By Tom Hunter (@)
When the NHL season began last October, Connor McDavid was the odds-on favourite to win the 2016 Calder Trophy – and had he not missed significant time due to injury, he would have won in a landslide.
This season, the Rookie of the Year race is much more wide open. Unlike last year’s first overall pick, Auston Matthews likely isn’t the favourite to win the Calder – heck he might not even be the most likely Maple Leaf to win the award.
With that in mind, I’ve taken a look at one player from each team that has a possibility of contending for the Calder this season.
Anaheim Ducks – Shea Theodore (D)
His biggest obstacle will be his head coach. Randy Carlyle is not a fan of rookie defenseman – as was evident with his past handling of Cam Fowler and Morgan Rielly. A solid two-way defender and a great passer, Shea Theodore has the talent to make an impact on the Ducks next season if Carlyle will let him.
Playing behind guys like Lindholm, Fowler, Manson and Vatanen, Theodore will be hard pressed to find his way into the team’s top-4, but if he gets his fair share of minutes, the rookie defender could make an impact on a very good, very young blueline.
Likelihood of winning: Moderate
Arizona Coyotes – Dylan Strome (C)
Before John Chayka spent time this summer adding right-handed defenders, I would have likely chosen Anthony DeAngelo in this spot. Now, with the roster moves, it looks like DeAngelo will spend at least the start of the season in the AHL.
While he’s proven he’s far too good for junior hockey, I’m not fully convinced that Dylan Strome will be in the NHL this season. He still has work to do on his skating and if he were AHL eligible, he would almost certainly spend the entire year playing in Tucson with Christian Dvorak. With that said, Strome has the offensive talent to make an immediate impact if the team decides to keep him around this season.
Last season in Erie was spent proving that he can emerge from the shadow of Connor McDavid and continue to tear apart the OHL – with 111 points in only 56 games, Strome did exactly that.
One thing that may hurt his chances its that even if Strome is in the NHL this season, there very likely could miss a month of action if the Coyotes decide to loan him out for the World Juniors – something that they will certainly do, assuming he isn’t playing huge minutes in Arizona.
Likelihood of Winning: Slightly above average
Calgary Flames – Hunter Shinkaruk (LW)
After being traded from Vancouver to Calgary mid-season, the 2013 first round pick didn’t look out of place during a 7 game tryout with the Flames last season.
Likely to start the season with the Flames, Shinkaruk has played both center and wing in the past – and does so with a very impressive offensive game. He has great hands and a tremendous ability to read the play. He’s not very big, but I think the Flames have shown that doesn’t matter if you’ve got the talent to make up for it.
His play without the puck has grown a lot since he was drafted but it may still be a bit of a stumbling block when it comes to winning the trust of his coaches.
If Shinkaruk can find his way onto a line with Sam Bennett, it could be a recipe for something special this season.
Likelihood of winning: Moderate
Chicago Blackhawks – Nick Schmaltz (F)
The 20th overall pick in the 2014 draft, Schmaltz turned pro this year after two seasons at the University of North Dakota. With their salary cap being rather top-heavy, Chicago has a very strong need for contribution from players on entry-level contracts.
Schmaltz is a good skater with high-end vision and he’s got the ability to anticipate and react to the play at a very quick speed – something that will go along way when trying to fit into the forward group in Chicago.
As we saw last year with Artemi Panarin, Joel Quenneville isn’t afraid to throw a rookie right into the fire. Last year’s Calder Trophy winner was given a spot in the top-6 and didn’t relinquish it all season. Schmaltz has the talent to do the same this season.
With the ability to play any forward position, there is a strong possibility that we will see Schmaltz given the chance to thrive this season. Some think he may end up in the AHL for part of the year, but it’s unlikely that he would have left college without having an NHL guarantee from the organization.
Likelihood of winning: Above average
Colorado Avalanche – Mikko Rantanen (RW)
A big, talented winger that could step right in on the top line in Colorado this season – and with a spot next to MacKinnon or Duchene, he is a candidate to win the rookie scoring race.
After dominating the AHL as a 19-year old last season, there is nothing left for Rantanen to do except prove what he can do at the top level. He is one of the best prospects in hockey and has the elite talent to not only win the Calder but be in the Art Ross conversation as his career goes on.
The thing about Rantanen is that there is a chance he won’t even be the best rookie on his team. J.T. Compher is leaving the University of Michigan to start his NHL career this season and is also very likely to be in the Calder conversation at the end of the year. I give Rantanen the edge because, even though he’s younger, he has a full season of professional hockey behind him, whereas Compher doesn’t.
Likelihood of winning: A pre-season favourite
Dallas Stars – Esa Lindell (D)
Lindell wasn’t just given a spot on Team Finland for the World Cup of Hockey, the Dallas Stars prospect was one of the first defenders named to the team.
He was great in the AHL last season and is one of the main reasons that the Stars were able to let a number of veteran defenders walk away as free agents this offseason.
Lindell is a big, smart, two-way defender that will likely end up in the team’s top-4 right out of training camp. I suspect that it won’t be long before he joins John Klingberg on the team’s top pair to anchor the Dallas defense for a long time.
