MacKinnon makes first appearance atop Calder Poll with strong January showing

By Tony Piscotta

Nathan MacKinnon - Colorado Avalanche

Photo: Colorado Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon turned in a strong month of January to earn the top spot in this month’s Calder Poll, with MacKinnon appearing to be a front-runner for the Calder Trophy heading into the Olympic break (courtesy of Russell Lansford/Icon SMI)

For the fourth straight month, a new player takes over the top spot in the Hockey's Future Calder Poll as Colorado's Nathan MacKinnon assumes the top spot in what was a near consensus among the HF staff.

December's leader, New York Rangers' left wing Chris Kreider, slipped to third while Tampa Bay's Tyler Johnson made the biggest jump — moving all the way up from the tenth spot to narrowly edge Kreider for the second spot behind MacKinnon.

Dallas Stars' 18-year-old Valeri Nichushkin had the biggest slide — falling out of the top 10 after making his debut in the second spot in December.

This month's top 10 also sees a wealth of defensemen as the bottom five spots are all occupied by defenders. Tampa Bay and Winnipeg each were represented by two players, most amongst the NHL clubs.

1. Nathan MacKinnon, RW/C, Colorado Avalanche
Drafted 1st overall (1st Round) in 2013

The first player taken in the 2013 NHL Draft, the 18-year-old MacKinnon had his best month yet and shows no signs of slowing.

One point ahead of Johnson for the rookie scoring lead with 35 points (18 goals, 17 assists), the Nova Scotia native scored eight of his 18 goals in January and also had three assists.

He has fit in well with young scorers Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog and Ryan O'Reilly and the Avalanche continue to be one of the big surprise teams this year, sitting in third-place behind Chicago and St. Louis in the Central Division.

MacKinnon, in addition to his 11 points in January, was +3 while averaging 17:23 minutes of ice time.

2. Tyler Johnson, C, Tampa Bay Lightning
Signed as a free agent in March, 2011

Flying under the radar a bit during the first half of the year with several high profile draft picks making their NHL debut, Johnson is starting to get the attention he deserves after scoring at a near point-per-game pace in January.

The second-leading scorer amongst rookies with 16 goals and 18 assists in his first 53 games, Johnson leads all rookie forwards in ice time, averaging almost 19 minutes a game, and his +15 plus/minus is fourth-best among rookies and trails only teammate Ondrej Palat (+22) among first-year forwards.

With Steven Stamkos still out of the Lightning lineup, Johnson averaged 20:50 minutes of ice time in 14 games in January and was +9, scoring six goals with seven assists.

3. Chris Kreider, LW, New York Rangers
Drafted 19th overall (1st round) in 2009

Kreider continues to be a big part of the Rangers' resurgence following a slow start and is a big reason they currently sit in second place behind Pittsburgh in the Metropolitan Division.

Rangers veteran forward Rick Nash was as hot as any scorer in recent weeks and much of that had to do with the play of his linemates Kreider and Derek Stepan. Unlike Johnson in Tampa Bay, few players have been as closely scrutinized as the former Boston College forward. But Kreider is proving to be the player the Rangers' thought he would be when he was selected 19th overall in the 2009 NHL Draft.

In 14 games in January, Kreider scored three goals with five assists and was +4, averaging 15:45 minutes of ice time per game.

4. Mark Scheifele, C, Winnipeg Jets
Drafted 7th overall (1st round) in 2011

After appearing in just four NHL games last season, the 20-year-old Kitchener native is emerging as the player many believed he could be, making his debut in this month's poll at the number four spot.

After getting off to a slow start, the Jets are beginning to make a push in the Western Conference with much of that success being due to the play of Scheifele and fellow rookie Jacob Trouba. Third amongst all rookies with 31 points (11 goals, 20 assists) in 55 games, Scheifele has steadily assumed a larger role for the Jets.

Averaging a season-high 18:13 minutes of ice time in 13 games in January, Scheifele was +8 and scored five goals with six assists.

4. (tie) Ondrej Palat, LW, Tampa Bay Lightning
Drafted 208th overall (7th round) in 2011

Under current Tampa Bay coach John Cooper, the Lightning's former AHL affiliate Norfolk won the Calder Cup in 2011-12. Several of the players from that team are now making a big impact in Tampa Bay as the Lightning have been one of the Eastern Conference's top teams despite losing leading scorer Steven Stamkos.

