Top 10 Calder Trophy candidates to watch in 2017-18

Philadelphia Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds was at the Biosteel Camp and spoke to media about Steve Mason leaving the franchise, Brian Elliott coming into the team, His thoughts on Nolan Patrick and how he’ll lead by example when training camp starts.

Beginning today, you’re going to start seeing various NHL rookie camps opening, with tournaments set to go in Penticton, B.C., Traverse City, Mich., Toronto and more this weekend.

It’s the first glimpse we’ll get at some of the top new faces who could take to NHL ice this winter.

With an eye to the future of the league, we’re going to take a look at some of the early favourites for the Calder Trophy. You’ll be able to see most of these guys in rookie camps, while others have gotten a small taste of the NHL game already.

Here we go, in no particular order.

BROCK BOESER, VANCOUVER CANUCKS
After posting 94 points in 74 games with the University of North Dakota over two years, Boeser made the jump to the NHL at the end of last season. In nine games he showed well, scoring four times and adding an assist.

The Canucks aren’t expected to be a playoff team or anything, but the veteran signings made should at least surround Boeser with players who will help get him an opportunity to put up points, assuming he makes the team out of camp. Some of those veterans have spoken recently about how impressed they’ve been with the 20-year-old, including the newly signed Thomas Vanek.

“Brock is awesome,” Vanek told NHL.com’s Kevin Woodley. “I skated with him quite a bit this summer and told him (Friday) morning, ‘You know I might be joining you,’ and he seemed fairly excited. … He’s a great kid. What I like about him is even in summer hockey or shinny hockey, if you tell him a little tip here or there, he is the type of kid who will listen and doesn’t just shake his head and say, ‘I know it better anyways.’

“He’s very impressive.”

 
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There’s a chance these signings push Boeser to the AHL at the start of the season, but at some point Vancouver needs to test the players they’ll be moving into the future with. And besides, with what little we’ve seen of Boeser in the NHL so far, he’ll be a hard player to keep off the roster.

THOMAS CHABOT, OTTAWA SENATORS
The MVP of last year’s world junior hockey championship, Chabot is a big offensive defenceman with a shot to make the Senators out of camp, especially if Erik Karlsson misses time.

With Karlsson’s former defence partner Marc Methot no longer around, if Chabot lands that plum spot alongside the league’s most dangerous defenceman it would only boost his Calder outlook.

Last year, Columbus’s Zach Werenski was the top rookie candidate from the blue line and he put up 11 goals and 47 points. Could Chabot reach those totals? While Werenski wasn’t really a threat to win the award with those numbers, consider that this rookie class is unlikely to have somebody put up 40 goals as Toronto’s Auston Matthews did.

With Chabot, there is also a chance the Senators send him to the AHL to develop for most or all of 2017-18. The team currently has seven NHL defencemen under contract and Chabot would benefit more from playing a considerable role for Binghamton instead of third-pair minutes with the Senators. Still, Chabot’s upside is considerably higher than most of Ottawa’s current blue line.

Whenever he makes the jump, the offensive upside Chabot has will make him an instant contender for rookie of the year.

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NOLAN PATRICK, PHILADELPHIA FLYERS
After going through last season (and the one before) as the top-ranked prospect in his class, Nolan Patrick ended up going No. 2 to Philadelphia behind Nico Hischier. Injuries have been a major concern around Patrick, but when he’s healthy he’s a terrific two-way centre. A year before he was draft eligible, Patrick put up 102 points in 72 games for the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings.

Recently, the top two picks in a draft have been favoured in any Calder Trophy talk ahead of their rookie seasons, but it’s not so clear cut this year, especially with Patrick. Not only are injuries a factor, but GM Ron Hextall has opened up the possibility that Patrick goes back to junior in 2017-18, to star for Brandon and get a shot with Canada at the WJC.

“He’s got to do the same thing as all the other kids. He’s got to come in and show us that he can help make us a better team and that it’s the right thing for us,” Hextall told Sam Carchidi of Philly.com. “It’s truly that simple. We’ve got numbers. We don’t have to have him. We’ve got other kids who can play and we have veterans, so we’re in a good position with him.”

The good news is if Patrick does earn a spot on the team in October, he’ll get plenty of opportunity and have solid producers around him. Remember, although Philadelphia picked second overall, they missed the playoffs by just seven points and finished 19th overall in the league. Patrick could end up playing with the likes of Wayne Simmonds, Travis Konecny or Valtteri Filppula. He could see a good amount of minutes, have an outside shot at penalty kill time and put up enough points to make a really well-rounded case.

He may not have gone first overall, but there’s a very good reason why the hype followed him for years leading up to last June’s draft.

NICO HISCHIER, NEW JERSEY DEVILS
Prior to last year’s WJC, Hischier was floating around the middle of first-round draft predictions, but his performance for Switzerland shot him up the charts, and follow-up performances in the ‘Q’ backed it all up.

The Devils scored just 180 goals last season, which landed them 28th in the NHL, so they’ll be looking for any way to bring a little more punch. And with Travis Zajac out for the next four-to-six months, there’s an opening in the top six that Hischier is a natural fit for.

Imagine a world in which Hischier centres Taylor Hall and you can see the kind of opportunity that may be in front of the rookie. If that doesn’t happen, then having Marcus Johansson fresh off a breakout 58-point season isn’t bad either.

The worst-case scenario for Hischier’s Calder outlook might be that he ends up on the third line and doesn’t get as many minutes as he otherwise could.

CLAYTON KELLER, ARIZONA COYOTES
Don’t sleep on the seventh overall pick from the 2016 NHL Draft.

Keller is a dynamic scorer who led the USA with 11 points in seven games at the WJC last season and posted 45 points in 31 games as a Boston University freshman. He even got a taste of the NHL in three games at the end of last season, posting two assists.

“Definitely, there’s no other option for me. I’m going to play with the big club,” Keller told NHL.com. “That’s what I worked for all summer, I just have to go out there now and do what I do. I want to have an impact right away. I don’t want to just be there to be there. I want to have an impact right away, so that’s one of my goals.”

While the Coyotes are building with youth and speed, the team also made some noticeable additions this summer that should move the needle at least a little this season. By adding Keller to the mix, the offence should see a boost as Arizona trots out a pretty exciting young core that could push the pace.

“He’s a guy we wanted all along,” GM John Chayka told AZCentral.com after picking Keller in 2016. “It’s no secret we’re trying to build our team with speed … and he’s an exciting player, a dynamic player. He’s smart, creative. He’s going to be a real joy for our fans for a long time.”

TYSON JOST, COLORADO AVALANCHE
Picked three slots behind Keller in 2016, Jost is another dynamic, speedy scorer coming out of college. The University of North Dakota alum got in six NHL games at the end of last season, scoring a goal.

Now, the Avs were the worst team of the salary cap era just last season and while their outlook remains grim in 2017-18, we should be looking for some kind of bounce-back from the offence. As poor and thin as the team is on the blue line and in net, the forward unit is still largely made up of high first-round draft picks with significant offensive upside.

Jost has a chance to play with the likes of Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog or maybe even Nathan MacKinnon. If he slots in as the second-line centre, it could be just the right mix for Jost to take off in his rookie season. And if the team ever does trade away Matt Duchene, it could provide him an opportunity to move up even higher.

MATT BARZAL, NEW YORK ISLANDERS
Barzal isn’t a lock to make the Islanders out of camp, but you’d have to think the odds are in his favour.

The thing about Barzal is that he’s not a scorer, so his Calder case almost relies on having one or two good wingers who can score beside him. Is that Andrew Ladd? Is it Josh Bailey? Is it fellow rookie and Calder candidate Josh Ho-Sang?

Barzal scored a mere 10 goals in junior last season, but added 69 assists in just 41 games so he sees the ice extremely well and he dominated junior hockey. Making that next step to the NHL as a passer isn’t an easy thing to do and his production will depend on the situation. If Barzal is the team’s second-line centre and New York gets back to the playoffs in this all-important John Tavares contract year, you can bet Barzal would have had a strong rookie year.

JOSH HO-SANG, NEW YORK ISLANDERS
“I think I’m ready to come in and be an impact player in the NHL,” Ho-Sang told Tim and Sid on Sportsnet. “I want to go up against the best players in the league every night.”

