Does Elias Pettersson have any competition for the Calder Trophy?

Six unexpected Calder candidates one month into the season.

Pass it to Bulis

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Elias Pettersson leads all NHL rookies in scoring. He was named the Rookie of the Month for October despite missing six games with a concussion, and scored seven goals and 10 points in eight games, all while playing significant minutes at centre for the Canucks.

Understandably, Pettersson is the early favourite for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. He was expected to make an impact after his stellar SHL season, but he’s quickly exceeded expectations at both ends of the rink. He's been the Canucks' offensive catalyst, has been surprisingly effective defensively, and has become the focal point of the Canucks’ power play.

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Pettersson was a favourite for the Calder even before the season started, but some his fellow favourites just haven’t shown up as much as you might expect early in the season. Andrei Svechnikov has four points in 12 games in Carolina, while Casey Mittelstadt has three points in 13 games in Buffalo. The Rangers’ Filip Chytil has three points, while Carolina’s Martin Necas has just two.

While defencemen can’t be rated solely on points, Buffalo and Dallas were likely hoping for more than four points from Rasmus Dahlin and Miro Heiskanen. It should be noted that Heiskanen is logging over 21 minutes per game, but when it comes to the Calder, voters need to see some serious points, particularly if they’re up against a high-scoring forward.

Other players who wereexpected to challenge for the Calder aren’t even in the NHL. Pettersson’s World Junior teammate, Lias Andersson, has played in the AHL all season, as has Nashville prospect Eeli Tolvanen has played all season in the AHL. Winnipeg’s Kristian Vesalainen was sent down to the AHL in mid-October after one point in five NHL games.

Some of those players could pick up their games as the season progresses, of course. It’s worth noting that last season’s Calder winner, Mathew Barzal, had no points in his first five games.

Until that happens, however, Pettersson’s potential run to the Calder Trophy will be challenged by some less-expected rookies. Here are a few of the rookies whose strong Octobers have them in the Calder conversation.

Brady Tkachuk

Tkachuk was certainly in consideration for the Calder trophy this off-season, but it was unclear whether he would even stick in the NHL. There was a possibility he could get sent down to the London Knights in the OHL.

Then he scored three goals and six points in his first four NHL games.

Unfortunately for Tkachuk and the Ottawa Senators, those are the only four games he’s played, as he suffered a torn ligament in his leg and has missed a month of action. He’s set to return soon, however, and if his early success is an indication of how he’ll perform for the rest of the season, he could be Pettersson’s biggest competition for the Calder.

Tkachuk is the only rookie other than Pettersson scoring at better than a point-per-game pace. He was playing with the best forwards on the Senators, with Mark Stone his primary linemate, which certainly helped, and the Senators need his production, so he’ll continue to get opportunities.

The underlying numbers are also positive for Tkachuk. In his admittedly small sample size, he has a 54.08% corsi — he and Stone have the only corsi percentages above 50% on the Senators — and the Senators have out-chanced their opponents 32-23 with Tkachuk on the ice at 5-on-5.

Maxime Lajoie

Tkachuk’s Ottawa teammate Maxim Lajoie is currently leading all rookies in ice time, averaging 21:34 per game. That’s stunning for a player that most didn’t even expect to make the team out of camp. To whit, The Hockey News’ Yearbook not only didn’t have Lajoie as one of the Senators’ top 10 defencemen, but didn’t even list him as one of the team’s top 10 prospects.

So, to have Lajoie not just playing, but excelling, is quite the surprise. He has four goals and seven points in his first 10 NHL games and is playing with the type of confidence you don’t expect from a 20-year-old defenceman.

There’s an argument to be made that Lajoie would be performing even better if he was paired with anyone other than Cody Ceci, who is (and I’m trying to be charitable here) not good. In his limited time away from Ceci, Lajoie has a 48.39% scoring chance differential, which isn’t bad for the overmatched Senators. With Ceci, the Senators have been out-chanced 55-to-23 for a scoring chance differential of 29.49%, which is utterly abysmal.