Tampa Bay has used nine rookies in its lineup this season but few would have predicted the impact that Palat is now having when he was selected late in the 2011 NHL Draft. Tied for fifth with Boston defenseman Torey Krug among rookie scorers with 11 goals and 18 assists in 53 games, the 22-year-old from the Czech Republic has played a strong two-way game, leading rookie forwards with a +22 rating.

Palat scored at a point-per-game pace in January, scoring five goals with nine assists in 14 games, and was +14 while averaging 18:42 minutes of ice time.

6. Olli Maatta, D, Pittsburgh Penguins
Drafted 22nd overall (1st round) in 2012

With Pittsburgh's defense corps getting back some of its injured veterans, Maatta is no longer playing over 20 minutes a game — as he did during December — but playing in a more traditional second- and third-pairing role.

Pittsburgh continues to dominate in the Eastern Conference and leads the Metropolitan Division, with the 19-year-old from Finland fitting right in with the Penguins' lineup. In fact, the reduced ice time has allowed him to be more effective in all aspects of the game.

After scoring three goals with nine assists and posting a +2 in his first 41 games, Maatta  was +8 with two goals and five assists in 11 games in January while averaging 17:07 minutes of ice time.

7. Jacob Trouba, D, Winnipeg Jets
Drafted 9th overall (1st round) in 2012

A case can be made that no rookie has had as big of an impact on his team as the 19-year-old Jets' defenseman. The leader in ice time amongst rookies averaging 21:40 minutes a game, Trouba suffered an early season injury after crashing into the boards but has returned to a big role with Winnipeg. Trouba's emergence has coincided with the Jets' improved play.

In addition to his strong defensive game and ability to handle a heavy workload, Trouba has begun to display an offensive side to his game. In his first 25 games Trouba scored three goals with eight assists and was +1 but nearly matched that production in January. In 13 games he scored four goals with five assists and was +7 while averaging 22:03 minutes of ice time. For the season he is +8 with seven goals and 13 assists in 38 games.

8. Eric Gelinas, D, New Jersey Devils
Drafted 54th overall (2nd round) in 2009

New Jersey's difficulties in generating offense have been well-chronicled this season but Gelinas has provided play-making from the blue line in his first NHL season and has already scored two game-winning goals.

Still working on the defensive side of things and briefly demoted to the AHL's Albany Devils at the beginning of the month, the 22-year-old is the second-leading scorer among rookie defensemen behind Krug with six goals and 16 assists in 43 games.

After returning from Albany he skated in 11 games in January — scoring two goals with five assists — and was -3 while averaging 14:44 minutes of ice time.

9. (tie) Hampus Lindholm, D, Anaheim Ducks
Drafted 6th overall (1st round) in 2012

Lindholm may not have the flash or offensive flourishes of some of the other players in our poll but he continues to log large minutes on one of the NHL's top teams.

Paired with Francois Beauchemin on the top pairing for Anaheim, the 20-year-old from Sweden leads all rookies with a +23 plus/minus and has fit in well on a Ducks team that has allowed the seventh fewest goals against (134) while trailing only Chicago with 184 goals scored.

In 13 games in December, he scored two goals with two assists and was +3, averaging 19:38 minutes of ice time.

9. (tie) Torey Krug, D, Boston Bruins
Signed as a free agent in March, 2012

The leading scorer among rookie defensemen, Krug returns to the top 10 after just missing the list last month. In 52 games he has scored 11 goals with 29 assists and is +9.

Krug first gained notice after being called up late last season and giving Boston a jolt of energy during it's run to the Stanley Cup finals. With the Bruins having veteran depth on the blue line, as well as the emerging Dougie Hamilton, Krug sees less ice time than some of the other rookie defensemen but his impact has been significant.

In 12 January games, Krug scored three goals with six assists and was +7, averaging 17:00 minutes of ice time.

Others receiving votes (in order of points):  Aleksander Barkov, C, Florida; Ryan Murray, D, Columbus; Seth Jones, D, Nashville; Frederik Andersen, G, Anaheim; Valeri Nichushkin, LW, Dallas; Tomas Hertl, LW, San Jose; Radko Gudas, D, Tampa Bay; Nikita Kucherov, RW, Tampa Bay; Justin Fontaine, RW, Minnesota; Calvin de Haan, D, New York Islanders.

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