Trophy Case: Which rookie deserves the Calder?

From left: Colorado's Nathan MacKinnon is favoured to win the Calder Trophy over Tampa Bay teammates Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson.

With NHL Awards set for June 24 in Las Vegas, our writers make a case for each nominee — Tyler Johnson, Nathan MacKinnon and Ondrej Palat — winning the Calder Trophy, awarded “to the player selected as the most proficient in his first year of competition.” Which player is most deserving of the hardware?

Tyler Johnson, Tampa Bay Lightning

Take one giant step away from Nathan MacKinnon’s jock for a moment and consider the remarkable season of Tyler Johnson — five feet and nine inches of defying all odds.

It’s one thing to be chosen first overall and excel alongside a bunch of other young, talented scorers; it’s another for an undrafted, undersized player to fight his way into the league and promptly co-lead all rookies in goals (24), co-lead all NHL players in shorthanded goals (five), and trump all first-year players in ice time (1,540:20) and face-offs (1,275).

Welcome to Tampa, where the smallest dude on your hockey team is your hardest worker, and you snap a playoff mini-drought in a season in which your best player is injured and your second-best is traded away to New York.

“There’s a reason there’s not a ton of small guys in the league, because they’re not given a shot. They’re the guys that aren’t taken in the first round,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said of Johnson, the first undrafted Rookie of the Year finalist since goaltender Ed Belfour won the thing in 1991.

We could go on and on about Johnson’s perseverance and all-round game — a plus-23, he logged both more power-play and penalty-killing time than MacKinnon, who didn’t kill penalties at all. Or we could look at Tuesday night. With the Bolts facing elimination and down 3-2 to the Canadiens in Game 4, it was Johnson who scored the tying goal and gave his club a shot. —Luke Fox

Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche

Is there even a debate here?

MacKinnon was far and away the best rookie in the NHL this season, and he’s the obvious choice to win the Calder.

The Colorado forward led all first-year players in points, assists, shots and shared the lead in goals and power-play goals. Not only that, he tied Wayne Gretzky’s record — I think you’ve heard of him — for the longest point streak held by an 18-year-old (12 games).

MacKinnon, who averaged nearly 20 minutes per game over the final six weeks of the regular season, played a critical role in turning around an Avalanche squad that finished 29th in the standings last season. They won the Central Division this season.

The speedy forward is the fourth Avalanche player in the past eight years to be voted as a Calder finalist, joining teammates Paul Stastny (second in 2007), Matt Duchene (third in 2010) and Gabriel Landeskog (the winner in 2012).

“The skills he’s got, the way he skates — I haven’t seen anything like it,” Landeskog said after MacKinnon’s two-goal performance Saturday night.

Anyone still arguing that the Avs should have taken Seth Jones at No. 1? –Jeff Simmons

Ondrej Palat, Tampa Bay Lightning

There was no easing into things as a rookie for Ondrej Palat this year. The Tampa Bay Lightning left winger averaged 2:04 of shorthanded ice time per game, more than any other Bolts forward. That coach Jon Cooper had so much faith in Palat—a seventh-round pick in 2008 who fought his way up to the big show—speaks to a cerebral athlete who plays well beyond his 23 years.

At the other end of the ice, Palat’s production really started to spike after a two-month crash course in NHL hockey. Through 24 games, the Czech had just six points. In his remaining 57 contests, Palat put up 20 goals and 53 points, winding up just four points shy of MacKinnon for the rookie scoring lead. His goals and assists were especially critical for Tampa Bay because the vast majority of them came while star sniper Steven Stamkos was shelved with a broken leg.

Palat’s plus-32 paced all rookies and thrust him into a seventh-place tie with the Anaheim Ducks’ Corey Perry overall. A man for all situations, Palat’s diversity as a first-year player was truly impressive. –Ryan Dixon