By Allan Muir
Now that everyone knows what position Alex Ovechkin plays (we are clear on that, aren't we guys?), the voting for this year's NHL awards offers few challenges. While a couple of honors are still up for grabs with less than a month to go, most are already in the bag. In fact, handicapping this year's Calder Trophy race is about as challenging as picking the winner of the 1977 Kentucky Derby.
When early favorite Tomas Hertl of the Sharks went down before Christmas with a season-ending knee injury, Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon stepped up and, before long, ran away with the race.
The No. 1 pick in last June's NHL Draft leads all freshmen in the stats that catch the eye: goals (22), assists (29), points (51), power play goals (8), game winners (5) and shots (192). Then there are the peripherals: the No. 1 pedigree; the tender age (the kid is still somehow just 18); and his part in the turnaround in Colorado.
NIESEN: Speedy MacKinnon trying to dodge the spotlight
And then there's The Streak -- 13-consecutive games with at least one point, the longest such stretch by an 18-year-old since Wayne Gretzky in 1979. Maybe it's not such a big deal if the old mark had been set by someone like Fred Boimistruck, but when you erase the name of the Great One from the books, well, that tends to stick in the minds of the voters.
But what's most impressive about MacKinnon goes beyond the numbers. Rookies are supposed to wear down during the second half of the season, but Mac has raised his play in all three zones as the campaign has gone on. "That's his intelligence showing through," a scout explained. "He's just a smart kid, he picks up things all the time. He learns from his mistakes and uses that to make himself better. The more he soaks up, the better he gets."
MacKinnon's stellar play has reduced the rest of the field to dark horses, but these eight have a shot, however long it may be:
Tyler Johnson, C, Tampa Bay Lightning
In October, while MacKinnon was being tabbed as a favorite for the Calder, Johnson was just another kid trying to make an impression. Undrafted and undersized, he was a long shot to stick with the Bolts, let alone to make an impact. He got off to a slow start -- just six points in his first 18 games -- but found his place when Steven Stamkos was felled by a broken leg in November. Thrust into a top-six role, Johnson began showcasing his speed and creativity (great for the voters) and two-way responsibility (which earned him an average of 18:58 TOI per game, tops among rookie forwards). He ice time has diminished with Stamkos' return, but he continues to produce, having scored four times in his past six games. Johnson now has 21 goals this season, trailing only MacKinnon among rookies, and also ranks in the top five in assists (21), points (42), game-winning goals (3) and shots (143). He's also tops among rookies in shorties (4). Consider him to be a lock as a Calder finalsit.
Officially, what happened in Sochi has no bearing on awards that honor play during the NHL's regular season. The truth, though, is that Maatta's outstanding performance against the world's best did more than just strengthen the impression of him as a player who is mature beyond his years -- a kid on the verge of becoming an elite defenseman. It moved him squarely into a conversation that typically excludes blueliners. Not that he wasn't already making a strong case for himself in Pittsburgh, where injuries forced him to assume a role on the top pair and on both special teams. "You don't expect a player that age, in his first year, to step into a top-minutes, top-pair role, a matchup pair," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma told NHL.com. "His last 20 [games] have looked even stronger than what we saw earlier in the season." Maatta ranks second among rookie blueliners in goals (9), assists (19) and points (28) -- good enough to work himself into the top three Calder mix when you also consider his defensive game.
The healthy scratch on March 13 reinforced the notion that Krug still has to work on his play away from the puck, but, brother, he has some kind of magic with it. He leads all rookie defensemen in scoring (36 points), and his 14 goals are good for fifth in the league -- vets included. He's also given life to the Bruins' moribund power play (18 points), moving the puck smartly under pressure and showing a real knack for getting it through traffic and on net. That kind of highlight reel success, along with the fact that he plays in Boston, could move Krug into the final three.
Ondrej Palat, LW, Tampa Bay Lightning
Palat doesn't get the same Calder buzz as Johnson, his teammate/linemate, but you know a guy who ranks second in rookie assists (27) and points (44), and first in plus/minus (plus-26) is going to get his share of votes. He had terrific chemistry with Martin St. Louis early on, and he hasn't lost a step since the veteran was traded away, scoring three goals and seven points in his last four games. However, he'll need a strong finish to earn a spot among the finalists.
Realistically, the 17 games he missed after suffering a neck injury on Oct. 18 against the Blues take Trouba out of the running. Still, anyone who has been paying attention to what he's done since returning knows that he deserves consideration. His hockey IQ has come to define his game under coach Paul Maurice, who is rewarding Trouba's poise and intelligence with a rookie-leading average TOI of 22:19. "He doesn't look like a teenager," a scout told SI.com. "He does the right thing more often than you'd expect and ... he's quick to correct his mistakes. He's been outstanding."
Also in the mix
Darcy Kuemper, G, Minnesota Wild: A third-stringer forced into starting role, he has responded with a 12-4-4 mark to keep the Wild in the playoff hunt.
Valeri Nichushkin, RW, Dallas Stars: He's more hype than performance, often looking lost when he doesn't have the puck, and like a one-trick pony when he does. Still, you can imagine voters being overwhelmed by his potential and marking his name on the ballot.
Hampus Lindholm, D, Anaheim Ducks: He's been quietly excelling in a critical two-way role for one of the league's best teams. Anaheim's first round (No. 6) pick in 2012 now ranks second in the league with a plus-24 rating to go along with 24 points in 65 games.