The classi­est class in 25 years

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - JONAS SIEGEL

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.

FRANK GUNN, THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Toronto Maple Leafs cen­tre Aus­ton Matthews and goalie Fred­erik An­der­sen con­grat­u­late each other af­ter their win over the New York Is­lan­ders Feb. 14.

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