CALGARY, Alta. Dec. 21, 2016/ Troy Media/ – It’s time again for Auston City Limits, our horse-race analysis of the 2016-17 contest for the NHL’s Calder Trophy, symbolic of the rookie of the year. We’re calling it Auston, of course, in honour of the Toronto Maple Leafs wunderkind Auston Matthews, the kid from the desert who sharpened his skills in Switzerland.
Matthews is the second generational player in as many years to be drafted first overall. What makes his arrival more interesting than the Connor McDavid coronation last year is the sheer volume of talent just ahead and behind him in the race for the Calder. This could well be a year like 1983, when Hall of Famers Steve Yzerman, Pat Lafontaine, Tom Barrasso and Cam Neely all went in the top 10 of that year’s draft. Or 1989, when Detroit alone drafted Nicklas Lidstrom, Sergei Fedorov, Vladimir Konstantinov and Dallas Drake.
Matthews got his National Hockey League season off to a roaring start with a record four goals in his first game, and has not slowed down appreciably. But he’s been followed lockstep by Winnipeg’s latest Flying Finn, Patrik Laine. At the rate they’re going, they could join Laine’s countryman Teemu Selanne and Eric Lindros as the only 40-goal rookie scorers.
For now, we have a change in our rankings with Laine nudging ahead of Matthews for the Calder.
But there are others just behind them who in ordinary years might walk off with the hardware. Let’s handicap the field (number in parentheses indicates where we ranked him in October).
- Patrick Laine (2): Some experts who watched him play for Finland in the world juniors last year thought the big man with the soft hands should have been selected first overall. He’s shown that the Leafs would not have gone wrong taking him, as he’s put up 17 goals and nine assists so far to lead rookie scorers. He clearly has the confidence of coach Paul Maurice, who keeps putting Laine out in crucial situations for the Jets. What might have been most telling is that, when he scored an own goal that cost the Jets a win, he might’ve crumbled. But he’s taken the gaffe (which was shown all over the place) in stride. He’s a guy you’d pay to watch and the NHL doesn’t have enough of that kind of player in its coach-obsessed game.
- Auston Matthews (1): With only a few blips, he’s been everything the Maple Leafs hoped for. As of Monday, he had 14 goals and nine assists. After his blazing start, he went dry for 13 games before hitting another hot streak with eight goals in his last 10 games. The most impressive feature of his rookie campaign is that when he went cold coach Mike Babcock kept playing him – and Babcock is notoriously stingy on ice time for players who aren’t contributing. Matthews is logging an average of 18:28 a game and Toronto is in a playoff spot at this early juncture. Barring injury to one of these two young stars, the fight with Laine is going down to the last games of the season.
- Zach Werenski (4): The Columbus Blue Jackets are a big story in the early part of the year and the young American defenceman is one of the reasons. He leads rookie defencemen in scoring with six goals and 14 assists. But he’s also netting 21:43 a night from coach John Tortorella, who’s as fickle as they come. While he’s made some mistakes that are inevitable with rookie D, Werenski has proven dependable in his own zone. The problem is that in a year with lots of glossy scorers, defencemen are typically overlooked.
- Mitch Marner (6): The second of the Leafs’ gold-dust trio with Matthews and William Nylander, Marner has always had magic hands. But could he bring it in a league of big men who were looking for him? The nifty forward from the London Knights has answered with an emphatic ‘Yes.’ Like all rookies, he’s had hiccups. Babcock demoted him to the fourth line, but he’s avoided the press box and has 23 points, including eight goals.
- Jimmy Vesey (5): Vesey is older than the others on this list – 23 – but he’s mostly lived up to the hype that accompanied his free-agent auction last summer. Veteran New York Rangers coach Alain Vigneault has even double-shifted Vesey, putting him in more crucial situations to exploit his offensive skills. So far, he has 10 goals and seven assists, and Vigneault has rewarded him with 14:27 in average ice time on a team that has far more veterans than either Toronto or Columbus.
- William Nylander (3): The son of former NHLer Michael Nylander is as enigmatic as his dad, landing in the press box when his play wasn’t up to Babcock’s liking. He was the NHL rookie of the month for October and has scored six times with 14 helpers, so he’s showing the offensive dash that made him a prospect. But developing an all-around game is a work in progress. Still, he’s averaging 16:40 in ice time and there’s lots of runway left in 2016-17.
- Matt Murray (previously unrated): Here’s a goalie for your thoughts. Murray has taken advantage of injuries to Marc-André Fleury to fashion an impressive 12-2 mark with a very stingy 1.84 goals-against average. He turned away 41 shots against Boston last week for his fifth win in a row. As a member of the talented Pittsburgh Penguins, he has a chance to shine while building nice stats. Goalies don’t always get props for the Calder but he could be in the top three come voting time.
Bruce is a Troy Media columnist and host of podcast The Full Count with Bruce Dowbiggin on anticanetwork.com. His career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster. Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy.
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