Auston Matthews displays the intense focus that has positioned him to receive the NHL's rookie-of-the-year award.
In this new instant-rookie stardom Age of Wonders for NHL-watchers, Calder Trophy voters can expect to have a difficult decision more often than not.
After choosing sensational Blackhawk Artemi Panarin a year ago over Oiler savior Connor McDavid (and his injury-shortened campaign) and third finalist Shayne Gostisbehere, rookie-of-the-year voters again must choose between a franchise center, high-scoring winger and promising blueliner.
McDavid, the lone NHLer to crack 100 points this season, would surely have begun his trophy trove with the Calder a year ago, and it looks like this year’s sensational middleman will do what the young Edmonton superstar could not.
C Auston Matthews, Toronto: Proving his first-overall selection at last year’s draft was justified, the Arizona native led all rookies with 40 goals, 69 points and 279 shots on goal after taking an unlikely detour by playing in Switzerland last season.
He was the first player in the post-Second World War NHL to pot four goals in his big-league debut, and his 40 eventual goals were tied for second overall with Nikita Kucherov, trailing only Sidney Crosby and ahead of veteran snipers who include Vladimir Tarasenko, Brad Marchand, Max Pacioretty, Patrick Kane and Alex Ovechkin.
Employing quick hands, feet and mind plus a single-minded focus on winning, Matthews became the first NHL player to score 40 goals in his debut NHL season since Ovie tallied 52 in 2005-06. Matthews set Maple Leaf rookie marks for goals and points, breaking records held by Wendel Clark (34) and Peter Ihnacak (66).
More importantly, the mature-beyond-his-years Matthews played a heady game in one of the most-demanding positions in hockey. His confidence rubbed off on other young Leafs as well as some veterans who were getting used to losing. Matthews, now 19, became Toronto’s leader at an age when most players are still trying to adjust to the frantic pace of the best league in the world. He was instrumental in helping the Leafs earn 26 more points than last season and qualify for the playoffs for just the second time in the past dozen years.
W Patrik Laine, Winnipeg: Following in the skatesteps of the original Finnish Flash, Laine evoked indelible memories from Teemu Selanne’s sensational career with the Jets. Beginning the season as an 18-year-old playing in North America for the first time, Laine ended the campaign with 36 goals, 28 assists and 64 points in 73 games. Sizable at 6-4 and 201, Laine overcame concerns about his skating with a true sniper’s desire and being strong on his skates.
In case you have even an iota of a doubt about Patrik Laine's Calder credentials:
Drafted just behind Matthews a year ago, Laine led the Jets in goals and his 36 are the seventh-most in NHL history by an 18-year-old. His totals would have been higher if not for a mid-season concussion, the only potential blemish on a likely Hall of Fame future. Unlike Matthews and the other Calder finalist, he failed to lift his team into the post-season.
D Zach Werenski, Columbus: Starring in a position that sometimes takes young players four, five or even more pro seasons to master, the 6-2, 209-pound eighth-overall draft pick topped all rookie D-Men with 11 goals, 36 assists and 47 points as well as leading all freshmen with an impressive plus-17. Averaging 20:54 of icetime per game in 78 games, he tallied the most rookie points and second-highest point total in franchise history.
In addition to his many hockey skills, Zach Werenski demonstrated his toughness and commitment by returning to a playoff game after suffering a gruesome facial injury. His season ended after a Game Three loss to Pittsburgh.
Werenski solidified the Blue Jackets’ blueline in his rookie season while playing a pivotal role in helping Columbus rise from 76 points to a startling 108 and a playoff berth.
Other top rookies: Toronto playmaking RW Mitch Marner, Toronto RW wristshot sensation William Nylander, Pittsburgh’s baby-faced Stanley Cup champion G Matt Murray and fearless Calgary power forward LW Matthew Tkachuk.
The Calder Trophy for the NHL’s best rookie will be presented June 21 to … Auston Matthews.