Calder Trophy Race: Early Season Dark Horse Candidates for Rookie of the Year

Photo Credit: Bob Dechiara-USA Today Sports

While some of the odds on favorites to win the Calder Trophy has been as advertised, there has been some who have struggled to adjust to the rigors of the NHL.

Kirill Kaprizov has been everything that the Minnesota Wild had hoped he’d be this season, his first coming over from Russia. While the most recent first overall pick, Alexis Lafreniere isn’t quite having the debut that he or the New York Rangers would have liked.

That being said, every year there are a few rookies that come out of nowhere and find themselves in the Calder conversation by time things are said and done. Dominik Kubalik was an all but forgotten seventh round pick by the Los Angeles Kings before scoring 30 goals for the Chicago Blackhawks last season.

With that being said, here are three rookies making headlines early on this season that wasn’t expected to, at least on the national stage or this soon in their careers.

Philipp Kurashev - Blackhawks

Another year, another Blackhawk coming out of nowhere to throw their hat into the Rookie of the Year race. Chicago has always been high on Kurashev, a former fourth-round draft pick back in 2018, but not even them could have imagined the 20-year old pushing the envelope like he has this year.

After three years in the QMJHL that saw him nearly put up a point-per-game (179 points in 183 games), Kurashev spent last year in the American Hockey League fine tuning his game. The results were encouraging, he scored seven goals and 19 points in 36 games - but most agreed he might need more time in the minors before making an impact with the Blackhawks.

A 13-game stint in the Swiss-League in which he recorded nine assists before the start of the season was the boost Kurashev needed, and he has responded with Chicago this year. 

The rookie has four goals in ten games this season and after spending most of the year on the wing, was recently elevated to the top line with Patrick Kane and Matias Janmark to play his natural position of center.

His four goals have been huge for Chicago, who ranks 22nd in the NHL in scoring currently. His 1.81 goals-per-60 minutes played rate at 5v5 leads the Blackhawks, and is good for 27th in the entire NHL among forwards with at least 100 minutes played, according the Natural Stat Trick.

His 27.27 shooting percentage may be something to watch if it levels out, but playing with a playmaker as good as Kane, he will be put in the right position to continue his scoring rate.

Ty Smith, New Jersey Devils

Also a 2018 pick, Smith was selected 18th overall in the same draft that Kurashev went 120th in. The Devils took their time in letting Smith finish out his junior hockey career, where he recorded 190 assists over four years with Spokane.

He’s carried his playmaking ways over to the Devils, as Smith is currently tied for the team lead in points with eight (2 G, 6 A). 

While at 5v5, Smith has been one of the most productive defenseman in the league in the early weeks of the season. No defenseman with at least 100 minutes at 5v5 has a higher assist-per-60 or points-per-60 rate than Smith. 

When it comes to directly setting up his teammates, Smith’s 1.46 primary-assists-per-60 is second best among the same grouping.

There has never been any doubting what Smith was going to bring to the table for the Devils, he’s an offensive minded defender who was going to be able to move the puck fo the up-and-coming New Jersey team.

What wasn’t expected was how he was controlling all aspects of the game, especially of late.

Smith has not only controlled the shot attempts while he has been on the ice (55.72%, 22nd according to Natural Stat Trick), but also the expected goal share with his 54.0 xGF% ranking 47th in the league.

It didn’t start that way, as through the 24th of January, he posted a sub-CF% and xGF%. Over the last week, though, those numbers have skyrocketed. His CF% has been 62.71%, his xGF%, 62.81. So it’s no surprise he has played more in that span.

Through the 24th, Smith was averaging 15:31 per game, and since it has been 15:31.

Of course the Devils are dealing a full on outbreak, with 17 players on the COVID-19 list, including Smith. Their game against the Pittsburgh Penguins were postponed yesterday, and it’s not expected they play anytime soon.

When they do get on the ice again, Smith can continue his push towards Calder relevance, although he still is going to have a steep hill to climb.

Josh Norris - Ottawa Senators

If you want to talk about under the radar Calder Trophy candidates, Norris just may be your guy. He has the pedigree, certainly, being a former first round pick and one of the major pieces in the Erik Karlsson trade.

But going into the season, the 21-year old forward wasn’t even the Senator with the highest odds of winning the Calder, that belonged to third overall pick Tim Stuetzle

While Stuetzle has shown flashes, he is also very much showing that he is an 18-year old rookie playing in the NHL, to go along with the fact he didn’t get a proper training camp, nor preseason games.

It wasn’t quite sure where Norris was going to fit into the lineup going into the season. Ottawa drafted Stuetzle, who is a center and winger, as well as brought in Derek Stepan and Alex Galchenyuk - both capable of playing down the middle.

They also had Colin White, Chris Tierney and Logan Brown vying for playing time at the center position. How did Norris respond? By pushing himself onto the top line with Brady Tkachuk and Drake Batherson.

His six points (two goals) in 10 games is good for second on the team, and as a line their xGF% has been an impressive 62.02 - good for 28th among trios who have played at least 30 minutes together at 5v5.

Norris has done most of his damage on the power play, as opposed to 5v5, as four of his six points have come during the 4:08 of ice-time he averages per game on the man advantage.

It’ll be hard for Norris to get the kind of attention he is going to need to get any kind of Calder Trophy nomination, especially if Stuetzle starts to take off. Having another star rookie on your team, that is going to be one of the worst in the league, it’s going to take quite the season for Norris to put him in the finalist conversation.

Whose your favorite for the Calder Trophy? Will Kaprizov run away with it or can someone else step up and take it from him? Who among these three has the best chance to do so? Let us know in the comment section below, subscribe to the site at the link above and follow me on Twitter @AJ_Murfy.


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