The Race for the Calder

Oh, to be 19 again! The perfect age to be, old enough to enjoy what life has to offer but young enough to get away with immaturity and poor judgment. Unlike many NHL rookies, I never had a half-million dollar salary when I was 19 so I can’t help but feel a little detached from these kids. But I still felt as free and invincible as them, or at least I’d like to think so. Due to being a Leafs fan my entire life, it was necessary to broaden my knowledge of the hockey world and focus on league-wide issues and events. The business of the game intrigues me almost as much as the game itself. It’s unlike any other major professional sports league in North America, especially to Canadians. Born and raised in a suburb of the Greater Toronto Area, I now reside in Calgary. Out of the proverbial pot and into the frying pan, at least in terms of cities with successful hockey teams. The red mile has faded to auburn, the figurative flame is low, and the fans are conservative in their embrace of the team. Other than my Leafs, and now adopted Flames, topics of interests to me are relocation of teams to Canada, player contract dynamics, and looking at the relationship of team management and ownership. These factors weigh greatly on the mindset of the team and affect it a lot more than one might think and I’d like to find out why that is. On a less-serious side, I enjoy fantasy hockey and the world of fan predictions, because they can be the most amusing of all. And boy, the lockout was happy hour for outrageous fan predictions.

Not everything caused by the lockout was bad. For one, it allowed further development of many high-profile prospects, such as Jonathan Huberdeau and Nail Yakupov, giving them an opportunity to succeed early and build upon that heading into the shortened NHL season. In fact, due to the shortened season, there is a higher quantity of skilled youngsters making the cut on their respective teams and looking to provide an immediate impact. One reason for this is that the majority of prospects are generally in better shape, as all were playing hockey during the lockout, be it in North America or Europe. Another reason is that there is a sense of urgency amongst coaches to win now, take chances, and go for the young skill over grinders and agitators. As such, the race for the Calder Memorial Trophy will be one of the most exciting stories this season.

KaneCalder

But what affects a rookie’s chance to win the award? Does the most talented rookie always win or are there bigger factors in play? Surely, a team’s overall record will play a factor in the voting, not to mention the player’s role, who he plays with, and just how much he helps his team win, if at all. Let’s take a look at the past 7 Calder winners:

2011-12 – Gabriel Landeskog – Colorado Avalanche
22-30-52, +20 41-35-6, 88 Points

2010-11 – Jeff Skinner – Carolina Hurricanes
31-32-63, +3 40-31-11, 91 Points

2009-10 – Tyler Myers – Buffalo Sabres
11-37-48, +13 45-27-10, 100 Points

2008-09 – Steve Mason – Columbus Blue Jackets
33 Wins, 2.29 GAA, .916 SV%, 10 SO 41-31-10, 92 Points

2007-08 – Patrick Kane – Chicago Blackhawks
21-51-72, -5 40-34-8, 88 Points

2006-07 – Evgeni Malkin – Pittsburgh Penguins
33-52-85, +2 47-24-11, 105 Points

2005-06 – Alex Ovechkin – Washington Capitals
52-54-106, +2 29-41-12, 70 Points

Other than Ovechkin, all of the winners were part of a team that recorded 40 or more wins. However, we all remember the Ovechkin-Crosby scoring race in their first season. One might argue that their success was mutually beneficial, similar to, in baseball, the McGuire-Sosa home run race in 1998. Having that rival player there to keep pushing you is great in almost every way for one’s own production. It took a very special player, like Ovechkin, to win the Calder on such a bad team. Therefore, we can safely conclude that being a part of a winning team helps immensely in winning the Calder. An extreme example of this is Mason, as he may go down as the most valuable player in Blue Jackets history, if only because he was the sole reason for their only playoff appearance.

However, as Ovechkin demonstrated, it’s not the sole factor. Possibly more important is simply being a statistical leader on your team. Ovechkin lead his team in nearly every stat category during his rookie season. The only other player in the group to lead his team in points during his rookie year was Patrick Kane, but he had a lot more talent around him than Ovechkin did in his first year. Every other forward on the list managed to be at least be a top three offensive contributor on his team. This leads us to determine that being one of the key players on your team will also help in winning the Calder.

We’ve now established some tangible criteria for winning the Calder trophy. Firstly, it helps if the team isn’t completely terrible. Being a playoff team is a plus, but anything close to a .500 record is acceptable. Secondly, if a forward, the player must be among the top three players on his team in the major offensive stat categories. Finally, in the case of a goalie, well, the goalie needs to be lights-out and do something monumental for his team, as Mason did.

However, there is something else that affects the vote and that’s being a consistent, positive presence. This applies mostly to defensemen and Tyler Myers falls into play here. He won the trophy in a year that had Matt Duchene and John Tavares not only playing in the league, but doing well. Both players, at least in this writers’ opinion, are already better than Myers, statistics-wise, and will have much better careers than Myers. They both had respectable rookie seasons of their own, too. But Myers didn’t seem to have one flaw in his game. As a defenseman, he scored 48 points, around a third of which were on the power play, relatively close to the production of both Duchene and Tavares, two forwards. He was also a +13, had 137 blocked shots, and a disciplined 32 penalty minutes (especially for a big man, at 6’8”) while averaging 23 minutes of ice time per game.

Can the rules and trends that dictated Calder winners of the past even be considered for this season? This year, rookies will impact teams more than they ever have in the past. While only three players will be nominated for the Calder, you will likely be able to make an argument for no less than ten. However, this year it is unlikely that any goaltenders will have an impact on the voting. I cannot foresee a goalie even getting close to contesting for the Calder and it’s unlikely that you’ll see many in action for more than a handful of games due to the shortened season. Malcolm Subban probably has the best chance to be the next goalie to win a Calder, but he’s at least a few years away still. In the end, it will ultimately come down to the following three players:

NailYakupov

  • Nail Yakupov – Edmonton Oilers

At this point he can only play himself out of a nomination. He was amazing for Nizhnekamsk Neftekhimik of the KHL, where he played during the lockout and had the highest points-per-game numbers on the team. He was also good in the WJC for Russia and will have a significant role with the Oilers this season. Expect to see him on the secondary power play unit and lining up opposite veteran Ales Hemsky on the 2nd line.

VladTarasenko

  • Vladimir Tarasenko – St. Louis Blues

He was a first round pick for St. Louis back in 2010 and the Blues have consistently drafted high-quality players year after year, while getting better as a team as well. Tarasenko is on the 2nd line with Andy McDonald and Alex Steen, two veterans who will do good by him. Last year he averaged over a point-per-game in the playoffs with his KHL club and during the lockout he was equally impressive. St. Louis is the favourite to win their division and a respectable choice to win the Stanley Cup. Tarasenko will play a major part in the team’s inevitable success this year.

JonathanHuberdeau

  • Jonathan Huberdeau – Florida Panthers

He took a little longer to develop than the others in his draft year, but this is looking to be one of the strongest groups since 2003. He was taken 3rd overall, just behind Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Gabriel Landeskog. Florida will do well in their division, having excellent depth in lieu of real star power. If Huberdeau works hard, he could run away with the award, as well as the reigns of the Panthers for years to come.

All three of these players have very complete games and are set up with teams that are young, skilled, and on the rise. Each team is built in a similar mold to recent Stanley Cup winners such as the Blackhawks, Bruins, and Kings. While other rookies look to make a permanent breakthrough onto their respective teams, I don’t think the following honourable mentions will come close to what Yakupov, Tarasenko, and Huberdeau accomplish: Sven Baertschi (Calgary), Dougie Hamilton (Boston), Justin Schultz (Edmonton), and Mikael Granlund (Minnesota).