The Calder race is already on for the 2009 candidates, as we speak. There are already a few surprises, and players that were not expected to do this well. Derick Brassard, Kris Versteeg, and Mikhail Grabovski have never been mentioned as Calder candidates in the past.
The current success of these three players is already surprising. Brassard, in Colombus, doesn’t have such a great team around him, but is flourishing as the first line center.
Versteeg, a fifth round pick, is the biggest upset so far, and out of nowhere he stands second in rookie scoring and looks like the perfect fit for Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews in Chicago.
And at this pace, Grabovski, who was traded from Montreal to Toronto, could possibly get 35 goals or more this year.
A few years ago, after the 2003-04 season, I remember there were actually three surprise nominees: Micheal Ryder, Andrew Raycroft, and Trent Hunter. This year, we are all expecting guys like Steven Stamkos, Kyle Turris, Fabian Brunnstrom, Jakub Voracek, and Kylo Okposo to be leading the race, but they’re not, which makes the Calder race for 2009 that much more interesting.
Obviously there have been other surprise Calder winners in the past. So here are a few of them:
Peter Stastny - 1981:
Peter Statsny won the Calder in 1981 (39 goals, 70 assists for 109 points) and was the most prolific player in the 1980’s after Wayne Gretzky. Stastny’s Calder trophy is a surprise when you know the whole story around it.
The Stastny brothers coming to America was a huge deal back then. Marcel Aubut literally, and illegally, hid Peter, Anton, and later Marian to get them out of their native communist Czechoslovakia (now Slovakia).
It made news all around the NHL too. Peter and Anton, the first two to come over to America, risked incarceration (Peter was given 18 months jail time back in his homeland and Marian was subject to intense interrogation), they risked their lives to play in North America. They played for the Quebec Nordiques in a league they knew nothing about and in a country they didn’t even know the language of.
It usually takes a couple of years for European hockey players to adapt to North American hockey, but not for Peter. So his Calder trophy is surprising and very impressive, considering the whole story about how he got to play in this league.
Luc Robitaille -1987:
Frankly, I don’t think anybody expected a ninth round pick to win the Calder. Yes, Robitaille, who was the most prolific left wing in NHL history was a ninth round choice, 171st overall by the Los Angeles Kings. He won the award in 1987 after a 45 goal, and 84 point season.
For me, Robitaille is the biggest draft steal I have ever seen. Critics said he was too slow, a bad skater, didn’t have a great shot, and wasn’t physical enough so he was passer over, and over until the ninth round. Obviously skating isn’t everything in hockey, but Robitaille had such amazing hockey sense that somehow, even being a bit slow on skates, he was always at the right place at the right time.
There have been other draft steals since. Detroit is making a habit of it with guys like Zetterberg (seventh round), Datsyuk (sixth round), Holmstrom, (10th round) or even Sergei Fedorov (fourth round). But Robitaille was so outrageously dominant that he remains the undisputed champion of late round draft steals. His Calder, for a ninth round pick, was a very pleasant surprise for the Kings.
Sergei Makarov - 1990:
Makarov came in the NHL in the 1989-90 season, years after being picked in the 12th round by Calgary in 1983. At the time, Makarov felt he would probably never get to play in the NHL. Makarov was famous in Russia and was the focal point of the KLM line, ( Krutov, Larionov, Makarov ) one of the most feared and productive trio in recent hockey. It took him six years to play his first NHL game. Because of that « delay, » nobody expected Makarov to come in the NHL and be good enough to win the trophy.
Makarov became the first from the now deceased Soviet Union to win the award. He won the Calder at 31 years old after a 24 goal, and 86 point season, thus forcing the league to create the « Makarov rule » stating no player over 26 years old on September 15th of his rookie year is allowed to win the Calder. Obviously, the league never thought they needed a « Makarov rule » and never expected a 31-year-old Russian to win the award, hence why his Calder is so astonishing.
Pavel Bure – 1992:
Bure was another Calder winner that nobody saw coming. Can you believe Pavel Bure was picked in the sixth round? The « Russian rocket » was, for a very long time one of, if not, the most electrifying player in the NHL. If you like Ovechkin, you need to check out what Pavel Bure used to do! He became the first Vancouver Canuck to win the Calder, and only the second from Soviet Union (Makarov being the first). He finished third in rookie scoring, edging out Niklas Lidstrom, and Tony Amonte for the win.
For him, scoring 60 goals was nothing out of the ordinary. He won the Maurice Richard trophy twice, reached the 60 goal plateau twice as well in 1993 and 1994, and had 58 goals in 2000, and 59 goals in 2001. He also won the scoring championship in 1993-94, but there was no Maurice Richard award given back then. Quite impressive. Still, it took him two more years after being drafted to make the Vancouver Canucks roster.
Bure won the Calder trophy in 1992 and dazzled the NHL with his speed and puck-handling. He reached the 30 goal mark in his very first season, averaging more that a goal per two games, with 34 goals in 65 games before exploding for 60 goals the next year. To be honest, he’s my favorite hockey player of all time!
Barret Jackman - 2003:
Do you know him? If you don’t know the Blues lineup, you probably don’t. And you’re probably not aware he won the Calder either. Yeah, you’re probably also wondering how he won the Calder in 2003 against Henrik Zetterberg. Well, so am I!
To his defense, Jackman did have an « impressive » year in 2003. I can understand what got him some first place votes he needed in order to win the prestigious award. Barret Jackman logged the most minutes per game of any rookies that year. He also finished the season on a +23 note. Defensemen usually take longer to develop, and Jackman is not a big point producer, so that +23 means he showed some seriously solid defensive play.
The 21-year-old had three goals, 19 points, and a whopping 190 penalty minutes in 82 games, good for sixth in the NHL. That kind of solid play got him the votes needed to win. Since then, he has faded out. He still plays, but compared to other defensemen of relative age and size, his statistics are not impressive. As of this year, he has the lowest point per game average of any Calder winner in history with 0.24 PPG. So it obviously makes him a surprise winner.
Other notables :
Willi Plett – Atlanta Flames, who won in 1977. Had a 33 goals, and 56 points in 64 games. He was a fifth round pick in 1975. Plett was never a scorer in the minors, he played a very very physical game which probably dropped his value in the draft. In 834 NHL games, he piled up 2572 penalty minutes. So Willi Plett could actually be one of the only enforcers to win the Calder!
Chris Drury – Colorado Avalanche, won in 1999. An average regular season on 20 goals, and 44 points in 79 games. The definition on a « clutch player », Drury showed his worth as a defensive forward with Colorado, pitching in the occasional game-winning goal when needed. Hence his « Captain Clutch » nickname. He was the only player to win both Hobey Baker (top NCAA player) and Calder award.
Gary Suter – Calgary Flames, won in 1986. A ninth round pick, and 180th overall. Again, you don’t expect ninth round players to be so productive. The Flames defensemen had 18 goals, 68 points in 80 games, and another 10 points in 10 games during the playoffs.
Mike Bossy – New York Islanders, won in 1979. Not quite a « surprise », he was a first round pick, 15th overall, and was expected to have a great career. What surprises me is the fact so many teams passed over him, thinking he was not big enough or fast enough to make an impact.
Boy were they wrong! He predicted he would score at least 50 goals in his first year, and did just that, notching 53 goals and 91 points. Nobody drafted in 1977 had a better career than Bossy, even though it was cut very short due to injuries
So the race is on. If the season ended today, Kris Versteeg, Derick Brassard, and Mikhail Grabovski would most likely be candidates. All three have been very surprising so far.
So who do you think will end up with the Calder?!