You can always count on the NHL to provide its fans with multiple generations of stars to root for, and this year should be no different. So, after a season in which the likes of Vancouver Canucks center Elias Pettersson, Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin and Dallas Stars blueliner Miro Heiskanen wasted little time introducing their mesmerizing abilities to the masses, it’s time to comb through the rosters and take an early look at the youngsters who will challenge for this year’s Calder Trophy, given annually to the league’s top rookie.
Of course, there are several neophytes like Colorado defenseman Cale Makar, New Jersey’s Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko of the New York Rangers who were already household names before one shift of regular-season NHL duty. And although either of the three can be considered a preseason favorite to win the Calder this season, it doesn’t necessarily make them locks to follow through — at least according to recent trends in the voting.
For Makar and Vancouver Canucks rearguard Quinn Hughes, the climb to the top of the rookie totem pole will be arduous. Much like the Hart Trophy for league MVP, voting for the Calder is heavily biased towards forwards. There are several factors for this, beginning with the reality that traditional forward stats like goals and assists look more impressive at first glance than those registered by defensemen. Additionally, teams usually are averse to entrusting a rookie defenseman with a minute-eating role that would present him with the opportunity to put up impressive numbers.
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The same applies for first-year goalies, who generally have to usurp two veterans just to play enough minutes to qualify for league-wide recognition. The results since 2006 speak for themselves, as forwards made up 11 of the last 14 winners and 33 of the last 42 Calder finalists —both nearly 80 percent of those players considered.
Furthermore, 28 of the 42 finalists since 2006 were selected in the first round of the NHL draft, and 24 of those 28 were top-10 picks. Surprisingly, almost half of the last 13 first-overall picks were not Calder finalists in their rookie year including Steven Stamkos, John Tavares, Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier. Two finalists — Artemi Panarin in 2016 and Tyler Johnson in 2014 — were undrafted, and all three goalie finalists — Jordan Binnington last year, Jimmy Howard in 2010 and Steve Mason in 2009 — were drafted outside of the first round.
One last thing to consider: if your favorite prospect didn’t make an NHL roster for opening night, chances are he won’t sniff the Calder Trophy. Not counting the strike-shortened 2013 campaign, only two skaters since 2006 — Bobby Ryan in 2009 and Shayne Gostisbehere in 2016 — began their successful rookie seasons without being named to their club’s final roster out of camp. Both Binnington and Mason also had to begin their respective freshman campaigns in the minors before solidifying a job with the parent club.
2019-20 Calder Trophy contenders
Buffalo Sabres: Victor Olofsson, Sabres
Left wing, 181st overall in 2014 NHL draft
A proven sniper who was a top goal scorer in Sweden’s SHL before his 30-goal campaign last year for the Rochester Americans (AHL), Olofsson’s proclivity around the net helped make a high draft pick like Alexander Nylander expendable. A power-play specialist with an ability to convert quality set-ups, Olofsson is an ideal linemate for the handful of playmakers already established in Buffalo. He may have been a late-round draft pick, but Olofsson’s resume and upside should be enough to consider him a legitimate Calder Trophy candidate.
Carolina Hurricanes: Martin Necas
Center/wing, 12th overall selection in 2017
Carolina’s farm system is among the best of any NHL team, and Necas is the most dangerous of all their forward prospects. A logjam in their AHL affiliate in Charlotte slid him to the wing from his natural center position, and Necas rewarded them by finishing fourth in rookie scoring in both the regular season (52 points) and playoffs (13 points). He’s an explosive skater with an assassin’s mentality, and even a loaded lineup like the one being featured in Carolina may still have room for him to make noise on the scoresheet.
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Colorado Avalanche: Cale Makar
Right-handed defenseman, fourth overall in 2017
Makar was the best defenseman in college hockey and played like a seasoned veteran when the Avalanche summoned him for postseason duty last spring. He essentially made a power-play quarterback like Tyson Barrie expendable, and there’s no reason to think an already lethal unit that features Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen won’t be enhanced with the addition of a blistering shooter like Makar. Selected fourth overall in the 2017 draft, the Calgary native could see a lot of ice time beyond playing with the man advantage.
Columbus Blue Jackets: Alexandre Texier
Center/wing, 45th overall in 2017
The Blue Jackets were hit hard with the offseason departures of Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene, so it isn’t too far-fetched to believe Texier’s inspiring play in the playoffs may have made the decision to let the big-named free agents walk a tad easier to stomach. He can play center or wing, and his deadly wrist shot and goal-scoring ability from in close should come in handy for a club that finished last season 28th in power-play efficiency.
Montreal Canadiens: Nick Suzuki
Center, 13th overall in 2017
Acquired from Vegas in last season’s Max Pacioretty trade, Suzuki was a big-time scorer in the OHL where he produced three consecutive 90+ point seasons and dominated the playoffs with 42 points in only 24 games for Guelph. He’s incredibly smart and can contribute in all three zones, but his selection over fellow center prospect Ryan Poehling came as a slight surprise when you consider Suzuki had only one AHL game to his credit while Poehling notched a hat trick in his lone NHL contest. Nonetheless, he should see time on both the penalty kill and power play.
