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Five freshmen exceeding all expectations in their rookie seasons

Jared Clinton
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John Klingberg (Glenn James/NHLI via Getty Images) Author: The Hockey News

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Five freshmen exceeding all expectations in their rookie seasons

Jared Clinton
By:

This season’s Calder Trophy voting may be as close as it has ever been, and that’s thanks to these five players who have put up rookie campaigns that may be worth of a Calder nomination. Andrew Hammond doesn’t make the list but only because he doesn’t qualify as a rookie.

Andrew Hammond’s run between the pipes for the Ottawa Senators is one of the best stories of the season. He won’t, however, be getting a nod for the Calder Trophy anytime soon. It’s not because he’s undeserving, but rather because he doesn’t technically qualify.

Hammond was 26 before September 2014 and, as such, was too old to be eligible for the trophy as the league’s best rookie. He may have just had an outside shot at winning the thing if he were to muscle the Senators in the postseason, too. Alas, he’ll have to settle for free McDonald’s for the rest of his life.

So, while Hammond won’t be on this list of the top five unexpectedly good rookie seasons, here are several players who are turning heads in their freshman years:

5. Anders Lee, New York Islanders

As THN’s Matt Larkin points out, Lee had a strong pair of games to close out last season, scoring three times in the Islanders final games of 2013-14. And he did also suit up for 22 games with New York last year. It wasn’t certain, however, he would be able to bring that play into 2014-15, and that’s what has made his year so great.

In 65 games, the 24-year-old Lee has 23 goals and 38 points. Not bad for a guy selected with a sixth-round pick, 152nd overall in the 2009 draft.

Though Filip Forsberg long paced rookies in goal scoring, he has since been overtaken by Lee and Mike Hoffman, who comes in at No. 4 on this list. Whether or not Lee has done enough to land himself a top three spot in rookie voting is yet to be seen, but that he’s even in the conversation is impressive.

4. Mike Hoffman, Ottawa Senators

In 2013-14, Hoffman had 30 goals and 67 points in 51 games in the AHL. He played out the year as a member of the Senators, scoring just three goals and six points in 25 games. That did leave him qualified as a rookie for this season, however.

As mentioned, Hoffman leads all rookies in goal scoring, his 24 tallies one more than Lee and three more than Forsberg. Hoffman's 42 points are fourth most among rookies this season, which is remarkable considering players like Jonathan Drouin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tanner Pearson (who, even before injury, was on a slower points pace than Hoffman) were supposed to be the superior scorers.

It appears as though the slow road to the NHL has really benefitted Hoffman’s game.

3. Michael Hutchinson, Winnipeg Jets

Was Hutchinson Winnipeg’s new, great hope? Yes. Was he their only real option outside of Ondrej Pavelec? Absolutely. Did anyone expect him to be atop the goaltending leaders heading into the all-star break? Not a chance.

Hutchinson – or 'Hutch the Clutch' as Jets fans have taken to calling him – makes this list not because having a good season was unexpected. Rather, he makes it because having a season where he is in the conversation as the team’s savior due to his play and not the failings of Pavelec is surprising. Not only has Hutchinson taken the starting job from Pavelec, he’s made many feel the Jets can go ahead and cut ties with the now-backup goaltender.

If Winnipeg manages to make the playoffs, there’s little doubt Maurice will ride Hutchinson for however long the Jets’ postseason run lasts.

2. Kevin Hayes, New York Rangers

The Rangers signed Hayes as an unrestricted free agent after the Chicago Blackhawks failed to get him locked up. It’s very rare that a college free agent comes into the NHL and makes an immediate impact, but Hayes has looked at home in the New York lineup.

There have been some growing pains, no doubt, but Hayes has tallied 13 goals and 32 points in 65 games with the Rangers and has only been taken out of the lineup once as a healthy scratch. That’s impressive on a team that’s one of the top contenders in the Eastern Conference.

He hasn’t played big minutes – he averages just 12:37 per game – but a near 40-point rookie season for a 22-year-old kid coming right out of college? The Rangers and their fans must be over the moon about Hayes' play.

1. John Klingberg, Dallas Stars

There is no other choice for top spot on this list. Klingberg, the younger brother of Winnipeg Jets winger Carl, has been a revelation for the Dallas Stars. On a blueline that struggled early this season, Klingberg came in and made an immediate impact.

He’s skating top-four minutes as 22-year-old, has 10 goals and 36 points in 53 games and leads all rookie defensemen in scoring. Yes, he’s even ahead of Florida Panthers phenom Aaron Ekblad, who has 34 points in 68 games. Outside of Ekblad, Edmonton defenseman Oscar Klefbom and New Jersey blueliner Damon Severson, no rookie has averaged more ice time than Klingberg.

Were it not for an injury that has sidelined him for the last three games and threatens to have him on the shelf even longer, Klingberg might be a lock for a Calder nomination. If he comes back from the upper-body ailment and continues playing the way he has all season, he might just eke out Ekblad in the voting.

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Five freshmen exceeding all expectations in their rookie seasons