A new NHL season brings with it a fresh crop of rookies, and a fresh set off hopes for the futures of nearly every NHL team. Along with helping their teams win, those rookies will also be chasing a prestigious individual award – the NHL’s Calder Memorial Trophy. The following article looks at pre-season favourites and predictions for who will be the NHL’s best freshman this season.
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.
We give a quick look at their scouting reports before hitting the NHL, to give a glimpse of the skills that could make them impact rookies this year as we make our Calder Trophy Predictions. This list factors in opportunity, as well as other things that will count in voting such as awareness and pre-season hype on the player, and the potential of vote splits with multiple players on the same team.
2019-20 Calder Memorial Trophy Contenders
Honourable Mentions (starting the season in the AHL): Vitaly Kravtsov, Owen Tippett, Eeli Tolvanen, Morgan Frost, Joel Farabee, Filip Zadina.
20.) Ilya Samsonov, Goaltender, Washington Capitals
Anytime a rookie goalie comes into the league and proves he belongs in his first season, the Calder voters notice. One goalie with the talent and the pro experience (KHL and AHL) to make such an impact is Capitals prospect Ilya Samsonov. However, he may not get the opportunity. Stuck behind Braden Holtby, the chances of Samsonov playing enough games to make an impact are slim. The only way he really gets into the race is if an opportunity presents itself due to a Holtby injury. However, he is too talented to ignore in this article.
Samsonov has strong legs and gets side-to-side across the crease quickly and efficiently. He plays a tight butterfly and his legs kick out quickly to take away the bottom of the net. He has a fast glove hand and blocker as well. Samsonov skates backwards very well, and this makes him hard to beat on dekes. He comes out to cut down those angles but backs up quickly if the shooter instead tries to go around him. His positioning is very good. He remains square to the puck even when moving around the crease.
19.) Noah Dobson, Defence, New York Islanders
One of the top defensive prospects out there, Dobson is more of an all-around player than an offensive specialist. He also won’t be the top power-play option for the Islanders this season. This puts him further down the list. That said, anytime a rookie with the level of talent Dobson has makes his NHL club out of training camp, he has to be considered on such a list.
Dobson has the passing and skating skills to move the puck up the ice and provide some offence from the backend. He is a good playmaker, who can create off the rush, and play a quarterback role. He has the vision and smarts to find the open man, and the passing skill to thread the needle through tight openings. Dobson uses his agility to walk the line and open up passing and shooting lines. Dobson has a bomb of a slapshot and one-timer and he lets both fly from the blue line. Sometimes he sneaks in from the point and can let go an effective wrist shot with a very good release.
18.) Taro Hirose, Left Wing, Detroit Red Wings
Hirose had seven points in 10 games last year. A bit of a more mature player, Hirose is 23 and spent three seasons at Michigan State. Hirose has outstanding hands and can stickhandle in a phone booth. He is extremely difficult to contain in one-on-one situations. He has the ability to get around a defender or just make a subtle move to change the angle and open up passing or shooting lanes. Hirose has outstanding vision and passing skills. He can make a tape-to-tape pass through tight spaces and can also saucer a pass over an opponent’s stick and on to a teammate’s tape. He is a creative player who will try to make plays that most others wouldn’t.
17.) Dante Fabbro, Defence, Nashville Predators
Opportunity is key to contending for the Calder Trophy and Fabbro has been gifted a golden ticket. After the off-season trade of P.K. Subban, Fabbro steps right into a top-four role with the Predators. Playing with a talented top-six forward group, Fabbro’s puck-moving skills could lead to points. Fabbro is a two-way defender who does everything well. He moves the puck effectively, with a crisp first pass and good stickhandling ability. Fabbro starts the transition game with a smart first pass. He can also avoid oncoming forecheckers and start the play by skating out of his own end of the rink. He is willing to lead the rush or jump in to provide offensive support as a trailer.
16.) Erik Brannstrom, Defence, Ottawa Senators
The key piece in last season’s Mark Stone trade, Brannstrom has made the Senators roster. The question here is about the quality of the team he is playing for as well as the fact he should be behind Thomas Chabot in terms of getting prime offensive opportunities and power-play ice time. Despite that, Brannstrom’s offensive game cannot be ignored.
Brannstrom is an excellent playmaker. He has outstanding puck handling ability and the poise to control the puck and make plays in all situations. He can use his skating and stickhandling to break the puck out of his own zone and get the transition game started. Brannstrom can create offence both through leading the rush and as a trailer. He also is able to walk the line at the blue line, making smart plays when quarterbacking things from the point. His passing skill and vision are also high-end and gives the impression that he can be a power-play quarterback at the next level. He is smart with the puck, making smart plays with it on his stick.
