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8 NHL Rookie of the Year Candidates To Watch

(Photo by Rob Curtis/Icon Sportswire)

With generational talents Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel joining the fray, the 2015-16 NHL Calder Trophy race has been highly anticipated for a while now. Just let those two do their thing, see if one stands out over the other and — if not — we’ll have all the Canadian writers vote for McDavid, while all the Americans vote for Eichel. What fun!

Except it’s not quite that simple. Mainly because there are a few other first-year phenoms who are capable of making this one of the more entertaining Calder races in recent memory. Yes, McDavid entered as the favorite. And sure, Eichel began the year right on his heels. But they’re not the only rising stars to keep a close eye on. Far from it, in fact.

Here’s a quick look at eight rookies to watch as this season unfolds, and beyond.

1. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers. No, we’re not doing this in any particular order. McDavid is listed first because I’ve been conditioned to quickly write his name any time the number “one” in seen anywhere now — that’s what the last two years of McDavid Mania have done. And yes, McDavid is still a big part of this race, even though (gasp!) he only has one goal through his first four career NHL games. What is he doing? Didn’t Gretzky have, like, 70 goals by now?

Watch McDavid play for five minutes, and it’s not too tough to tell he’ll be good in this league for a long time. Really good. When he played for Erie, you could find him on the ice instantly. He didn’t even need a number on the back of his jersey because his level of play was enough to make him stand out among his peers.

It’s basically the same thing in the NHL now too. Sure, he’s not dominating the scoresheet just yet, but it’s not exactly tough to find him on the ice. Eventually, he’s going to get rolling, and it’s going to be scary.

2. Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres. He just looks like a hockey player, doesn’t he? And two goals in his first four games have already nudged him ahead of McDavid in the scoring race. The sky’s the limit here.

The Sabres quietly built a decent young core around Eichel… before they had even drafted him. Taking Sam Reinhart in the 2014 draft, then acquiring Evander Kane and Ryan O’Reilly in trades, has helped them assemble a forward group where Eichel should be able to thrive.

He’s going to be good. He already is good. The hype is real, for both him and McDavid. And Eichel may actually have a quicker path to the playoffs, considering the division he plays in.

3. Max Domi, Arizona Coyotes. As a wise person on twitter (they’re out there, you just have to look) noted on Wednesday:

That pretty well sums it up. In fact, no one has been able to handle Domi so far, as illustrated by his three goals — all of the highlight-reel variety, by the way — and three assists in his first four career games.

 

Here’s the thing to remember with Domi: he had to wait longer than some of his counterparts for this moment — and he made the most of that time. The Coyotes felt like they got an absolute steal when he fell to them at No. 12 overall in the 2013 Draft, but Dave Tippett and the front office were careful not to rush him.

Was he good enough to play in this league as an 18-year old? Probably. But why not let him get an NHL training camp or two under his belt, hone his skills by cruising through the OHL with London and bring home a gold medal for Team Canada at the World Junior Championships first?

Rather than sulking, Domi found ways to improve. Now he’s a lethal player away from the puck, in addition to being a threat to make something happen every single time he touches it. In a normal year, he’d probably be the front-runner for this award. And if he keeps this up, he will be anyway.

4. Anthony Duclair, Arizona Coyotes. If you’re looking to turn things around in a hurry, having two of the most electrifying rookies in the game (with Dylan Strome and a few others on the horizon too) is a pretty good way to do it. Duclair is tied for the league-lead among rookies (with Domi) at six points through four games. And tied for most goals among rookies (with Oscar Lindberg of the Rangers) at four.

While it’s fairly unlikely that he’ll be able to keep this pace up and light the lamp 82 times this season, his overall skill set — and quick hands in traffic and close to the net — are undeniable. The on-ice chemistry he built with his good friend Domi at the WJC last winter certainly helps too, as that duo is quickly proving tough for anyone to contain. It’s easy to see why fans in New York weren’t real happy to see him dealt to Arizona at last year’s trade deadline.

5. Dylan Larkin, Detroit Red Wings. Put simply: there aren’t a lot of 19 year olds deemed good enough to skate on Detroit’s top line. Larkin fits the bill though, and he’s thriving.

The Wings knew they had something when they landed Larkin at No. 15 overall in 2014, and he proceeded to drive the point home by amassing 47 points in 35 games at the University of Michigan last season. He already has a goal in his first NHL game, and at least one point in each of his first three contests. And skating alongside Henrik Zetterberg only means more scoring opportunities going forward — opportunities that Larkin seems more than capable of cashing in on.

6. Nikolaj Ehlers, Winnipeg Jets. For the last couple years, scouts have raved about the prospect pool in the Jets’ farm system. And Ehlers has been the headliner of the group, ever since he was selected with the ninth pick in the 2014 Draft. He embarrassed the competition in the QMJHL over the last two seasons, racking up 204 points in 114 games. And his speed and quick shot are already on full display in Winnipeg, where he’s making the most of skating on an exciting second line with Mark Scheifele and Mathieu Perreault.

7. Artemi Panarin, Chicago Blackhawks. He’s an offensively gifted 23-year-old who can make plays and is currently skating in the Blackhawks’ top-six. What’s not to like here? Finding players like Panarin (and Teuvo Teravainen, for that matter) is a major reason why Chicago is able to pay big money to the likes of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and, well, you get the idea.

8. Noah Hanifin, Carolina Hurricanes. He’s the top defenseman to watch. The Hurricanes sure didn’t mind that he was still there for them to scoop up at pick No. 5 in June. But with so much offensive firepower on display, Hanifin may need to be borderline perfect to get much recognition in this rookie class. He did have as many points as McDavid entering play on Friday though, so anything’s possible.

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