Although Johnny Gaudreau was recently named the Calder favourite by NHL coaches, the race for the rookie of the year is almost as tight as the playoff race in the West this year. First overall pick Aaron Ekblad is roundly considered to another front runner, but Calgary’s dynamic, diminutive winger faces stiff competition from a number of players aside from the Panthers teen phenom.
The other hopefuls in the Calder race include Filip Forsberg, Mark Stone and John Klingberg. Let’s see if we can determine who has the upper hand.
First off, here’s a look at how these players compare in terms of usage and possession rates courtesy War on Ice:
A quick primer on usage charts: this shows a players quality of competition (Y-axis) and their starting position at even strength (X-axis). The size of the player’s bubble represents ice time and the colour is according to relative possession rate. The bluer the bubble, the better.
While scoring no doubt holds a great deal of sway over rookie voting, it’s always important to consider each player’s circumstances, particularly when trying to compare defenders to forwards. This lends context to each guys’ results.
Gaudreau vs Ekblad
Travis Yost recently argued that Ekblad has had one of the finest rookie seasons of any 18-year old defender in recent memory. While that is true, I’m not sure it necessarily means he deserves the calder trophy this year.
Largely because, as you can see above, Ekblad was strongly sheltered by the Panthers this year. He was stuck at the hip to veteran puck mover Brian Campbell and the pairing was given the most generous zone start ratio on the team (in fact, one of the easiest in the league). I would suggest it would very difficult for a player not to have good relative stats in those circumstances. In fact, I don’t think Ekblad is the best rookie defenseman of the 2014-15 class as a result, let alone the best rookie skater period.
On top of co-leading all rookies in scoring, Gaudreau played tougher competition and started more often than Ekblad in the offensive zone, but still managed a similar positive relative possession rate.
Gaudreau vs Forsberg
Like Ekblad, Forsberg was given the Sedin treatment at even strength this year, with a zone start ratio nearing 70% (!!). As a result, Forsberg has the best relative possession rate of the calder class, but he’d have to given his usage.
Forsberg scored at a better rate than Gaudreau at even strength, but nevertheless lost the scoring race by a point thanks to Gaudreau’s prowess with the extra man. I’m guessing that puts him just outside of the favourites.
Gaudreau vs Stone
This is where things tilt away from Gaudreau and into another player’s favour. Not only did Mark Stone tie Gaudreau in the rookie race with 64 points, he had a monster second half of the season while the Sens were chasing a play-off spot. That will no doubt leave an indelible impression with the calder voters.
In addition, Stone played in slightly tougher circumstances than Gaudreau and yet scored at a higher rate at even strength (2.59/60 vs 1.74/60). I’m not sure how long Stone’s personal shooting percentage of nearly 17% at even strength will persist, but it’s hard not to think he’s the odds on favourite for the calder moving forward.
Dark Horse – John Klingberg
As mentioned, I don’t think Ekblad was the best rookie defender in the 2014-15 class. That distinction likely goes to the Dallas Stars’ John Klingberg. He played tougher opposition, started way more frequently in the defensive zone and was a more efficient scorer at even strength than the former first overall pick.
Klingberg only appeared in 65 games, though, which will likely work against him.
If I had to choose with my head, Mark Stone would win the Calder trophy this year. My Flames fan heart says there are other qualitative factors that work in Gaudreau’s favour, however – his size, inspiring underdog story and the fact that he can put together the best highlight reel package of any of the calder hopefuls may give him the edge in the eyes of many voters.
Whatever happens, it was a remarkably good year for NHL freshmen and one of the best rookie seasons by a Flames forward ever.