This year’s race for the Calder Trophy—awarded to the best rookie playing in the NHL—is one of the best in living memory. By my count, there are eight rookies having seasons that, in lesser years, would get them legitimate Calder buzz. It’s been an extraordinary season.
Even rarer, there are multiple Leafs in competition for the award. No Leaf has won the Calder Trophy since Brit Selby in 1966. The Leafs as a whole have struggled mightily to win any individual awards in the past 50 years—the only Toronto skaters to take home individual trophies were Doug Gilmour (1993 Selke) and Alexander Mogilny (2003 Lady Byng.)
So for the league, and for the Leafs, this has been the Year of the Rookie. Let’s look at the candidates for the award, and see what case we can make for each of them. I’ll start from those I consider the least likely, going up to favourites.
Sebastian Aho and Matthew Tkachuk have both had impressive, near-50-point seasons that are nonetheless not going to suffice to win the trophy this year.
Aho is an enviably skilled, quick-thinking finesse winger for the Carolina Hurricanes. He’s walked right into top-line minutes for the Hurricanes this season and is second only to Jeff Skinner in goals and points on the team. Despite being a little on the smaller side, he’s tenacious and is one of those players who genuinely makes offence happen.
Matthew Tkachuk is very good, but he is also what my colleague Elseldo calls “a shitweasel.” I do not like him. You can look up some highlights of him scoring, or you can look up footage of him elbowing people in the face. At any rate, he and his linemates Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik, on Calgary’s “3M” line, are genuinely incredibly dominant and have helped key Calgary’s resurgence towards a playoff spot, so that’s neat.
Aho and Tkachuk are victims of the strong field in their rookie years. They’re both offensively talented players, but they’re too far back to be competitive in a year of elite producers.
So, we turn to the top six. I would genuinely not be surprised to see any of these players finish high in the balloting.
6. Mitch Marner, RW, Toronto Maple Leafs
Every now and then, Mitch Marner will do what I describe as “video game shit.” For a few moments, he will appear to be operating at a level where he is too fast and too skilled for the opposition, like their difficulty has been set too low. He’ll make a blind pass that winds up perfectly on target, as if the puck is moving automatically to his linemate’s stick. Or he’ll keep darting and spinning away from contact way longer than any player should be able to hang onto the puck at this level.
This wasn’t totally unprecedented—Marner did many of the same things in junior—but it seemed like he should have struggled to have his game translate. He was undersized, and as everyone knows, the things that work in junior do not work in the NHL.
Marner does not appear to have cared at all about the things that everyone knows, and he cleared 60 points with staggering ease. His timing on the play above is just perfect.
If you’d like a minute breakdown of Marner’s game, check out our editor Scott Wheeler’s “The Magic of Mitch Marner.”
The numbers: 77 games played, 19 goals, 42 assists, 61 points.
After a string of seasons playing alongside another star RW in Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak reached a career high in points this season—playing with 19-year-old Marner. Some of Marner’s impressive point total comes from the Leafs’ generally dynamite offensive style, their potent power play, and the fact Marner was playing with established offensive players in Bozak and James van Riemsdyk. Some of it is that Marner is a top-drawer playmaker. He’s the rookie assists leader for this season, in a stacked field.
The best case for Marner to win the Calder is that he has at times been the most electrifying player on the Leafs, and that gorgeous assists total. A late-season illness probably dampened his offensive numbers a bit, too. As far as in-season hardware goes, Marner took home the Rookie of the Month award in January.
On the other hand, Marner is merely excellent in point production, and his line—which generally played somewhat softer competition, thanks to Leafs coach Mike Babcock—was not good in its own zone. Some of that is his linemates, who have never been much good in their own zone, and a 19-year-old rookie not being perfect on defence is hardly unprecedented. At the same time, it doesn’t help him in an already highly competitive Calder race.
Parting thought: Mitch Marner’s 61 points would have ranked first or second among rookies every season from 2008 to 2013. This is the kid I’m ranking sixth this season.
