the duo was teammates in Tampa Bay made for an interesting storyline and set the Lightning up nicely for the future, but it didn’t give either one of them a realistic shot at taking home the hardware over Nathan MacKinnon.
That’s because the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 draft ran away with the honor while spearheading an instant turnaround in Colorado. When the dust settled, MacKinnon had notched 24 goals and 63 points, while simultaneously dragging the Avalanche from the bottom of the NHL standings all the way to the very top of the ultra-competitive Central Division. No one could compete with that.
This year’s race is a little more wide open though. If you had to pick the winner right now (and, for the purposes of this story, you do), you would take Filip Forsberg. Considering what he’s helped Nashville accomplish this season, it’s not all that difficult to draw similarities between his freshman year and the one MacKinnon enjoyed in 2013-14. But some other legitimate contenders are emerging around the league, and things could get interesting down the stretch. With that in mind, it’s only right that we break down a few of the top Calder candidates out there. Because we’re here to educate, if nothing else…
1. Filip Forsberg, C, NAS (18 goals, 30 assists, 48 points)
What’s not to like? He’s 20 years old, he’s on pace for 74 points, he’s a plus-21 and no one can figure out why exactly Washington gave up on him so quickly. Plus, he’s still listed as a center… although he’s taken a grand total of four faceoffs all season. Many draft gurus were stunned when the gifted Swede dropped all the way to the Capitals at No. 11 in 2012.
There was a growing consensus at the time that Forsberg might ultimately emerge as the best NHL player in his class – a line of thinking that he’s proving correct. Only he’s not doing it for Washington, he’s doing it for the Predators. And he’s helping trigger quite the revival in the Music City, jump-starting the top line and pushing Nashville to the best record in all of hockey at the moment. So again, what’s not to like?
2. Johnny Gaudreau, LW, CGY (15-24-39)
At 21 years of age, Johnny Hockey already has a solid collection of highlight-reel goals and a nickname that is literally being trademarked. It’s tough to argue with that. He’s also a major reason why Calgary has gone from one of the leading preseason candidates for Connor McDavid to one of the current wild card spots in a loaded Western Conference. He had virtually erased the gap between No. 1 and No. 2 until Forsberg went on his current run of five goals and six assists in ten games.
3. Aaron Ekblad, D, FLA (7-22-29)
Ekblad makes the list because he’s pretty much done all he can to live up to the pressure of being selected No. 1 overall eight months ago. So far, at least. Teams are sometimes able to “hide” rookies on the third or fourth line with savvy vets surrounding them. Can’t really do that with a defenseman though. Not only is Ekblad playing a position where any and all mistakes are magnified, he’s doing it for 22 minutes a night on the top pairing for a club contending for its first playoff spot in three years.
4. Michael Hutchinson, G, WPG (14 wins, 2.23 goals against average, .923 save percentage). If you’re one of those people who like goalies, Hutchinson has been the best new guy at the position this season. Jake Allen of St. Louis has done well in what seems like his third rookie year and Petr Mrazek has filled in admirably for the injured Jimmy Howard in Detroit, but Hutchinson leads all rookie netminders in GAA and save percentage. He’s scuffled a bit lately, but his overall body of work is a major reason why Winnipeg is still fighting for a wild card spot.
Honorable Mentions: Mike Hoffman, OTT (No. 2 among all rookies with 17 goals), John Klingberg, DAL (leads all rookie blueliners with ten goals), Mark Stone, OTT (29 points is second only to Forsberg and Gaudreau), Evgeny Kuznetsov, WAS (started slow, but he’s on this list because of his ridiculous skill set and the fact that he’s heated up considerably lately, registering points in four consecutive games).