The Calder Trophy race heads down the stretch and, while Tampa Bay's Ondrej Palat led all rookie scorers in the month of March, Colorado's Nathan MacKinnon has tightened his hold on the lead in the Hockey's Future monthly poll.
The 18-year-old MacKinnon was a near-unanimous selection amongst the HF staff and leads the staff poll for the third straight month. Palat, fourth last month, jumped over Pittsburgh defenseman Olli Maata and Lightning teammate Tyler Johnson after scoring at a point-per-game pace in March.
Once again, the defensemen are well-represented as four of the top seven players in this month's poll — Maatta (3rd), Anaheim's Hampus Lindholm (5th), Winnipeg's Jacob Trouba (6th) and Torey Krug of Boston (7th) — play defense for their respective clubs.
After featuring Minnesota goalie Darcy Kuemper in the eighth spot in February, there are no goalies in this month's top 10 as Anaheim's Frederik Andersen was just behind Detroit defenseman Dan DeKeyser for the final slot.
Injuries again took a toll on our poll in March.
New York Rangers forward Chris Kreider (the poll leader in December) got off to a fast start in March (3 goals, 4 assists in 13 games) before suffering a hand injury. Mark Scheifele of Winnipeg and Buffalo's Zemgus Girgensons, tied for 10th last month, were both out for much of the month. Scheifele suffered a knee injury that limited him to two games and Girgensons missed 11 games with an unspecified "lower body" injury.
Among the risers, Florida center Nick Bjugstad enters our poll at the number eight spot after assisting on 10 goals in 17 games in March while Calgary's Sean Monahan slides into the ninth spot after the Flames' late season push. Monahan was tied for the lead in HF's initial Calder Trophy poll this season but has not appeared in the poll since holding the seventh spot in November.
Defenseman Dan DeKeyser of Detroit re-enters the poll in the tenth spot after logging huge minutes as the Wings have worked their way back into the playoff race.
1. Nathan MacKinnon, RW/C, Colorado Avalanche
Drafted in the First Round (1st overall) in 2013
Heading into the final week of the season, it would seem that the Avalanche teenager has all but wrapped up this season's Calder Trophy.
Leading all rookie scorers with 24 goals and 38 assists in his first 79 games, MacKinnon averaged a season high 19:43 minutes of ice time in 14 games in March. Playing both center and wing for Colorado at times this season, MacKinnon leads all rookies with eight power play goals.
Headed towards a likely first round playoff series with the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks, the Avalanche were one of the top turnaround stories in the NHL this year, with first-year head coach Patrick Roy likely joining MacKinnon at the NHL awards ceremony.
MacKinnon scored one goal with eight assists in March and was +6 in 14 games.
2. Ondrej Palat, LW, Tampa Bay Lightning
Drafted in the Seventh Round (208th overall) in 2011
Like MacKinnon and the Avalanche, Tampa Bay has relied on several young players to completely turn things around this season. In fact, the Lightning have used an even younger lineup, with a half dozen rookies all playing key roles down the stretch.
While former first round picks Vladislav Namestnikov and Brett Connolly have spent most of the season in the AHL and are the top two scorers for Tampa Bay's affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch, Palat is the Lightning's third-leading scorer this season behind the recently-traded Martin St. Louis and veteran Valtteri Filppula.
In March, Palat had his biggest month to date, matching his January offensive output with 5 goals and 11 assists in 16 games while finishing +5 and averaging a season-high 20:09 minutes of ice time.
After missing the playoffs in five of the last six seasons, the Lightning are headed to a first round playoff series against Montreal in head coach Jon Cooper's first full season.
3. Olli Maatta, D, Pittsburgh Penguins
Drafted in the First Round (22nd overall) in 2012
Somewhat overshadowed playing on a Pittsburgh team with forwards such as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and veteran defensemen Matt Niskanen, Kris Letang, and Paul Martin, Maatta continues to play a key role for the Penguins as a 19-year-old.
Tied with New Jersey's Eric Gelinas for second in points among rookie defensemen with 29 points (trailing only Krug), Maatta has nine goals with 29 assists and is +9 with 14 penalty minutes in his first 75 games (only Niskanen has played more games among Penguins' defensemen).
Maatta and the Penguins have dominated the Metropolitan Conference all season, trailing only Boston in the Eastern Conference, and will meet the first wildcard team in a first round playoff series.
In 15 March games, Maatta scored two goals with two assists and was -3 while averaging 21:09 minutes of ice time.
4. Tyler Johnson, C, Tampa Bay Lightning
Signed as a free agent in March, 2011
Johnson, like Palat, joined then-Lightning AHL affiliate Norfolk with little fanfare when he was signed as a free agent in 2011 following a successful WHL career.
Johnson impressed current Lightning coach Cooper in two AHL seasons under his tutelage. The Spokane, WA native made a successful NHL debut in 14 games at the end of last season and this year, Johnson has been a key part of the Lighting's success.
After a bit of a slump coming out of the Olympic break, the Lightning have righted the ship with Johnson continuing to be a consistent part of that success.
The third-leading scorer among rookies behind MacKinnon and Palat, Johnson has scored 23 goals with 25 assists and is +21 with 24 penalty minutes in his first 79 games.
