The rookie spotlight this NHL season has largely been on Vancouver’s Elias Pettersson, and rightfully so. The 20-year-old center leads all first-years in goals, assists and points (26+30-56) and has been a huge plus for a Canucks team beginning a new chapter after franchise cornerstones the Sedin twins retired last April.
Though he’s been on a bit of a drought lately and has just one goal in his last seven games, Pettersson is unquestionably the front runner for the Calder Trophy as NHL Rookie of the Year, as he has been all season. But is the points lead alone enough to give the young Canuck the honor? Or does another young Swede pose more of a threat than we think?
Buffalo Sabres rookie defenseman Rasmus Dahlin’s season has largely been overshadowed by both his fellow countryman and his team’s ups and downs. Whether it was Buffalo’s 10-game win streak in the first half or their frustrating struggles ever since, Dahlin hasn’t gotten anywhere near the amount of attention one would think a player touted as generational would receive. However, throughout all that time, the 18-year-old has been terrific and has eight goals and 29 assists on the year for 36 points, second to Pettersson in both of the latter categories.
Though there’s still a month left of the 2018-19 season, it’s safe to say that Pettersson and Dahlin will be Calder finalists. The other will more than likely be St. Louis phenom Jordan Binnington, who leads rookies in all goaltending categories and helped the Blues thunder back into contention. Pettersson and Binnington both have strong bids for the trophy in that they are no.1 amongst all rookies in their respective positions. If that’s the case, then Dahlin probably doesn’t stand a chance, or does he?
Following in the footsteps of Brock Boeser last season, Pettersson is the second Canucks rookie in as many years that appears to be a shoo-in for the Calder Trophy. Boeser was the front runner for it at this point last season until a back injury in early March caused him to miss the last month of the season. New York’s Mathew Barzal won the award as a result. Unless the same thing happens to Pettersson, he will be the odds-on favorite at season’s end. Dahlin is the closest behind him in the rookie scoring race and there’s 20 points between them. It’s impressive that Dahlin is second in that category given he’s a defender, but he won’t catch his Swedish contemporary unless he goes on some kind of tear.
Binnington, on the other hand, has been the best goaltender in the NHL since he made his first career start on January 7, but his chances at the Calder might be torpedoed by just that. St. Louis has 17 games remaining on the season and even if Binnington starts all of them, he would still finish the year with just 38 games played. Voters that consider playing time in their decisions might steer away from the Richmond Hill, ON native because of this despite how unbelievable he has been.
So where does that leave Rasmus, the one glimmer of hope Buffalo seems to have as its season turns into a hilariously pathetic free fall? He doesn’t have the statistical leader argument like the other two, but Dahlin still has a few things that will work in his favor. For starters, there’s his age.
Dahlin is still just 18 years old compared to Pettersson, aged 20, and Binnington, aged 25. Pettersson is not much older, but we all know that those two years make a big difference in hockey. Binnington, meanwhile, is just young enough to qualify for the award since the NHL’s “Makarov Rule” cuts Calder eligibility off at age 26. Watching Dahlin skate makes one sometimes forget that he’s just old enough to buy tobacco in the US and not even old enough to drink in Canada. He moves with such smoothness and precision that you’d think he’s been in the league for years. His hockey IQ and vision on the ice are also far higher than most players his age. These qualities are highly intangible and that doesn’t always get factored into NHL awards, but they need to be considered.
There’s also the simple fact that being the scoring or statistical leader doesn’t guarantee a player the top honor. Look no further than last season for example. Nikita Kucherov, Connor McDavid and Claude Giroux each recorded 100 or more points on the year and none were finalists for the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP. Taylor Hall, who had 15 less points than Art Ross winner McDavid, won the award. Voters have to consider more than just the end of the season scoring statistics or else the season’s top point producer would just win every time. Patrick Kane was the NHL’s leading scorer in 2015-16 and indeed won the Hart Trophy after the season, but this was also because he was the most consistent player in the league all season long.
Intangibles such as this that get factored in work well in Dahlin’s favor. He’s not the rookie scoring leader, but his value is far beyond that. Pettersson may have 56 points to his 36, but considering he’s a defenseman and Pettersson is a center, that gap doesn’t seem as big as it might normally.
History is also on Buffalo’s side in this case in a familiar way. After the 2009-10 season, Sabres D Tyler Myers was nominated for the Calder alongside top rookie scorer Matt Duchene and top rookie netminder Jimmy Howard. Duchene was thought to be the obvious choice because of his scoring prowess, but Myers took home the hardware thanks to his consistently good play through the year. Dahlin is in the exact same boat, could he pull off an upset too?
Thanks for the read, Sports Chillers and Sabres fans. Hopefully this provided a bit of a distraction from pulling your hair out because this team is so embarrassing. Feel free to find me on Twitter at @Flat_Manigen74 and let me know whether you agree or disagree.