Kakko, Hughes, Makar among 2019-20 Calder Trophy candidates

Check out this goal from New York Rangers 2019 2nd overall pick Kappo Kakko, showcasing his serious skills at the prospects tourney.

Each year the NHL trends a little younger, faster, more skilled and the 2019-20 crop of rookies looks rather plentiful.

As we saw last season, the high-profile rookies aren’t the only ones to make an impact. Rasmus Dalhin and Elias Pettersson were as advertised, but others like Jordan Binnington, Anthony Cirelli and Andreas Johnsson were all pleasant surprises for their respective clubs and all received Calder Trophy votes.

In terms of new faces and emerging talent, this season is shaping up to be much more than merely Jack Hughes vs. Kaapo Kakko — even though EA Sports is already projecting the top two picks from the 2019 NHL Draft to have Hall of Fame-calibre careers.

Despite the beyond-their-years talent Hughes and Kakko possess, true first-year players (meaning those who make the NHL in the same calendar year in which they were drafted) rarely win the Calder, especially if they’re not a first-overall pick.

In fact, the last non-first-overall pick to win the Calder in the season directly following his draft year was Jeff Skinner in 2010-11 after he was taken seventh by the Hurricanes in 2010.

Also, it’s somewhat rare for defencemen and goalies to win the award. Aaron Ekblad (2015) and Tyler Myers (2010) are the only blueliners to win it in the salary cap era with Steve Mason (2009) being the only netminder to take home the hardware since the 2004-05 lockout season.

This year’s selection of first-year netminders is lacking, as is often the case, but there are plenty of forwards and defencemen who should delight fans.

As you’ll see below, some rookies have zero regular-season experience while others were drafted several years ago and have contributed in the playoffs. They’re all rookies, though, and they all have a decent shot at earning accolades in their first full NHL season.

For clarification purposes, here is the NHL’s official rookie qualifications:

“To be considered a rookie, a player must not have played in more than 25 NHL games in any preceding seasons, nor in six or more NHL games in each of any two preceding seasons. Any player at least 26 years of age (by September 15th of that season) is not considered a rookie.”

With that in mind, here are 10 with a decent shot at earning some Calder consideration this season.

Cale Makar, D, Colorado Avalanche
The UMass-Amherst product looked like he belonged this past spring, putting up six points and averaging 17:22 of ice-time per game in 10 post-season appearances with the Avalanche. Despite not having a single game of regular-season experience, Colorado has so much confidence in the Calgary native that Tyson Barrie, entering a contract year, was made expendable and traded to Toronto.

The 2019 Hobey Baker Award winner should have the physical Nikita Zadorov as his even-strength partner, and he has the chance to quarterback a power-play that features both Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen.

Kaapo Kakko, RW, New York Rangers
The No. 2 pick in June’s draft already possesses NHL size to accompany elite offensive skill. His performance playing against men both for TPS in Liiga (22 goals, 38 points in 45 games) and for Finland at the 2019 world championship (six goals in 10 games) suggests his age shouldn’t hinder his production at the NHL level. The Rangers gave their roster an off-season facelift and Kakko will be among the handful of rookie forwards in the league to garner top-six minutes this season. He should also get time on the team’s top power-play unit with 2016 Calder winner Artemi Panarin.

Jack Hughes, C, New Jersey Devils
Hughes could have either Taylor Hall or KHL import Nikita Gusev on his left side while being protected by six-time 20-goal scorer Wayne Simmonds on his right flank, which would be an ideal scenario for a rookie centre. The Devils have zero buyer’s remorse after making Hughes the eighth American-born player taken with the top pick and the first impression Hughes has made has been overwhelmingly positive.

“He makes the game look easy,” Hall recently said of the 18-year-old. “It doesn’t look like his heart rate is too high when he’s out there because he’s so calm and poised with the puck. He’s never panicking. His stride is pretty effortless.”

Teenagers don’t often win the Calder but the last three teens to do it (Auston Matthews in 2017, Aaron Ekblad in 2015, Nathan MacKinnon in 2014) just happened to be No. 1 picks like Hughes.