In 16 games in March he scored five goals with five assists and was +3 while averaging 17:53 minutes of ice time.
5. Hampus Lindholm, D, Anaheim Ducks
Drafted in the First Round (6th overall) in 2012
Lindholm continues to play a key role for Anaheim as the Ducks and San Jose battle down to the wire to finish first in the Pacific Division.
A healthy scratch recently merely to rest up as the Ducks prepare for the playoffs, the 20-year-old has appeared in 75 games so far and is +27 (second only to Palat among rookies) with six goals, 22 assists and 36 penalty minutes. Lindholm has averaged 19:26 minutes of ice time this season, frequently being paired with veteran Francois Beuchemin.
In 13 games in March, Lindholm scored one goal with five assists and was +1, averaging just under 20 minutes of ice time.
6. Jacob Trouba, D, Winnipeg Jets
Drafted in the First Round (9th overall) in 2012
The Jets won't make the playoffs this season but Trouba, like Maatta and Lindholm, has established himself as the type of franchise defenseman that can play huge minutes and provides both defensive play and the ability to contribute to the attack.
No rookie has seen more ice time per game (22:38 minutes) than Trouba this season. The 20-year-old also plays with a physical edge to his game, as evidenced by his 43 penalty minutes which are third-most among rookie defensemen.
In 15 games in March, Trouba scored two goals with three assists and was -7 with 18 penalty minutes while averaging 24:10 minutes of ice time.
7. Torey Krug, D, Boston Bruins
Signed as a free agent in March, 2012
Krug is the leading scorer among rookie defensemen and fourth among all rookies with 38 points in his first 76 games. He has been especially effective on the Bruins power play with six goals and 12 assists with the man-advantage.
One of two rookie defensemen who has seen significant ice time for Boston this season — teammate Kevan Miller is +19 in 44 games since joining the Bruins mid-season (including +14 in March) — Krug is +17 for the year and has steadily seen his role increase from being a power play specialist to a full-time defender.
Boston is the top team in the Eastern Conference and will face the second wild card in a first-round playoff series.
In 14 March games, Krug scored two goals with one assist and was +6 while averaging 17:07 minutes of ice time.
8. Nick Bjugstad, C, Florida Panthers
Drafted in the First Round (19th overall) in 2010
Things have not gone as well as hoped in South Florida this year but the emergence of young forwards Bjugstad and Aleksander Barkov (currently out with a knee injury suffered at the the Sochi Olympics) — as well as the recent addition of Brandon Pirri in a trade with the Blackhawks — give Panthers' fans some reason for optimism.
Second among rookies with 10 assists in March (one behind Palat), Bjugstad continues to use his size and skill to create scoring opportunities and has taken advantage of the expanded opportunities he's received with a Panthers' squad that is out of the playoff picture.
While he missed out on a chance to skate in Philadelphia with his former University of Minnesota teammates at the upcoming NCAA Frozen Four by signing following his junior season, the 21-year-old has proven ready to compete at the NHL level.
In 17 games in March, Bjugstad scored one goal with 10 assists and was -10 while averaging 17:55 minutes of ice time.
9. Sean Monahan, C, Calgary Flames
Drafted in the First Round (6th overall) in 2013
While those others have garnered more attention due to either their team's success or the fact that they have been more in the spotlight, Monahan has steadily proven to be a solid NHL forward who appears capable of being a staple in the Flames' lineup for years to come.
Monahan gained attention out of the gate by scoring six goals in his first eight NHL games. A foot injury in late November kept him out of seven games and, while his offensive pace has slowed since that meteoric start, Monahan clearly is a team-leader for Calgary.
He, along with fellow rookie Joe Colborne, will be a huge part of the Flames' plans going forward.
Monahan scored four goals with four assists and was -4 in March while averaging 17:19 minutes of ice time.
10. Dan DeKeyser, D, Detroit Red Wings
Signed as a free agent in 2013
The Red Wings have been one of the hottest teams down the stretch after an injury-filled season in which only the Pittsburgh Penguins have lost more man-games due to injury. DeKeyser, like several of his teammates, is part of that statistic, having missed 15 games mid-season after separating his shoulder.
But down the stretch, the 24-year-old from Western Michigan University has played a key role for the Red Wings, logging top minutes on a nightly basis.
DeKeyser, who made the jump directly from college hockey to the NHL last spring — joining Detroit following his junior season with the Broncos and appearing in 11 regular season games and two playoff contests for the Wings — has proven this season to be a sound two-way defender.
Detroit has resurrected its season with a strong stretch run and are in the mix for one of the Eastern Conference's final playoff spots.
DeKeyser scored one goal with five assists in 15 games in March, finishing with an even plus/minus, and averaged over 23 minutes of ice time (second only to Trouba among rookies).
Others receiving votes (in order of points): Frederik Andersen, G, Anaheim; Chris Kreider, LW, New York Rangers; Valeri Nichushkin, RW, Dallas; Darcy Kuemper, G, Minnesota; Calvin de Haan, D, New York Islanders; Tyler Toffoli, C, Los Angeles; Martin Marincin, D, Edmonton; Riley Sheahan, C, Detroit; Jon Merrill, D, New Jersey.
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