2014-15 Calder Poll: Ekblad impresses but Forsberg remains atop February ranking

By Tony Piscotta
Aaron Ekblad - Florida Panthers

Photo: Florida Panthers rookie defenseman Aaron Ekblad has displayed the same maturity and talent level in his first NHL season that he was known for during his junior hockey days with the OHL’s Barrie Colts (courtesy of Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images)

 

Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad has played a key role in his team’s surprising push for the final wild card playoff spot in the NHL’s Eastern Conference and as a result has all but closed the gap with Nashville Predators‘ left wing Filip Forsberg — the leading scorer among rookies — in the February Hockey’s Future Calder Trophy poll.

Calgary Flames‘ left wing Johnny Gaudreau, second in last month’s poll, continues to log big minutes in his first season but his scoring pace has slowed a bit. He has slid behind the two leaders and is now being challenged by Ottawa Senators forward Mike Hoffman for the third spot.

Dallas Stars defenseman John Klingberg, New York Islanders center Anders Lee, and Hoffman’s teammate Mark Stone are significantly behind the leaders but are the only three players within striking distance.

Winnipeg Jets goalie Michael Hutchinson, tied with Hoffman for the fourth spot last month, New York Rangers right wing Kevin Hayes, and 19-year-old left wing Jonathan Drouin of the Tampa Bay Lighting round out the Top 10.

Lee and Hayes enter the poll for the first time while Colorado Avalanche goaltending prospect Calvin Pickard, now back in the AHL with Lake Erie, and Arizona Coyotes‘ right wing Tobias Rieder, fall out of the Top 10.

(#) – indicates spot in January poll; (N) – not in last month’s poll.

Hockey’s Future Calder Poll for February, 2015

1. (1) Filip Forsberg, LW, Nashville Predators
Acquired in a 2013 trade with Washington

Forsberg and the Predators have cooled off a bit from their torrid first half and as a result the race for the top spot has tightened. Still the top scorer among NHL rookies and the leading scorer for the Predators, he continues to show flashes of his high skill level on a nightly basis but at times has been held in check as teams have adapted to the Nashville’s new, high tempo style of play.

In 66 games, Forsberg has scored 21 goals, two behind Hoffman for the lead among rookies, and has 32 assists, posting a +14 rating while averaging over 17 minutes of ice time per game.

Despite their recent struggles, the Predators continue to challenge Anaheim for the President’s Trophy as the top team in the NHL’s regular season. After missing the playoffs in the two previous seasons, the real challenge for Nashville will come in the playoffs.

In 15 games in February, Forsberg scored four goals with six assists but was -7, averaging 16:41 minutes of ice time.

2. (3) Aaron Ekblad, D, Florida Panthers
Drafted in the first round (1st overall) in 2014

Only veteran Brian Campbell has seen more ice time on a nightly basis for the Panthers than Ekblad, who turned 19 on February 7th. Despite that heavy workload he continues to play a sound game in his own end while contributing to the Florida attack and moving the puck when necessary.

Expected to once again languish near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, Florida is two points behind the Bruins for the final wild card spot (though Boston has two games in hand) and have already exceeded their point total from a year ago.

Ekblad is the sixth-leading scorer among all rookies and trails only New Jersey Devils defenseman Damon Severson in minutes per game by a rookie (Severson recently returned to the lineup for the Devils after suffering a leg injury in December). Ekblad has 11 goals with 23 assists in 65 games and is +7 with 28 penalty minutes, averaging over 22:19 minutes of ice time per game. He is the Panthers’ third-leading scorer, behind forwards Nick Bjugstad and Jonathan Huberdeau.

In 15 games in February, Ekblad scored two goals with two assists and was +2 while averaging 22:56 minutes of ice time per game.

3. (2) Johnny Gaudreau, LW, Calgary Flames
Drafted in the fourth round (104th overall) in 2011

Like the Panthers, little was expected of the Flames — who find themselves in a heated battle with equally surprising Winnipeg, the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, the San Jose Sharks, and the NHL’s hottest team, the Minnesota Wild, for one of the Western Conference’s final three playoff spots.

Gaudreau has been at the heart of the Flames’ resurgence. As with many players making the jump from college hockey to the longer NHL season, however, the diminutive 21-year-old from Boston College appears to have hit a wall of late. Still the second scorer among rookies thanks to his torrid start, Gaudreau on Thursday scored his first goal since scoring twice in a game against Buffalo on January 27th. Despite his struggles, he continues to lead rookie forwards in ice time, topping the 20-minute mark in three straight games between January 24th and January 27th.