15.) Sam Steel, Centre, Anaheim Ducks
Injured to start the season, Steel could contend if he gets back quickly. With Ryan Kesler and Patrick Eaves out for the season, the Ducks will be looking for offensive contributors in their top-six.
Steel has outstanding stickhandling ability and very soft hands. He combines this with the skating to weave through traffic and create plays off the rush. Steel also has a good wrist shot and a quick release, allowing him to use defenders as a screen and fire it on the net if they back off too much. Add in excellent vision and passing skills and Steel excels as a playmaker. In fact, his playmaking ability is probably the biggest strength of his game. Steel has outstanding hockey IQ and thinks the game a step ahead of others. He seems to always make the smart play with the puck on his stick.
14.) Barrett Hayton, Centre, Arizona Coyotes
Hayton appears to have made the Coyotes out of training camp, but as a teenager with OHL eligibility, he will need to survive beyond the first nine games. He could start the season with Clayton Keller and Derek Stepan whom he spent time with in pre-season.
Hayton has a decent wrist shot and a good release. A big reason for his increased goal scoring over the past two years has been his ability to get into the right spots and use that wrist shot more often. He has also improved his accuracy but can still stand to get better in this area. His slap shot needs some work though, as it lacks power and his wind-up is very big. Hayton is not afraid to get to the front of the net. Once he gets there, he battles hard for position and has the soft hands to finish plays in tight. Hayton scores on tip-ins, quick one-timers and by quickly pouncing on rebounds. He can even score on his backhand.
13.) Alexander Nylander, Left Wing, Chicago Blackhawks
As mentioned in the previous write up, an opportunity is key to winning this award. Nylander will certainly get that opportunity. He has made the Blackhawks opening day roster and there is some suggestion that he will start the season on the team’s top line with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Such an opportunity is too good to ignore, even if Nylander struggled to stick in the NHL after being drafted by the Buffalo Sabres.
A strong playmaker when he is at his best, Nylander has the ability to handle the puck as well as make precise passes while moving at top speed. His wrist shot features a quick release, but he must add some upper body strength in order to add more power to that shot going forward. Once he does it will allow him to become a sniper in addition to his current skills as a playmaker. Nylander possesses soft hands. He finishes plays in tight to the net. He also has the instincts to get open in the zone and get his shot off. Nylander’s great vision and good hockey sense also make him a dangerous player when the play is in the offensive zone. He can thread the needle through small openings when passing to teammates.
12.) MacKenzie Blackwood, Goaltender, New Jersey Devils
After playing 23 games for the Devils last year, Blackwood barely comes in under the threshold to be considered an NHL rookie. With Keith Kincaid in Montreal, the Devils crease is now a two-way battle between Blackwood and Cory Schneider. The Devils have also made a number of steps to improve the team in front of him, which could really help him put up better stats. Blackwood is an intriguing pick at this point.
Coming in at 6-foot-4, Blackwood has the ideal size that teams look for in goaltenders now. He uses that size effectively and comes out to challenge shooters and take away the amount of net they have to look at. He skates extremely well and can back up quickly to close down the net on dekes. Blackwood is almost always square to the shooter, even on cross-ice passes as he gets across very quickly due to a strong leg push. He stays in control and avoids over-sliding. Blackwood plays a strong butterfly technique with strong legs that take away the bottom of the net, and an excellent glove hand.
11.) Martin Necas, Centre/Right Wing, Carolina Hurricanes
Necas has made the Hurricanes roster out of camp but with Jordan Staal in the second line centre position, he seems to be set to start on the third line. He may be eased into the lineup on the third line and might not get a lot of power-play time. That said, he is one of the top prospects in the world and with his talent, he could easily impress and earn more ice-time as the season goes along.
Necas can handle the puck and make plays while moving at top speed. His hands are quick and soft, and he protects the puck well. This makes him extremely dangerous on the rush. Necas has excellent vision and makes tough passes through tight areas. He is very creative with his passing game and can find openings that other players wouldn’t try. Necas sees the ice extremely well and has the hockey IQ to anticipate plays before they happen. He seems to know what his teammates are thinking ahead of time. He can also be dangerous as a shooter with a quick release on both his wrist and snapshots. Necas is good in the cycle game, using his body to protect the puck, and his vision and passing skill to make plays for teammates.
