Connor McDavid (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)
Ghost Bear, McJesus or the Bread Man? This year's Calder Trophy race is extremely tough to call.
The 2015-16 season yielded an outstanding and deep rookie class, one of the best in recent memory. Obvious can't-miss stars like Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, the top two picks of the 2015 draft, delivered, but they weren't alone by any means. We saw an intriguing blend of stars in the making doing what they were supposed to do; late bloomers bursting onto the scene; and a wild-card rookie flourishing after arriving from the KHL.
The rookie crop included a 30-goal scorer, five 20-goal scorers and 12 players with at least 15 goals. Eight rookies topped 40 points. Two played in the All-Star Game. Eight started at least 20 games in net, and three had multiple shutouts.
Needless to say, then, voting on the Calder Trophy wasn't easy. It was inevitable that, once the three finalists were announced, plenty of snub talk would ensue. The top three vote getters and rookie of the year finalists, as announced Monday night: Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid and Chicago Blackhawks left winger Artemi Panarin.
Panarin was the most obvious finalist of the bunch. He's a polarizing choice to win, but his 30 goals, 47 assists, 77 points, 24 power play points and seven game-winning goals led all freshmen. No matter how you feel about 'The Bread Man,' he had an outstanding year and was easily a top-three rookie. His 77 points were the most by an NHL newbie since Patrick Kane had 72 in 2007-08.
So, yeah, about Kane. That's the one factor that could hold Panarin back from a victory. Forget the fact Panarin is 24. If he loses, it won't be because voters didn't like the idea of Panarin being classified as a rookie at that age. The knock on Panarin is the fact he played on a line with Kane, the league's leading scorer and Hart Trophy frontrunner. One might argue Panarin boosted Kane as much as Kane boosted him – but the deeper possession numbers suggest otherwise. According to the without-or-without-you (WOWY) charts on puckalytics.com, Kane and Panarin posted a 5-on-5 Corsi of 52.8 percent on the ice together this season. When they played apart, Kane slipped to 48.6 and Panarin to 46.6. Panarin got lit up defensively when not on the ice with Kane, allowing a Corsi Against per 60 of 62.0 percent. The possession numbers suggest Panarin got a bigger boost playing with Kane than Kane got with him. Whatever happens, however, Panarin is a huge success story coming over from the KHL.
McDavid earned a strong groundswell of support, too. He was arguably the league's most dominant rookie on a per-game basis…when he took the ice. A broken collarbone sustained in November cost the phenom 37 games. He racked up 48 points in 45 games for the Oilers, though. Pro-rated to a full-season, he would've finished with 87 points, easily eclipsing Panarin. McDavid was among the best players, let alone rookies, when he suited up. His 1.07 points per game trailed only Kane and Jamie Benn. McDavid has a real chance to win because he fits the definition of "best rookie" so accurately.
Still, the smaller sample size likely dissuaded some voters. A candidate who combined scintillating offense with a bigger sample size than McDavid's: Gostisbehere, the dynamic young defenseman out of Union College who took Philadelphia by storm. No way the Flyers make the playoffs without his effort, which was uncharacteristically Herculean for a rookie D-man. Gostisbehere's 46 points were the most by a Calder-eligible blueliner since Tyler Myers had 48 in 2010, and Gostisbehere did it in 18 fewer games. 'Ghost Bear's' 0.72 points per game ranked eighth among all NHL D-men, nestling him between Oliver Ekman-Larsson and John Carlson, and stands as the highest mark by a rookie blueliner since Vladimir Malakhov's 0.82 in 1992-93. Nine of Gostisbehere's 16 goals tied or won a game for the Flyers. A Gostisbehere vote comes from anyone who simply can't ignore the magnitude of what he accomplished at his position. It's too early to give away the exact details of my ballot, but let's just say I gave Ghost Bear high marks.
And plenty of other candidates easily could've been finalists. Eichel had 24 goals and 56 points and looks like he'll become the superstar he's expected to be. D-man Colton Parayko terrorized the league with his big shot and played a robust two-way game for the St. Louis Blues. Anaheim Ducks goalie John Gibson is still a rookie, believe it or not, and he posted a 2.07 goals-against average and .920 save percentage. Detroit's Dylan Larkin had an outstanding first half, and St. Louis' Robby Fabbri finished strong.
Speaking as one of the voters: this one was tough. I spent more time on the Calder than any other award. I'll disclose my ballot after the awards show.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin