Ranking the Top 10 Candidates for the 2013-14 Calder Trophy

Carol Schram@pool88Featured ColumnistMarch 26, 2014

Ranking the Top 10 Candidates for the 2013-14 Calder Trophy

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    After a disruptive owner's lockout and shortened season last year, plenty of new faces lit up the highlight reels at all positions as hockey got back to normal in 2013-14. This June, one of those players will be awarded the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.

    From NHL.com: "The Calder Memorial Trophy is an annual award given to the player selected as the most proficient in his first year of competition in the National Hockey League."

    Narrowing down a top 10 this year was no easy task. Injured players who probably won't return before the end of the season won't be front-of-mind candidates for the members of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association who only get to name five players on their ballots.

    I've filtered out the following players, based on injury information from TSN.ca:

    • Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks (right knee surgery Dec. 20, out indefinitely)
    • Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers (sprained knee Feb. 15, out indefinitely)
    • Ryan Murray, Columbus Blue Jackets (knee surgery Mar. 4, out 4-6 weeks)
    • Mark Schiefele, Winnipeg Jets (MCL Mar. 5, expected to miss 6-8 weeks)
    • Chris Kreider, New York Rangers (broken left hand Mar. 25, expected to be placed on IR for the rest of the season)

    All have bright, long-term futures in the league, but they likely won't be major factors in Calder voting.

    Click through to see which youngsters do make the cut, and share your thoughts on this year's rookie class in the comment section.

    All stats courtesy of NHL.com and are current through Monday Mar. 24.

10. Jacob Trouba, Winnipeg Jets

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    Age: 20, drafted ninth overall in 2012

    By the Numbers: 56 games played, 8-18-26, plus-five

    Why He Deserves Calder Consideration: Despite his lack of experience at hockey's top level, Jacob Trouba has been a grounding force this season on a Winnipeg Jets team that's still trying to find its way.

    With a matter-of-fact demeanor both on and off the ice, Trouba leads all rookie defensemen with an average of 22:26 per game, which puts him right in the mix with the Jets' top four alongside Zach Bogosian, Tobias Enstrom and Dustin Byfuglien. Trouba's plus-five rating gives him a better goal differential than any of those veteran blue-line teammates.

    Despite dealing with a scary early-season injury when he was stretchered off the ice after crashing heavily into the boards, Trouba hasn't shown any signs of wearing down during the long NHL season. The Jets don't look like they'll be able to crack the playoff plateau this year, but Trouba's steady style on the back end should provide the foundation that coach Paul Maurice needs when he returns next year for his first full season behind the Winnipeg bench.

9. Hampus Lindholm, Anaheim Ducks

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    Age: 20, drafted sixth overall in 2012

    By the Numbers: 68 games played, 5-21-26, plus-29 

    Why He Deserves Calder Consideration: Lindholm has been good all season, and he has gotten even better since Ducks mainstay Cam Fowler went down with a sprained MCL on March 14. Lindholm is now fifth in the entire NHL in plus/minus, tucked right between warhorses Johnny Boychuk and Jay Bouwmeester. In Fowler's absence, he's consistently been averaging more than 20 minutes of ice time per game.

    Fans should pay attention when one of the greatest defensemen in NHL history, Ducks assistant coach Scott Niedermayer, praises Lindholm's on-ice instincts as being better than his own at the same age. Here's Niedermayer, from Lance Pugmire of the Los Angeles Times:

    Younger players sometimes try to do too much and get in trouble. I know I did that, too much jumping up [into the offense], putting the team at a disadvantage. He has great timing, isn't thinking about his goal or points total. He's content to do the little things in a game that for most defensemen it takes many years to do.

    Lindholm may not get the most attention in this year's group of flashy rookie defenseman, but Nick Lidstrom wasn't an out-of-the-box star, either. This young Swede has all the makings of a top-pairing blueliner for many years to come.

8. Frederik Andersen, Anaheim Ducks

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    Age: 24, drafted 87th overall in 2012

    By the Numbers: 23 games played, 16-5-0-0, .924 save percentage, 2.26 goals-against average

    Why He Deserves Calder Consideration: Among rookie goalies with more than 20 games played this season, Andersen leads the way with 16 wins and the best save percentage. He's tied with Minnesota's Darcy Kuemper in goals-against average.