5. William Nylander, RW, Toronto Maple Leafs
For a time it seemed like Nylander would be the clear third of the Leafs’ Big Three rookies. He was older than the other two, and TSN bizarrely kept trying to trade him in a series of articles. He was also the subject of more criticism for his work ethic, his defence, and general moral turpitude.
The reason for all this—at least one reason, any way—is that Nylander makes things look easy. Sometimes it looks as if he carries the puck in and, after some thought, deigns to roof the puck over the goalie’s shoulder with a bullet shot.
He does all kinds of things like that. Needle-thread passes, super slick zone entries, his patented turn away from checking pressure to make a pass. Here, watch him play Cat’s Cradle with C.J. Smith and then set up a goal.
When Nylander is on, you wonder if anyone in the league has as much skill. The complaints about him come because at his best, he’s just that good. If you try to appreciate him on his own merits, you suddenly wonder if you’re looking at one of the most talented players in the NHL.
The numbers: 81 GP, 22G, 39A, 61P.
Nylander is the two-time Rookie of the Month, winning the award in both October and March; no one else won more than once, so in that respect he’s top of his class. Nylander leads all rookies in powerplay points, with 26 (no one else has more than 21), and he plays on the second-best powerplay in the NHL.
Further to that: William Nylander leads his team in Corsi Rel. Either he’s better defensively than the eyes (and the pundits) say, or he’s so incredible offensively that he vastly outweighs his own deficiencies. My personal guess is a little of column A, a little of column B. Another thing: Nylander is a monster at zone entries, and routinely leads his team in this regard.
To be honest with you, I think if William Nylander played for another team, he would threaten the top three; and if he were a rookie in a weaker season, he would very probably win. He is genuinely an incredible player. His linemate and his class will keep him from the award, and probably the finalists, this year, but in some ways he’s the most awe-inspiring player on this list to watch.
4. Matthew Murray, G, Pittsburgh Penguins
Next up is Matthew “Oh Right, He’s Still Calder-Eligible” Murray, starter for the defending Cup champs.
Murray seems oddly underdiscussed in the Calder conversation, apparently for two reasons: one, if you backstop a team to a Cup, you don’t really seem like a rookie the following season; and two, goalies are weird and we don’t really know how to compare them to skaters. Having said that, there’s some precedent—as my colleague Katya Knappe reminded me, Ken Dryden won the Calder in 1972, after backstopping the 1971 Habs to a Cup. Don’t sleep on Murray.
As with apparently all modern starting goalies, Matt Murray is a large human. Between that and his natural flexibility and athleticism, he has excellent raw tools to play net, which partly explains why the Pittsburgh Penguins drafted him following an absolutely ghastly junior season in 2011-12 (he put up a save percentage of .876 behind the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.) Some keen-eyed Penguins scout nonetheless saw a teachable talent in Murray, and one assumes earned a raise doing so.
While we don’t like it as a concept, it also has to be mentioned: Matt Murray has been given the title of Clutch Goalie, based on his playoff run last year. Everyone wants their goalies to make the big, game-saving stop. While there’s not really a ton of evidence that this is actually a repeatable skill beyond high-danger save percentage, this might burnish Murray’s reputation generally.
If you look at Murray’s highlights—the above video has a deeply unfortunate soundtrack and includes some of his 2016 playoff work, but is a good selection—what particularly stands out is his near-total coverage of the lower part of the net. His rangy frame and flexibility essentially mean that almost anyone trying to open up Murray laterally is going to wind up bouncing a puck off his outstretched pads. This is partly how he sometimes seems to swallow up a breakaway chance, with the forward appearing to have nothing at all to shoot at. Of course, at Murray’s level, you have to be good in every other respect, too, and he is.
The numbers: 49 GP, 47 starts, 32 wins, 4 shutouts, .923 save percentage.
