Sign of the times in the NHL: rookie defensemen as key contributors. Last season, Tyler Myers burst on the scene in Buffalo to anchor the Sabres' 100-point campaign and win the Calder Trophy as the league's top freshman. This time around is no different. In fact, it is a good bet that the best first year player will come from the ranks of the D-men.
It has only happened one time in NHL history that the Calder went to defensemen in successive seasons. Way back in 1963, Kent Douglas of the Toronto Maple Leafs became the first blueliner to ever win Rookie-of-the-Year honors, which were first handed out after the 1932-33 season when centerman Carl Voss of the Detroit Red Wings won the inaugural award. In 1937, the award became the Calder Trophy in honor of Frank Calder, the original President of the NHL. Upon Calder's death in 1943, the league renamed the honor the Calder Memorial Trophy.
In 1964, Jacques Laperierre followed up Douglas's accomplishment as a defender winning rookie honors. That's it -- never a repeat winner on defense since. In fact, only 10 rearguards have ever had the honor bestowed upon them, including Hall-of-Fame players Bobby Orr, Denis Potvin, Ray Bourque and Brian Leetch. Now, winning the Calder as a defenseman doesn't guarantee enshrinement in the HHOF, but the eleventh recipient among defensemen could come from this fine group patrolling the blueline in 2010-11. And the repeat recipient might just come from the Habs again.
We all got a glimpse of P.K. Subban last year at the World Junior Championships. He was a joy to watch, playing with panache all over the ice. That was against his peer group, though, and maybe not a clear picture of what he might do as a professional. Well, Subban was a revelation during the Canadiens' springtime run to the Eastern Conference Final. He appeared in 14 games and delivered eight points while garnering a plus-3 rating. He again played without fear, showing brash dash and flash in all three zones. He is following up that spring fling with a solid start to this regular campaign, averaging 21:30 of ice time per game, with a plus-4 mark and six assists. He has yet to score -- Subban counted once during the playoffs -- despite averaging nearly three shots on goal per game.
The antithesis to Subban's sizzle is the Washington Capitals' John Carlson and his calm controlled countenance. Yet, their jump to rookie status is similar. Carlson was part of Team USA's gold medal winning team at the World Junior Championships and he appeared in all seven of the Capitals' playoff games after appearing in 22 regular season tilts. At the WJC, Carlson scored two goals in the gold medal game, including the OT game-winner. So, his offensive game is there -- a necessary trait, usually, if a defenseman is indeed destined to win the Calder. It's just that his game is a little subtler than Subban's.
Still, Carlson has 2-6-8 in 14 games so far, already more than the 1-5-6 he posted with the Caps in several call-up stints last season. The two blueliners play almost identical minutes, but Carlson skates for the offensively charged Capitals while Subban is part of a Canadiens attack that is more staid -- even though his 39-shots on goal lead all rookies.
Of course, it isn't all about offense, and to that end Carlson has acquitted himself nicely at plus-4. Right now, he is ahead of Subban in my book in the race within the Calder race.
In the end, goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky in Philadelphia, winger Jeff Skinner in Raleigh, center Logan Couture in San Jose and other worthy candidates throughout the league could have a say in who has the best NHL rookie season. But as Tyler Myers proved in 2009-10, with the league's emphasis on skating leading to a premium being put on defensemen as part of the attack, the 2011 Calder Memorial Trophy could usher in a historical anomaly, with back-to-back winners by a defenseman for the first time in 47 years.