Likelihood of winning: Quiet dark horse
Edmonton Oilers – Jesse Puljujarvi (RW)
When the Columbus Blue Jackets passed on Jesse Puljujarvi with the third overall pick this past June, the Oilers found themselves falling ass-backwards into yet another franchise cornerstone. On a team that is not lacking young, high-end offensive forwards – one less after the inexplicable Taylor Hall deal – Puljujarvi could very well end up as the best of the group not named Connor McDavid.
After struggling through a few injuries last season, Puljujarvi ended up producing at a higher rate than Patrik Laine – who many believe is the best offensive talent in the draft.
At the World Juniors, Puljujarvi showed that he can be dominant with good linemate – and lucky for him, there’s a good chance he’ll end up playing with either Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl for the next decade.
Puljujarvi is an elite – if unassuming – talent that will fit in very well as the second (or even third) fiddle in Edmonton
Likelihood of winning: Contender
Los Angeles Kings – Adrian Kempe (LW)
It might be a year too early, but Adrian Kempe isn’t far from being a key piece of the future in Los Angeles.
During an up and down first season in the AHL, Kempe showed flashes of what made him a first round pick in 2014. He is a big, strong forward that forechecks with aggression and plays a game that would fit in rather well with a Darryl Sutter coached team.
He might start the season with the Ontario Reign, but with a strong training camp, Kempe could work his way into the NHL roster – especially given how valuable a cheap contract would be to the Kings.
Likelihood of winning: Low
Minnesota Wild – Alex Tuch (F)
Tuch is another player who is making the jump from the NCAA this season. Like with the others, the mere fact that Minnesota convinced him to leave school after only two years suggests that both team and player believe he is ready for the NHL.
Tuch has NHL size, but some believe he isn’t developing the way you would hope for a top-20 pick. He hasn’t shown the top-end offensive skill you would expect out of a top-6 forward. However, the way he forechecks and creates space for his linemate suggests that he will end up in the NHL, if only in a bottom-6 role.
Eighteen goals in 40 games is nothing to sneeze at, but Tuch will often have time creating his own offense the way you would want to a top line player to. He could develop into the kind of big bodies, second line complimentary offensive role that we saw from Scott Hartnelll in his heyday.
Likelihood of winning: Below average
Nashville Predators – Kevin Fiala (F)
Like Rantanen, Fiala is another player who lit up the AHL last season as a 19-year old.
Fiala is an explosive skater that is at his best with the puck on his stick. An amazing stickhandler, he is great at maintaining possession and creating scoring chances for himself and his linemates.
Along with PK Subban, the addition of Fiala this season will make the Predators a fun team to watch. His finishing ability and creativity with the puck will likely make him a favorite among fans in short order.
Given the right role, Fiala should be up near the top of the rookie scoring race this season.
Likelihood of winning: Contender
San Jose Sharks – Nikolay Goldobin (LW)
The 20-year old Russian isn’t a guarantee to start the season in the NHL but if he does, he could contribute right away to a San Jose Sharks team that looks to be at the top of the Western conference all year.
He’s always been skinny and easily pushed around by bigger opponents, but if he put on the strength necessary over the summer, Goldobin has the potential to be a legitimate offensive threat. He has a great shot and a quick release that can come out of nowhere thanks to his creativity with the puck.
On a team that could use some more youth, Goldobin could end up having a similar start to his career as the one we saw from Tomas Hertl.
Likelihood of winning: Dark horse
St. Louis Blues – Ivan Barbashev (C)
Barbashev might be a year away, but when he does eventually crack an NHL lineup, he is likely to have an offensive impact immediately. The 20-year old will have to work on his consistency and his play without the puck but once he does, he’s got the dynamic talent to be an elite playmaker in the NHL.
The thoughts of Barbashev’s playmaking with Tarasenko’s finishing ability is something that likely has the St. Louis front office very excited.
The Blue gave Robby Fabbri a shot a year before many thought he would be in the NHL, so the same might happen again with Barbashev. If he can figure it all out, he has the talent to contribute significantly.
Likelihood of winning: Moderate
Vancouver Canucks – Anton Rodin (LW)
Many will argue that a 26-year-old has no business being eligible for the rookie of the year award – and maybe they’re right. The fact of the matter is that Anton Rodin is still technically a rookie despite being drafted seven years ago.
After spending the past three years playing professionally in Sweden, Rodin is back in North America and the Canucks hope that he will give them the secondary offensive production they desperately need.
On a team that is destined to be pretty bad this season, Rodin could get a lot of ice time and play in some key situations – setting him up to produce more than people expect and surprise some when they look at the rookie of the year race.
Likelihood of winning: Long shot
Winnipeg Jets – Patrik Laine (RW)
The player some believed should have been drafted first overall this past June, Patrik Laine is set to step into the Jets lineup and create instant offense. He showed during the World Championship last spring that he has the ability to play against NHLers.
It won’t be long before he is on the first power play unit in Winnipeg and many believe that the rookie scoring race is his to lose. With an elite shot and the flare to end up on highlight reels, Laine is the kind of player that fans love to watch.
He’s spoken about wanting to prove he’s the best player in his draft class, and the Calder trophy would be the first step towards doing that.
Likelihood of winning: Preseason favourite