Fall has officially begun and you know what that means? Hockey is back baby! With training camps well under way, we are already starting to catch glimpses of those young players that are roaring to go and take the NHL by storm. Over the last 5 years, the NHL has had a huge turnover in player personnel, as youngsters jumping into the NHL whilst still on their Entry-Level Contracts (ELCs) has become the norm. Many will say that the recent crop of young players is simply better during this last 5-year span than previous years. I can certainly agree with this point, as the top end players of the last few drafts, except for the putrid 2012 NHL Draft, was dynamite for the bottom feeding teams in the NHL. Players such as Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Aaron Ekblad, Leon Draisaitl, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Nikolaj Ehlers, Auston Matthews and Patrick Laine are just a handful of young game-breaking stars to enter the league with authority. Each of these players either won or were in the running for the Calder trophy during their respective rookie seasons. Ekblad, McDavid and Matthews, the winners of the last three Calder trophies, came into the league with huge expectations and delivered instantly. Who will follow in these players’ footsteps this season and become the rookie of the year? Let’s look at the candidates:
Clayton Keller, Arizona Coyotes
The 7th overall pick of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft has done nothing but marvel scouts and fans alike over the last 12 months. Said to have top 5 talent, his draft stock was hurt due to his small stature (5.10, 168lbs). Having just come off a 37-point campaign in the USHL for the US National Under 18 team, Keller took his talents to the Boston University Terriers. As advertised, Keller lit up Beantown NCAA hockey with 45 points in 31 games as a rookie. Take into consideration that 1.5 point-per-game scoring is rare in the NCAA and its almost impossible for a freshman to do so. The last player to come into Boston and perform this well in their rookie season was a certain Jack Eichel.
Due to his great skill, good defensive game and elusive speed, Arizona signed Keller late in the 16-17 season in order to give the young pivot a taste of the NHL. In 3 NHL games, Keller put up 2 assists and was on the ice for more than 15 minutes per night. Although he did not get such a thorough look to end the season, the recent summer acquisition of Derek Stepan has pushed Keller to start his rookie campaign as a right-winger. This kind of cautious prospect development has been used in the past with the likes of Tyler Seguin and Alex Galchenyuk, but the Coyotes management team is confident that playing with Max Domi and Stepan himself will help prepare Keller for future center duties later in his career. Playing on the first line 5 on 5, as well as the first power play wave, should result in some good scoring opportunities and favorable offensive zone starts for Keller. Arizona should be much stronger in all facets, save for goaltender, and should be a perfect space for Keller to explode into the force he was drafted to be.
Thomas Chabot, Ottawa Senators
The 18th overall pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft has done nothing but dominate and impress since the day he showed up to his first training camp. He went back to the Saint-John Sea Dogs that year and put up 45 points in 47 games. After a year of training and conditioning, Chabot made the Senators’ opening day roster in 16-17, only to be sent back down in order to not burn a year on his contract. Once again, Chabot went back to the QMJHL and absolutely burned the league with 45 points in 34 games, whilst also dominating the World Junior Championships for Canada. He put up 10 points in 7 games for Canada and was named MVP of the tournament due to this offensive poise and excellent defense.
This year seems to be his year. With Erik Karlsson unlikely to return to the lineup prior to November, Chabot looks like a shoe-in to start the year on Ottawa’s top pairing . He has been tried on the top power play wave for the Sens and he has delivered with multiple assists and a solid shot from the point. He seems physically ready and he looks to have already surpassed former first-round pick Cody Ceci in development. Expect Ceci and Chabot to battle it out for the 2nd pair right defense spot once Karlsson comes back from injury. With the NHL’s fore checkers and penalty killers firmly tasked with stopping Karlsson upon his return, Chabot will be able to benefit from lesser competition to truly excel and give him the extra second to make some of his magical passes or release his deadly wrister. Ultimately, it could end up that Chabot eventually replaces Phaneuf on Ottawa’s top power play unit and forms a duo with Karlsson. That would certainly be a lethal power play pairing for years to come and would vault Chabot into Calder consideration very quickly.
