Connor McDavid’s return to NHL action on Tuesday night was spectacular. He picked up three points in the Edmonton Oilers’ thrashing of the Columbus Blue Jackets, including a spectacular goal during which he went through what felt like the entire Columbus roster.
It’s a sign of what might have been for both McDavid and the Oilers had a broken collarbone not knocked him out of the lineup for nearly half the season.
It was such a strong performance, in fact, that it’s worth asking whether McDavid’s Calder Trophy hopes are in fact totally dead.
This is such a good player that it’s dangerous to assume there is anything he can't do, so instead of arbitrarily saying he can’t win the Calder Trophy, a better approach is to take a look at the other top rookies in the NHL this year, project how they’re likely to finish the season and then determine how good McDavid would need to be over the remaining games to beat them.
It makes sense to start with Artemi Panarin of the Chicago Blackhawks, the league’s leading rookie scorer.
Panarin has had a superb debut in Chicago. He’s played in all 54 of his team’s games, putting up an eye-catching 47 points. If he remains healthy and manages to keep scoring at the same clip, he’ll finish the year with 71 points in 82 games.
Panarin, however, suffers from several disadvantages which will hurt him when it comes time to vote for Rookie of the Year.
The biggest is that he’s been glued at the hip to Patrick Kane at a time when Kane is far and away the NHL’s leading scorer. Panarin has 28 points in the 700-odd minutes he’s played at five-on-five with Kane. He has just a single assist in the two hours spent away from No. 88.
That makes it fair to ask to what degree he’s driving his own offence as opposed to simply being a beneficiary of Kane’s production.
The other things working against Panarin are his age and experience. Although he’s technically a rookie, he had been playing in the KHL since 2008-09 and turned 24 in October. We can debate whether age and experience should matter in the Calder vote, but it seems certain that at least some voters will take that history into consideration.
Perhaps that’s why our hockey panel voted not Panarin but rather Dylan Larkin as its top rookie at midseason.
Larkin surprisingly made the Detroit Red Wings out of training camp this year in his first season of professional hockey. It was a surprise less because of his talent—though he’s opened eyes with his performance—and more because Detroit is famously patient with its young prospects.
If Larkin had been born just a month-and-a-half later than he was, he’d have been selected in the 2015 draft along with McDavid.
Nobody seems to be second-guessing the Red Wings’ decision, though. Larkin stepped in and played a vital role with Pavel Datsyuk injured early in the year, and by the time Datsyuk came back, he was so firmly ensconced in the lineup that the Red Wings did not give any serious thought to sending him down for more seasoning.
Larkin has played in 48 of 49 games this season and scored 15 goals and 33 points. Assuming good health the rest of the way, he’ll finish the season with 81 games played and 56 points.
Importantly, there’s more to Larkin’s game than just point production. He entered the league with a reputation as a fine two-way pivot and has reinforced that with his play this season. Beyond that, there’s his plus-24 rating, a number which carries more weight than it ought to with voters.
In Larkin’s case, both his plus/minus and offensive production are balanced on an unsustainable percentage bubble.
At even strength, Detroit shoots at an 11 percent clip when Larkin is on the ice this year. The next closest player to that is Henrik Zetterberg at just 8 percent. Everything is going in, and it won’t last.
Additionally, the save percentage behind Larkin is a ridiculous 0.957 at five-on-five. That, too, won’t last. Even if he slows, though, he has enough points and pluses in the bank that his year-end numbers should be solid.
The other player we should take a moment for is Jack Eichel, who was the second overall pick behind McDavid in the 2015 draft. Eichel has 34 points in 50 games for the Buffalo Sabres, and that projects to the same 56-point finish as Larkin.
Unlike Larkin, though, Eichel started slowly and has taken off in the last few months. After putting up just four points in his first 11 games, he has 30 in his last 39. If he finishes the year at that rate, he could climb up the 60-point mark and would then be a serious contender for the Calder—perhaps even the favourite.
It’s easy to imagine a rookie field that looks something like this when the year is done (with apologies to fans of Colton Parayko, John Gibson and others):
- Artemi Panarin: 82 games, 71 points
- Dylan Larkin: 81 games, 56 points
- Jack Eichel: 82 games, 60 points
What would it take for McDavid to win the Rookie of the Year nod against that kind of competition?
He has 31 games left, and with good health, he will finish the season having played in 45 contests. He has 15 points so far, so if he scores 35 the rest of the way and finishes with 50 points in 45 games, is that good enough to win the award?
It might be, but my guess is that—barring a slowdown from Eichel—he'd probably need to threaten Larkin’s point totals to be sure of taking home the trophy. That doesn’t necessarily mean 55 points, but if he can finish with 52 or 53, I don’t see how the league’s voting class would be able to ignore that.
That means McDavid putting up more than 35 points over the remaining 31 games. It’s unlikely, but given the talent of the player, it's not impossible.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.