Nikolaj Ehlers (Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)
Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel will almost certainly be in the running for the Calder Trophy by season’s end, but don’t be surprised if neither takes home the honor. With a talented crop of rookies, there could be as many as a half-dozen players genuinely in the hunt.
You’ll have to forgive some of this season’s rookie crop. They didn’t get the memo that the 2015-16 campaign was supposed to be a two-horse race for the Calder Trophy, pitting 2015’s first- and second-overall picks, Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, against each other.
Though most of the fresh faces have only played one contest, none of the quick-starters have looked like one-game wonders. Chicago’s Artemi Panarin or Winnipeg’s duo of Nikolaj Ehlers and Nic Petan, who have suited up in a pair of contests, haven’t looked out of place in either game. That’s not to say McDavid or Eichel have — McDavid showed flashes of brilliance in his NHL debut and Eichel scored in his first career game — but rather to say this season may not be the 82-game dogfight between the draft’s top two selections that one might have thought.
Ehlers, for instance, has mustered 10 shots on goal through two games while playing alongside Mark Scheifele and Mathieu Perreault. He’s managed one assist, has gotten minutes on the Jets’ second power play unit and is averaging almost 15 minutes per contest in this young season. In his past two seasons, Ehlers, 19, has been 100-plus point player in the QMJHL.
Panarin, too, has made an early impact for the Blackhawks. Not only is he skating on a line with Patrick Kane and Artem Anisimov — and he earned minutes with Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa, as well — he’s earning minutes on the second power play unit of a lethal Chicago offense. He’s coming off of a season in the KHL in which he scored 26 goals and 62 points in 54 games while averaging less than 16 minutes per game. With scoring ability like that, Panarin, 23, could be an under-the-radar candidate for the Calder nod.
In Detroit, Dylan Larkin's debut couldn't have gone better. Not only did he register his first point less than 10 minutes into his first NHL game, he scored an absolutely gorgeous wrist shot. Larkin's speed is breathtaking, too, and on a line with Justin Abdelkader and Henrik Zetterberg, Larkin could have a Calder-worthy campaign. Don't count on Larkin leaving it up to his linemates, though. He earned his spot on the Red Wings roster and looked like a perfect fit in Game One.
There's also Max Domi in Arizona, who also managed a two-point debut. His laser of a wrist shot made Los Angeles Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick look no better than the OHL netminders Domi has been burning for the past four seasons. In Arizona, Domi will get every opportunity to shine. He'll skate in the Coyotes' top six and log big minutes on the power play, which is an opportunity afforded to many rookies.
McDavid’s chances at winning the Calder will also be made more difficult by an opponent from inside Alberta, as Calgary’s Sam Bennett, 19, is coming off of an impressive playoff in 2015. After missing nearly the entire 2014-15 season due to a shoulder injury, Bennett returned to the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs, scored 11 goals and 24 points in 11 games and got back to the NHL in time for Calgary to make the post-season. In the playoffs, Bennett managed three goals and four points in 11 contests and looked every bit the NHL-ready pivot the Flames were hoping he would be.
And there’s also New York Rangers Oscar Lindberg. The 23-year-old center has been dynamite through two games with the Blueshirts. Playing between J.T. Miller and Viktor Stalberg, Lindberg has scored twice in this young season and has mustered four shots on goal. In the season opening tilt between the Rangers and Blackhawks, Lindberg was inches away from potting two goals.
On defense, there are a few candidates, too. Noah Hanifin, the 18-year-old fifth-overall pick of the Hurricanes in 2015, was steady in his debut and will see increased minutes following James Wisniewski’s ACL tear. In St. Louis, 22-year-old Colton Parayko may be able to work his way up the lineup for the Blues after cracking the roster out of training camp. On a team as talented as the Blues and with guidance from Jay Bouwmeester and Kevin Shattenkirk, Parayko’s development might be quickened.
The possibility McDavid or Eichel takes home the Calder is still a good one, but it’s far from a lock. And for the first year in what seems like a while, the number of players who appear to have an actual shot at nabbing the trophy is plentiful. It could come down to a single pass or single goal, and when the season ends, don’t be shocked if it’s someone other than McDavid or Eichel finding room in their trophy case for the end-of-year hardware.