Darkhorse Candidates for the 2020 Calder Trophy

Heading into the 2019-20 NHL season, there was a laundry list of rookie players who looked primed to take the league by storm. Led by Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko, the top two picks of the 2019 NHL Draft, this rookie class had the potential to feature some of the top young forwards in recent memory.

As teams around the league cross the one-third mark in their schedules, we now have an idea if some of these young players were ready for the spotlight, or if they needed a little bit more time to grow their game. While some touted forwards have struggled to establish themselves, defensemen like Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes have taken on huge roles with their teams, eating up more than 20 minutes each night while scoring more than 20 points each.

Cale Makar Colorado Avalanche
While he was expected to make an impact on the Colorado Avalanche this season, Cale Makar has exceeded the high expectations placed upon him, leading all rookies with 28 points. (Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images)

Once you get past the players at the front of the pack, however, are there any unexpected rookies who could work their way into a nomination or even a Calder Trophy win after a strong but maybe not dominant start to their careers?

Which Defensemen Could Threaten Makar and Hughes?

In a season with two defensemen near the top of the rookie scoring charts, it would be only appropriate for a third defender to find his way onto the Calder Trophy list. When you look at the players who have the potential to break out as the season continues, John Marino of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Ethan Bear of the Edmonton Oilers stand out.

While neither Marino or Bear have been producing points at the same level as Makar, they have established themselves on the blue lines of their respective teams.

Coyotes Nick Cousins Oilers Ethan Bear
Edmonton Oilers defenseman Ethan Bear has the potential to see a scoring outbreak due to his rookie-leading nightly ice time. (Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports)

Bear, for example, leads all rookies in ice-time, playing more than 21 minutes each night on a playoff-caliber Edmonton team. Marino isn’t far behind, either, averaging the fourth-most minutes with the high-scoring Penguins.

Given the sheer amount of ice-time they are earning on offensively focused teams, either rookie defensemen could see a scoring uptick as the season progresses. While they may not be able to catch Makar’s after his impressive start, they could still put up strong totals that earn them a Calder nod by the end of the season.

Will There Be Another Binnington in 2020?

One thing that made the 2019 Calder Trophy race so unique was that one of the eventual nominees, Jordan Binnington, wasn’t even a consideration at the half-way point in the 2018-19 season. Binnington didn’t even win his first game until Jan. 7, but he would go on to a 24-5-1 record while leading the St. Louis Blues to the Stanley Cup.

While Binnington’s run was truly historic, it is worth looking at the NHL landscape to see if there are any teams in a similar position to St. Louis right now. A team that, after a slow start and a few personnel changes, could make a run at the 2020 playoffs.

Jordan Binnington St. Louis Blues Stanley Cup
Few players will have the rookie season that Jordan Binnington experienced in 2018-19, where his mid-season call-up carried the St. Louis Blues to the 2019 Stanley Cup. (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

Right now, the team that fits that description best is the Minnesota Wild. Entering the season, the Wild were expected to be a rebuilding team, who would be competing for the first-overall draft pick.

After a brutal 1-6 start, however, Minnesota has started turning things around. (from ‘Wild’s slow start to the season continues with 4-0 loss in Montreal,’ Star Tribune, 10/18/2019) With a recent five-game winning streak, the once-feeble Wild have looked like a legitimate playoff threat, mostly due to their stabilized goaltending.

This leads to Kaapo Kahkonen, the rookie goaltender who won his first two NHL starts during this five-game winning streak. While he hasn’t taken over the starting role in Minnesota, his play has been enough to force the Wild to consider a tandem goaltending situation.

Related: Minnesota Wild: Reasons for Optimism after Slow Start

If he can continue to impress, Kahkonen could find himself starting a lot of games throughout the rest of the 2019-20 season. If he keeps finding ways to win, he could help carry the Wild back into the playoffs and to a Calder nomination.

Are Kakko and Hughes 2020 Calder Trophy Outsiders?

Twenty-six games into their NHL careers, the first and second-overall picks at the 2019 draft have seen oddly similar results. Both Kakko and Hughes have posted 12 points, with most of their scoring taking place on the power play.

While that scoring isn’t bad by any means, these players have not been the instant franchise changers that they were billed to be.

Kaapo Kakko (New York Rangers) Jack Hughes (New Jersey Devils) Kirby Dach (Chicago Blackhawks)
Even though they were expected to be instant successes, both Kaapo Kakko and Jack Hughes have been slower than expected to establish themselves in the NHL. (Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports)

This doesn’t mean that they won’t become the franchise-building blocks that they were expected to be. In fact, as things stabilize with the New York Rangers and the New Jersey Devils, either Kakko or Hughes could see their scoring totals increase.

While they have a lot of ground to make up, either forward could hit a hot-streak and suddenly see themselves at or near the top of the scoring race. If this happened, they could easily bump Makar off as the top candidate for the Calder Trophy.

Not So Obvious 2020 Calder Candidates

Even if some of the rookies discussed in this article feel like a bit of a stretch for the 2020 Calder Trophy right now, it is very possible that they could find themselves in the discussion by the All-Star break.

Kaapo Kakko New York Rangers
While he may not be at the top of the 2020 Calder Trophy discussion right now, Kakko could find himself back on the list if he can establish his play at the NHL level. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The NHL moves fast, and as we saw last year, the right rookie on the right team at the right time can change the entire course of a season. If they can find their game and push a mediocre team into the playoff discussion, any of these players will have earned a spot on the 2020 Calder Trophy list.