Rookie race coming down to Gostisbehere, McDavid


Next week, selected members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association will receive their official ballots to vote on several NHL awards. One that I think provides great intrigue is the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year. What a class we had this season. The only reason there's any intrigue is because Connor McDavid missed three months. Otherwise he would have won this in a landslide. Instead, he's in the mix with a number of great candidates.

Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers: With 45 points in 42 games, it's clear the first overall pick in last June's draft would have crushed the competition had he not been injured in November. Stretched out in 82 games, his points-per-game production results in an 88-point season. Which, by the way, would have had him top-five in NHL scoring among all players, period. There is zero debate who the best rookie in the NHL is, that's the 19-year-old McDavid by a mile. But the best rookie campaign? That's debatable because many voters will have a hard time giving McDavid a first-place vote after missing almost half the season. It's a really interesting debate, to be honest.

Shayne Gostisbehere, Philadelphia Flyers: The 22-year-old has already set a franchise record for goals by a rookie blueliner with 16. And the thing is, so many of his goals have been clutch ones. With 42 points in just 58 games and logging close to 20 minutes a game, he's had the kind of season that deserves serious Calder Trophy consideration. One NHL head coach I texted with Thursday morning pointed out that the Flyers defenseman is also playing meaningful games with his team in a playoff push. That should count for something, too. Not to mention how much harder it is to break into this league as a defenseman. It's why Aaron Ekblad deservedly got the Calder a year ago.

Artemi Panarin, Chicago Blackhawks: The 24-year-old winger seemingly is losing points among voters (judging anecdotally from social media commentary) because he played pro hockey in the KHL before coming over. I'm not sure that's fair, he's still a rookie in the NHL, didn't speak a word of English when he came over, had to adjust to a different type of game and culture all the while keeping up with Patrick Kane as a linemate. The NHL rookie points leader with 64 points (25 goals-39 assists) in 75 games deserves more credit.

Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres: The No. 2 overall pick from last June's draft has had a nice second half and overall his 50 points (23 goals-27 assists) are second only to Panarin in the NHL rookie race. I will also say this: Eichel is 19 years old. The grind of a first professional season can be tough on teenage players, and the fact that he's played 76 of his team's 77 games this season is worthy of discussion in the sense we'll never know whether McDavid over 82 games would have tired or slowed down through the grind of a full season.

Dylan Larkin, Detroit Red Wings: The 19-year-old forward has dazzled and then some, forcing the Wings to do something they rarely allow: a teenager making the team without at least a year of AHL seasoning. But he's been that special, his speed and decision-making with the puck just jaw-dropping stuff.

John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks: People forget he's still a rookie despite playing in 23 games last season with the Ducks. What a phenomenal year he's had splitting duties with Frederik Andersen and earning a trip to the All-Star Game. I will remember in particular how good Gibson was when the team was turning its season around and winning low-scoring games.

Max Domi, Arizona Coyotes: The 21-year-old winger is third in NHL rookie scoring with 48 points (18 goals-30 assists), and you know that he's left some points on the board by having to gain the trust of head coach Dave Tippett and improve his two-way game. Really impressive rookie campaign.

Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes: Playing north of 20 minutes a game with such poise and confidence at the age of 21, Slavin's rookie year has largely gone under the radar but deserves recognition.

Honorable mention: Anthony Duclair, Arizona Coyotes; Sam Reinhart, Buffalo Sabres;Robby Fabbri, St. Louis Blues; Sam Bennett, Calgary Flames; Joonas Donskoi, San Jose Sharks; Colton Parayko, St. Louis Blues; Noah Hanifin, Carolina Hurricanes; Nikolaj Ehlers, Winnipeg Jets.

The skinny: I haven't made my final decision yet on the order of the five names I will put on my ballot, but it's going to come down to Gostisbehere or McDavid for my No. 1 choice. I'm going to continue to talk to more NHL scouts, coaches, players and execs and see how they feel about McDavid's limited games. As of now, probably leaning a bit toward Gostisbehere.

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