December 14, 2013

Original Six: Early contenders for the Calder Trophy

By Jesse Connolly

It’s never too early to start pondering who the most viable candidates are for the major NHL awards. With more than a quarter of the season now in the rearview mirror, a few young guns across the league are proving to be the real deal. Here’s a look at six rookies who are quickly establishing themselves at the game’s highest level and stepping to the forefront as contenders for the Calder Trophy.

6. Tyler Toffoli

Right wing, Los Angeles Kings

Many were perplexed that Toffoli didn’t break camp with the Kings, and with good reason. The sharpshooting winger was a contributor for the big club during a 12-game postseason run that saw him notch six points and help the Kings reach the conference finals.

After scoring seven times in 10 games on the farm for Manchester, Toffoli was recalled and hit the ground running. Playing on the right side on the second line with Mike Richards and Dwight King, the 21-year-old forward posted 4-4-8 totals in his first seven games and earned a spot on the Kings’ top power-play unit. He’s a little behind the eight ball after beginning the year in the AHL, but Toffoli’s got the skills to wiggle his way into the Calder conversation by year’s end.

5. Brandon Pirri

Center, Chicago Blackhawks

After spending one year in college at RPI, Pirri jumped to the pro ranks in 2010 and steadily improved in each of his first three seasons in the AHL, becoming a point-per-game player last year with 22-53-75 totals in 76 games for Rockford. Throughout that time, the 22-year-old forward’s earned multiple brief call-ups to Chicago, but now he seems to be in the Windy City for good.

The Blackhawks needed someone to step up at center, with Dave Bolland traded to Toronto in the offseason and Michal Handzus on IR. Pirri has asserted himself nicely as the second-line pivot alongside winger Patrick Kane. He had six goals and five assists through just 16 games and appeared poised to close the gap in the rookie scoring race.

4. Hampus Lindholm

Defenseman, Anaheim Ducks

A native of Helsingborg, Sweden, Lindholm has emerged as a key cog on ‘D’ for a Ducks squad that began the year looking pretty weak on the back end. The 19-year-old rearguard was selected sixth overall in 2012 out of Rogle BK and spent the entire 2012-13 season with the team’s AHL affiliate in Norfolk, where he notched 11 points in 44 tilts.

He’s carved out a role in the Ducks’ top four this year, seeing over 19 minutes of ice time, which ranked seventh among all rookies through his first 20 contests. Lindholm’s point totals might not jump off the page, as he has only six points, but his plus-minus was an absurdly awesome plus-14, which ranked third in the entire NHL in late November.

3. Torey Krug

Defenseman, Boston Bruins

Call us biased, as he was the subject of our cover story in November, but at this juncture, Krug deserves to be a finalist for the award annually given to the league’s top rookie. The skilled blueliner began the campaign with six goals in 19 games, tying him with 2012 Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson for the league lead among all defensemen. Even when stacked up against first-year forwards, the Michigan State product’s 12 points ranked third among all rookies in scoring.

Krug seems poised to continue his early success. The 22-year-old moved up to the top four on the back end with Adam McQuaid out and remains the quarterback of a markedly improved Boston power play.

2. Sean Monahan

Center, Calgary Flames

Given their unlikelihood of even qualifying for the playoffs, the Flames gave some thought to sending Monahan back to juniors in the season’s first month rather than burn a year of his entry-level contract. The fresh-faced pivot’s dynamite start to the campaign, however, proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he had nothing left to gain by returning to the Ontario Hockey League.

Monahan, 19, quickly earned major minutes for the Flames and was on fire in October, scoring six goals and adding four assists in 12 contests. The 2013 sixth overall pick’s pace slowed a bit in November, but he still ranked second among all rookies in goals (eight) and points (13) through 20 tilts.

1. Tomas Hertl

Left wing, San Jose Sharks

Hertl practically became a household name on Oct. 8, capping off a four-goal game with a highlight-reel tally in San Jose’s 9-2 blowout victory over the Rangers. The 17th overall pick in 2012 seemed to come from out of nowhere, as he was not part of the preseason Calder talk.

A 20-year-old native of the Czech Republic, Hertl led all rookies with 12 goals and 18 points through 21 games. The 6-foot-2 winger clicked quickly with center Joe Thornton and earned a role on his left flank. The young forward hit a bit of a lull in October but got back on track when November began, scoring four times in the first seven games of the month.

This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of New England Hockey Journal. Player evaluations were made in mid-November.

Twitter: @JesseNEHJ