By basically any goalie metric, Matt Murray is a top-ten goalie in the NHL this year. He’s sixth in unadjusted save percentage (min. 30 GP.) In goals saved above average, he’s either fourth (5v5) or fifth (all situations) in the NHL. He’s ninth in high-danger save percentage. You get the point. Aside from Sergei Bobrovsky, who is probably about to win the Vezina, Murray has performed at a level competitive with pretty much any starter.
There’s also the simple fact that Matthew has displaced Marc-Andre Fleury, who prior to this year was a reliable starting goalie (at least in the regular season.) Fleury hasn’t been great in 2016-17, but nonetheless, Matt Murray’s outstanding work has made the decision a lot easier for Pittsburgh. It’s not easy to bag a starting job at age 22 on a team making a Cup run.
Maybe that’s the strongest point in favour of Murray for the Calder. The strict language of the award is “most proficient.” His team is the only one clearly a contender, and they’re relying on Murray in arguably their most important role. What higher standard of proficiency can there be?
3. Zach Werenski, D, Columbus Blue Jackets
If there’s one team this year that’s been more surprising than the Leafs, it’s Columbus. They were widely picked to be a Metropolitan bottom-feeder, and their defence looked to be Seth Jones and a whole lot of sadness. Enter Zach Werenski.
It’s hard to find defensive highlights, which means that defenders with flashy offensive talent tend to stand out more. Good news: Werenski has that in spades. He’s a gifted passer, he’s got a shot, and he runs the Columbus power play.
The kid can skate, the kid can pass, the kid can shoot. I am reluctant to use the word “dynamic” because it’s vague bordering on meaningless, but it seems to apply to Werenski’s overall capacity for offensive creativity. He’s tied for second in the NHL’s rookie class for power-play points—emphasis, as a defender—and you can see why.
The numbers: 78 GP, 11G, 36A, 47P.
Those point totals, from a defender, immediately command respect, even given the CBJ powerplay slowed late in the year. Looking past that: Werenski actually plays second-pair minutes at even strength, against fairly average competition. On the other hand, he’s a very good possession player, easily the best on the Columbus defence, and it seems a little picky to fault him because Tortorella wants to play Jack Johnson more minutes. Simply, Werenski has functioned as at the least a quality top-four, and probably top-pair, defender, as a 19-year-old. That’s a mighty difficult thing to do. Werenski’s had Calder recognition, backing his Rookie of the Month award in November.
In the end, the difficulty of comparing across positions is going to bear heavily on Werenski’s Calder case. The Calder voters don’t seem to have any bias against defenders—Shayne Gostisbehere finished second in balloting last year, while Aaron Ekblad won in 2015 and Tyler Myers in 2010—but it would take a considerable position bonus to get Werenski past the two superstar goal-scorers ahead of him this year. Ultimately, I don’t think he’s going to get one.
2. Patrik Laine, LW/RW, Winnipeg Jets
I come not to bury Patrik Laine, but to praise him. Thanks to draft position, he’s always going to be associated with our star rookie, and there’s been more than a little regional rivalry between Leafs and Jets fans in discussing him. (Look up #LainesBetter on Twitter, if you like.) From an objective stance, Laine is genuinely outstanding.
Patrik Laine is a huge, teenage force of nature, and his shot is simply one of the greatest I have ever seen.
Laine puts all of his weight behind his shot, which deserves to be mentioned in the Ovechkin/Stamkos class. Look at the flex on that damn thing. It looks like a longbow.
Laine is so good at getting his shot off, with such power, that it’s one of the great weapons in the NHL. And it really is how he earns most of his money—whether off a cross-seam one-timer or firing off the rush. This naturally lends itself to power play production, but it wouldn’t be fair to discount his similarly impressive work at even strength. And he can produce other ways, too—his size and his hand-eye allow him to operate effectively in front of the net as well as at the top of the circles. He’s also no stationary threat; he’s got the agility to find openings. He is a complete goal-scorer, and I expect we’re going to be watching him finish top-five in goals for years to come.
The numbers: 73 GP, 36G, 28A, 64P.
