Way-Too-Early Ranking of the Top Candidates for the 2016-17 Calder Trophy

Carol Schram@pool88Featured ColumnistNovember 12, 2016

Way-Too-Early Ranking of the Top Candidates for the 2016-17 Calder Trophy

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    Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images

    The National Hockey League is shifting towards a playing style where speed and skill are rewarded.

    That favors young players. They may not yet have all of the tools to play a physical game, but they have developed under today's intense minor-hockey programs, where they've developed the tools they need to have an immediate impact. They're also pretty easy to squeeze into a team's salary-cap structure, with their bargain-basement entry level contracts.

    Those trends are making for a fascinating Calder Trophy race in 2016-17. The top rookies in this year's class range from raw 18-year-olds all the way to college graduates, with everything in between. Some have come out of nowhere; Perhaps even more impressively, the most highly touted have lived up to their advance billing.

    As the NHL season reaches the 15-game mark, here's an early ranking of the top 10 players vying for rookie of the year honors.

10. Brandon Carlo: Boston Bruins

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    Age: 19

    Drafted: Second round, 37th overall in 2015 

    2016-17 Stats: 14 GP, 2-2-4, plus-10

    His Season So Far:

    Brandon Carlo's a big stay-at-home defenseman. He won't deliver significant offensive numbers, but he has been a godsend for the underpopulated blue line of the Boston Bruins this season.

    Typically, defensemen take longer than forwards to develop, and big defensemen in particular need some time to find their NHL game. The transition hasn't been a problem for the 6'5" Carlo, who is averaging 22:26 of ice time a night on Boston's top defensive pairing and leads all rookies with a plus-10.

    Last season, Boston ranked 20th in the league defensively, giving up 2.78 goals per game. This year, despite some early goaltending issues, they've already moved up to 17th, giving up an average of 2.64 goals per game. 

    A steady Carlo could be the difference if the Bruins plan to end their two-year playoff drought in the spring of 2017. He won't be a finalist but should draw some attention as a worthy Calder candidate.

9. Travis Konecny: Philadelphia Flyers

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    Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 19

    Drafted: 24th overall in 2015 by the Philadelphia Flyers

    2016-17 Stats: 15 GP, 4-6-10, minus-2

    His Season So Far:

    Add Travis Konecny's name to the list of young, undersized prospects that have quickly managed to carve out a niche for themselves in the NHL.

    Though he's still eligible to be returned to his junior team, the 5'10", 175-pound Konecny has found a home in the top six on the Broad Street Bullies. He's making slick plays and finding the net, particularly on Philadelphia's power play, which is ranked second overall in the NHL.

    The Flyers are also appreciating the services of another 19-year-old, Ivan Provorov, on their blue line. That could lead to some vote-splitting on Calder ballots next spring, but the flashier underdog Konecny will likely earn the lion's share of the acclaim for his rookie season in Philly.

8. Matthew Tkachuk: Calgary Flames

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Age: 18

    Drafted: Sixth overall in 2016 by the Calgary Flames

    2016-17 Stats: 12 GP, 3-3-6, plus-3

    His Season So Far:

    A second-generation NHL player whose game looks an awful lot like that of his famous father, Matthew Tkachuk is winning fans for his slick offensive moves and his willingness to drop the gloves.

    Like his father Keith, Matthew plays a chippy game away from the puck, adding more sandpaper to an already feisty Calgary Flames lineup. Coach Glen Gulutzan has been using Tkachuk primarily in a second line role, and he has done enough in the early going to save himself from being sent back to junior for the rest of the season.

    Tkachuk missed the Flames' Nov. 10 game against the Dallas Stars and is listed as day-to-day with a wrist injury, according to Pat Steinberg of Sportsnet 960 in Calgary. He's a long shot as a Calder candidate, but his feistiness separates him from the rest of this year's contenders. That different flavor may earn him a bunch of third-to-fifth-place votes next spring.

7. Mitch Marner: Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 19

    Drafted: Fourth overall in 2015 by the Toronto Maple Leafs

    2016-17 Stats: 14 GP, 5-7-12, minus-6

    His Season So Far:

    Too small to survive in the NHL, you say? Mitch Marner just laughs at the doubters.

