Patrik Laine’s concussion forced him to miss two weeks of action, and during that time the Winnipeg Jets winger watched his slim lead on the rookie scoring race slip away while Toronto Maple Leafs freshman duo Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner continued to find the score sheet. So when Laine returned to action on Tuesday night, he had some ground to make up.
With an assist against the San Jose Sharks, Laine found himself back level with Matthews at 38 points, and Laine got back into the goal column on Thursday evening with a power play tally and raised his point total to 40 by the time the night was over.
So here we sit at the all-star break with a trio of rookies within spitting distance of each other at the top of the scoring race. Laine’s leading the pack with Marner and Matthews nipping at his heels with 39 points apiece. And with less than half the season remaining for both the Jets and Maple Leafs, there’s reason to wonder if we’re not in for a furious finish in the Calder Trophy race and the potential for this to be the tightest vote in recent memory.
The awards point system isn’t all that hard to understand. Each player has the chance at first, second, third, fourth and fifth place votes, with decreasing point values assigned to each category. A first-place vote is worth 10 points, second-place vote worth seven and the values decrease by two up to a value of one point for a fifth-place vote. The voting data for the past 21 seasons is available on Hockey-Reference, and it has shown a few photo finishes for the Calder in the past two decades.
Two notably tight races have come in the past handful of seasons, too, with the most recent being the 2014-15 Calder vote. The award went to Florida’s Aaron Ekblad, but the Panthers defenseman won by only 69 points, narrowly defeating Ottawa Senators winger Mark Stone. The vote was similarly close in 2012-13, too, when the Panthers’ Jonathan Huberdeau took home the trophy. Montreal Canadiens winger Brendan Gallagher finished in second place, and there was only 93 points separating he and Huberdeau.
Could this season’s vote be even tighter, though?
Any discussion about the Calder starts with Matthews given he was the top prize in the 2016 draft and a player who was watched for years before making his NHL debut. Being arguably the best young American player in the game gives Matthews a hype factor, and playing in Canada’s biggest market doesn’t hurt, either. There’s a lot of exposure to Matthews, and that’s going to help his case. That said, Matthews has made himself a frontrunner for the award on his own merit.
Matthews’ 23 goals are the most among rookies and the only players in the entire league with more are Cam Atkinson, Jeff Carter and Sidney Crosby. Most impressive about Matthews, though, is that he’s shown he can be the catalyst that drives offense while primarily playing with freshmen William Nylander and Zach Hyman. Matthews is also taking top forward minutes, facing tough competition and still producing.
But right alongside Matthews, step-for-step, has been Laine, and you best believe the argument for the Finn to take home the award is going to be based solely on points. Right now, he has the rookie lead, but he has only 30 games remaining to pad his stats and is on pace to finish with 37 goals and 67 points. Laine’s points pace isn’t higher than that of Matthews or Marner — 40 goals, 68 points and 19 goals, 68 points, respectively — and his goal total wouldn’t be more than that of Matthews.
Posting big, convincing numbers is what gets Laine the Calder because voters could use the fact he’s playing on a line with Mark Scheifele and Nik Ehlers against him. If you need any indication of how scoring can help Laine win the Calder, look at the 2006 award. Crosby and Alex Ovechkin were near even in points, but Ovechkin had a 50-goal year and four-point edge in scoring. He won the Calder by 444 points. Laine’s well off a 50-goal pace, but a commanding edge in overall scoring could make the difference.
Bringing up the rear is likely Marner, but there’s something to be said for what he’s accomplished without near the hype of Matthews or Laine. Marner has almost immediately jumped into a second-line role and is excelling. Like Laine, Marner has played primarily with established talents, skating with James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak, but his productiveness can’t be overlooked. Points become a big factor in the Calder race, and if it’s Marner on top, that’ll turn some heads.
It’s not just that there are three rookies producing at such an astounding rate that makes one wonder if the Calder will be won by an incredibly slim margin, though. What stands to make the race so close is that there are a handful of other intriguing choices for the award.
Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Zach Werenski, for instance, could have a claim to some first- or second-place votes. He’s 12th in scoring by defensemen, ahead of the likes of Ryan McDonagh and Drew Doughty. He’s playing big minutes on a team that’s had a quick turnaround, and, in another world with another all-star system, deserved to head to Los Angeles for the star-studded exhibition. There’s also Nylander, Sebastian Aho and Anthony Mantha to consider.
That matters when it comes to voting because we could see something that resembles 2013. While they're not one-to-one comparisons of Matthews and Laine, you can draw parallels between what happened with Huberdeau and Gallagher. They evenly split the top spot with 54 first-place votes in 2013, while Brandon Saad captured 30 first-place votes, Jonas Brodin earned 24 and remaining first-place nods went to Nail Yakupov, Cory Conacher and Justin Schultz. In the end, the difference-maker for Huberdeau was earning 55 second-place votes — 11 more than Gallagher and 77 additional points.
That means one of the biggest deciding factors in 2013 ended up being the play of the rookies outside of the top two. If Saad or Yakupov don’t wow offensively, does Huberdeau land a few extra votes and run away with the Calder? Or do some of those in either camp swing over to Gallagher to put him over the top? What about those who voted for Brodin for Calder? Does the eye for defense make them consider Gallagher, who has a two-way element to his game?
With two top contenders in Matthews and Laine, a tie in first place votes isn’t all that hard to fathom, especially if Laine finishes ahead of Matthews in the scoring race. When it comes to second-place votes, it would stand to reason that those who have Matthews first will have Laine second if he keeps up his scoring pace and vice versa. A near even split of votes for the top two places would put Matthews and Laine in a battle of third-, fourth- and fifth-place votes, and the difference there will be where voters see Marner, Werenski and others fitting into the conversation.
So if Matthews and Laine continue to keep filling the stat sheet, it’s not a matter of if the Calder race will be close, but just how close the final totals will be.
(All voting information via Hockey-Reference.com)
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