There was a time in the middle of the season where this seemed to be Patrik Laine’s award to lose. He’s still narrowly the top rookie in points per game—his season was interrupted by an upper-body injury in January, before he came back to win Rookie of the Month in February—and he’s going to get first-place votes. Four rookies in the last twenty years have scored 35 goals or more; Laine is one of them. Raw production goes a very long way, and it looked for a time as if it were going to swing the argument to Laine.
Laine, however, has been edged in raw production, and his case suffers compared to Matthews otherwise. Laine has been being fed by elite centre Mark Scheifele; wing is an easier position to play than centre; Laine is well back of Matthews in even-strength goals. Laine gets run over in possession terms, which is not necessarily his fault, but as with Marner, it means his case suffers next to a more effective CF% player. (At least, for me.)
Most years in the last decade, you could probably point to Laine’s goal totals and the Calder vote would promptly sort itself out accordingly. This year is the exception.
1. Auston Matthews, C, Toronto Maple Leafs
Never in doubt, was it?
Here is why Auston Matthews is good.
- When he doesn’t have the puck, he’s very good at getting it;
- When he does have the puck, it’s very hard to take it from him;
- When he gets in the offensive zone, he’s very good at going to the most dangerous areas;
- When he’s in a dangerous area with the puck, he gets his shot away instantly;
- And when he gets his shot away, he tends to put it in.
This may sound like I’m just describing Matthews as being very good at all of the elements of scoring goals, and in fact, that is what I am doing. Auston Matthews is a human scoring chance. He will go where the offence can be generated and he will generate it. It is beautiful.
This means that while he doesn’t have the cannon Laine does, he has a comparably capacity for goal-scoring—the percentage shooter versus the volume shooter. I’m tempted to describe it as the sniper vs. the machine gunner, but then Matthews does stuff like this.
That was his first NHL game. The defenceman Matthews is embarrassing there is Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson. This is the play of a top five goal scorer on the planet, and the person doing it is a teenager.
Here’s him rushing the puck, then finishing power-forward style.
Auston Matthews snaps a seven-game point drought and buries his 32nd of the year. 1-0 Leafs in the first period. pic.twitter.com/6jwavk8qiv— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) March 18, 2017
Takeaways and finish.
Auston Matthews is out of this freaking world, Part 34235632543. His 27th of the year, second of the night, 6-1 Leafs. pic.twitter.com/vPoC6GVnuc— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) February 15, 2017
Reflexes and aim.
Auston Matthews scores his 37th goal of the season, tying Leafs/Wings at 1-1. pic.twitter.com/uIm4uYtKVR— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) April 2, 2017
Auston Matthews is superhuman.
The numbers: 82 GP, 40G, 29A, 69P. Rookie of the Month for December, which is the least of his achievements.
The only rookie to score more goals than Matthews in a season since 1994 is Alex Ovechkin (with whom Matthews shares a birthday). Ovechkin (who is possibly the greatest goal-scorer of all time) had his NHL rookie year at age 20 in a year with significantly higher scoring. Matthews is second in the NHL in goals. As a rookie. This is nuts.
Further to that, Matthews has played centre, unlike any of the other top rookies on this list. He’s shouldered more positional responsibility than many of his competitors—including Laine—and he’s played virtually the entire season with wingers who are also rookies. He’s been a quality possession presence and a bona fide 1C. He has played like a franchise player.
Once Matthews hit that magic 40-goal number, he effectively clinched this award. Round numbers may be arbitrary, but it points to the separation in offence that puts enough space between him and Laine—and once that gap is there, Matthews wins in other respects. Functioning as a 1C is going to edge out Laine’s spectacular sniping, or Werenski’s near-top-pair work, or Matt Murray’s stellar goaltending.
Ultimately, the Calder Trophy is going to go to Auston Matthews. That isn’t because Laine, Werenski, and the others aren’t extraordinary. This really is the deepest Calder field in years. Matthews is just that good.