By Tom Hunter (@)
Yesterday I took a look at who I believe will be the most likely Calder Trophy candidate for each team in the Western Conference. This year, the West will see a couple contenders like Patrik Laine, Mikko Rantanen, as well as some under the radar dark horses like Esa Lindell and Nikolay Goldobin.
While there are a few worth candidates in the West, it looks as though this year will have a far more impressive rookie crop in the Eastern Conference. Just ask Maple Leafs fans – if all goes according to plan, all three Calder nominees will be playing in Toronto this season.
Now let’s take a look at the Eastern conference:
Boston Bruins – Austin Czarnik (F)
Czarnik might not be the most well-known prospect in the Bruins organization, but he might be the one that makes this biggest impact this season.
The undrafted college free agent was third on the Providence Bruins last season with 61 points in 68 games. Overcoming his lack of size will be the big issue at the next level – it’s not his height (5’9″) that is the problem, he’s just very small (listed at 160lbs).
If Czarnik can overcome his lack of bulk, he can be a dangerous offensive threat for the Bruins. He is a dynamo with the puck on his stick – he’s speedy, creative, and has the puck handling skills to create fits for slower defenders. Czarnik is definitely more of a playmaker than a scorer thanks to his tremendous passing ability.
He can play both center and wing – so he has the ability to fill a number of holes n the Bruins lineup this season and in the right circumstance, he could surprise a lot of people this season.
Likelihood of winning: Surprising dark horse
Buffalo Sabres – Hudson Fasching (RW)
After leaving the University of Minnesota after the conclusion of his junior season, Fasching played seven games with the Sabres last year to get a taste of the NHL.
Fasching brings a power forward presence to the group of young forwards in Buffalo and if he can find his way into the top-6 alongside the likes of Jack Eichel, Kyle Okposo and Sam Reinhart, Fasching has the offensive talent to put up some impressive production numbers.
He’s a big winger that skates well and has the ability to create space for his teammates. Add to that an instinctive finishing ability and it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see Fasching score 30 goals in the NHL one day.
Likelihood of winning: Slightly above average
Carolina Hurricanes – Sebastian Aho (F)
“The other guy” on Finland’s dynamic top line at last year’s World Junior Championship, Aho is a guy who looks to be a second round steal for Carolina.
He is a very smart all-around player that produced a point per game playing professionally as an 18-year old in Finland last season. Aho’s biggest strength is his mind – he has the instincts needed to succeed in the NHL and the ability to make the right play, whether it be for himself or his linemate.
Aho plays with a poise that made him look like a savvy veteran compared to most others in the World Juniors. He will look to get accustomed to the speed of the NHL game during this month’s World Cup, in the hopes that he can hit the ground running with Carolina this season.
Likelihood of winning: Quiet dark horse that could make this a three-Finn final
Columbus Blue Jackets – Zach Werenski (D)
After a freshman season of dominating the NCAA, Zach Werenski is going to make the jump to the NHL this season and make an immediate impact on the Columbus Blue Jackets.
While Noah Hanafin jumped to the NHL right away, and Ivan Provorov has been the subject of overwhelming hype, Zach Werenski is the one that could end up being the best defenseman from the 2015 draft.
The smooth-skating two-way defender is a point producer, a powerplay quarterback, a breakout leader and a possession monster. It wouldn’t be surprising at all if Werenski is the best player on the Columbus blueline by the end of his rookie season.
On a team that is likely to be pretty bad, Werenski could be a bright spot this season.
Likelihood of winning: Strong contender
Detroit Red Wings – Ryan Sproul (D)
Ryan Sproul? What about Mantha or Svechnikov? Thanks to some puzzling moves by the Red Wings front office this summer, the team enters the season with about a bazillion forwards on one-way contracts – likely leaving no room for any rookies up front.
On the flip side, the Detroit blueline is very thin – to put it mildly. Enter Ryan Sproul. The 23-year-old right-handed defenseman is coming off a very good third season in the AHL. The former second-round pick has improved the biggest weakness in his game – his skating – drastically over his three seasons with Grand Rapids.
He has the potential to quarterback a second powerplay unit and could be a solid puck-moving option for a team that needs it.