The Flames’ third-leading scorer, Gaudreau has 16 goals with 30 assists in 63 games and is +2 while averaging 17 minutes of ice time. In 12 games in February he had seven assists but was -10 while averaging 17:23 minutes of ice time.

4. (4) Mike Hoffman, C, Ottawa Senators
Drafted in the fifth round (130th overall) in 2009

The oldest of the rookie scoring leaders, Hoffman paid his dues in minor league hockey before having a breakout season with the Senators this season. After getting off to a slow start, Ottawa has steadily worked its way back into playoff contention with much of that success having to do with first and second-year players like Hoffman, Stone and defenseman Cody Ceci.

Having played in 242 AHL games and 28 games with the Senators in his first three pro seasons, the 25-year-old Hoffman is currently the third-leading scorer among rookies with 23 goals (tops for both rookies and the Senators) and has 17 assists, while leading all rookies in plus/minus (+24).

In 12 games in February, Hoffman scored six goals with seven assists and was +5 while averaging 14:27 minutes of ice time.

5. (6) John Klingberg, D, Dallas Stars
Drafted in the fifth round (131st overall) in 2010

A late-round pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, the 22-year-old Klingberg has not enjoyed the spotlight that 2014 top pick Ekblad has had with the Panthers, but it can be argued that he has had just as big an impact for his team.

Though not recalled by the Stars until November, Klingberg is tied with Ekblad for the lead in points among rookie defensemen (34) despite playing in 14 fewer games. After spending parts of four seasons in the SHL in Sweden, Klingberg began the 2014-15 season with the Stars’ AHL affiliate, the Texas Stars, playing in 10 games before being recalled after injuries to Sergei Gonchar (now with Montreal) and Patrik Nemeth.

Klingberg has scored 10 goals with 25 assists and is +4 with 30 penalty minutes in 51 games, averaging 21:46 minutes of ice time. The Stars have faded from the playoff picture of late, likely keeping Klingberg from Calder Trophy consideration. His play this year, however, suggests he is a big part of the future plans for Dallas.

In 13 games in February, Klingberg scored one goal with seven assists and was -7 while averaging 22:52 minutes of ice time.

6. (7) (tie) Mark Stone, RW, Ottawa Senators
Drafted in the sixth round (178th overall) in 2010

Stone’s goal-scoring numbers have not been as impressive as Hoffman’s but he has been playing a larger role for the Senators, averaging over four minutes more in ice time than Hoffman in February. A big player whose value has sometimes been overlooked because he doesn’t play an overly abrasive style, he has been effective at both ends of the ice in his first full NHL season.

Twenty-seven-year-old rookie goalie Andrew Hammond has captured much of the media attention in Ottawa lately as he has been in net for the Senators’ late playoff push after being called up in February. But it has been the play of the young Ottawa forwards that has the team thinking about the playoffs after a dreadful start to the season.  Currently 4-0-1 in the first five games of a seven-game Western Conference road trip, the Senators have surged within distance of Boston in the playoff race.

Stone is tied with Hoffman for third among rookie scorers behind Forsberg and Gaudreau with 15 goals and 25 assists for 40 points and is +12, averaging 16:18 minutes of ice time. In 12 games in February, Stone scored three goals with eight assists and was +2 while averaging 19:01 minutes of ice time.

6. (N) (tie) Anders Lee, C, New York Islanders
Drafted in the sixth round (152nd overall) in 2009

The resurgence of the Islanders in what is their final season in Nassau Coliseum has been one of the big stories in the NHL, with Lee’s emergence as a consistent goal scorer contributing to the team’s rise. Quietly enjoying a solid first half of the season, Lee had a breakout month in February when fellow Minnesotan Kyle Okposo went down with an eye injury.

After scoring 13 goals with five assists and averaging under 13 minutes of ice time in his first 43 games entering February, Lee scored seven goals with eight assists and was +7 while averaging 17:46 minutes of ice time in 15 games during the month.

Now in his second pro season after appearing in 22 games with the Islanders and skating for AHL affiliate Bridgeport in 2013-14, Lee has the ideal size and demeanor to go into the crease area for rebounds and scoring opportunities. That he is now getting rewarded for those efforts has not been a surprise for Islanders head coach Jack Capuano.