10.) Alexandre Texier, Right Wing, Columbus Blue Jackets
The losses in the Blue Jackets forward core have been well documented. With Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, and Ryan Dzingel all in new homes, there is plenty of opportunity for Texier to take on a top-nine role in Columbus. Texier played well down the stretch and into the playoffs last year. He earned John Tortorella‘s trust and this should lead to ice time this season.
Texier is a very good playmaker. His stickhandling is excellent. He can make plays in tight spaces as well as being able to make plays while moving at top speed. His quick movements open up passing lanes. Texier sees the ice extremely well and finds the open man. He can put a pass through tight areas and onto a teammate’s tape. He also has the poise and patience to slow down the play and wait for his teammates to get open. Texier also has a heavy wrist shot and good release. However, he does not always use it enough.
9.) Drake Batherson, Right Wing, Ottawa Senators
Batherson put up 22 goals and 62 points in 59 AHL games last year. He also added nine points in 20 NHL games. Batherson looks set to start the season with Tyler Ennis and Artem Anisimov. If he impresses, he could quickly move up the lineup and get plenty of power-play time with what is expected to be a weak Ottawa team.
Batherson is a pure sniper. He has a very heavy wrist shot and quick release. Batherson also has the quick hands to beat a goaltender in tight and the good hand-eye co-ordination to get tip-ins, pounce on rebounds, and bang in one-timers in close. From further out, he has a good one-timer as well. Able to score in a number of ways, Batherson also has a good backhand. Added size and strength have helped Batherson become better at battling in front of the net and in the corners.
8.) Nick Suzuki, Centre/Right Wing, Montreal Canadiens
Suzuki had an outstanding camp with the Canadiens and earned the trust of Claude Julien with his work in all situations including three-on-three and the penalty kill. He is expected to start the season playing right wing on a line with Max Domi, the Habs’ leading scorer last season. He also looks to be a key piece on the power play. The Canadiens power play was a disaster last season, so if he shows any success with the man advantage, he will immediately make himself indispensable to the team.
Suzuki thinks the game very well, spotting openings that other players do not see and seems a step ahead of the puck. When he has the puck, he makes smart plays, and when he does not, he finds openings to create a scoring chance. Suzuki has excellent vision and is a very good playmaker. He can feather tape-to-tape passes through tight openings and puts linemates in a great position to finish. Suzuki uses his stickhandling to change angles and open up passing and shooting lanes. Also impressive as a goal scorer, Suzuki has quick hands and drives the net. From further out, Suzuki has a good wrist and snapshot. His release is very quick and can be deceptive for goaltenders. Suzuki is effective on give-and-go plays, finding open space for a return pass.
7.) Maxime Comtois, Left Wing/Centre, Anaheim Ducks
Comtois made the Ducks out of camp last year and put up seven points in 10 games before being sent back to junior. This year, he will look to stay up with the team full-time. In pre-season, he spent a lot of time on the Ducks first line, playing to the left of Ryan Getzlaf. This could be a perfect spot for the youngster.
Comtois is a goal scorer. He has an excellent array of shots, with good power and accuracy on his wrist shot, snapshot and slap shot. A sniper, Comtois has a very quick release that can handcuff opposing goaltenders. While he has the shot needed to score from the slot and face-off circles, he also has the soft hands to beat a goalie in close to the net. Comtois can score goals with deflections, rebounds, and by quickly burying a pass in tight. He even has a powerful backhand. He can also drive the net off the rush, or when working in the offensive zone.
6.) Victor Olofsson, Right Wing, Buffalo Sabres
24-year-old Olofsson is one of the oldest players on our list. He has already put up big numbers in the SHL. Last year, he played his first season in North America and had 30 goals and 63 points in 60 AHL games. He also scored two goals and four points in six games with the Sabres. Olofsson could start the season on the Sabres top line with Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner.
Olofsson is a sniper. His wrist shot and snapshot are both extremely powerful and deadly accurate. He also has a very quick release. Olofsson is a smart player who manages to find open space and in order to take a pass and get a shot on the net. He also has a very good one-timer. While Olofsson is very much a shoot-first player, he also sees the ice well and can set up teammates with good passes through tight areas.
5.) Cody Glass, Centre, Vegas Golden Knights
The first-ever draft pick in Golden Knights history, Vegas has allowed Glass to spend the last two years developing in the WHL. The former sixth overall pick now appears to be NHL ready. Glass is starting out the season centring a line with Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone. Playing with these two elite offensive wingers gives Glass the opportunity to hit the ground running and put up plenty of points.
