Not that long ago, Elias Pettersson was the runaway favourite for the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year. Now, however? Well, he’s still the favourite, but the race is likely to be a lot closer than anyone anticipated.
There are a couple reasons for that. One is that Pettersson’s scoring pace has slowed over the last couple weeks. While Pettersson is still above a point per game on the season, he hasn’t scored a goal in his last seven games and has just two assists in his last six games. Whether it’s due to opposing teams keying in on him, fatigue from carrying the team all season, or a lingering injury, Pettersson just hasn’t looked as dangerous of late, with just two shots on goal in his last four games.
The other reason is that several other rookies have made a strong push over the second half of the season and deserve some consideration. From the goaltender that saved St. Louis’s season to an 18-year-old defenceman doing his darnedest to keep Buffalo in the playoff hunt, Pettersson has some legitimate competition for the Calder Trophy.
Let’s run down the candidates, why they’re a contender for the crown, and why they still won’t beat Pettersson.
Why he’s a contender: Binnington rescued the St. Louis Blues when they were at their lowest and has carried them back into contention. Barring a late season meltdown, the Blues are securely in the playoffs — HockeyViz has them at 92% to make the postseason — and it’s largely because of Binnington.
Before the rookie goaltender took over the starting job in early January, the Blues were below .500 and close to throwing the season away. Since then, they’ve gone on a tear, including an 11-game winning streak, with Binnington in net for nine of those 11 wins.
Binnington leads the entire NHL in save percentage with a sparkling .933, is third in shutouts with five, and, for those who like their stats a little fancier, has a 13.15 Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA). That’s good for eighth in the NHL, which is remarkable considering he’s only started 19 games this season.
Why he won’t win: Right, that last part. Binnington only has 19 starts, which is a pretty small sample size compared to a player like Pettersson that has been with his team all season, apart from a couple injuries.
The last goaltender to win the Calder, Steve Mason, had 61 starts and led the NHL with 10 shutouts. Before him there was Andrew Raycroft, with 57 starts in his rookie year, and Evgeni Nabokov, with 66.
Even if Binnington starts every single game for the Blues for the rest of the season, which is unlikely, he’ll still only reach 36 starts. It’s hard to imagine Calder voters giving him the top prize for such a small slice of the season, though he could find his way into the top three.
Why he’s a contender: The first overall pick from the 2018 draft has come as advertised for the Buffalo Sabres. The 18-year-old Dahlin has continued to grow his game throughout the season and leads all rookie defencemen in scoring by a wide margin.
Dahlin’s 37 points in 66 games are second only to Pettersson among rookies and he’s also eating up significant minutes for the Sabres, averaging over 21 minutes per game, second only to Miro Heiskanen among rookies. He quarterbacks the Sabres’ top power play unit and is tied with Pettersson in power play points.
What has made Dahlin more of a contender is his improvement throughout the season. He has 17 points in his last 24 games, continuing to produce while his team slumps around him.
Why he won’t win: It takes a lot for a defenceman to win the Calder, but one of the key components is that they don’t have to compete against a standout forward.
The last defenceman to win the Calder was Aaron Ekblad, who was also 18 years old. He had 12 goals and 39 points, so Dahlin’s point production is likely to be slightly better, though Ekblad had more impact defensively. The biggest difference is that no forwards scored 30 goals in Ekblad’s rookie year and none came close to a point per game. Mark Stone, Johnny Gaudreau, Filip Forsberg, and Mike Hoffman all had excellent rookie seasons, but none of them soared above the rest.
Pettersson, even with his recent slump, should still crack 30 goals and is on-pace for over 70 points, which will lead all rookies in scoring by a wide margin despite missing 11 games to injury. Even a 40+ point season from Dahlin shouldn’t outweigh a point-per-game season from Pettersson.
Why he’s a contender: Kotkaniemi has risen in analytics circles recently as a legitimate Selke Trophy candidate.
Has a rookie ever won the Selke? Because Jesperi Kotkaniemi should be the front runner in our opinion... and he’s 18 years old 😳— EvolvingWild (@EvolvingWild) March 5, 2019
I'm sorry I should have used the shiny new heatmaps, what was I thinking. pic.twitter.com/ZJmRe02TbZ— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) March 5, 2019
Simply put, Kotkaniemi’s defensive results are outrageous, particularly for an 18-year-old rookie. When he’s on the ice at 5-on-5, the opposition has created next-to-nothing offensively, in large part thanks to his exceptional hockey IQ and excellent defensive positioning.
You can see exactly what happens when Kotkaniemi is on the ice in the heat map from Micah Blake McCurdy: it’s an ocean of blue in front of the net. Nobody on the opposition is getting scoring chances when Kotkaniemi is on the ice.
On top of that, Kotkaniemi’s offensive production is not too shabby: 11 goals and 32 points in 66 games, good for sixth among rookies.
Why he won’t win: Award voters consistently favour offensive production over defensive efficiency. You just have to look at the history of the Selke itself, which has regularly been awarded to forwards with a good reputation for defensive play, who happen to have a career year offensively.
Kotkaniemi also won’t get as much consideration as he should for his defensive play because he’s not consistently used in a defensive role. He doesn’t consistently get sent out for defensive zone starts and doesn’t regularly face top opposition. In addition, he hasn’t played a single minute on the penalty kill.
That should change in the near future — he’s simply too good defensively to not play that role — but it will be hard to convince Calder voters that Kotkaniemi deserves votes based on his defensive play when his own coach hasn’t used him in a defensive role.
Also, asking the majority of Calder voters to give creedence to an argument based on advanced stats is probably asking too much.
Why he’s a contender: There’s just one argument for Johnsson as a Calder candidate that makes any sense: goals.
Johnsson is third in points among rookies, but second in goals. His 19 goals in 59 games is seven goals behind Pettersson, but he’s been on a recent tear, with nine goals in his last 14 games. If Johnsson can pass Pettersson in goals by the end of the season, he could earn some votes as the top rookie goalscorer.
There’s also the centre-of-the-universe factor to consider: could Johnsson get more attention by virtue of playing for the Leafs?
Why he won’t win: Yeah, no. Johnsson is having a great rookie season, but he’s doing it from a sheltered depth role, unlike Pettersson, who plays big minutes for the Canucks and faces a ton of defensive attention.
It would take 11 goals in 16 games for Johnsson to reach 30 goals for the season, which simply isn’t going to happen. Frankly, if Pettersson stops scoring long enough for Johnsson to catch him in goals, then it’s more likely that Dahlin wins the Calder, not Johnsson.
It’s just not going to happen.