The three nominees for the NHL’s Calder Trophy, otherwise known as the rookie of the year, were named last Wednesday and it represents a significant trend.
First things first, the names are Colorado forward Nathan MacKinnon and Tampa Bay forwards Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat. MacKinnon led all rookies with 63 points while Johnson and Palat were integral parts of a team missing Steven Stamkos for over half the season. What makes this interesting is since Buffalo defenseman Tyler Myers won the award in 2010, there hasn’t been a defenseman named as a nominee, let alone win, the award for what will be four years in a row.
There hasn’t been a lack of good, young defensemen over the years either. Guys like Ryan McDonagh, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Dougie Hamilton, and Kevin Shattenkirk have all made their debuts over the last three years. This year, there were guys like Seth Jones, Olli Maatta, Jacob Trouba, and Hampus Lindholm who were rookies. In other words, there hasn’t been a lack of Calder-worthy defensemen, though they are having a tough time getting recognition.
Here are the three nominees, as voted by the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association.
Tyler Johnson – 24 goals, 50 points
The 23-year-old Johnson played with Ondrej Palat for most of his season and they played very well together, posting a CorsiFor percentage of 52.4. The season that Ben Bishop had in net for Tampa Bay inflated Johnson’s conventional plus/minus rating a bit, as he was nearly a 2:1 ratio at five-on-five (65.5-percent) with Bishop and an even rating without him.
The success Johnson had becomes particularly impressive when digging a bit deeper into his numbers. Johnson started in the offensive zone at a lower rate than all regular Tampa forwards (two-third of the 82-game season) except B.J. Crombeen, J.T. Brown, and Nate Thompson. He also started in the defensive zone the second-most often of any regular Tampa Bay center without the last name Thompson. Considering he was facing top-six competition of the other team for the majority of the year, it’s clear that Johnson was put in a position to lead this team, not to just succeed as a rookie buried under favorable starts and opponents. Remember that Stamkos was missing for over half of the season, a lot of the time, Johnson’s line was a focus of the opponent. That is very impressive.
Having a three-zone, three-phase rookie score 24 goals is very impressive. Aside from his offense, Johnson was second on the team in short-handed ice time (behind Palat), though admittedly the penalty kill was 23rd overall in the league in efficiency. Overall, a very solid rookie campaign.
Nathan MacKinnon – 24 goals, 63 points
What Nathan MacKinnon did this year put him in pretty elite company as a rookie. There have been three 18-year-olds to tally at least 60 points in a season since 2004-2005, MacKinnon, Jeff Skinner, and Sidney Crosby. There have been just nine total rookies to do so of any age since ‘05, throwing in Anze Kopitar, Patrick Kane, Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Paul Stastny.
Of course, there are two viewpoints that needed to be taken in to account for MacKinnon’s rookie season. MacKinnon was about an even possession player for his team (negative 0.3-percent CorsiForRelative) though his team was a poor possession team overall. Much like Johnson was without Bishop, MacKinnon was an even player with Jean-Sebastien Giguere in net as opposed to Semyon Varlamov. It’s hard to fault MacKinnon for having an excellent goaltender but his final numbers look different this year with an average goalie and not a Vezina-caliber goalie. MacKinnon was also started in the offensive zone more than any regular forward in their top nine except for P.A. Parenteau and Jamie McGinn. He also was given very favorable opponents, facing third line competition for the most of the season.
Let’s face it though, MacKinnon showed his game-breaking talent this year and that’s the reason he managed 63 points. I could drool on my keyboard, but I’ll let you guys do it for yourselves:
The speed, the vision, the shot. What MacKinnon displayed as an 18-year-old is a package we haven’t seen in several years. Had MacKinnon played a different role for the team, like Johnson had to, this is a different conversation. He can only be judged on what he did, and what he did was lead rookie scoring as an 18-year-old (and played all 82 games as well).
Ondrej Palat – 23 goals, 59 points
Palat would finish second in rookie scoring to Nathan MacKinnon and much like Johnson, he paid his dues in the American Hockey League.
Much like the other two nominees alongside Palat, he was afforded Vezina-level goaltending for most of his minutes on the ice. His case is much like that of Tyler Johnson’s because he spent 793:08 of his 1100:08 five on five minutes as Tyler Johnson’s winger.
There are some differences, though. Palat became a consistent winger opposite Martin St. Louis when Steven Stamkos went down. That led to Palat starting in the offensive zone 33.4-percent of the time, fourth-most of any Tampa Bay forward who played at least two-thirds of the games. He also started in the defensive zone at a lower rate of any regular Tampa Bay player not named Teddy Purcell or Sami Salo. In this sense, for a good chunk of the year, Palat was used in a more typical rookie role. The two deviations being that playing with St. Louis meant top line competition and he played a lot of short-handed minutes (most of any Tampa forward).
Predicted Winner: Nathan MacKinnon
Both Johnson and Palat had very strong rookie years, but what MacKinnon did was special. Even though age isn’t an explicit factor, I can’t help but take the fact that MacKinnon is five years younger than Johnson into account. To be as explosive and to produce as much as the former first overall pick did this year as an 18-year-old is rare.
Alternate Nominee: Jacob Trouba (D-WPG)
There are other ways to go for a nominee among defensemen for the Calder this year. Seth Jones had a nice year possession- and points-wise, but his goals for/against cratered. I don’t like to lean on GoalsFor percentage, but either he was exceedingly unlucky or all of his goaltenders did considerably better when he wasn’t on the ice because of some defensive deficiency. Hampus Lindholm and Olli Maatta also had nice seasons but their most common line mates are Getzlaf/Perry and Crosby/Kunitz, respectively. It’s a bit easier to flourish under those conditions.
Trouba put up 29 points in 65 games this year, an 82-game pace of 37 points. Had it not been for that lost month, I wonder if he would have gotten more consideration.
Trouba was injured at the beginning of the year and missed a month after a pretty brutal crash into the boards. When he came back, Zach Bogosian was out of the lineup. Later in the season, Dustin Byfuglien was moved up to forward. With Bogosian missing a third of the season and Byfuglien spending a third of the season up front, there were significant stretches where Trouba was playing against top line competition of the other team. He finished fourth overall in Quality of Competition on his team among defensemen, but he, Byfuglien, and Bogosian were all close together and I just mentioned how much time those guys spent not on the blue line.
Among Jets defensemen, only Bogosian and Mark Stuart started in the offensive zone less frequently than Trouba did. Despite facing top line competition (at times) as a 19-year-old, with Brian Little and not Sidney Crosby or Ryan Getzlaf as his top center, Trouba’s GoalsFor-percentage was 48-percent overall and that grew to 59.4-percent when he didn’t have the goaltending black hole known as Ondrej Pavelec behind him. Trouba also spent the second-most time on ice short-handed of any Jets player, next to Stuart.
There were times when Trouba looked like a five-year veteran on the blue line rather than a 19-year-old rookie. His poise (and vision) with the puck is not something that is common at this stage of his career. There are Norris Trophy nominations in his future but Trouba may have been undervalued for the Calder this year.