Prior to puck drop, the oddsmakers pegged Tampa Bay Lightning winger Jonathan Drouin as the favourite to hoist the Calder Trophy at the end of the 2014-15 season. Yet because of a pre-season injury to his right thumb, Drouin was sidelined as his fellow rookies have had a handful of games to jump in and make a first impression.
That ends tonight, as Drouin’s magical hands make their NHL debut versus the Edmonton Oilers.
True, Drouin is coming off his second 100-plus-point season in the QMJHL, and the Bolts did the smart thing by letting those silky hands develop for another year in junior, but let’s not prematurely anoint the 19-year-old as the Calder Trophy winner.
Here are seven skilled young candidates with promising starts who could just as easily claim the NHL’s rookie of the year honours:
Tanner Pearson | LW
Yes, he is a rookie. And, yes, he already has a Stanley Cup ring. The 22-year-old Kitchener, Ont., native is simply killing it on That 70s Line. His five goals place him second overall in the league, and his two helpers have him on better than a point-per-game pace. Fittingly, a plus-7 with seven points.
Aaron Ekblad | D
The six-foot-three defenceman was chosen first overall for a reason. He was nearly a point-per-game player on the Barrie Colts’ blue-line last season (53 in 58 games) and has been given a fantastic chance to leap directly to the big leagues—and play meaningful minutes—on a weak Panthers squad. He can run a power play, rough up attackers and make crisp passes. If any 18-year-old wields NHL-ready tools, it’s Ekblad, who leads all freshman in minutes played, averaging 22:16 per game.
Filip Forsberg | C
The importance of a small sample size: Pearson has scored on an unsustainable 55.6% of his shots thus far; Forsberg has scored on 8.3% of his. When that gap narrows, the 20-year-old Swede with five points in five games will leap into the forefront of voters' minds. Think for a second David Poile regrets that Martin Erat trade? Washington fans must be hating this.
Damon Severson | D
A plus-6 blueliner already seeing power-play time, the 20-year-old Brandon, MB, native is a boy amongst very old men in New Jersey. A second-round pick in 2012, the six-foot-two Severson developed his game for four years in the Western Hockey League, each season with Kelowna significantly better than his last. Four points through five games, and he's seeing almost 30 shifts a night.
Andre Burakovsky | LW
Evgeny Kuznetsov was supposed to be the kid to watch in the U.S. capital, but Austrian winger Burakovsky — who played one year with the OHL's Erie Otters — has stormed out with five points in his first five games. This teenager is fast becoming a game-breaker on the Capitals' second line. We shouldn't be all that surprised, considering Burakovsky lit it up last year in junior with 87 points in 57 games.
Evgeny Kuznetsov | C
That other electrifying forward on the Capitals only dipped his skate into North American hockey toward the end of last season—nine points in 17 games—but new coach Barry Trotz must be salivating at the offensive potential he can help shape in this 22-year-old. A KHL standout over five seasons with his hometown club, Traktor Chelyabinsk, the versatile forward has a shot to fuel the Caps’ secondary scoring and draw weaker defensive matchups behind firecracker Alex Ovechkin. If Trotz can get him to focus and captain Ovie can help aid his leap stateside, it might not be long before we see the 2010 first-rounder near the 0.86 points per game he posted in Russia. He has three assists through five games thus far, but his ice time has been limited to just 11:15 per game.
John Gibson | G
Gibson’s lore has something in common with Michael Jordan’s: Both players were cut from their high school teams and spun that rejection into motivation. Now, as Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau told reporters during Anaheim’s 2014 playoff run, he’s a stud goalie in whom the Ducks “have all the confidence in the world.” A product of the U.S. National Team Development Program, Gibson’s NHL post-season debut was nothing short of stellar: a 28-save, first-star shutout against the eventual Cup champion Kings in the Western Conference final. But the 2013 world junior gold medallist's battle with Frederik Andersen for the Ducks’ crease is all Andersen so far. Don't count Gibson out yet. If Andersen falters, Gibson's a dark horse in this race... and was called up Monday.
Also on the radar: Stuart Percy (Toronto Maple Leafs), Johnny Gaudreau (Calgary Flames), Anthony Duclair (New York Rangers), Chris Terry (Carolina Hurricanes), Jake Allen (St. Louis Blues).