The discussion surrounding the Calder Memorial Trophy race heading into the 2018-19 season felt very similar to 2017-18 as there was no one clear-cut favorite at the start. Unlike in 2015-16 and 2016-17, there wasn’t a generational talent like Connor McDavid or Austin Matthews taking over headlines as they made their NHL debuts. Of course, that didn’t mean this was a weak crop of rookies, as almost every team in the league had one or two rookies that looked primed to make an immediate impact right out of the gate.
By the halfway point in the season, though, the Calder Trophy race had narrowed considerably. In fact, if things had gone smoothly, this topic wouldn’t even warrant discussion, as Elias Pettersson was running away with the conversation at the All-Star Break.
Now with the long and arduous 2018-19 NHL season in the books, the Calder Trophy topic is back in the headlines. Between Pettersson hitting the rookie wall in the second half of the season, and a few new names surging into the spotlight, there is far more competition for the trophy than one would have expected at the halfway point in the season.
With all of this in mind, who will be nominated for the 2019 Calder Memorial Trophy, and which standout rookie will eventually win the trophy?
The Favorite: Elias Pettersson
It’s not hard to see why Pettersson was the favorite to win the Calder Trophy for most of 2018-19. Since his first game, he was a complete revelation for the Vancouver Canucks, driving scoring while helping to bring the team back to relevance after they struggled in prior years. He started the season on an absolutely torrid scoring pace, posting a five-game scoring streak in his first five games while scoring seven goals and 10 points by the end of October.
While Pettersson maintained his dominating play throughout the first half of the season, leading rookie scoring with 22 goals and 42 points in his first 38 games, his goalscoring slowed down in the second half of the season. He ended his rookie season with 28 goals and 66 points, which are incredible numbers in their own right but aren’t anywhere near the gaudy totals he posted early on.
Was his play always perfect? No. But for his rookie season there really wasn’t much else the Canucks could have hoped for from their Swedish star.
The Contender: Jordan Binnington
Image, for a moment, that you are the St. Louis Blues entering the All-Star weekend. At that time, you are well out of the playoffs, and your starting goaltender, Jake Allen, is having one of the worst stretches of play in his career. Heading into the All-Star break, your rookie goaltender, Jordan Binnington made a few promising starts, going 3-0-1 in his first four games as a starter. While the season seemed lost, Binnington was likely in-line to get a few more starts throughout the second half to see if he had what it takes to become a full-time NHL starter.
Then, fast forward to now, where Binnington not only posted a 24-5-1 record but almost single-handedly willed the Blues into third place in the Central Division. No one could have predicted this turn-around in St. Louis, especially with a rookie goaltender at the helm. But, he not only made it happen but made it look easy along the way.
Since taking over the starting role in January, he posted a record of 24-5-1 along with a .927 save percentage and a 1.89 goals against average. While he only played in 32 games, those numbers are more than enough to justify him receiving a Calder Trophy nomination.
By not playing an entire season, it is unlikely that Binnington will win the Calder Trophy. However, he is going to seriously threaten Pettersson for it, which is a feat in its own right given where these two players were at the mid-point of the season.
Miro Heiskanen and Rasmus Dahlin
While the top-two Calder nominations are seemingly set in stone, the third nomination could be pulled from any of a number of deserving players.
Starting off are a pair of rookie European defensemen who made a name for themselves throughout 2018-19. Both Rasmus Dahlin of the Buffalo Sabres and Miro Heiskanen of the Dallas Stars played in all 82 games this season, taking over top-line roles on their teams’ respective blue-lines.
Of the two players, Dahlin had the more impressive scoring totals, ending the season with nine goals and 44 points, putting him third overall in rookie scoring. This shouldn’t take away from what Heiskanen did, though, as he stepped up into a top-pairing role for the Stars after injuries gutted their defensive corps. Without his play, the team may not have been able to reach the 2019 playoffs.
The Calder Dark Horses
Besides these defensemen are a slew of great rookie forwards who could sneak into the Calder Trophy conversation. First is Brady Tkachuk, who posted 22 goals and 45 points, good for second in rookie scoring. If the voters are going by pure scoring potential, he could receive a well-earned Calder nomination.
If the voters decided to reward a forward for their defensive play, however, there’s no rookie more deserving than Anthony Cirelli. While he will likely be overlooked due to playing on the Tampa Bay Lightning, Cirelli had an incredibly productive year, playing in all 82 games while posting 19 goals and 39 points.
He did all of this scoring while only posting one powerplay point, however, as he cut his teeth on the Lightning’s penalty kill. Cirelli ended the season tied for second in the NHL with five shorthanded goals and was behind only Pettersson for game-winning goals by a rookie. He also went plus-25 on the season, the highest of all rookies besides teammate Erik Cernak.
There’s No Wrong Choice for the Calder Trophy
Right now, there’s no reason to believe that Pettersson won’t be the eventual recipient of the 2019 Calder Trophy. His start to the season was brilliant and while he struggled at times, his raw scoring totals more than make up the difference.
However, the Calder Memorial Trophy didn’t turn into a one-horse race this season. With the emergence of Binnington, one could rightfully say that the Blues goaltender deserves the award after he carried his team to the playoffs.
No matter what happens, though, the future is bright for these rookies. As a whole, this was an incredibly strong rookie class, that will likely shape the face of the NHL for years to come.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.