It seems so long ago now that Dylan Larkin was running away with race for the Calder Trophy. But, hey, these things happen. There was a stretch last year when it looked as though nobody was going to touch Filip Forsberg, either.
The Calder Trophy is funny that way. There’s probably not an award in the game that is more susceptible to momentum swings than the Calder. Which is understandable, since there are no players that are more susceptible to momentum swings than rookies.
That said, now that the dust has settled and we’re in the home stretch of the season, the three clear candidates for the award are Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers, Shayne Gostisbehere of the Philadelphia Flyers and Artemi Panarin of the Chicago Blackhawks. All three of them have their merits, as well as their shortcomings, but there likely wouldn’t be a whole lot of griping if any one of them had won the award. Let’s take a closer look at each one.
Strengths: As much as some voters would be tempted to dismiss McDavid because of his reduced body of work, his play in that body of work simply cannot be ignored. Even if he goes pointless in the Oilers final four games, he’ll still be a point-per-game player this season. Care to guess how many Calder winners have done that in the past 20 seasons? Three - Peter Forsberg, Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin. A really good point of comparison is Forsberg, who scored 50 points in 47 games in a truncated season. But there’s also nothing to suggest McDavid wouldn’t have had somewhere in the 90-point range if he had played a full season.
Weaknesses: As brilliant as McDavid has been this season, he hasn’t done a whole lot to actually make the Oilers better. With him in the lineup, the Oilers are 17-22-2 for a .439 points percentage, compared to 13-19-5 (.419) without him. With or without McDavid, the Oilers are a lottery team.
Outlook: Look for McDavid to get a lot of love from voters. There’s a good chance he’ll win the award despite playing in just 54.9 percent of his team’s games.
Strengths: Because of a cap crunch, the Flyers played until Nov. 14 without Gostisbehere, who was stuck in the minors. And he missed two games in January with injury. In those games, the Flyers went 7-8-3 and their power play efficiency was just 12.3 percent. Included in that was a 10-game stretch in which they scored just one power-play goal. With Gostisbehere in the Flyers lineup, they’re 29-17-10 and their power play is clicking at 19.8 percent.
Gostisbehere, if you can believe it, is second only to McDavid in points per game among rookies this season. Not only that, he leads all players in the league in overtime goals with four. More impressively, 10 of Gostisbehere’s 16 goals this season put the Flyers ahead in the game and six of them have put them in the lead for good. Even more impressively, five of his goals this season have put the Flyers in a tie, meaning all but one of his goals this season has had a significant impact on the outcome of the game.
Weaknesses: Gostisbehere has been sheltered this season in terms of the competition he faces and the defensive situations in which he’s placed. All of his numbers indicate that he faces some of the easiest competition among Flyers defensemen. And no player on the Flyers has more offensive zone starts relative to his teammates than Gostisbehere.
Outlook: It could be argued that no rookie in the NHL has had a more significant impact on his team's fortunes than Gostisbehere has. Will that be enough to win him the award? Probably not, but he should win it. As a bonus, he would have the longest last name of a Calder winner since Ed Litzenberger in 1954-55.
Strengths: Panarin has led all rookies in scoring wire-to-wire and there’s a very good chance he’ll lead all rookies in all three offensive categories. His creativity and hockey sense are high and his ability to mesh with great players should not be discounted. Not everyone can keep the pace Kane does. And because he plays with Kane, he’s also drawing the opponents’ best defensive players. Nor should his age be a hindrance. Yes, he’s five years and three months older than McDavid, but the trophy goes to the best first-year player in the NHL, not the best teenager.
Weaknesses: Panarin’s case will be hampered by the quality of linemates and teammates. And even though he faces a high quality of opponent, his number of offensive zone starts is off the charts. It’s much easier to be creative and manufacture scoring chances when you start with the puck in the offensive zone. And Panarin has slowed down considerably. Since scoring a hat trick against the New York Rangers in mid-February, Panarin has just three goals and seven points in 15 games and has just one goal in his last 11 games.
Outlook: Had McDavid not done what he has done since coming back from injury, Panarin would likely have been the winner. Voters generally put more of an emphasis on a how a player finishes the season than how he starts it.
Is going to go to Gostisbehere, simply because of his impact on the team. Without him, the Flyers are a non-playoff team with a below-average power play. With him, they’re on the cusp of making the playoffs and are far more dangerous both on the power play and in overtime.That, for me, separates him from the rest of the field.