Likelihood of winning: Very slim
Florida Panthers – Michael Matheson (D)
After spending the majority of last season in the AHL, Matheson got called up and was in the lineup for the Panthers during their playoff run last season. He then went on to have an incredibly impressive World Championship playing for Team Canada.
Matheson is likely to be the sixth man on a blueline that should be very good this season. He won’t be asked to line up against the top competition, and that could give the rookie a chance to thrive and develop into the solid two-way player the Panthers are hoping for.
His skating an play with the puck has always been the strong suit of his game, and playing against bottom-6 forwards most nights will give him the chance to bolster a defensive game that has grown significantly since being drafted.
Likelihood of winning: Below average
Montreal Canadiens – Charles Hudon (LW)
The 22-year old forward is coming off his second good year in the AHL. Playing alongside Nikita Scherback, Hudon led the IceCaps with 28 goals in 67 games. He made his NHL debut last season, skating in three games for the Canadiens and many expect him to be in a battle with Michael McCarron for a role with Montreal to start this season.
He is a skilled but gritty forward that can add secondary offense while playing a hard forechecking style that seems to fit what the Canadiens are hoping to have this season. The way Mark Bergevin spoke after acquiring Andrew Shaw this summer, makes me think that Hudon will fit in very well with the team this year.
He can contribute the secondary scoring that the Habs desperately need and will likely be the first of the new-wave of Canadiens forwards to make an impact.
Likelihood of winning: Below average
New Jersey Devils – Pavel Zacha (F)
The 6th overall pick in the 2015 draft is another in the group of players that is too good for junior but not necessarily ready for the NHL to start the season. Like with Strome, Marner et al, Zacha is ineligible to play in the league that is likely best for him – the AHL – so he is likely to play this season with the Devils.
Zacha is a dynamic offensive player that will be a top-line forward in the NHL one day – if not this season. He’s big, fast, and incredibly dangerous with the puck on his stick.
With the addition of Taylor Hall this offseason, Zacha won’t be relied upon as heavily as some would have expected and that might suit him well. I suspect he will see a lot of time in New Jersey’s top-6 as the season goes on and Zacha has the talent to turn that ice time into production.
Likelihood of winning: Above average
New York Islanders – Ryan Pulock (D)
During his second season in the AHL last year, Pulock made his NHL debut and looked very good in his 15 games on the Islanders blueline. The former first round pick is an unassuming, low-maintenance two-way defender that could find his way onto New York’s second pair by the time the season ends.
His skating has improved but it is still the part of his game that will prevent him from being a top defender in the NHL. That said, Pulock is the type of right-handed complimentary defenseman that help establish an elite blueline group.
On a team that is filled with high-end forward prospects, Pulock is the rookie that is most likely to make an impact for the Islanders this season.
Likelihood of winning: Low
New York Rangers – Jimmy Vesey (LW)
After winning the sweepstakes for his services, the New York Rangers are hoping that Jimmy Vesey lives up to the hype in his rookie season. The Hobey Baker winner will be joining a Rangers team that still thinks it can contend at the top of the conference, and if Vesey is playing in their top-9, he will have to contribute significantly.
Vesey spent the past two seasons beating up on NCAA competition and brings a scoring ability that many believe will translate over to the NHL. He’s a good skater, a smart player and has the finishing ability that you want from a top-6 winger.
He’ll have a lot of pressure to perform this season and my bet is that the Rangers put him in a position to succeed, whether he’s ready for it or not.
Likelihood of winning: Not as high as the free agency hype would suggest
Ottawa Senators – Nick Paul (F)
With Colin White staying at Boston College for another year and Thomas Chabot destined to stay in the QMJHL for one more season, it’s really slim pickin’s when it comes to Sens prospects. That brings us to Nick Paul.
After playing 24 games with Ottawa last season, Paul is still eligible as a rookie this year and should play a big enough role in Ottawa that he will make some sort of impact.
The big forward won’t get near the team’s top line – unless they get really desperate – but he should see plenty of time playing in the middle-6. He a quick power forward that goes to the net and is able to finish a play when given the opportunity. He doesn’t always create his own offense but he is a decent secondary option for a more talented linemate.
