This year’s rookie class and Calder Trophy race are much different than the ones we have seen the past few seasons. Unlike past seasons, there is no Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews in this year’s crop of rookies, making this year’s Calder Trophy race extremely unpredictable, with any number of players in play to take home the award. However, the one player who has stood out from the bunch is the Islanders’ 20-year-old center, Mathew Barzal.
Barzal has seemingly come out of nowhere to lead all rookies in points with 69 – 18 goals, 51 assists – despite being an afterthought as a contender to win the Calder Trophy before the season began. It was not the first time the Vancouver native has been looked over after he slid to 16th in the 2015 NHL Draft. Before the season began, most Islanders fans were more excited to see Josh Ho-Sang, a 2014 first-round pick, but he has played just 12 games with the Islanders this season and is currently in the AHL.
Despite the tendency to do too much with the puck, which has earned him a handful of benchings from head coach Doug Weight, Barzal has been a point-per-game player with 69 points in 70 games. He has also displayed elite speed, vision, and play-making ability at just 20 years old.
Injured Contenders: Brock Boeser, Vancouver Canucks & Charlie McAvoy, Boston Bruins
Competing with Barzal all season long for the Calder Trophy is 21-year-old Canucks winger Brock Boeser. Boeser was a favorite to win the award before the season began and has put up some good numbers, notching 29 goals to lead all rookies, and 26 assists. He was also named to the All-Star Game, where he took home the MVP award. Unfortunately, Boeser suffered a back injury on March 5th against Barzal’s Islanders that will keep him out for about 4-6 weeks – likely the rest of the season. This makes it unlikely that Boeser will beat out Barzal for Rookie of the Year. Yet, it is still quite impressive that Boeser could still possibly end the season with the most goals among rookies, despite missing the last month of the season.
Another young star who looked poised to be a finalist for the Calder Trophy was Bruins’ defenseman Charlie McAvoy. Unfortunately, his rookie campaign has been derailed by a sprained MCL, an injury that will likely keep him out for the remainder of the season. McAvoy had taken on first pairing minutes and responsibilities in his first full season, posting 32 points and a +26 plus/minus on a very good Boston Bruins team that should be in contention for this year’s Stanley Cup.
While the talk of this season’s Calder Trophy race has been Barzal vs. Boeser, with McAvoy also thrown into the mix, there are still a few darkhorse candidates who could upset Barzal with a strong finish to the season.
Darkhorse: Yanni Gourde, Tampa Bay Lightning
Much like Artemi Panarin when he took home the Calder Trophy in 2016 at 24 years old, Yanni Gourde is not your prototypical rookie. At 26 years old, Gourde appeared in 22 games over two seasons with the Lightning, before becoming a mainstay with the team this season. Gourde is currently second in goals with 24 and could move into first, with Boeser (29 goals) likely gone for the season. Along with his 24 goals, Gourde has tallied 30 assists, while also leading all rookies in plus/minus at +29. The undrafted Gourde has been an excellent addition to Tampa Bay’s middle-six and a great running mate to young center Brayden Point, after a long road to the NHL.
For Gourde to surpass Barzal, it would take not only a slump from Barzal, but a continued hot streak from Gourde, after a solid February where he tallied 5 goals and 11 assists, which earned him Rookie of the Month.
Longshots: Clayton Keller, Arizona Coyotes & Mikhail Sergachev, Tampa Bay Lightning
For 19-year-old Clayton Keller, it’s unlikely that he will catch up to Barzal in points (69), as he currently sits at 50 – 19 goals, 31 assists – and has been on a bit of a cold spell since getting off to a hot start. With the injuries to McAvoy and Boeser, however, he can make a strong case for himself as a finalist for the Calder Trophy with a solid month of March.
Meanwhile, in Tampa Bay, Mikhail Sergachev is quietly having a strong rookie season. His offensive numbers are about that of Charlie McAvoy (7 goals, 25 assists), as he has posted 8 goals and 26 assists on the season. Failing to go in his favor, however, is the fact that he has not played the minutes – 15 ATOI – or been given the responsibilities McAvoy has handled in Boston, which keeps him as a longshot for this year’s Calder Trophy.
With the injuries to two likely Calder Trophy Finalists in Canucks’ Brock Boeser and Bruins’ Charlie McAvoy, the door is open for Calder Trophy hopefuls to at least assert themselves as finalists for the award, but it seems it will be tough for anyone to match what Barzal has done in Long Island this season.