As the NHL enters the regular season home stretch, the list of Calder Trophy candidates continues to include primarily Western Conference skaters. This time around, a total of eight players on our list of top ten candidates are skating for teams mostly west of the Mississippi River.
The Edmonton Oilers and Chicago Blackhawks make up half of the current Hockey’s Future staff list, with the two rookie ‘Hawks likely to be among the three players sitting at the annual NHL Awards banquet in June.
Through 62 games, Kane has shown he has the ability to not only produce offensively, but the has been able to withstand the physical rigors and remain in the lineup on a consistent basis. Selected first overall by the Chicago Blackhawks, Kane jumped into the pro game directly from the London Knights, where he won the OHL scoring title with 145 points.
Kane, 19, has produced three three-point games and one four-pointer this season. The native of Buffalo, New York plays an average of 18:17 per game and has also scored five times in shootouts. With 14 goals and 38 assists, Kane has been productive on special teams as well with five power-play goals.
Through 64 games, the durable Backstrom has managed nine goals and 50 points. His 41 assists are tops among all NHL rookies. In mid-January, the 20-year-old centerman produced four assists in back-to-back games against Eastern Conference rivals Pittsburgh and Florida, making him the first ever rookie to achieve that feat.
A slick mover of the puck and a confident skater, Backstrom has fit in well among the high-octane forwards in Washington, adding important scoring depth. With the addition of Sergei Fedorov and Matt Cooke at the trade deadline, Backstrom should benefit from Federov’s experience. Should he skate with Cooke, he may find even more open ice to make plays if Cooke’s tenacity serves to occupy opponents. To date, Backstrom has played an average of 18:36 per game.
The one glaring statistic that will likely keep Toews from collecting the Calder Trophy is his total of 44 games played. Although a pair of injuries have kept him out of the lineup for close to 20 games, he has still collected 18 goals and 24 assists, making him the NHL rookie closest to maintaining an average of one point per game.
Perhaps more indicative of his value, the Blackhawks are significantly less successful with the 19-year-old on the sidelines. Toews has been an energy player while on the ice and trails only Kane, Patrick Sharp and Robert Lang in team scoring. He has a plus-10 ranking and plays an average of 18:38 per game.
Mueller arrived in Phoenix this season where the Coyotes’ rookie crop also included forwards Martin Hanzal and Daniel Carcillo. Each has made an impact in Phoenix, but the 19-year-old Mueller may have set himself apart with a productive January that saw him embark on a seven-game scoring streak.
A right-handed winger with a quick release and heavy shot, Mueller has scored two hat tricks this season. He was named the NHL Rookie of the Month for January. He has scored 19 goals, tops among rookies, along with 23 assists in 62 games. He leads all rookies with six power-play goals.
Far and away the leader in average ice time per game among rookies with 24:11 per game, Enstrom gives the Atlanta Thrashers reason for optimism along the blueline. The native of Nordingra, Sweden represented the Thrashers at the 2008 NHL Young Stars game in Atlanta.
Enstrom has been a pleasant surprise offensively where he has chipped in with four goals and 31 assists and an even plus/minus ranking. He is destined to break the club’s record for assists by a defenseman. The diminutive rearguard, who weighs in at 175 pounds on a 5’10 frame, is the second oldest rookie on our Calder Poll list at 23 years of age.
Gagner has been a breath of fresh air this season in Edmonton where the Oilers have experienced a miserable, injury-riddled campaign. From dominant performance in the Canada/Russia Super Series to a strong NHL training camp, Gagner served notice early on that he had a job in professional hockey in his crosshairs.
The native of London, Ontario has scored seven goals and added 26 assists this season, while providing energy and effective puck pursuit throughout his 61 games played. During February, he had a nine-game scoring streak, which included a team record eight consecutive games with an assist. The Oilers consistently call on Gagner in shootouts, where he has an NHL-high four game-deciding goals among his five successful attempts. Gagner, 18, has handled the physical play and lengthy schedule well, missing only one game this season, due to a flu bug.
One of four defensemen among our Calder Poll, Johnson is the youngest and most highly touted of the group. He was slowed early this season by a broken bone in his foot, causing him to miss a total of 10 games this season.
At 6’4, 220 pounds, Johnson is generally looked upon as a shutdown defenseman, although his offensive production has been an important contribution in St. Louis this year. Through 50 games, Johnson has scored three goals and added 20 assists. Each of his tallies has been a game-winner, a total that has him among the rookie leaders in that category. He plays an average of 16:53 per game.
Another American-born defenseman, Niskanen has benefited through the overall performance of a Dallas Stars team with the second best record in the NHL. His plus-17 ranking, which is tops among rookies, is testimony to the ability of the group in Dallas to keep the puck out of their own net.
With six goals and 17 assists through 66 games, Niskanen has proven to be a steady offensive contributor as well as a durable rearguard. The 21-year-old native of Virginia, Minnesota represented the Stars at the 2008 NHL Young Stars game in Atlanta. He is currently listed as day-to-day with a bruised foot.
The steady play of Tom Gilbert on a seriously depleted blueline in Edmonton has been especially valuable since Sheldon Souray’s season ended prematurely. The 25-year-old workhorse, a native of Minneapolis, Minnesota, has played an average of 22:15 per game.
Through 64 games, Gilbert has scored nine goals and 16 assists while playing with a variety of defensive partners. Along with youngsters Matt Greene and Ladislav Smid, the blueline brigade is learning on fly this season. Their cumulative development bodes well for the Oilers’ future, and Gilbert’s maturity and poise in his first full NHL season has been an important steadying influence.
Another of the terrific trio of freshmen in Edmonton, Cogliano has provided energy and determination for the Oilers this season. For much of the campaign, he has skated with Gagner, forming a duo nearly as impressive as the Kane/Toews pair in Chicago.
The 20-year-old center has collected 10 goals and 20 assists, and he leads all rookies with two shorthanded goals. A big part in Gagner’s recent scoring streak, Cogliano has had a pair of three-game scoring streaks himself. Lauded early on this season for his vision and intelligent decision-making, Cogliano has exceeded expectations in Edmonton through his first 64 games.