Breaking Down The Calder Race One Month Into The Season

We’re over a month into the season now, and we have a fairly clear idea of which rookies will be staying with their NHL club for the remainder of the season, as well as a somewhat reliable sample to evaluate their NHL play so far in their careers.

Elias Pettersson has been fantastic so far, and is the clear favourite for the Calder award so far. Most of the other players perceived to be contenders for the trophy entering the campaign have disappointed so far this season, so it looks very unlikely that he loses that throne at this point. It’s likely that their play will improve over the course of the season, but for the time being, the award is Pettersson’s to lose.

The Contenders

 

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Elias Pettersson (LHC, Vancouver Canucks)

The overwhelming early favourite for the award, Pettersson has gotten off to an electric start to his NHL career, even causing some to christen him as “generational” just nine games in.

That statement becomes a bit more realistic when you take into account just how insane Pettersson has been, but is still a bit early nonetheless. Through those nine games, Pettersson has tallied 9 goals and 6 primary assists, which equates to 13 points over a full 82 game season. Of course, Pettersson won’t reach that 82 game mark because of his concussion, and just as obviously, the pace that he’s producing at right now is unsustainable– currently, just under 40% of Pettersson’s shots are resulting in goals, compared to the average of around 9%. Pettersson is currently outperforming his expected goals by roughly 6 tallies; if he had been shooting at a league average rate, he would only have around 3 goals right now, instead of the 9 that exist in reality.

However, I do think a point-per-game pace is entirely within reach for him (it’s not a mark that’s unfamiliar to him– he was just under it in the Allsvenskan in his draft season, and destroyed it last year in the SHL), and he could go as far as surpassing last year’s 85 point Calder performance from Mathew Barzal.

We knew Pettersson was going to be good — his SHL numbers last year were historical and right there with those of some former elite Swedish NHLers — but I don’t think anybody was expecting him to be this dominant so soon. His mixture of vision, creativity, and skill on the puck is terrifying, and has taken the NHL by storm. He’s established himself as one of the premier young players in the sport, and I don’t think we need much longer of an audition before we can bestow “superstar” status upon him.

 

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Henri Jokiharju (RHD, Chicago Blackhawks)

Jokiharju has gotten off to a remarkable start to his NHL career, a development that’s been swept under the rug a bit, assumably because of Pettersson’s overshadowing rookie success, as well as the opposite of success for the Chicago Blackhawks, who sit 2nd last in the Central Division.

The Finnish defenceman has 8 points through his first 15 NHL games, putting him on pace for 44 on the season. Although he hasn’t yet scored his first career goal, Jokiharju has been making heavy use of his shot, racking up the 12th most shot attempts per sixty minutes of play of all defencemen this season. Although all these shots haven’t yet ended in a goal for Jokiharju himself, they’ve been creating rebounds and tough situations for goalies all season long, and it shouldn’t be long until the Finn finally finds the twine, and when he does, it’ll be the first of many.

Jokiharju has been more than serviceable in a top four role for the Blackhawks, where his puckmoving abilities have been a welcome addition to a blueline that otherwise holds nothing but significantly downgraded versions of the formerly excellent Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. He’s been leaned on heavily, logging the most even strength ice time on the entire team, averaging 18.5 minutes a night at even strength and 21 minutes per game across all situations.

Clearly, that hasn’t been too much for the youngster. His play with the puck has been an essential piece in Chicago’s transition game, and the state of their blueline would be much more dire without him.

 

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Andrei Svechnikov (RW, Carolina Hurricanes)

The 2nd overall pick in the 2018 draft, Svechnikov hasn’t received much of a role from Carolina’s coaching staff, averaging just over 13 minutes a night, but he’s been active in the offence despite that role. With only 3 goals and 2 assists on the year, his offensive play doesn’t look fantastic, but Svechnikov has been shooting the puck like mad. In 14 games and 185 minutes on the ice, Svechnikov has recorded 35 shots on target and 54 shot attempts. He’s averaging 2.5 shots per game in his limited minutes, and has notched over 11 shots in every sixty minutes of play so far this season.

