Auston's City Limits: Can The Kid Conquer Toronto And The Calder?
Last season the IDLM editorial desk created the Loonie League of Canadian NHL clubs. The idea was to declare a Canadian champion from amongst the seven domestic team. We all know how that went: a big Ofer. As in, zero for seven squads getting into the playoffs.
So we are going in a different direction for the 2016-17 season. We’re calling it Auston City Limits. As in Auston Matthews and the limits of this highly touted rookie class in the NHL. Judging by the major-market effect of Matthews in Toronto alone, this rookie crop could be one they will talk about for a generation. Certainly the NHL can always use an infusion of good news in the star department.
One thing for all these kids is that teenagers in the NHL have a higher incidence of injury, so we’ll need to see who is durable enough to last. We’ll check in on the race for the Calder on a monthly basis here at IDLM. Here is our first draft of history. (Bear in mind some rookies will drop off the list and others added on as circumstances warrant):
1) Auston Matthews, Toronto: First overall in 2016’s Draft is now first in rookie scoring. Four goals in his first game was an NHL record. Even in a bandwagon town like Toronto, this was hot stuff. The question for Matthews— as it will be for all the Calder class playing as teenagers in the NHL— is sustaining his edge during the punishing season. Even more interesting is whether Matthews’ development model is copied. The American prodigy forsook the NCAA and junior hockey to play pro in Switzerland in his final year. Playing with grown men (and getting paid to do it) might prove better than endless bus trips through the dark Canadian night to play against other teenaged boys in the CHL. We shall see.
2) William Nylander, Toronto: One of the Maple Leafs trio of gold-dust kids, the son of NHL veteran Michael Nylander is a year older than Matthews’ 2016 class of draftees. He also had a taste of the NHL last year with 22 games under his belt. A slick playmaking centre, he’s made to order for the new up-tempo, no-fighting NHL. Decent size, he will have the full attention of Toronto coach Mike Babcock. If he wants it, there will be oodles of ice time for him to develop as Toronto gears up.
3) Patrick Laine, Winnipeg: Man, do I love this kid. A moose with slick hands. At 6-5, this 1998 birth-year product will be unstoppable as soon as he grows into his frame. Maybe before. Playing in Winnipeg he’ll get all the ice time he needs to develop. In his last five games that has meant almost 19 minutes per game playing in big situations. As long as the Jets can surround him with creative players he will be a major star. A second Teemu? We’ll see.
4) Zach Werenski, Columbus: The American-born D man is the top defenceman so far on our list. As with the players above, he’s on a weaker team, which means he’ll get all the chances he needs. So far he's showing offensive flair. And coach John Tortorella trusts him enough to give him 22 minutes a night. Tough for defencemen to win the Calder at the best of times. With this crew of wunderkind, it’ll take a major push to get him on the dais in Vegas next June.
5) Jimmy Vesey, NY Rangers: One of the hot stories this summer was who would sign this 1993-birth-year forward as a free agent after he refused to sign in Nashville. It was thought Toronto had the inside track through family connections. But the Boston product chose the Rangers and so far they are glad he did, with five goals— including two versus the Capitals. Good size and, being 23, more mature than the other Calder kids, he could be a dark horse for the prize.
6) Mitch Marner, Toronto: The third of Toronto’s top prospect core, Marner is a highlight-reel dazzler. His goals are YouTube sensations. Better for him will be the tutelage of Babcock, who will make sure he develops the whole player, not just the speedy eye catcher side of his game.
7) Sebastian Aho, Carolina: Another 1997 beauty, he’s not especially big but the fleet winger has great instincts. Dropped in draft due to size concerns. But was a star for Finland’s loaded squad at World Juniors. One of the few on this list in minus territory, he’ll have to fight to overcome the anonymity and losing that prevail in Carolina.
8) Travis Konecny, Philadelphia: He’s about the same size as Aho but plays centre. The Flyers have decided to give him second-line minutes with Sean Couturier and Jacob Voracek to see if he can sustain what has been a good offensive start so far. His ice time has ranged between 12 and 17 minutes. Playing less than that he’s better off developing in junior.
9) Jesse Puljujaarvi, Edmonton: With so many young prospects on the Edmonton roster, the fourth pick overall in 2016 could get lost. At 6-foot-4, however, he can certainly supply the size the Oilers need. He’s played just three games so far, but his combination of size and skill make him a first-line candidate down the road. May spend time in the minors before gaining fulltime work.
10) Jacob Chychrun, Florida: The 1998 birth-year product is a defenceman with the Arizona Coyotes. Nice upside but has two strikes against him for Calder. Plays in Phoenix. Defenceman. He deserves to be on this list if only because he was born in Boca Raton, Florida.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is host of The Full Count with Bruce Dowbiggin on anticanetwork.com. His career is unmatched in Canada for its diversity with successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author of seven books. He was a featured columnist for the Calgary Herald (1998-2009) and the Globe & Mail (2009-2013).