    The young Dane played well enough when he was called up after an early-season injury to Viktor Fasth that the Ducks' great goaltending find from 2012-13 was deemed expendable when he got healthy (Fasth was dealt to Edmonton at the trade deadline).

    Despite his great numbers, Andersen's Calder chances will be hurt by the fact that he's playing behind a rock-solid defense in Anaheim that doesn't allow too many chances.

    He's also not the top guy. Andersen has been splitting duties down the stretch, but the playoffs will almost certainly belong to the Ducks' No. 1 incumbent Jonas Hiller.

7. Darcy Kuemper, Minnesota Wild

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    Age: 23, drafted 161st overall in 2009

    By the Numbers: 24 games played, 12-6-4-2, .922 save percentage, 2.26 goals-against average

    Why He Deserves Calder Consideration: The Minnesota Wild looked like they were set in net early this season, with Josh Harding defying the odds to become the league's top netminder while Niklas Backstrom stood capably in reserve.

    The plan went sideways by New Year's Day, when Harding was forced to step away to continue his treatment for multiple sclerosis after playing 29 games. By the end of January, Backstrom was also sidelined with a season-ending abdominal injury.

    Enter Darcy Kuemper. Anointed as the Wild's top minor league goaltender just last season, Kuemper not only made 16 consecutive starts for the Wild when he was called up, he has gone 12-4-4 since his recall, with a goals-against average of 2.04 and a save percentage of .931.

    That record is the biggest reason why Minnesota is currently comfortable in the first wild-card spot in the Western Conference and preparing for its second straight year of playoff action.

    With Ilya Bryzgalov now performing solidly in a backup role, the fate of the Wild's season appears to rest squarely on Kuemper's very capable shoulders.

6. Tyler Johnson, Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Age: 23, undrafted

    By the Numbers: 72 games played, 22-25-47, plus-19 

    Why He Deserves Calder Consideration: Part of the youth movement that the Tampa Bay Lightning instituted once the playoffs slipped out of reach in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, both Tyler Johnson and fellow rookie Ondrej Palat made their NHL debuts after being called up from the minors last March.

    Their AHL coach, Jon Cooper, took over the Lightning bench later that month. This season, both Johnson and Palat found themselves playing on the Lightning's top line with Marty St. Louis while Steven Stamkos was sidelined with his broken leg.

    Despite his acrimonious departure from Tampa Bay, it appears that St. Louis was the ideal mentor: Johnson and Palat have both gone from nondescript prospects to Calder contenders and been a big part of the turnaround in Tampa Bay this season.

    Johnson is undersized at 5'9" and 182 pounds, but the Lightning have a reputation for doing big things with smaller players. He's a shifty playmaker who's third in rookie scoring this season, but his biggest Calder obstacle is probably Palat, who's currently second.

5. Eddie Lack, Vancouver Canucks

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    Age: 26, undrafted

    By the Numbers: 35 games played, 14-14-4-4, .915 save percentage, 2.33 goals-against average

    Why He Deserves Calder Consideration: During a season where hot young goaltenders have been emerging all around the league, no one has faced more pressure than the Vancouver Canucks' Eddie Lack.

    Signed by the Canucks organization back in 2010, Lack spent three seasons in the American Hockey League. He played just 13 games in the 2012-13 campaign before undergoing season-ending hip surgery.

    Still rehabbing his injury, Lack arrived at the Canucks' 2013 training camp as the presumed backup to Roberto Luongo after Cory Schneider's surprise draft-day trade to New Jersey. His efficient on-ice style and quirky, fun-loving personality quickly won over both the fans in Vancouver and coach John Tortorella.

    Torts' decision to start Lack over Luongo at Vancouver's Heritage Classic game in early March ultimately triggered Luongo's trade to Florida—a deal that wouldn't have happened if Canucks management didn't think they had a legitimate No. 1 prospect in Lack. His solid numbers suffered in the aftermath of the dramatic deal, but Lack has started all 13 Vancouver games since the Olympic break, and his stats are inching back to pre-trade levels.

    Lack now leads all rookie goaltenders with 35 starts this year, and the Canucks are relying on him completely as they fight to keep their playoff hopes alive. He deserves Calder consideration for his resilience; he can only continue to improve as the circus around him settles.

