When the NHL season began last October, Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine were the odds-on favorites to win the 2017 Calder Trophy. As the season went on, it became painfully obvious - to everyone outside of Winnipeg - that Auston Matthews was going to win the award in a landslide.
This season, the Rookie of the Year race is much more wide open. An argument can be made for a number of youngsters to win the trophy. First overall pick Nico Hischier will likely be in the running, but there are a number of older rookies that likely have a better chance of winning - not to mention Grandpa Jost’s little boy.
With that in mind, I’ve taken a look at one player from each team from the Central Division that has a possibility of contending for the Calder this season.
Nashville Predators - Pontus Aberg (W)
The speedy winger tore up the AHL last season before becoming a household name during Nashville’s playoff run. He forechecks hard and doesn’t let a lack of size stop him from winning puck battles. He’s tremendous with the puck on his stick and has the ability to create offense for both himself and his linemates.
What hurts his chances at the Calder is the fact that he will likely be relegated to bottom-6 duties - at least to start the season. The depth the Preds have up front limit his role both at even strength and on the powerplay. Likelihood of winning: below average
Minnesota Wild - Joel Eriksson Ek (C)
Eriksson Ek joined the Wild last season and hit the ground running, putting up 7 points in his first 15 NHL games. He has the defensive responsibility to play in the NHL, but his calling card it the offense. He’s got an elite shot, great playmaking skills and the potential to be a star. He’s the 1C of the future in Minnesota and it likely won’t take him long to get to that position. Likelihood of winning: Among the favorites
Chicago Blackhawks - John Hayden (F)
When you think about rookies that could make a big impact on the Blackhawks lineup, most people go straight to Alex DeBrincat - and with good reason. After setting records in the OHL for two seasons, DeBrincat is turning pro this year, but there is a very good chance he spends most of his time in the AHL. I think DeBrincat will end up being a favorite for the 2019 Calder.
EnterJohn Hayden. After playing 12 games with Chicago last season, Hayden is set to play the whole season in the NHL. He’s a big body that can play a number of different roles in the lineup. He’ll never be an offensive dynamo, but he will fit as a solid secondary player. Likelihood of winning: Low
Winnipeg Jets - Kyle Connor (LW)
After being drafted 17th overall in 2015, Kyle Connor was absolutely dominant as a freshman at the University of Michigan scoring 71 points in 38 games.
Connor is an explosive forward that has the dynamic offensive ability to score a ton in the NHL. After a slow start to his professional career last season, Connor turned things around and was one of the best young forwards in the AHL by the end of the season.
He is a two-way forward that grew up playing center but will likely see most of his time on the wing with the Jets this season. He’s likely to play a top-6 role with either Mark Scheifele or Bryan Little so he’s going to get plenty of opportunities to put up a big point total. Likelihood of winning: Very high
St. Louis Blues - Jake Walman (LD)
He might not be up with the Blues long enough to get recognition, but Walman left Providence College a year early and did so hoping to spend the entire season in the NHL.
As far as on-ice talent, the 2014 third round pick is the total package. Walman is an elite skater and tremendously poised with the puck on his stick.
As a converted forward, he’s still learning the intricacies of playing the defensive position - especially without the puck. He has to learn which risks you can take as a forward and which you can take as a defenseman. That said, he’s still better defensively than most rookies you’ll see coming out of the NCAA. Like Zach Werenski last year, Walman might be starting from behind, but as the season goes on, don’t be surprised if you hear his name pop into the Calder conversation. Likelihood of winning: Darkhorse
Dallas Stars - Julius Honka (RD)
It looks like it’s finally time for the top prospect in the Stars organization to become a full-time NHLer. He can be a high-end offensive defenseman and should see powerplay time right away. If they let him loose, Honka has the ability to produce a lot of points, unfortunately, Ken Hitchcock is the new coach in Dallas and ‘letting loose’ isn’t something he’s a big fan of.
Hitch’s system might stifle Honka’s productivity a little, but he’s got so much raw talent that it shouldn’t be a problem. Likelihood of winning: Above average
Colorado Avalanche - Tyson Jost (C)
We all know how good Tyson Jost is going to be. I think he has a legitimate chance at winning the Calder and I have a more in-depth breakdown here. Likelihood of winning: Among the favorites