Hockey fans have been lucky to witness some strong performances from the sport’s newest members this season, with a pair of defenders leading the way all year.
With so much up in the air with the NHL’s current season suspension, we take a look back at the best rookie performances of 2019-20 as it stands now, and how their performances stack up among their peers in determining who should take home the Calder Memorial Trophy as the top rookie of the year.
It’s been a two-horse race all season, and that’s where we’ll start.
No surprises here. The two rearguards have been leading the race all year, with Makar the frontrunner through most of the season. The 21-year-old Calgary native and Colorado’s fourth overall draft pick in 2017 has been the favourite to land the award since before 2019-20 even started, thanks to his strong debut showing in the post-season for the Avalanche last spring, and his elite performance all year has only bolstered his case. Makar’s 50 points through 57 games is a single-season franchise record for most points from a rookie rearguard, and places him second behind just Nathan MacKinnon for most points this year. The Avalanche have been bitten by the injury bug on several occasions this season, and while Makar, too, has missed 13 games, his play all year is a major reason why the club with hopes of contending sits second in the Central at the time of the league’s suspension.
While Makar has led the way, Hughes has looked like the wire-to-wire runner-up. Not anymore. The Canucks might just find themselves with a Calder winner for the second straight year, as Hughes has continued to heat up over the course of 2019-20 and down the stretch. The 20-year-old was leading all rookies in assists (45), points (53) and power-play points (25) through 68 games before the league halted play, thanks in large part to a red-hot February that saw him tally 15 points in 13 February contests. He’s third in assists among defenders league-wide, and fourth in points. He stepped into a leading role on a surprising Canucks team that’s poised for big things soon, driving play from the blue line like a veteran and averaging big-time minutes: 21:53 per game, second behind just Alex Edler’s mark (22:37).
It won’t be long before Makar and Hughes will be Norris finalists, too.
Had A Shot
Mackenzie Blackwood, Dominik Kubalik, Victor Olofsson, Adam Fox
While much of the focus has been on the blue line in this year’s rookie class, a handful of first-year netminders have put up strong performances. Stick taps to Washington’s Ilya Samsonov, Vancouver’s Thatcher Demko, and Columbus’s Elvis Merzlikins for giving the league a glimpse of the bright future in many teams’ creases, but the best goalie in this year’s rookie class is Mackenzie Blackwood.
New Jersey’s season didn’t exactly unfold as planned, but disappointed Devils fans can take solace in the silver lining that is the 23-year-old goalie. He took over the crease in less-than ideal circumstances and still came out with a winning record (22-14-8) on a team that has won just 28 games this year, and is a crucial building block as they restart their rebuild — one that also prominently features No. 1 overall pick Jack Hughes.
Chicago’s Dominik Kubalik has been quietly preparing his application for Calder finalist, too. The Blackhawks’ secret weapon leads all rookies in goals (30) and sits third in points (46) behind Hughes and Makar.
Kubalik, who joined the Blackhawks in January 2019 when the club sent a fifth-round pick L.A.’s way in exchange for the seventh-rounder from 2013, will be an interesting case to watch when it comes to his next contract. At 24, he signed a one-year entry-level deal with Chicago before making the opening night roster and proving he belongs in the big leagues after spending last season in the Swiss league.
Perhaps one reason we were all a little slow to catch on to Kubalik’s talent this season was the standout performance of Buffalo Sabres winger — and fellow seventh-round pick — Victor Olofsson out of the gates. The Swedish winger put up a remarkable six goals in his first seven games this year and though his pace was slowed by injury and a team dip in the standings, he’s currently sitting third in goals and points on the club, with his 11 power-play goals tying him for the team lead with captain Jack Eichel in that category.
Had Adam Fox’s rookie season not been shared with defencemen Makar and Hughes, the Rangers rookie would likely have gotten a much bigger spotlight. The 22-year-old rearguard out of Harvard has been the team’s best defender most nights, and his production (8 goals, 34 assists, 42 points — tallied while average almost two points less than his western peers) from the blue line all season has made Rangers GM Jeff Gorton look like a genius for trading two second-round picks to Carolina to land him last April.
The Long Shots
Though his game doesn’t have the flash of his fellow rookie rearguards, John Marino has been a steady, reliable presence on Pittsburgh’s blue line all season — all for the low price of a conditional sixth-round pick (to Edmonton). Marino’s 20 assists and 26 points this year won’t top any lists, but his mobility and elite puck-moving should have Penguins fans excited for what’s to come.
Martin Necas has been steadily earning the trust of his coaching staff all season after a few trial runs in years past. His fast-paced game makes him a perfect fit for the Hurricanes’ core, and his 16 goals rank him third among teammates while sitting fourth among the league’s rookies is a strong sign of what’s to come.