That can’t be pinned on Lajoie, however, and he’s been able to escape Ceci on the second power play unit, where he has two of his goals, along with two assists. That ties him with Pettersson for second among rookies in power play points.

Dennis Cholowski

With several big-name rookie defencemen like Rasmus Dahlin and Miro Heiskanen among the pre-season favourites for the Calder, an unexpected name pops up when you look at the rookie scoring leaders: Dennis Cholowski, who leads all rookie defencemen with eight points in 11 games.

The 20-year-old defenceman from Langley has quickly become a mainstay on the Detroit Red Wings’ blue line, logging an average of 20:52 per game. He’s had a couple nights where he was close to 25 minutes in ice time.

A big reason why is his work on the power play, where he leads all rookies with six points. With the Red Wings missing several defencemen due to injuries and illness, Cholowski stepped in to quarterback the first unit, where his big shot from the point and poise with the puck made him quite effective.

The issue for Cholowski is that Mike Green is back and healthy, so could take away some of that power play ice time. Since six of his eight points this season have come with the man advantage, that could make it tough for him to put up the kinds of numbers that attract Calder votes.

Max Comtois

Comtois made a quick impression in his NHL debut: he scored his first career goal less than a minute into the game. He followed it up the next game with his second goal, both scored in similar ways.

While Comtois hasn’t scored since, he’s continued to put up points and now has seven points in 10 games. Regrettably, he’s missed a week with an injury and has yet to return. When he does, the goal-starved Ducks won’t hesitate to give him an opportunity to produce.

Comtois has a great combination of size, speed, and skill, though there are some troubling signs in his underlying numbers. While the Ducks are not a great puck possession team — they’re giving up an average of 37.8 shots per game, while averaging just 24.9 shots for per game — Comtois is near the bottom in most of their shot metrics.

The Ducks have been out-chanced 74-39 with Comtois on the ice at 5-on-5, so there’s some question whether his luck will hold for long. The Ducks have scored on 20.51% of their shots with Comtois on the ice at 5-on-5, and that’s simply not sustainable.

Brett Howden

Howden came to the Rangers in the Ryan McDonagh trade and he wasn’t in any way the centrepiece of that deal. He wasn’t even expected to make the Rangers out of training camp this year; most of the attention was on Lias Andersson instead.

But Howden out-battled Andersson to be the Rangers’ third-line centre and has made the most of his opportunity, tallying three goals and eight points in 13 games. He’s playing in all situations for the Rangers, as he centres the second power play unit and also chips in on the penalty kill.

Before playing in the NHL, Howden was praised for his two-way game, as well as his ability to win faceoffs, which has transferred to the NHL, where he leads all rookies in faceoffs taken with 156 and has won 54.5% of them. Beyond his defensive game, however, Howden has shown a little flashiness as well.

While Howden was expected to have a ceiling as a third-line centre, he’s showing inklings of having more upside than many first thought. Whether he’ll be able to keep pace with Pettersson as the season progresses remains to be seen.

Henri Jokiharju

Jokiharju leads all rookies in shots on goal, which is quite the accomplishment for a defenceman. He has 37 shots in 14 games. It’s even more impressive when you consider that Jokiharju has only played limited minutes on the Chicago power play. Just two of his shots have come with the man advantage; the other 35 have all been at even-strength.

Even with all those shots, Jokiharju has yet to score a goal, though he’s picked up assists by creating rebounds for his teammates.

Despite the lack of goals, Jokiharju still has seven points in 14 games, tied for third among rookies and second among rookie defencemen. The fact that his scoring isn’t propped up by the power play — he has no points with the man advantage — seems like a positive sign.

More importantly, Jokiharju is playing on the top pairing with Duncan Keith and is averaging 21:17 in ice time per game, behind only Keith on the Blackhawks. That’s good for third among rookies behind Lajoie and Heiskanen.

If Jokiharju plays on the top pairing all season and continues to log 21+ minutes per game, then he’ll get some Calder consideration, particularly if the Blackhawks unexpectedly make the playoffs.
 

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