Nashville Predators: Dante Fabbro
Right-handed defenseman, 17th overall in 2016
The Predators usually are stingy when it comes to allowing rookies playing a significant role for their Cup-contending roster, but Fabbro’s instincts, poise and maturity fit right in with their desire to keep the puck out of their own end as often as possible. It’s doubtful the Boston University product replaces P.K. Subban’s offense but he’ll be far cleaner with the puck and less averse to taking a hit to move it out of harm’s way.
New Jersey Devils: Jack Hughes
Center, first overall in 2019
Although Hughes beat out Kakko in the race for first overall at the 2019 draft, the Devils may be a bit more cautious with his usage and limit his nightly deployment to only a handful of favorable situations a game. Debuting a potential star with a playing weight of 170- pounds may cause a few sleepless nights for general manager Ray Shero, but keep in mind that Patrick Kane at the start of the 2007-08 season weighed less than Hughes but still went on to win the Calder. Hughes is a sublime playmaker with excellent speed who posterized Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist with a nifty breakaway goal in the preseason.
New York Rangers: Kaapo Kakko
Right wing, second overall selection in 2019 NHL draft
The second overall pick from this year’s draft didn’t have an awe-inspiring training camp after dazzling onlookers in Finland’s SM-Liiga and a handful of international tournaments. However, the Rangers are surrounding him with new additions like Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba, so expect to see Kakko with a fair amount of time on the power play. He’s a high-volume shooter who also drives possession and can set up chances near the goal. His experience playing against older competition should help him during an expected adjustment period.
Ottawa Senators: Erik Brannstrom
Left-handed defenseman, 15th overall in 2017
The prized return in the trade with Vegas for Mark Stone, Brannstrom is an on-ice leader with a cannon of a shot who makes up for his lack of size with incredible lower-body strength and powerful leg drive. Ottawa already has Thomas Chabot, Maxime Lajoie and Christian Wolanin, and with the addition of Brannstrom, it possesses the league’s deepest collection of young blueliners. He can play either side and is more than capable of quarterbacking the power play.
Vancouver Canucks: Quinn Hughes
Left-handed defenseman, seventh overall in 2018
Icing a lineup that features at least one top rookie is nothing new in Vancouver; Elias Pettersson astounded Canucks fans a season ago with his arsenal of dekes and spin moves en route to a near-unanimous Rookie of the Year award in June. The idea of teaming up last year’s Calder winner with one of the game’s best young puck movers in Hughes has Vancouverites salivating, and like Makar, is expected to develop instant chemistry with the high-powered forwards already in place.
Vegas Golden Knights: Cody Glass
Center, sixth overall in 2017
Some felt a bit surprised this gifted playmaker made a stacked roster out of training camp, especially since he’s only two years removed from being drafted. Glass, however, torched the WHL a season ago to a tune of nearly two points per game, then graduated to the Golden Knights’ AHL affiliate in Chicago, where he tied for the team lead in playoff scoring with 15 points in 22 games. Vegas has loaded up for another Stanley Cup run, and it looks like Glass will get some looks on a power play that finished 25th overall a season ago.
2019-20 Calder Trophy sleepers
Chicago Blackhawks: Dominik Kubalik
Left wing, 191st overall in 2013
A 23-year-old winger who previously was drafted by the Kings, Kubalik has good size and soft hands and provides versatility in all situations. He was one of the off-season’s notable European free-agent acquisitions after his impressive world championships for the Czech Republic boosted his stock. It’s doubtful he starts the season playing alongside some of Chicago’s top players, but a depth role shouldn’t prevent him from making the most of his chances near the net.
Chicago Blackhawks: Alex Nylander
Left wing, eighth overall in 2016
A fresh start is never a bad thing, especially when you’re a former top-10 pick traded from a team who missed the playoffs for eight straight seasons. To be fair, Nylander didn’t do much in the AHL or NHL to make a believer out of the Buffalo Sabres who shipped him to the Windy City for offensive defenseman Henri Jokiharju in June. Nylander has buttery-soft hands and can dangle his way into scoring areas but his offense-first mentality has to yield the results needed if he wants to stick around beyond the first month of the season.
Colorado Avalanche: Conor Timmins
Right-handed defenseman, 32nd overall in 2017
One of the league’s feel-good stories to track as the season progresses, Timmins finally has a clean bill of health after concussion issues limited his career to only a few games since being drafted. Not only is Timmins poised under pressure but he makes a crisp first pass and understands positioning and coverage as well as any defenseman his age. It’s doubtful he can do enough to steal minutes away from the likes of Makar or Samuel Girard but bet the farm his underlying analytics will be solid regardless of whether he sticks around or not.
