Give A Hand For The Brilliant Rookies of 2016-17
The biggest story of the NHL week was Sidney Crosby’s nasty amputation of the tip of one of Senator Marc Methot’s fingers with a slash. (Which produced this epic meltdown from Ottawa owner Eugene Melnyk http://nhl.nbcsports.com/2017/03/24/melnyk-blasts-whiner-crosby-who-wont-face-hearing-for-methot-slash/).
He added that to a spear to the groin of Buffalo’s Ryan O’Reilly earlier in the week. O’Reilly showed a little more equanimity about the dirty move. (http://nhl.nbcsports.com/2017/03/25/ryan-oreilly-comments-on-sidney-crosby-spearing-incident-it-happens/). Ouch.
Not to excuse Crosby, but he was doing what NHL superstars have done for decades: Making space for himself. In the dog-eat-dog world of the NHL, being a star protected by referees still won’t spare you being mugged. Players like Gordie Howe made their space with some incredibly violent episodes (https://www.detroitathletic.com/blog/2014/11/01/gordies-greatest-hits-the-night-howe-took-apart-lou-fontinato/). Players like Wayne Gretzky had a button man named Dave Semenko.
Which is all a long way to returning us to our periodic Auston City Limits feature, analyzing the race for the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s best rookie in 2016-‘17. This is perhaps the best rookie crop in a generation. The league has taken notice of Auston Matthews, Patrick Laine, William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Zack Werenski.
What will they need to do to have space in the future as opposing coaches scheme against them? Who will protect themselves, a la Crosby? Who will need a chaperone? Who will whine to referees as Gretzky did (for a while), and as Crosby still does? Should be fun to watch.
Here’s our penultimate posting:
Patrick Laine (3 in last ranking) As of the start of this week he and Matthews are tied in goals (34) and points (67). But Laine has missed seven games, making his production that much more impressive. Both he and Matthews are going to set rookie production standards not seen a long while, but we’re tipping for Laine based on his slightly better production with a team that has been falling out of the playoffs lately. But the margin is narrower than the end of Methot’s finger.
2) Auston Matthews (1) The dynamic center for the Maple Leafs has been the answer to Toronto’s dreams— its first franchise player since Darryl Sittler. Appropos Crosby, the 6-foot-3, 215-pounder has not allowed himself to be intimidated. That has allowed the Leafs’ other young players to draft along behind him. While he's cooled a bit the last few weeks he's still the real deal.
3) Zach Werenski (4) The Columbus defenceman has been the key to the Blue Jackets’ ascension this season. If I had a Calder vote he’d be my third selection. With just under 21 minutes ice time he’’s logging the most play of this vaunted class. A keeper.
4) Mitch Marner (2) So slick, he’s tied with teammate Michel Nylander in scoring stats going into this week. But he’s done it in fewer games. The London Knights product has been helped by sharing the spotlight (and opposing coaches’ attention) with Matthews and Nylander. At just 170 pounds he could find people leaving on him in the future. He’s got hands.
5) William Nylander (5) As we said, tied for third place in rookie scoring, the son of former NHLer Michael is a year older than Marner and a little heavier. Part of the Toronto youth movement, he’s diversified the Leafs attack in their drive to the postseason. Will be fun watching these kids for years.
6) Matthew Tkachuk (7) Perhaps the most aggressive of the top rookies, he’s been a key to the Flames impressive surge in the second half. A Dustin Brown agitator who can also add a scoring component, he’s given cover to Calgary offensive stars Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. Perhaps the best indication of his value is that the Flames (who’d been ultra hot) lost both games of his recent suspension.
7) Sebastian Aho (6) From the dead, the Carolina Hurricanes have been a very hot team of late, going 7-0-3 after seemingly giving up at the trade deadline. And Aho has been one of the reasons the Canes might have a brighter future. His 23 goals and 46 points on a team bereft of glamour offence outside Jeff Skinner is a real accomplishment that few have recognized. At 170 pounds he’ll face challenges for space on the ice.
8) Matt Murray (NR) The rookie who’ll likely have the greatest impact in the playoffs? Goalie Matt Murray of the Penguins. He’s been there before; he made his first appearance in last year’s postseason, but he still counts as a rookie. The 22-year-old is 28-9-4 with a .928 save percentage, and he’s increasingly making a case to start in the playoffs. At 6-foot-4 he doesn’t get pushed around in the crease. And won’t get hacked by Sid. But that’s another story.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy.is the host of the podcast The Full Count with Bruce Dowbiggin on anticanetwork.com. He’s also a regular contributor three-times-a-week to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. 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)