When rookies hit the NHL for the first time, one of the biggest challenges is maintaining their confidence over the grind of an 82-game season. All the ups and the downs and the pressure around them can take its toll mentally on a player and affect his play on the ice and in the box scores. But if there’s one thing you can say for sure about Ho-Sang, it’s that he’s full of confidence, so don’t expect that to be a problem for him.

Ho-Sang played 21 NHL games last season, four games short of qualifying for his rookie season. He posted four goals and 10 points, which is about a 40-point pace and could be enough to put him in the conversation. And if you consider that experience should help give him a boost in 2017-18, there’s little reason to doubt his inclusion here.

Ho-Sang is fast and creative, which makes him a candidate for the second line behind Jordan Eberle and therefore secondary defensive matchups. And if there is any chance at all that he would see time with Tavares, his Calder case would obviously get a major boost.

But this candidate is driven to prove all his doubters wrong and to make the players around him better. He has the raw skill to excel and a positive, determined mindset, which all makes Ho-Sang an intriguing pre-season Calder candidate.

“If your team hasn’t made the playoffs and you change that — like Connor — that’s greatness,” Ho-Sang told Sportsnet’s Luke Fox. “His team hadn’t made the playoffs in [10] years and he goes to the team. His first full season, they make the playoffs. That, in my eyes, is greatness. That’s what I’m chasing. I want to win as many Stanley Cups as I can. That’s my focus. If individual trophies come along, it’s nice. But if I can be a winner my whole career, it’s a better life to live.”

KYLE CONNOR, WINNIPEG JETS
Here comes another dynamic forward with explosive speed, who could walk into a prime position with a team on the upswing.

Connor was the 17th overall pick in 2015 and proceeded to tear up the competition at the University of Michigan with 71 points in 38 games. Last season, he left college to join the pro ranks and when he wasn’t quite ready for the NHL jump after posting five points in 20 games, the Jets sent him to AHL Manitoba where he scored 44 points in 52 games to finish as the team’s second-highest scorer.

The 20-year-old has been a scorer at every level and played a few minor hockey years with Detroit’s Dylan Larkin, who he outscored with Belle Tire despite being younger. Now, he could step into a top-six role with the Jets, who again come into a season with heightened expectations. Team captain Blake Wheeler talked openly about this needing to be a playoff year for Winnipeg.

Connor has a shot to play with the likes of Wheeler and Bryan Little, and perhaps even Mark Scheifele somewhere along the way. With his skill set and situation, he could hit big in his rookie season.

CHARLIE MCAVOY, BOSTON BRUINS
With Zdeno Chara entering his age 40 season and not as effective as he was in his prime anymore, the Bruins need to find the next group of blueliners who will take over so the team can keep making playoff pushes, and maybe even get back into that Cup contender status.

As we saw with Brandon Carlo during last regular season, the team isn’t shy to give a worthy rookie opportunity and tons of minutes. Carlo was third on the team with an average of 20:38 per game as he played a big role.

In the playoffs, with Carlo and Torey Krug out with injuries, 19-year-old Charlie McAvoy stepped up and averaged 26:11 per game. He played all six games of Boston’s series with Ottawa, which was also his first taste of NHL action.

The Boston University alum scored three points in the series and burst onto the Bruins scene much the same way Krug did in 2013. He used that playoff run as a launch point for his career and has been the team’s go-to defender virtually ever since. Can McAvoy fill a similar role?

In two years at BU, McAvoy notched 51 points in 75 games so he brings that offensive upside needed for a defenceman to get into the Calder discussion. Still, it’s not often someone from this position ends up winning the award, so minutes also end up being a huge factor. McAvoy is a lock to make the Bruins out of camp, but his role is a little less certain. One thing he does have going for him, though, is having a leader like Chara in his corner.

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“He sat next to me in the locker room at practice, on the road at games, everywhere I was, he was right next to me,” McAvoy said of Chara. “Getting to play with him, I can’t even find the words. To play next to a guy like that, I can probably credit him for the success that I’ve had.”

McAvoy may face more of an uphill battle for the Calder than some of the scoring forwards on this list, but his potential opportunity makes him a candidate. Even if he doesn’t win it, the Bruins will be getting another exciting young player this season.

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