We’re at the halfway point of the 2019-20 season, giving us a large enough sample size to confidently weigh in on the strongest rookie performances so far.
Seeing as there’s just one award dedicated to rookies and a whole bunch of talented young players, we’re separating the class by position — defence, goalie, and forward — to look at the best of the Calder candidates among their positional peers.
Best defenceman: Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche
Makar has been the front-runner for the Calder Memorial Trophy since even before he took his first regular-season strides, and he continues to exceed expectations — just ask his peers.
That’s what The Athletic’s Ryan S. Clark did. He spoke to some of the league’s best defencemen about Makar, and the consensus was pretty clear that Makar, too, is already one of the league’s best — even as a rookie.
Most pointed to his strong skating and elite hockey sense as two major factors that have separated Makar from the rest, with Duncan Keith saying that he’d have drafted Makar first overall in 2017. (Makar went fourth, behind Nico Hischier, Nolan Patrick, and Miro Heiskanen.) High praise from a future Hall of Famer.
Makar missed eight games last month while recovering from an upper-body injury, but still sits second among all rookies in assists (23) and points (32), and sixth in points among all rearguards league-wide.
We’ve seen the incredible chemistry he’s formed with MVP candidate Nathan MacKinnon, and he’s also connect with Mikko Rantanen on some dynamic Makar-Mikko magic.
When you’ve got a 21-year-old rookie who’s already capable of stuff like that, and a 23-year-old forward who can finish those plays like this…
…you know your club’s got a bright, bright future.
The Challenger: Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks
Speaking of bright futures, you could also argue that Hughes is in fact the best rookie defenceman right now, and you’d have a pretty strong case.
Hughes is one of the best in the league at driving plays from the blue line and leads all rookies in assists (26) while sitting third in points behind Buffalo’s Victor Olofsson and Makar. His assist total is fifth best league-wide among all d-men, tying him with Erik Karlsson.
Best forward: Victor Olofsson, Buffalo Sabres
The Buffalo Sabres ran into a bout of bad luck last week when their star rookie forward, Victor Olofsson, went down with an injury that’s expected to keep him out of the lineup five to six weeks.
Olofsson skated and scored his way into the Calder conversation early and often this season thanks to his dynamic play with the man advantage and his skillset has continued to grow with more minutes, more even-strength production and plenty of chemistry with captain Jack Eichel.
The 24-year-old leads all rookies in goals (16) and points (35) through the first half of the season. He was twice named NHL Rookie of the Month, first in October and then in December. His six goals, two game-winners, 14 points and average ice time (20:31) through 14 December games led all rookies for the month and tied him with Tyler Myers for the most points in a single month by a rookie.
Myers won the Calder that year — 2009-10 — and Olofsson is high up on many Calder rankings 10 years later. Let’s hope for a speedy recovery for the rookie.
The challenger: Martin Necas
This one’s tough. There are several first-year forwards making strong impressions on the league, and we could’ve easily listed one of Montreal’s Nick Suzuki, Toronto’s Ilya Mikheyev, or Chicago’s Dominik Kubalik here.
But it’s about time we also shone some of the spotlight on Carolina Hurricanes rookie, Martin Necas. The 20-year-old made the team out of training camp in 2017-18 and 2018-19 but wasn’t quite ready — until now. He’s tied for third in goals among rookies (nine) and sits sixth in points.
Necas is still learning how to play a two-way game, but we’ve gotten a glimpse of his speed and skill and it doesn’t take long to realize how special a player he’s going to be.
Best goaltender: Ilya Samsonov, Washington Capitals
The 22-year-old hasn’t played as many games as MacKenzie Blackwood, who was thrust into the No. 1 spot with the New Jersey Devils, but this shouldn’t detract from the impact he’s had on his team.
Samsonov’s 11-2 record ranks him second in wins among rookie goalies. Among the four first-year netminders with at least 10 starts, Samsonov ranks first in save percentage (.918) and goals against average (2.33). Perhaps what’s most impressive about his performance this year, though, is simply how comfortable he looks in an NHL crease — especially on the road.
So, what does this mean for the future of Washington’s crease? That’s the question that’s been asked all season.
Starter Braden Holtby is on an expiring deal, and GM Brian MacLellan also needs to lock up Nicklas Backstrom if he’s to keep his championship core together. Samsonov still has another season left on his entry-level deal, which buys MacLellan a little time (and cap space) but with the Seattle exapansion draft on the horizon in June 2021, Washington’s situation is worth keeping a very close eye on.
The challenger: MacKenzie Blackwood
We mentioned Blackwood off the top, and we’ll mention him here, too, simply due to the fact that’s taken on the heaviest workload of all his netminding peers.
Without the luxury of a little more time to develop in a supporting role, like his rookie peers have as backups with their respective clubs, Blackwood is learning on the fly — and still posting some pretty good numbers.
In 29 starts with the Devils, Blackwood has a .908 save percentage and a 2.83 goals against average while facing at least 30 shots on 18 different occasions.