By: Rossy Pasternak
It has been 127 days since Auston Matthews was drafted first overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs. At that moment, the hockey world knew the 2016/17 season could be dominated by a bunch of rookies making a splash. We are just past the quarter mark of the NHL season, and that prediction has definitely come true. Much like last season, rookies have been the talk of the town until now. We have the Toronto Maple Leafs making waves in the NHL with six exceptional rookies. In Winnipeg, Patrik Laine has looked like the best player on the ice most games. Outstanding debut seasons aren’t limited to the forward position either, as Zach Werenski has delivered on his promise for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Once again, through a quarter of the season, everyone in hockey are talking about the rookies, and how tough it is going to be to choose the winner of the Rookie of the Year award. In addition, the future of hockey looks even brighter than last year – something that was not expected after the exceptional rookie class of last year.
First, since they all play on the same team, we will tackle the Maple Leafs three exceptional rookies that have a chance at the Calder (apologies to Zach Hyman, Nikita Zaitsev and Connor Brown).
William Nylander – To me, Nylander has been the least impressive rookie on the Maple Leafs, although that in no way means he hasn’t been amazing. This season has made it apparent that Nylander will need more time than his fellow rookies to adjust to the NHL. Coach Mike Babcock even has to have road and home lines in order to protect Nylander from matchups on the road. Nevertheless, the offensive production has been there for Michael Nylander’s son, with 15 points in just 20 games.
Auston Matthews – Matthews has been through it all in his short time in the NHL. Since being drafted 127 days ago, Matthews has played oversees in the World Championships, played in Toronto in the World Cup of Hockey, moved to a new country (again), had the best debut of anyone – ever – and went through a 13 game goal-less streak. Yet, Matthews still has managed to be third in rookie scoring, just one point behind teammate Mitch Marner and Laine. Most importantly, Matthews has managed to avoid the cruel criticism of the Toronto media so far – a major accomplishment for a star who went through a 13 game goal-less streak. Matthews has been able to grow as a player and a person in a friendly environment created by Babcock and Lou Lamoriello, and so far has showed us why he was the first overall pick.
Mitch Marner – Marner is just plain filthy. He uses his incredible agility and hands to create space for himself with the puck, and his insane hockey IQ to get open without it. So far, Marner has avoided taking the physical punishment many thought he would during his adjustment to life in the NHL. Although small in stature, Marner has been the heart of the Leafs so far this season. Marner has especially stepped up his game in front of his hometown crowd in Toronto, proving Don Cherry right. Marner sits tied in the rookie points lead with Laine with 18, and due to his surprisingly developed two-way game, is my early favourite to win RoY.
Patrik Laine – Laine has possibly been the best pure goal scorer in the NHL so far, sitting tied in third with 12 goals. He has showed off his wicked wrist shot and scary clapper, and has been exceptional on the power play. Laine still has a ways to go to overlap Matthews as the player who should have gone #1, but he has done his part so far. Laine plays with cockiness, and always has the mindset that he is the best player on the ice. This has helped with his quick transition to the NHL and the smaller ice surface. Laine looks every part of the elite goal scorer he was pegged to be before the draft.
Zach Werenski – Werenski tore up the NCAA last season at Michigan, racking up 36 points in 36 games – an incredible feat for a defensman. He has parlayed that success in the NCAA into success in the NHL, where he has 16 points in 20 games, and is a plus 3. Admittedly, Werenski is not the most well-known rookie due to the fact he plays on a Columbus team that doesn’t get a lot of national attention. However, Werenski, along with Seth Jones, has helped this team to a +15 goal differential and a playoff spot after 20 games. As Red Wings GM Ken Holland and Leafs coach Mike Babcock both say, if you are in the playoff race after 20 games, you have a chance. Werenski is a huge part of the Blue Jackets’ success, and is an emerging dark-horse candidate for Rookie of the Year.
We have covered the 5 favourites for the Calder Memorial Trophy, who also happen to be the top-5 in rookie scoring, but there have been many other rookies making an impact in the NHL this season. In Edmonton, Jesse Puljujarvi has been playing a terrific 2-way game, collecting 7 points along the way. Jimmy Vesey has lived up to his potential in New York, scoring 7 goals and 13 points. Nikita Zaitsev, Zach Hyman, and Connor Brown all look like intriguing, exciting pieces for the future. Travis Konecny’s performance for Philadelphia this season has made many Maple Leafs cringe knowing they could have had yet another top young-gun.
Young players hold the most value to teams because of the control the team has over them with restricted free-agency and arbitration, as well as the cheap entry level contracts players have for their first three years. All of these young players hope to usher in another age of excellence in hockey that began with the Pittsburgh Penguins’ selection of Sidney Crosby in 2005. With the talent injection the NHL has experienced in the last couple of years, the future is looking bright.
Have any other candidates for the Calder Trophy? Any opinions on the performance of any rookies? Comment below with any opinions! And don’t forget, follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook!