The classiest class in 25 years
NHL rookie classes like this one don’t come around very often.
It’s been almost 25 years since three rookies hit both the 20-goal and 70-point plateaus in the same season (1992-93). Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine and Mitch Marner are all on pace to do it this year. Only six players since 1995 have managed the feat: Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Paul Stastny, Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin.
It goes beyond just the top three with rookies across the league making big impacts. Here’s an early attempt to sort through a close Calder Trophy race. THE CONTENDERS AUSTON MATTHEWS Matthews gets the slight edge on rightwinger Laine because of how well he’s performed at the more challenging centre position at age 19. The Arizona product sits second in the NHL with 24 evenstrength goals, leads the league with 10 game-opening goals and has more goals than Laine when subtracting empty-netters. He’s also generating a huge number of shots — 205, almost 60 more than Laine — and one of the top marks ever for a rookie if current trends continue. Unlike Laine, Matthews boasts strong puck possession numbers against increasingly difficult competition, as the Leafs garner 55 per cent of five-on-five scoring chances when he’s on the ice. He’s also the engine of a line that typically includes two workmanlike rookies. Laine, conversely, has run primarily with a pair of all-star calibre talents in Mark Scheifele and Nikolaj Ehlers. Matthews historic four-goal debut also can’t be ignored. PATRIK LAINE None of Matthews’ accomplishments should diminish Laine’s spectacular rookie showing. The Finnish winger had a hat trick four games into his NHL career (he’s recorded three this season!), pacing all rookies with 28 goals (tied with Matthews), eight power-play goals, 52 points, and 40 even-strength points, second to only Crosby in goals per-game. Laine is scoring on almost 19 per cent of his shots — a number that’s likely to come down some as the games tick by and get tougher. His underlying numbers, too, suggest he’s a slight drain on the Jets possession game, the weak link among Ehlers and Scheifele. He’s still just 18 and the youngest regular in the NHL this season, on pace for a 39 goals and 71 points. MITCH MARNER It’s a testament to this rookie class that Marner could break multiple Leafs rookie records — points, assists and powerplay points — and still potentially finish third in the Calder race. Of the top-three, Marner has probably been the most potent in the new year, humming at more than a point per-game since Jan. 1. He’s electrified a line with two veterans, is right there among the league leaders with 2.46 points per-60 minutes and better than both Matthews and Laine. Marner was leading the Leafs in scoring before he got hurt last week, and on pace to equal Kane’s rookie showing (21 goals, 72 points), the Chicago Blackhawks superstar he’s long been compared to. SECOND-TIER CANDIDATES Zach Werenski: The U.S. defender is on pace to pas 51 points for Columbus, while averaging more than 21 minutes per-game on one of the top teams.
Matt Murray: It’s easy to forget Murray is still a rookie goalie after last year’s Stanley Cup triumph. The 22-year-old has a .933 even-strength save percentage for the Penguins, which trails only Devan Dubnyk, Braden Holtby, and Carey Price among regular starters this season.
William Nylander: The slick Swede gets lost in Toronto behind Matthews and Marner, but he’s on pace for almost 60 points while leading the Leafs with 17 power-play points.
Sebastian Aho: He has 10 goals in 19 games since Jan. 1, tops among rookies. He’s got 17 goals on the year, an increasingly dangerous 19-year-old force for a Carolina team that desperately needs his offence.
Ivan Provorov: He turned 20 last month, but he’s already leading the Flyers in ice time, garnering almost 22 minutes per-game — almost two minutes more than the next closest player.
Matthew Tkachuk: At six-two and a thick 202 pounds, Tkachuk doesn’t look much like a rookie and he hasn’t played like it either. The 19-year-old has 27 points in his past 33 games, a force alongside Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik on the Flames’ most consistent line.
Nikita Zaitsev: Another Toronto rookie who gets lost in the shadow of his flashier teammates, Zaitsev, 25, is playing more minutes than any first-year player this season (more than 22 per-game), one half of the Leafs top defensive pairing.
Anthony Mantha: Looking more and more confident, the 22-year-old six-footfive, 221-pound winger is becoming an increasingly more impactful force for the Wings. His 17 even-strength points in the new year are trailing only Laine. HONOURABLE MENTIONS Brandon Carlo, Connor Brown, Zach Hyman, Mikko Rantanen, Troy Stecher, Josh Morrissey, Brady Skjei.
Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews and goalie Frederik Andersen congratulate each other after their win over the New York Islanders Feb. 14.