Quinn Hughes, D, Vancouver Canucks
We’ll keep it in the family for the next Calder contender with the oldest Hughes brother. Defensive defencemen never win the trophy — save for the year Barrett Jackman edged out Henrik Zetterberg and Rick Nash — and Hughes should be among the scoring leaders for first-year defenders. He gave Canucks fans a glimpse of what he’s capable of during his five-game stint late in the regular season. Like Makar above, Hughes has a flair for the offensive and could find himself as the PP quarterback on his team’s top unit. Although, Alex Edler might have something to say about that.

Alexander Nylander, LW, Chicago Blackhawks
Even though he was drafted in 2015 and has played NHL games in each of the past three seasons, he still qualifies as a rookie, and if he lines up with Jonathan Toews or Patrick Kane, or both, he’ll be primed to take a run at the Calder.

All you have to do is look at the immediate success Dylan Strome had once he joined the Blackhawks after being acquired from the Coyotes midway through last season to quell the notion that Nylander, the eighth-overall pick of the Sabres from 2016, might be a bust. Nylander’s raw talent that didn’t quite blossom in Buffalo could be unleashed in Chicago.

Alexandre Texier, LW, Columbus Blue Jackets
The 20-year-old from France has been playing with Pierre-Luc Dubois and Cam Atkinson in training camp and pre-season, the same role Artemi Panarin often occupied in Columbus. Texier potted a pair of goals during the Blue Jackets’ brief playoff run and he looks to carry that momentum into his first full season. A rookie’s success is often predicated on where he’s able to slot into a lineup and Texier should benefit from the forward depth this team still has.

Dante Fabbro, D, Nashville Predators
Predators GM David Poile said he probably would not have traded P.K. Subban to the Devils when he did had Fabbro not represented himself well in the four regular-season and six post-season contests he suited up for in 2018-19.

Nobody drafts and develops blue-line talent like Poile and he’s not the type of manager to set his players up for failure. Nashville’s top-four defencemen have consistently been the best or among the best in the league in recent years. Being paired with a stalwart like Mattias Ekholm will allow Fabbro’s two-way game to excel.

Drake Batherson, RW, Ottawa Senators
The former QMJHL star was a goal-per-game player for Canada at the 2018 world juniors and a point-per-game player a season ago in the AHL (22 goals, 62 points in 59 games with Belleville). Even though the Sens struggled in 2018-19, Brady Tkachuk thrived as a rookie and finished fifth in Calder votes after his 22 goals and 23 assists in 71 games. Batherson could also find a top-six role as a rookie.

“He’s a big guy that I think is going to be able get to net fronts and loose pucks, he’s heavy. I like a lot of the parts of his game,” Sens coach D.J. Smith recently told reporters. “The stats weren’t great in the rookie tournament, they were just OK, but I see this guy being able to score some goals and being able to be a real power forward in this league.”

Sam Steel, C, Anaheim Ducks
The final pick of the first round in 2016 will in all likelihood be playing between two wingers that know how to bury the puck and create scoring chances. In camp those players have been Rickard Rakell and Jakob Silfverberg. Anyone playing between those two stud Swedes will be counted on to produce. Having those two as linemates will also mean seeing tougher matchups, however his slow development and successful first year in the AHL should help prepare him for the challenge.

MacKenzie Blackwood, G, New Jersey Devils
Every few years we see a young netminder emerge as a starter and get some Calder votes. Last season it was eventual Stanley Cup-winning goalie Jordan Binnington and this year it could very well be Blackwood. The 2015 second-round pick allowed three or fewer goals in 19 of his 23 appearances last year. With the Devils as a whole improving drastically in the off-season — on paper at least — Blackwood is in a situation much more conducive to success compared to last year. Of course, Blackwood’s playing time will be contingent on whether or not Cory Schneider can rebound from the worst statistical season of his career.

Other players with Calder potential: Martin Necas, Vitali Kravtsov, Ryan Poehling, Erik Brannstrom, Owen Tippett, Filip Zadina, Adam Boqvist, Max Comtois


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