The Buds Budding Talent Requires Calder Consideration
Calder? I didn’t even know her number!
Okay, rimshot Monday. And a chance to revisit our season-long chase for the Calder Trophy, the award for the rookie of the year in the NHL. Or Auston City Limits as we call the pursuit of the prize by Toronto’s Auston Matthews.
Matthews is the second generational player in as many years to be drafted first overall. What makes his arrival more interesting than the Connor McDavid coronation last year in Edmonton is the sheer volume of talent around him in the race for the Calder. Toronto has five players who could be finalists. This could well be seen as a year like 1983 when Hall of Famers Steve Yzerman, Pat Lafontaine, Tom Barasso and Cam Neely all went in the Top Ten picks.
Matthews got his season off to a roaring start with a record four goals in his first game, and has not slowed down appreciably since. But he’s been followed lock step by Winnipeg’s latest Flying Finn, Patrick Laine, and his Toronto teammate, Mitch Marner. In our previous installment we had Laine pushing past Matthews. But this time, the Leafs wunderkind is back in the lead.
1. Auston Matthews (2 last ranking) Matthews hasn’t taken a pause in his debut season since notching the four-peat in his first game. While he’s marginally behind Marner in rookie scoring as of Sunday, Matthews has five game-winning goals and gets more nice time from Leafs coach Mike Babcock. Most impressively, Matthews has had nothing but rookies as line mates so far this year. Any debate of whether Toronto should have selected Laine has been stilled. Matthews’ has quickly become a talisman for the franchise. Canadian golfer Mackenzie Hughes wore Matthews’ jersey to play the 16th hole of this weekend’s tournament in Phoenix, Matthews’ home town. Naturally the Coyotes fans booed. Hey, they don’t boo you unless the fear you.
2) Mitch Marner (3) Marner leads all rookie scorers as of Sunday. The slick product of the London Knights was the NHL rookie of the month for January— the third different Leaf to win the award so far this season. He's on a three-game, five-point streak that's vaulted him into the scoring lead. As with Matthews, Marner has won the confidence of Babcock with 17 minutes a game off ice time. In a regular Calder season he’d be a lock. Now he’ll have to scrap to even be a finalist.
3) Patrick Laine (1) The Jets’ prize rookie drops two notches this time, but only because he missed eight games with a concussion. Otherwise he’s been a dynamic presence for the struggling Jets. Despite the hiatus, Laine has 23 goals and 43 points as of Sunday. He and Matthews are on track for 40-goal seasons at this rate. The biggest problem for Laine is a collapse by Winnipeg if they fall out of the hunt for the playoffs. Burt he’s answered all the critics.
4) Zach Werenski (3) Almost certain to be a finalist for the Calder barring an injury, Werenski has everyone talking about the hockey sense and skill of a player who hasn’t reached 20 years old yet. He’s tied for fifth in rookie scoring despite drawing more attention from opposing coaches. His coach John Tortorella keeps throwing Werenski out there in all the tough spots. He’s logging over 21 minutes a game. Werenski is the only non-Toronto player to win an NHL rookie of the month award. The real deal.
5) William Nylander (4) The third of the Leafs’ gold-dust triplets, Nylander gets little less love from Babcock when it comes to ice time. But any criticisms of him should be in the context of how terrific Marner and Matthews have been. There's already some talk that the Leafs might even dangle the skilled Swede in order to get a top-end defenceman or goalie to fill outthe Leafs for what looks to be a sure playoff appearance.
6) Sebastian Aho (UR) A hat trick last week pushed the Hurricanes’ top pick in the 2016 draft into three spot in the Colder goal-scoring chase. Just as impressive, he’s worked his way into third in the Canes scoring stats. After a patchy start to the season, Aho is now getting consistent minutes and turning them into production. The sharp-shooting Finn’s biggest problem in the Calder race is playing in Carolina, the NHL’s version of the witness-protection program.
7) Matthew Tkachuk (UR) This marks the first appearance in the IDLM Calder Chase for the son of NHL legend Keith Tkachuk. Like his daddy, the 19-year-old Matthew is a whole bag of sandpaper to play against. Not as physically imposing as his Dad, the sixth pick overall still leads rookies in penalty minuses. But Flames’ coach Glenn Gulutzan has given him second-line PP duties, and he’s responded with nine goals and 31 points. Not likely to be a finalist for the Calder, he’ll still have a prominent place with the Flames for a decade.
8) Anthony Mantha (UR) Another first-timer on our list, Mantha’s had a circuitous ascension to fulltime NHL role. Drafted in 2014, Mantha has had to cool his heels in the minors as he waited for the Red Wings to give him achance. After a small sample of games last year, he’s now finding the net regularly for an inconsistent Detroit team. He’s in line for a 20-goal season and Mike Blashill is giving him about 17 minutes of ice a game. A tribute to how the Wings have handled talent under GM Kenny Holland.
Keep an eye on: Travis Konecny (NA), Jimmy Vesey (6), Matt Murray (7), Connor Brown (UR), Devin Sore (UR).
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy. Bruce is the host of podcast The Full Count with Bruce Dowbiggin on anticanetwork.com. He’s also a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 10:30 ET. His career includes 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. His website is Not The Public Broadcaster (http://www.notthepublicbroadcaster.com)