Today's NHL truly is a young man's game. In years past only the most exceptional talents could make the transition between junior hockey and the NHL without missing a beat. Greats like Gilbert Perreault, Mario Lemieux and Dale Hawerchuk all made big impacts in their first year in the league, but the average rookie breaking in was lucky just to crack the lineup, let alone dominate the game. Today, with the high level of coaching and the intense fitness training young athletes enjoy they are entering the league more prepared than ever to compete against veteran talent, and now it is the journeymen who are having difficulty holding on to their jobs at training camp. This season there looks to be a bumper crop of exceptional rookies. Here are my picks for the early favorites to take home the 2014-15 Calder Trophy:
It isn't very often that a rookie goaltender makes a big splash. The most important of positions comes with the most pressure, and NHL coaches and General Managers really try and ease young goalies into the lineup over the course of a few years to allow them time to adjust to the jump in talent at the NHL level without destroying their fragile confidence. Every once in a while, however, there is an exception. Just look at Ken Dryden or Patrick Roy for examples. Now, John Gibson might never reach the heights that those two Hall-of-Famers achieved in their respective careers, but this American-born goalie has all the tools to be a dominant goalie in the NHL for a long time, and the taste of NHL hockey he had last season showed that he was ready to play the game at its highest level. He might start as the backup in Anaheim this year, but he might just steal the number one job by the time the season finishes.
His nickname is Johnny Hockey, and this former Boston College star is already living up to his billing at the NHL level. At just 5' 7" tall and 150 lbs Gaudreau is certainly not going to earn a living as a power forward. However, though size is certainly beneficial at the NHL level, particularly in today's "Big Man's" game, Gaudreau is fast enough, shifty enough, and has the hands to make a big impact despite his diminutive stature. He has already appeared on the highlight reel in both the preseason and the regular season, and continues to impress with his amazing hands on a nightly basis. With only 3 points in his first 9 games he is still finding his footing offensively, but with this guy's immense talent you get the sense that it is only a matter of time before he breaks out.
Selected 11th overall by the Washington Capitals in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft then flipped to the Predators before ever suiting up for the Caps, this talented Swede looks to have all the tools to be a star in the NHL. He got a short audition with Nashville last season before being sent down to play the remainder of the year with the Milwaukee Admirals of the AHL. This year he is making a good case to stick with the big club. He's notched 7 points in 8 games and doesn't look at all out of place. With a new coach and a new offensive philosophy in Nashville Forsberg should be able to put up respectable numbers and will be a strong challenger for this year's rookie of the year crown.
It has been a frustrating year and a bit for Jonathan Drouin. After winning the Memorial Cup with the Halifax Mooseheads in 2013 Drouin was selected third overall by the Tampa Bay Lightning. However, he couldn't quite crack the big club and was sent back to junior for another year of seasoning. In the meantime, former Moosehead teammate and linemate Nathan MacKinnon managed to stick with the Colorado Avalanche and went on to win rookie of the year honors. This year Drouin came to camp with a fierce hunger to make the squad, only to have an injury take him down forcing him to miss the bulk of the pre-season as well as the start of the regular season. Well, he's back now, and in 4 games he's already put up 3 points. He is an amazingly gifted player with great vision and a sick set of mitts. If he can lock down some playing time with superstar Steven Stamkos watch for him to tear it up this season.
If there is an overwhelming favorite in the Calder Trophy race so far this season it has to be Tanner Pearson of the Los Angeles Kings. Pearson has an edge over his counterparts in that he played 25 regular season games plus 24 playoff games for the Kings last season, winning a Stanley Cup in his inaugural year. Because playoff games don't count towards his rookie total, and because his 25 regular season games were 1 fewer than the cutoff, Pearson was still considered a rookie when he entered the 2014-15 season. He has one other big advantage as well considering he plays on arguably the hottest line in hockey - That 70's Line - along with Jeff Carter and Tyler Toffoli. As of this writing he has 9 points in his first 8 games and shows no sign of slowing down. If the line stays together and can maintain their current pace look for Tanner Pearson to be the runaway Calder Trophy winner in 2014-15.