If Svechnikov is so active in the offensive zone, shouldn’t he have more points than he does? Yes, he should, but he isn’t missing out on points because of what he’s doing on the ice– it could be because of luck, or it could be because of his linemates, but pucks just aren’t going in very frequently with Svechnikov on the ice. While Svechnikov is on, the Hurricanes are shooting just 4.3% (the average is roughly 9%), which would have a negative effect on his assist total. Individually, Svechnikov has been unlucky as well– based on his Expected Goals, Svechnikov should probably have an additional tally so far, which would raise his total to 4.

Unless he ends up with a larger role on the team, Svechnikov’s rookie season probably won’t be a very notable one, but it’s important to take note that his performance this season has been better than his basic statistics would make it seem. He’s been very active in the offensive zone, especially in the area shot generation, and is making things happen in his limited minutes.

Rasmus Dahlin (LHD, BUF)

Dahlin isn’t getting much Calder love right now– he’s barely even in the conversation at this point, but he probably deserves to be. With 5 points in 15 games, Dahlin is on pace with 27 points, which is right on line with what reasonable expectations for him should have been going into the season. He’s been outproduced by some other rookie defencemen, but only because he hasn’t had the luck of those other players. Over the entire season, expect him to pass those players as their luck cools off, potentially putting himself back into the Calder race once again.

Dahlin has experienced some growing pains as he made his transition to the NHL, but the skating and puckmoving that defined his game outside of the NHL is still present. It’s only a matter of time until he breaks out, becoming the two-way beast he was expected to be. That won’t necessarily be this season, but it’s coming.

Miro Heiskanen (LHD, DAL)

Heiskanen has gotten almost no Calder recognition so far, but he’s averaging 22 minutes a night for the Stars. He’s been fine in those minutes, and has become essential to a mediocre Dallas squad. With 6 points in 15 games, Heiskanen is on pace for 32 points this season, which would be an impressive total for the rookie blueliner.

Heiskanen was outstanding in the Liiga last season– the best defenceman in the league at just 19 years old. He’s brought his steady two-way play to the NHL, and deserves much more love for the rookie award than he has received so far.

Dark Horses

Maxime Lajoie (RHD, OTT)

Lajoie has been a pleasant surprise this year, turning himself into one of few bright spots on the Senators’ roster. He’s currently ninth on the team in scoring, the second highest defenceman behind Thomas Chabot (who’s off to a ridiculous start), with 8 points in his first 15 points.

I don’t think anybody was expecting this kind of success from Lajoie. A fifth rounder in 2016, Lajoie didn’t appear to be anything special, with mediocre numbers throughout his WHL career. Last season, he played in the AHL for the Belleville Senators, tallying just 15 points through 56 games. Based on everything before this season, he looked like a likely AHL-lifer with a low shot at the NHL, but now he’s in contention for the Calder.

But has Lajoie really been as good as it might appear? He may have 8 points, but only 3 of those were at even strength. 3 even strength points in 15 games doesn’t sound as good now, or good at all, does it? Lajoie probably isn’t the two-way, point producing defenceman that some might think he is, but based on his NHL play so far he projects as a high quality power play option that can hold his own at even strength.

Brady Tkachuk (LW, OTT)

I’ll admit, I didn’t think Tkachuk wasn’t going to be this effective in the NHL, especially this early in his career, but he’s been fantastic so far. An injury has limited him to just four games, but he’s recorded six points over that time, three of them at even strength. He’s riding a shooting percentage of over 20%, but his shot generation has been outstanding, so he should continue to generate goals even after his luck fades. It’s possible that he’s sent down to the London Knights of the OHL, but there’s a good chance he stays in the NHL.

Colin White (RHC, OTT)

The Senators have a decent amount of good young NHLers built up– Colin White is the third Senator to appear in this article so far. With 9 points in 15 games, White is producing at an impressive rate for a rookie, but unless he can improve on that, it’s unlikely he has much of a chance.

Brett Howden (LHC, NYR)

Howden has surprised this season, recording 9 points in his first 14 games, 7 of them at even strength. He’s beginning to look like he could be an impact player for the rebuilding Rangers in the future. Like White, he isn’t performing at a high enough level right now to beat out some on the other rookies, and it’s unlikely that he significantly improves upon his current play.

Dennis Chowolski (LHD, DET)

Chowolski has similar numbers to White and Howden — 8 points in 13 games — but as a defenceman. However, 6 of those points have come on the powerplay, so his even-strength play hasn’t been nearly as impressive as it seems. Like Lajoie, he seems like a powerplay specialist that can survive in other situations.