Columbus Blue Jackets: Emil Bemstrom
Center, 117th overall in 2017
One of Sweden’s top junior-age scorers from a season ago, Bemstrom is dangerous in all situations but unlike Texier, he’ll likely play a depth role to start the season. His primary strength is goal scoring but his playmaking off the cycle and the rush are undervalued aspects of his game. Like most Swedish-trained forwards, Bemstrom can be an aggressive forechecker and make responsible plays in his own end.
Columbus Blue Jackets: Vladislav Gavrikov
Left-handed defenseman, 159th overall in 2015
It may seem like the Jackets are indiscriminate in handing roster spots to rookies, but having trust in Jarmo Kekalainen’s ability to develop late-round picks into NHL contributors is a safe bet. Gavrikov has been a blue-line stalwart for two of Russia’s elite organizations (Lokomotiv Yaroslavl and SKA St. Petersburg) in addition to a regular shift for the national teams at the world championship and Olympics. He’s got size, can smother opponents in the low slot and play physical without taking unnecessary penalties.
Detroit Red Wings: Taro Hirose
Left wing, undrafted
An undrafted free agent out of nearby Michigan State, Hirose is a fantastic playmaker who impressed in a brief 10-game stint late last season (goal, six assists) for a Red Wings squad that played out the string. Most prognosticators feel it will be yet another rebuilding season in Detroit, which should provide Hirose with every opportunity to seize a spot on one of the power-play units and a regular shift within the top-9. He made the Red Wings out of camp over more heralded prospects like Joe Veleno and Filip Zadina.
Los Angeles Kings: Tobias Bjornfot
Left-handed defenseman, 22nd overall in 2019
Sweden has produced several top-notch defense prospects in the last few years, but Bjornfot may very well end up becoming one of the better ones. Drafted with the pick acquired from Toronto in last season’s Jake Muzzin deal, Bjornfot was the top-pairing defenseman for Sweden during their gold-medal win at the 2019 under-18 world championships and served as Djugardens’ on-ice leader in the under-20 Superelit. He produced eye-opening performances at both the Kings’ prospect and main training camps, and his skill set appears far more polished than countryman Philip Broberg, who was drafted by Edmonton a dozen slots higher.
Ottawa Senators: Drake Batherson
Right wing, 121st overall in 2017
With an impressive 20-game stint already under his belt, this two-way forward will be afforded plenty of opportunities to improve on last season’s production (nine points) and should see time on one of Ottawa’s young but lethal power-play units. He spent most of the preseason on veteran center Artem Anisimov’s flank, and the combo should provide rookie head coach D.J. Smith with reliable possession play off the cycle. (Note: Batherson was sent down to Belleville on Oct. 6.)
San Jose Sharks: Mario Ferraro
Left-handed defenseman, 49th overall in 2017
It’s doubtful Ferraro sticks around long enough to be considered a Calder favorite once veteran Radek Simek returns from the ACL and MCL tears he suffered last March. Nonetheless, Ferraro had an excellent camp and was one of the more consistent Sharks defenders during the preseason. He can not only clobber the puck from the point but also play with an edge while using excellent footwork to motor up ice or smother opposing team entries.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Rasmus Sandin
Left-handed defenseman, 29th overall in 2018
The Maple Leafs want to win in the postseason and this year’s roster looks like their best in years. So, it goes without saying that a teenage rookie like Sandin, 19, being handed a roster spot on a Stanley Cup contender is more than a big deal. He’s an outstanding puck distributor with excellent vision and quick feet that allow him to consistently find openings and exploit them. It’s not as if the Leafs need him to create time and space when you have the likes of Auston Matthews, John Tavares and Mitch Marner; however, Sandin is quite capable in the defensive zone and can be counted on to limit the amount of time the Leafs look lost in their own end.
Vegas Golden Knights: Nic Hague
Left-handed defenseman, 34th overall in 2017
Hague is a towering blueliner who skates gracefully and is a threat to produce scoring chances from his booming shot. As an AHL rookie last season, he was top 10 among defensemen in both goals (13) and shots (171), which might help convince the Golden Knights to keep him around to assist on one of the NHL’s worst power plays from a season ago.
Winnipeg Jets: Ville Heinola
Left-handed defenseman, 20th overall in 2019
You can probably look it up, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a Stanley Cup contender that had virtually its entire defense corps gutted in just one offseason. With Tyler Myers, Ben Chiarot and Jacob Trouba moving on, and Dustin Byfuglien contemplating life after hockey, the doors are wide open for this incredible playmaker to introduce North American crowds to his elite set-ups and decisive forays into the offensive zone. Granted, Heinola’s play against adult-age competition in Finland doesn’t compare to the physicality and tenacity of the style he’ll face this season on a smaller ice surface; however, it’s risky to count him out — especially when he has the luxury of one of the league’s best collection of goal scorers up front to support him.
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