Brock Boeser, Vancouver Canucks
The 2015 23rd overall pick has been an absolute beast in the NCAA since being drafted two years ago. In his freshman year for the University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks, the young right-winger put up an alarming 60 points in 42 games. Although the scoring was somewhat similar to Clayton Keller at Boston University, Boeser had the advantage of playing with older players like Drake Caggiula (Edmonton) and Nick Schmaltz (Chicago) at the time. In his sophomore season for North Dakota, Boeser dominated the league again with 34 points in 32 games even while having emergency wrist surgery, which kept him out of the 2017 World Junior Championships for Team USA
Ultimately, Boeser, similarly to his Fighting Hawks teammate Tyson Jost, signed his ELC with the Vancouver Canucks and began to play immediately. Boeser scored in his first game with the Canucks and had noticeable chemistry with young pivot Bo Horvat. Boeser finished with 5 points in 9 games, which had many putting him in this year’s Calder Trophy conversation. With his recent performances at this year’s camp, Canucks management has decided to pair Horvat and Boeser up again as the staple on the team’s second line. He has the speed, scoring and strength to compliment Horvat’s growing offensive game and truly shine in a weaker Pacific Division. Boeser has been lights out on the second line with Horvat and Sven Baertschi and on the second power play wave. I would certainly expect that second line to finish off the season as the team’s new first line, essentially usurping the first line status from the Sedin Twins for the first time in almost two decades in Vancouver.
Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks
With the former 39th overall pick in 2016, it is not a question of ‘if’, but ‘when’. Alex DeBrincat has elite scoring ability, but is held back from unanimous praise due to his 5.07 stature and his 170 lbs build. Prior to the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, DeBrincat was a huge enigma for teams to figure out. His 104 rookie season and 101 sophomore season proved that he could certainly put up numbers at an elite pace. Although he slid to the second round, Alex used that as motivation to shred the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) yet again in 16-17 with a whopping 127 points in 63 games. On top of that amazing achievement, DeBrincat scored a ridiculous 38 points in 22 OHL playoffs games en route to the OHL Championship and a berth in Memorial Cup.
During this preseason, the Chicago Blackhawks almost require DeBrincat to make the leap to the NHL due to their cap issues and lack of organizational depth at forward. In order to have him hit the ground running, DeBrincat was slotted in with Patrick Kane and Nick Schmaltz as a replacement for the recently departed Artemi Panarin. He has already scored a goal during the preseason and looks poised to stick around on the second line. Kane has two players who had amazing amateur hockey careers in Schmatlz (North Dakota) and DeBrincat to help along. The combination of skill and speed on this line may allow DeBrincat to break out quickly this season in the same way Panarin broke out after being paired with Patrick Kane.
Nico Hischier, New Jersey Devils
The 2017 first overall pick is an easy choice for the Calder this year, especially after witnessing his solid preseason for the New Jersey Devils. The young Swiss pivot came over to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) via the 2016 import draft and immediately began ripping up the league as a rookie with his 86 points in 57 games. His offensive game was complimented by a sound two-way game that had many scouts comparing him to former QMJHL standout Patrice Bergeron. At the World Junior Championships in December 2016 and January 2017, Hischier was the best player for his native Switzerland, while putting up an impressive 7 points in 5 games. Many of the scouts mentioned that his numbers would have been even more impressive had he played for a team like Canada, USA or Russia.
After barely edging out Nolan Patrick for the first pick in the most recent NHL Entry Draft, Nico has been paired, in an ironic manner, to another former first overall pick in Taylor Hall. They practiced together in the summer, play on the same line in training camp and it has begun to pay dividends. Hischier has put up a few goals and assists in a handful of games already in this preseason on a line with Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri. He has even produced whilst being removed from Hall and Palmieri during his most recent preseason game, which indicates that Nico will most certainly not require Hall or anybody else to help him score. In the end, Hischier is the type of player that can surprise and, with what seems like a renewed forward corps in New Jersey, he may have the backup to help him reach the 60-70-point plateau as early as this season.
The Calder Trophy winner is always hard to when you don’t have a generational player being drafted (McDavid, Matthews, etc), which is why this year’s Calder race is wide opened for a rookie to step up and claim it. This is going to be one interesting season to say the least!