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 this season, as almost every team in the league had one or two rookies who looked primed to make an immediate impact right out of the gate.
By the halfway point in the season, though, the Calder Trophy race has narrowed considerably. In fact, if things had gone smoothly, this topic wouldn’t even warrant discussion as Elias Pettersson ran away with the conversation early on. However, as the hockey season is long and arduous, injuries have derailed what looked like a sure outcome for Pettersson.
Now, as we near the 50-game mark, there’s a real conversation to be had about who will be nominated and win the 2019 Calder Trophy.
The Favorite: Elias Pettersson
It’s not hard to see why Pettersson has been the favorite to win the Calder Trophy for most of 2018-19. Since his first game, he has been 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 out on an absolutely torrid scoring pace, posting a five-game scoring streak in his first five games while going on to score seven goals and 10 points by the end of October.
Pettersson has maintained this dominating play throughout the first half, leading rookie scoring with 22 goals and 42 points in 38 games. If he had been able to stay healthy, there would be no doubt that he would win the 2019 Calder Trophy.
Unfortunately for the Canucks and Pettersson, though, injury struck the rookie star. While it hasn’t been a season-ending ordeal like what happened to teammate Brock Boeser, there is always a concern when your rookie star is unable to take the ice. And much like Boeser from last season, missing too much time can turn a Calder Trophy win into just a Calder nomination.
The Contenders: Miro Heiskanen and Rasmus Dahlin
Behind Pettersson in the Calder Trophy conversation is a pair of rookie European defensemen who have both made a name for themselves throughout 2018-19. The impressive play of the first rookie defenseman, Rasmus Dahlin, shouldn’t be too much of a surprise since he was drafted first overall by the Buffalo Sabres at the 2018 Draft for good reason. However, what the second rookie defenseman, Miro Heiskanen, has done for the Dallas Stars is truly remarkable.
While Dahlin’s scoring numbers have been a little better than Heiskanen’s (five goals and 21 points for Dahlin vs. nine goals and 20 points for Heiskanen), the Stars’ Finnish defender has been asked to take on a much bigger role on their blueline.
Due to injuries decimating Dallas’ defensive corps, Heiskanen was thrust into a top-pairing role far sooner than expected. In that role he has largely excelled, averaging more than 23 minutes a night. This isn’t taking anything away from Dahlin either, who has been playing like a veteran on the Sabres’ blueline while averaging around 18 minutes a night.
You can make a strong case that either defenseman deserves a nod for the Calder Trophy due to their impressive play, and as of now, both should be receiving an invitation to 2019 NHL Awards in Las Vegas.
The Calder Dark Horses
Outside of those top-three players, there’s still plenty of rookies making a case to receive a Calder nomination this season. For example, behind Pettersson, there is a four-way tie for second place in the goalscoring race between Mathieu Joseph of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Andrei Svechnikov of the Carolina Hurricanes and Brady Tkachuk and Colin White of the Ottawa Senators.
This also extends to the overall scoring race, which is tight behind Pettersson. Both White and Dahlin are tied for second place with 26 points, followed closely by Jesperi Kotkaniemi of the Montreal Canadiens with 23 points. In all, only eight points separate second place in rookie scoring from 10th place.
Out of the players mentioned, it wouldn’t be surprising to see someone with the offensive upside of Svechnikov or Kotkaniemi taking a bigger role with their team as they fight for a playoff birth. Given the right opportunity, either rookie could have a breakout in the second half and fight their way into a Calder Trophy nomination.
There’s Only One 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, in a word, brilliant, and he has continued to play a strong game whenever he takes the ice. Since his injury is expected to be cleared up sooner rather than later, he should be able to continue putting together a body of work deserving of the Calder Trophy.
If he doesn’t return to form after his injury, though, the 2019 Calder Trophy race could become contested. While it wouldn’t be easy for someone like Dahlin or Heiskanen to overtake him in the conversation, it isn’t impossible either. For now, it seems as though it is a one-man race for the Calder.