Panarin is the Top Candidate for the Calder Trophy

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Chicago Blackhawks forward Artemi Panarin is the top candidate for the Calder Trophy, not Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel or even Shayne Gostisbehere.

The Calder Memorial Trophy is an annual award given “to the player selected as the most proficient in his first year of competition in the National Hockey League” and is voted on by the Professional Hockey Writers Association (PHWA). Additionally, the candidates for the Calder Trophy must be younger than 26 years of age by September 15th of the year they are eligible for the award.

The term “most proficient” is ambiguous at best, and many an adult beverage could be had during the lengthy discussion on what exactly that means. ESPN’s Corey Pronman is running a poll on Twitter to find out what that meanx to hockey fans.  

The only answer is looking at the NHL’s 82-game schedule and evaluating, over the totality of all games played with their respective squad, which rookie contributed the most their team.   

This season, hockey fans have been treated to two of the brightest teenage stars to come along since Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, and two more young players that few saw coming.

When generational talents McDavid and Eichel joined the league as rookies, many thought it would be a two-horse race for rookie-of-the-year honors. McDavid is likely the most talented rookie since Crosby, but a broken clavicle derailed what certainly would have been a point-per-game-palozza for the former Erie Otter. To judge him on playing half as many games as his peers would not be a fair assessment of anyone. Sure injuries happen, but players are to be ranked based on their production on the ice, not what might have been if he had skated the entire year with the Edmonton Oilers.

Eichel will rightly be considered. He has posted 48 points in 70 games for the Buffalo Sabers and has put in his time in the defensive zone, more so than any other rookie looking to be the top candidate for Calder Trophy. But taken as a whole, his point production is not as impressive as some of his rookie competition. Eichel has performed well this season, but the highlight reel goals alone should not fuel a player to hardware.

So who are the contenders if they are not McDavid and Eichel? It is still only a two-player race, but one that features a pair older than 20: Chicago Blackhawks left winger Panarin and Philadelphia Flyers defensemanGostisbehere. 

Few would have predicted the phenomenal play of Artemi Panarin, who averaged 0.70 points per game in the Kontinental Hockey League and increased his output to over 0.90 in the NHL.  Even fewer could have imagined how Philadelphia Flyer Gostisbehere would take the NHL by storm, posting a number of records for rookie defensemen along the way. 

Straight away some will argue Panarin isn’t a “real” rookie. He is 24 years of age and played 263 games in the KHL, one of the top leagues in the world. Panarin was never drafted, but signed as a free agent with the Blackhawks in April 2015. In his first NHL game, his first shot was also his first NHL goal, which came against All-World goalie Henrik Lundqvist. For much of the season since that first shift, Panarin has been deployed almost exclusively with the explosively talented Patrick Kane. Some credit may be due to his line mates, but Panarin is doing his part as well. Kane, with 12 games remaining, has set a new career high in goals and points. A sizeable portion of that increased production is the by-product of having more talent to work with in Panarin.

Panarin has played 69 of Chicago’s 71 games thus far scoring 62 points, placing him second in points on a very deep Blackhawks line-up. Panarin has also been a solid possession player with a CF% of 53.8, but as a knock, has a staggering 75.1% of his shifts start in the offensive zone.

 Gostisbehere had a very different route to the NHL. The 22-year-old was the 78th player taken in the 2012 NHL entry draft and played for three years at Union College, posting solid numbers. Unlike Panarin, Gostisbehere only had 23 games of professional experience sprinkled over three seasons before he rocketed onto the NHL scene. Gostisbehere was called up to the Flyers on November 14 and promptly set the NHL on fire with his emoji-friendly surname. He set an NHL record point streak for a rookie defenseman, posting points in 15 straight games. Gostisbehere already has four overtime goals, which is also an NHL record for a rookie.

In his 51 games in the 2015-16 season, “The Ghost Bear” has scored 15 goals and 23 assists, good for 0.78 points per game average and skating over nearly 20 minutes per contest. He has also posted a positive CF% of 51 and not looked out of place defensively, but has also been deployed to make the most of his offensive talents. The knocks against him are his sheltered usage, starting more than 62% of his shifts in the offensive zone and 20 of his 39 points coming on the power play. 

The responsible hockey fan and PHWA writer will review the entire body of work of all four of these players over the course of the 2015-16 season. But unless McDavid and Eichel go on a scoring tear the likes of which have not been seen in the NHL, the frontrunners are already there. It should be a close vote coming down to Panarin and Gostisbehere, with Panarin likely becoming the top candidate for Calder Trophy when the hardware gets handed out. 

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