4. Torey Krug, Boston Bruins

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    Age: 22, undrafted

    By the Numbers: 70 games played, 14-23-37, plus-14 

    Why He Deserves Calder Consideration: An undersized, undrafted defenseman, Torey Krug played a key role when he debuted in the NHL during the Boston Bruins' run to the Stanley Cup Final last season. He hasn't missed a beat this year.

    With a laser shot, Krug has quickly become one of the best in the business at playing the point on the power play, where he has earned 18 of his 37 points. Though his emphasis is on offense, he is also effective on the other side of the puck, as proven by his plus-14 rating.

    Despite his small stature, Krug has proven that he can handle himself at the NHL level and has added stability to a Bruins blue line that has been depleted over the course of the season by injuries to Dennis Seidenberg and Adam McQuaid. On a Boston team that's currently the class of the Eastern Conference, Krug will earn serious Calder consideration.

3. Ondrej Palat, Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Age: 22, drafted 208th overall in 2011

    By the Numbers: 72 games played, 19-32-51, plus-27 

    Why He Deserves Calder Consideration: A late-round draft choice, Ondrej Palat played under current Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper when both were in the AHL, first with the Norfolk Admirals in 2011-12, then the Syracuse Crunch in 2012-13. 

    Palat had already made the jump to the Lightning in the lockout-shortened season when Cooper was summoned to replace Guy Boucher in March of 2013. With just 14 games on his resume from last year, Palat still qualifies as a rookie this season.

    He has proven his offensive talent, ranking second among rookies with 51 points, and has shown himself to be a solid two-way forward with his plus-27 ranking—the best of all rookie forwards and in the top 20 in the entire NHL. Palat also plays important special teams minutes, working both the power play and the penalty kill.

    He's probably not high-profile enough to draw significant voting for the Calder, but Palat is most definitely among the most impressive new faces in the NHL in 2013-14.

2. Olli Maatta, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Age: 19, drafted 22nd overall in 2012

    By the Numbers: 70 games played, 9-19-28, plus-eight

    Why He Deserves Calder Consideration: Defense has never been the strongest part of the Pittsburgh Penguins' game, but Olli Maatta has stepped in to help anchor the blue line in a year when the team has been decimated by injuries to key players.

    The Penguins had planned to ease a young defender or two into their lineup this season, but top-10 pick Derrick Pouliot and 22-year-old Simon Despres were expected to have the inside track. Instead, Pouliot was returned to the WHL's Portland Winterhawks for one more year of seasoning in junior. Despres was sent to the AHL; Maatta started the year with the big club.

    He didn't disappoint, working his way into a top-pairing role. While the Penguins blue line was destroyed with injuries, Maatta played a season-high 28:06 on Dec. 18 against the New York Rangers, recording one assist and a plus-one in Pittsburgh's 4-3 shootout win.

    Maatta also showed tremendous skills and maturity as a key part of Finland's bronze medal-winning squad at the Olympics in Sochi.

    In a year that has seen a flood of new defensive stars debut in the NHL, Maatta has been a surprise. So far, he's the best of the bunch on the back end.

1. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche

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    Age: 18, drafted first overall in 2013

    By the Numbers: 71 games played, 23-31-54, plus-18 

    Why He Deserves Calder Consideration: Coach Patrick Roy and goaltender Semyon Varlamov have received much of the credit for the turnaround of the Colorado Avalanche this season, but Nathan MacKinnon also deserves a serious share of the accolades.

    MacKinnon leads all NHL rookies in scoring this season. For a raw 18-year-old straight out of junior, he has been a versatile and important part of the Avalanche team. He ranks fourth in team scoring, is tied for the lead in plus/minus and has shown that he can contribute at any forward position.

    MacKinnon turned heads when he broke Wayne Gretzky's record for longest rookie point streak by an 18-year-old. With points in 13 straight games, he's showing maturity and consistency that should be signs of a great NHL career to come.

    The last No. 1 pick to win the Calder Trophy was Patrick Kane, back in 2008. With MacKinnon's strong season and early favourite Tomas Hertl sidelined by injury, he should be a shoo-in to hear his name called at this year's NHL Awards on June 24 in Las Vegas.