Currently the Islanders’ sixth-leading scorer, Lee has scored 22 goals with 13 assists in 60 games and is +14, averaging 14 minutes of ice time.

8. (4) Michael Hutchinson, G, Winnipeg Jets
Signed as a free agent by Winnipeg in 2013

Hutchinson continues to be the top rookie goalie but has slid in this month’s poll as his play has leveled off after a blazing hot start. He continues to receive the bulk of the starts while sharing the goaltending duties with veteran Ondrej Pavelec for the surprising Jets, but has not been as stingy as he was earlier in the year.

In Hutchinson’s first 10 starts, he allowed more than two goals just once. In his last 11 starts, teams have scored four goals or more in six of those games. No doubt the pressure of the playoff race could be playing its part. Hutchinson’s workload could be a factor, too. The 33 games in which he’s appeared this year are the most he’s played since his rookie pro season of 2010-11 when he played 46 games while splitting the year between the AHL and the ECHL.

The Jets were not expected to be in the middle of the playoff race this season so maybe expectations were a bit high. If Winnipeg is to capture the franchise’s first playoff berth since re-locating from Atlanta in 2011-12 (and first-ever in the Western Conference), Hutchinson will likely need to revert to the form he showed earlier in the season.

Hutchinson on the season is 19-8-5 with two shutouts and has a 2.34 goals-against average and .918 save percentage. In eight games in February, he was 4-1-3 while allowing 2.68 goals per game and posting a .898 save percentage.

9. (N) Kevin Hayes, RW, New York Rangers
Signed as a free agent by New York in 2014

Hayes was drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round (24th overall) in the 2010 NHL Draft but did not sign with Chicago after graduating from Boston College and was signed by the Rangers over the summer. Linemates with Gaudreau and Calgary prospect Bill Arnold on one of the top lines in college hockey last season, Hayes has steadily worked his way into a full-time role with the Rangers and has been a big part of the team’s second half surge.

Slowed by a shoulder injury out of training camp and then seeing limited minutes early in the season, his increase in offensive production has led to more consistent ice time. In the Rangers 1-0 win over Gaudreau and the Flames on February 24th he played a season-high 18:33 minutes. On a team with high-flying yet undersized forwards like Martin St. Louis, Carl Hagelin, and Mats Zuccarello, Hayes’ size and his ability to play either center or wing has fit in well.

After reaching the Stanley Cup finals last season, the Rangers struggled early in the season but have been one of the NHL’s hottest teams since mid-January and are now vying with the Islanders and Montreal for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

Hayes has appeared in 60 games for the Rangers this season, scoring 12 goals and 17 assists while going +9 and averaging 12:40 minutes of ice time. He scored six of those goals with six assists in 14 games in February while posting a +6 rating and averaging just under 15 minutes of ice time.

10. (8) Jonathan Drouin, LW, Tampa Bay Lightning
Drafted in the first round (3rd overall) in 2013

One of three highly regarded forwards taken at the beginning of the 2013 NHL Draft, Drouin has yet to match the goal-scoring exploits of Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon or the Panthers’ Aleksander Barkov — who were taken first and second respectively and are now in their second NHL season. Unlike those two, whose teams feature mostly up-and-coming young players and are struggling at the periphery of the playoff picture, Drouin is part of a deep and talented forward group in Tampa Bay that features one of the league’s top players in Steven Stamkos.

Drouin returned to junior hockey last year, skating with the Halifax Mooseheads of the QMJHL. As a rookie this season, he has seen mostly third- and fourth-line ice time as the Lightning battle the Canadiens for the top spot in the Atlantic Division. The ninth-leading scorer among rookies, Drouin has scored two goals with 24 assists in 55 games and is +2 while averaging 13:04 minutes of ice time.

In 12 games in February, Drouin had three assists and was +2, averaging 11:34 minutes of ice time.

Others receiving votes (in order): Bo Horvat, C, Vancouver Canucks; Tobias Rieder, RW, Arizona Coyotes; Oscar Klefbom, D, Edmonton Oilers; Rickard Rakell, C, Anaheim Ducks; Cedric Paquette, C, Tampa Bay Lightning; Jake Allen, G, St. Louis Blues; Evgeny Kuznetsov, C, Washington Capitals; David Pastrnak, RW, Boston Bruins.

Follow Tony Piscotta on Twitter via @HockeyNJ12