Likelihood of winning: Very low
Philadelphia Flyers – Travis Sanheim (D)
Many people are probably thinking Ivan Provorov should be in this spot – and while he looks almost ready to make the jump to the NHL, Sanheim still looks to be ahead of him in terms of development.
If he can continue to put on weight and show that he is strong enough to play at the next level, Sanheim has the skill to be an impact defenseman for the Flyers. As we saw with Shayne Gostisbehere last season, the Flyers aren’t afraid to take the reins off of a dynamic offensive defender. He isn’t as threatening as Provorov offensively but his two-way game is far more developed.
With Gostisbehere last year and Provorov next, Sanheim very well could make sure that we see a Flyers defenseman nominated for the Calder for three straight seasons.
Likelihood of winning: Above average
Pittsburgh Penguins – Matt Murray (G)
When Matt Murray hits the ice to star this ‘rookie’ season, he will already have a Stanley Cup ring in his pocket. The 22-year old goaltender is still eligible for the Calder Trophy thanks to his limited number of games played last season.
When Marc-Andre Fleury got injured last season, the goalie that some believed was the best prospect in hockey made his debut and never looked back. He hasn’t had a sv% below .920 since 2013 and went from being the best goalie outside the NHL to stealing the show in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Murray will be in a battle for the starter’s role in training camp, but with the talent he’s shown, it would not be at all surprising if he beats out Fleury for the job.
The biggest factor working against Murray is that there is now way to know how much he will actually play – especially if Marc-Andre Fleury is able to return to form.
Likelihood of winning: A contender if given the chance
Tampa Bay Lightning – Slater Koekkoek (D)
After two seasons in the AHL, it looks like the former 10th overall pick is ready to be a full-time NHLer. Koekkoek made his NHL debut last season and went on to play in nine playoff games, showing he’s ready for the big stage.
With Hedman and Stralman around, Koekkoek won’t be asked to take a lead role in any way, and that is the perfect situation for a rookie defenseman.
While his point totals might not reflect it, Koekkoek has a very strong offensive game. He has strong instincts and a great first pass to lead the breakout. He’s an all-around defender that will slot in nicely as a compliment to Tampa’s top defenders.
Likelihood of winning: Low
Toronto Maple Leafs – Auston Matthews (C)
You wouldn’t think that choosing the top rookie on a team that had the first overall pick would be hard – but it is. While Matthews probably has the potential to have the best season of any Leafs rookie this season, no one should be surprised if William Nylander is the one who ends up winning the Calder.
Matthews is the best player from his draft, he’s the future number one center for the Toronto Maple Leafs and he is the cornerstone that this franchise has been looking for since Mats Sundin left.
I have a suspicion he will start slowly, playing a complimentary role behind guys like Kadri, Van Riemsdyk and even Nylander – but as the season goes on and he gets more comfortable, Mike Babcock will begin to lean on him heavily.
Nylander has two extra years of development in the system, which may give him the leg up when it comes to rookie impact on the team but something tells me that Matthews is going to exceed expectations this season – yes even the ridiculous expectations in Toronto. It’s conceivable that Matthews and Nylander could end up having a season like Eichel and Reinhart did in Buffalo – and that should make Leafs fans very excited.
Then there’s Mitch Marner. The super-talented winger isn’t likely to have the same impact as Matthews and Nylander this season, but he shouldn’t be completely ruled out of the conversation for top rookie. That said, if things fall a certain way, Marner could end up being the favourite for the 2018 Calder Trophy.
Likelihood of winning: A preseason favourite
Washington Capitals – Jakub Vrana (LW)
The young Czech forward is the next in line at the Washington Capitals skilled-winger factory. Vrana is a very good skater and plays very well with the puck – he’s a tenacious forechecker who wants to create possession for himself whenever possible.
He has a good shot and an NHL-ready offensive game, the question with Vrana is his play without the puck. Washington General Manager Brian MacLellan spoke this summer of Vrana’s improvements through one year in the AHL and hinted at a debut this season.
If Vrana can make the team out of camp, he will be instantly put into a situation to succeed playing alongside some of the top offensive talent in the league.
Likelihood of winning: Maybe a year too early