If your team isn’t going to make the playoffs, the last couple of months of the season can be hard. Hard to play and hard to watch. But one thing that never abandons any fan base is… the future! Let’s take a closer look at the 2020 Calder Trophy race.
The 2020 Calder Trophy Race? That’s Easy!
What it is
Rookie of the year is a tricky award: for some, they want to give it to the player who is the best right now. For others, they want to predict the best career a player is likely to have. You can recognize the second group by the phrase “Yeah, but five years from now…”
The Calder Trophy winner is always going to have greatness predicted of them, by nature of the award. But recently there has been a note of caution creeping in, especially if a nominee is closer to 24 than 18. An older player isn’t as likely to develop more than a younger one is, so… Which you’d think would run counter to the “best right now” designation, but is a bias that’s impossible to shake. Unless the rookie absolutely obliterates the competition (Andrew Raycroft) or the competition is injured (Artemi Panarin) it’s probably going to the younger guy. The 2020 Calder Trophy race shouldn’t be any different, mistakes and all.
Everyone Loves A Tenacious D
One thing that stands out this year is a very high quality of rookie defencemen. Tradition dictates that learning defence is harder than learning wing. Not many people can excel there, never mind someone new to the league. Even when it does go to a blue-liner, it’s usually a player who has a solid all-around game. Coaches aren’t fond of teenagers who run high-risk, high-reward plays unless there’s a pair of veteran defencemen covering for them.
Leashes are pretty tight on bold, scoring defencemen in ways they aren’t on forwards.
This year, there are a couple of that style of defender who will likely get a few votes. But there are also a few others who are going to get more than that, and you already know their names. Right now, with less than 30 games to go, the frontrunners predicted at the beginning of the year haven’t disappointed. The folks who come after them are worth a look though. One or two may even charge hard enough to pull some first-place votes away from the top two. And who knows? Five years from now…
Here’s what we think of the ten most likely candidates to win the 2020 Calder Trophy race.
The Top Guns
Cale Makar started the year at the very top of a lot of Calder Trophy prediction lists, and that hasn’t changed. The Colorado Avalanche were confident enough in him to move veteran Tyson Barrie. Makar has rewarded them by scoring eleven goals and 37 points in just 42 games so far this year. That puts him ninth in league scoring for defencemen and second on his team overall in his first year of play.
Makar’s biggest strength is his shocking change of speeds when attacking, but that’s not to downplay his other abilities. He is also an excellent passer who can run a power play and also has – as his goal totals attest – a very good shot.
The Vancouver Canucks would like the NHL to know they are back. No, not back to the Calder Trophy race – though that for the third year running, too. They are back to relevance, especially in the weakened Pacific division.
Quinn Hughes has been everything predicted, even if it did take a bit of patience. Hughes decided to return to university for a year after he was drafted, and that delay didn’t hurt a bit. The smooth-skating Hughes is quite possibly the most talented scorer at the blue line the Canucks have ever had. There has been little enough competition for that crown, but he has seen top-pair ice time this season since his 23 minutes in game one. He averages a minute more than Makar, but the real surprise is he’s trusted enough that Alexander Edler‘s ice time has dropped by almost 90 seconds from the past five years.
He’s scored 39 points in 52 games so far, leading all rookies in scoring.
Is it Jason Voorhees or the Chicago Blackhawks? The team that refuses to stay dead is making yet another late-year push for the playoffs. While they are still being led by Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, rookie Dominik Kubalik picked up ten goals and four assists in January alone. He now has 21 goals and 32 points in just 50 games this season, most of those in the last two months. If the 2020 Calder Trophy race was also the Cy Young championship, he’d have an excellent chance. As it is, he’ll just be happy with a pretty good one.
We obviously can’t expect ten goals a month for the rest of the season, but if Kubalik comes close to that he’ll put pressure on the defenders above him.
What, another defenceman? Yeah, and for good reason: Adam Fox has earned his second-pair slot with the New York Rangers honestly. The Jericho-born Fox held out after being drafted by the Calgary Flames – and moved to the Carolina Hurricanes – for the chance to play with his home-state Rangers, and the affection is mutual. The attacking blue-liner is second in defence scoring for the team and third among rookie defence league-wide.
Scoring aside, his greatest value might be his ability to get the puck out of dangerous spots himself. He’s a very good skater and can spot opportunities immediately. It would be interesting to see how many of his 23 assists came from breakout passes in his own end.
How good has Nick Suzuki been? Good enough that the Montreal Canadiens felt comfortable sending former rookie phenom centre Jesperi Kotkaniemi to the AHL. With six points in his last four games, Suzuki has forced his way into Calder talk. He’s managed to translate his exemplary vision to the NHL level, maintaining very good possession numbers (52.4% Corsi) while at it.
Samsonov has put together 16 wins in just 18 starts so far this season. And that’s the rub for rookie goalies: getting enough games played. A sterling .923 save percentage doesn’t mean much if they can’t break the 40-game barrier. He still has a chance to do that, but will have to play 20 of the Washington Capitals‘ remaining 29 games.
Last year Jordan Binnington produced similar numbers after swooping in to rescue St. Louis but only managed 32 games. While he got a respectable 18 first-place votes, that wasn’t enough to even remotely challenge Elias Pettersson‘s 151.
Unlike Samsonov, Elvis Merzlikins had his chance thrust upon him when Joonas Korpisalo was injured. After a shaky beginning to his NHL career – zero wins in ten appearances – Merzlikins has two losses in his last twelve appearances. With a .925 save percentage and three shutouts, he’d be above Samsonov if he took the net from Korpisalo. As it is, the veteran is going to come back expecting his place once again. At the very least, Korpisalo will get half the remaining starts when he returns, cutting Merslikins’ opportunity in the 2020 Calder Trophy race short.
In a year of Buffalo Sabres disappointments, Victor Olofsson getting injured during a strong rookie season is just one more. While his scoring cooled by the last week of December, the latest product of “O-vik” was rolling with 35 points in 42 games before his injury at the turn of the calendar. Missing a dozen games and still being third in rookie scoring isn’t too shabby at all.
There is some criticism that his nine power-play goals should count for less in voting consideration. There’s an argument there, as he is getting opportunities when scoring should be easiest. On the other hand, being able to come through when it’s expected of you has merit, too. The bottom line, though, is that he remains injured while the guys at the top of this list speed away.
The Hurricanes are the most dangerous team outside the playoffs. Part of the reason for that is their depth of scoring, and Martin Necas adding 27 points in just 14 minutes of ice time doesn’t hurt at all. Technically a centre, he’s found a home on the right side in his third year with Carolina. His scoring isn’t intimidating, but he’s got very positive possession metrics to go with his 12 goals.
Necas won’t win the Calder Trophy, but if he can keep this pace up the 21-year old Czech will get his mentions.
A Closing Caveat for the 2020 Calder Trophy Race
One thing to always watch out for this late in the season is for those players who came from university – like the top two players here – “hitting the wall” as the season drags past 60 games. The NHL isn’t just a more physical game but has a higher number of them to go with huge amounts of travel. Add the pressures of media attention, living in a new city, finding a place to live…
Mental exhaustion can show up alongside physical exhaustion. The players won’t know it’s coming until it hits them. This is where older players like Kubalik or Olofsson can make ground. And it’s one variable in the 2020 Calder Trophy race – and every other rookie’s season – no one can predict.