Glass has good hands, with the ability to stickhandle in tight spaces and make moves one-on-one. He protects the puck extremely well down low, extending plays and keeping possession. He shields the puck, using his body to keep defenders away, while also having the balance to fight through checks. Glass is good in board battles and could be even better as he adds muscle. He also has the passing skills and vision to make linemates better. Glass is a creative playmaker, finding ways to get the puck to teammates, even when there doesn’t appear to be a lane to do so. He makes those passes on both his forehand and backhand and through tight spaces. He also has a decent wrist shot and good release. Glass’ quick hands help him to finish plays in tight to the net. What really sets him apart though is his hockey IQ.
4.) Jack Hughes, Centre, New Jersey Devils
The first overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, Hughes had an impressive pre-season. He might still be a little small to go through the rigours of an entire NHL season though, and that is why he isn’t at the top of this list. Hughes has a complete offensive game and it starts with his skating ability. He is an elite-level skater, with outstanding speed and excellent acceleration. Once he gets a step on a defenceman, he is tough to catch.
Hughes marries his elite skating with the soft and quick hands to handle the puck and make quick moves while skating at that top speed. With the way the NHL continues to emphasize speed and skill, Hughes is the perfect player to take advantage of those conditions. Hughes is an outstanding playmaker. He has great vision and anticipates the movements of teammates. His hockey IQ is extremely high. Hughes can make a tape-to-tape pass through tight areas. His skating ability allows him to speed up the play or slow it down, creating time and space for his linemates.
3.) Quinn Hughes, Defence, Vancouver Canucks
After two outstanding seasons with the Michigan Wolverines, Quinn Hughes signed with the Canucks last spring. He is very strong on the power play. Hughes will get plenty of time on the first power-play unit with Brock Boeser and Elias Pettersson. Hughes has excellent vision and playmaking ability. He has the passing ability and the hockey IQ to quarterback the play from the point. Hughes has the poise to make plays under pressure. His wrist shot is strong and accurate. It also features a quick release. He also has a good slap shot and one-timer.
Hughes is an outstanding skater. He looks like he is floating above the ice. He has very good speed and acceleration in both directions. Hughes has a textbook stride and the ability to change directions on a dime. Hughes has excellent vision and playmaking ability, as well as the hockey sense to almost always make the right play. He seems to think the game and anticipate plays better than others out there on the ice. With his skating and stickhandling ability, Hughes is not afraid to skate the puck out of his zone or lead the rush. He can also make a long pass to start the transition game and start an odd-man rush.
2.) Kaapo Kakko, Right Wing, New York Rangers
The 2nd overall pick in the NHL Draft, Kakko looked like the most NHL ready of the 2019 class. He starts the season playing on the Rangers second line with Chris Kreider and Ryan Strome but should also play on the first power-play unit which features Artemi Panarin.
Kakko is a highly-skilled winger who can create in a variety of ways. He has the soft hands to stickhandle in a phone booth and protects the puck, extending plays. His wrist shot is extremely powerful and features a very quick release. He also has an effective one-timer. Kakko uses his soft hands to finish plays in tight. All of this makes him a pure sniper. However, he can also be an effective playmaker. When an opportunity arises, he sets up teammates for scoring chances. Kakko sees the play developing and makes smart plays. He has very good vision and finds open teammates in front of the net. His soft hands and quick feet allow him to change angles and beat a defender to create a passing lane. While Kakko can add some muscle to his frame, he already shows the power to play against men in Finland.
1.) Cale Makar, Defence, Colorado Avalanche
After an impressive playoff run last year, the reigning Hobey Baker Award winner proved he was not only NHL-ready but ready to take on a big role. His emergence allowed the Avalanche to improve their secondary scoring by trading away defenceman Tyson Barrie. Makar will get plenty of offensive opportunities and should be the first option on a power-play that features Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog.
Makar can be an offensive force. He has a very good wrist shot, as well as a strong slap shot. A bit more strength on his frame could make that slap shot an even bigger weapon in his arsenal. Makar’s skating and lateral agility allow him to walk the line and open up passing and shooting lanes. He understands how to get his shot through traffic, as well as how to keep it low and on the net. This helps his teammates to set up screens, capitalize on rebounds, and make deflections. He also has excellent stickhandling abilities and can rush the puck from end-to-end. Makar can also join the rush as a trailer, picking good opportunities to add offence from the back end.