    Listed at a slight 6'0" and 170 pounds, Marner has had no trouble staying on his skates during his first season with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Playing primarily on the team's second line with veterans Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk, Marner has also been averaging a healthy 2:15 of power play time per game, just two seconds less than team leaders Auston Matthews and Nikita Zaitsev.

    With his excellent hockey sense, Marner is exceeding expectations in his rookie season. He's a flashy underdog who will garner attention from the Calder voters when it's time to submit their top-five lists next April.

6. William Nylander: Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    Age: 20

    Drafted: Eighth overall in 2014 by the Toronto Maple Leafs

    2016-17 Stats: 14 GP, 4-8-12, minus-1

    His Season So Far:

    Compared to his rookie teammates Marner and Matthews, William Nylander has been waiting an eternity to get his chance in the NHL. Well—the better part of two years, anyway.

    Nylander held his own during a 22-game call-up by the Leafs at the end of the 2015-16 season, collecting six goals and 13 points. This season, he has been almost inseparable from Matthews on the ice and has kept pace with both Matthews and Marner in the scoring race.

    Nylander's a little more established than his teammates and has a little extra name recognition working for him thanks to his father, NHL veteran Michael Nylander, and his younger brother Alex. He'll have a hard time drawing Calder votes away from the golden child, Matthews, but his playing style should ultimately earn him more votes than Marner in a crowded Calder race for the Leafs' kids.

5. Jimmy Vesey: New York Rangers

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    James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 23

    Drafted: Third round, 66th overall in 2012 by the Nashville Predators. Signed as a free agent with the New York Rangers on Aug. 19, 2016

    2016-17 Stats: 14 GP, 6-4-10, plus-5

    His Season So Far:

    It's no slam dunk that a Hobey Baker winner will be able to carry his success from NCAA hockey to the NHL level.

    Jack Eichel made an easy transition after winning the award in 2015, but he was an anomaly—a highly touted 18-year-old who was playing one year of college hockey because he was not yet eligible to be drafted. Johnny Gaudreau, who won the award in 2014, defied expectations with a successful transition to the NHL despite his 5'9", 157-pound frame.

    In the years before Eichel and Gaudreau, the list of past winners the Hobey Baker website is not exactly rife with NHL success stories. Drew LeBlanc, the 2013 winner, logged two games with the Chicago Blackhawks and is now into his second season in Germany; Jack Connolly from 2012 has carved out a career in Sweden and Andy Miele, the 2011 winner, logged 15 games with the then-Phoenix Coyotes between 2011 and 2014 but is currently toiling in the AHL.

    The moral of the story? Despite all of the offseason hype about where 2016 Hobey Baker winner Jimmy Vesey would decide to start his NHL career, there was no guarantee that he'd make the transition to his new team look as effortless as he has.

    Vesey has been one of several offseason moves that have paid off in spades for a New York Rangers team that was severely limited by the salary cap when reworking its roster. He's contributing to the scoring-by-committee approach that has made the Rangers the most dangerous offensive team in the league in the early going. He has also become one of Alain Vigneault's go-to players on the power play.

    The Rangers are aiming to reclaim their spot as one of the NHL's elite teams this season. That strong supporting cast—and playing in a high-profile media market—should help Vesey's Calder chances as the season rolls on.

4. Zach Werenski: Columbus Blue Jackets

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    Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 19

    Drafted: Eighth overall in 2015 by the Columbus Blue Jackets

    2016-17 Stats: 12 GP, 3-8-11, even plus-minus

    His Season So Far:

    Going into the new season, the Columbus Blue Jackets' highest-profile rookie was center Pierre-Luc Dubois, a surprise pick by the team with the third-overall selection last June.

    But Dubois is now back with his junior team, the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, and all eyes are on Columbus' first-round pick from 2015, defenseman Zach Werenski.

    After a strong sophomore season with the University of Michigan in 2015-16, Werenski turned pro in time to join the AHL's Lake Erie Monsters in time for their run to the Calder Cup. He finished the playoffs ranked third in team scoring, leading all defensemen with 14 points in 17 games and setting the stage for a strong NHL debut this year.

    Coach John Tortorella has leaned hard on Werenski right from Game 1. The 19-year-old is averaging 21:47 of ice time per game and has shouldered even more of the team's defensive load since Seth Jones was sidelined with a foot injury on Nov. 5.

    Werenski is averaging nearly a point per game, tying him for second in scoring by NHL defensemen. He has also shown that he's not overmatched, taking just one minor penalty in his first 12 games.

    If a defenseman has a chance to challenge for the Calder in a group filled with scoring punch this year, Werenski's your man.

3. Matt Murray: Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 22

    Drafted: Third round, 83rd overall in 2012.

    2016-17 Stats: 3 GP, 3-0-0, 1.33 goals-against average, .957 save percentage

    His Season So Far:

    Matt Murray's NHL regular season got off to a late start after he suffered a broken hand playing for Team North America during September's World Cup of Hockey. Since getting back into the Pittsburgh Penguins lineup in early November, Murray has picked up right where he left off when he won the Stanley Cup last spring. He's putting up great numbers and has yet to lose his first game.

    It'll be tough for a goalie to be noticed among all of the hot-shot scorers competing for this year's Calder, but Murray does have a little advance notice working in his favour thanks to last year's playoffs. His Calder chances will likely hinge on deployment—simply splitting the workload in Pittsburgh with a capable Marc-Andre Fleury probably won't be enough to push him to the top of his class.

2. Auston Matthews: Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 19

    Drafted: First overall in 2016 by the Toronto Maple Leafs

    2016-17 Stats: 14 GP, 6-6-12, minus-5

    His Season So Far:

    Auston Matthews set the bar ridiculously high for himself by scoring four goals in his NHL debut with the Toronto Maple Leafs

    No one expected him to do that every game, and he hasn't. Matthews has created more highlight-reel moments but like many players his age, his enthusiastic playing style sometimes leaves him out of position, causing defensive breakdowns.

    Matthews and the rest of his young teammates have made the Leafs a lot more fun to watch this year, and the Arizona native has quickly demonstrated why he was worthy of the hype surrounding his selection as the first-overall draft pick.

    At this point, though, he's far from a lock for the Calder. Matthews is facing plenty of quality competition, and his teammates Marner and Nylander could trigger a vote-splitting situation which will hamper all of their chances when it's time for the hockey writers to cast their ballots next spring.

1. Patrik Laine: Winnipeg Jets

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    Duane Burleson/Associated Press

    Age: 18

    Drafted: Second overall in 2016 by the Winnipeg Jets

    2016-17 Stats: 16 GP, 11-5-16, plus-2

    His Season So Far:

    Patrik Laine's wicked wrist shot has earned him comparisons to Alexander Ovechkin. His prolific early scoring pace has also evoked memories of a Winnipeg Jets legend: Teemu Selanne.

    The Finnish Flash scored 76 goals in his first year in Winnipeg in 1992-93—but that was a very different era. The NHL's leading scorer that season was Mario Lemieux, with 160 points. By comparison, last year, Patrick Kane took home the Art Ross Trophy with 106 points.

    It's also worth noting that Selanne was a seasoned 22-year-old when he finally arrived in the NHL. Laine spent last season playing in the Finnish men's league, and was named playoff MVP for his championship club, Tappara Tampere, but the precocious right wing will play his entire Calder-candidacy season as an 18-year-old. His birthday isn't until April 19, after the 2016-17 regular-season ends.

    With 11 goals in his first 16 games, Laine's not quite on pace to match Selanne's 76 goals, but he is on pace for 56. If he pulls that off, he'd be the highest-scoring player in the NHL since Steven Stamkos potted 60 back in 2011-12—and he'd almost certainly steal the Rocket Richard trophy from six-time winner Alex Ovechkin, who has won the last four straight awards.

    Laine's skills have translated spectacularly to the NHL level so far. If he can keep rolling all season, it'll be tough for voters to deny him the Calder.

    All stats courtesy of NHL.com.


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