The Calder Trophy is Cale Makar’s to lose. The 21-year-old, smooth-skating, puck-distributing Colorado Avalanche defenseman has been the league’s most dominant freshman since the puck dropped on the 2019-20 season. Makar was leading the rookie scoring race until an injury cost him three weeks in December, and he’s back making an impact virtually every time he’s on the ice.
Here’s a look at the top 20 NHL rookies so far this season:
1. Cale Makar, D, Colorado: Cool Hand Cale, they could call him. For a guy who looks about 12 years old, Makar plays like a seasoned veteran. He’s a near point-per-gamer as a rookie defenseman, which happens about once every Orr or so. Great mobility, great vision, great passer. And he’s got a dozen goals, so his point shot is getting through. This year the Calder, next year the Norris? Don’t bet against it.
2. Quinn Hughes, D, Vancouver: If it wasn’t for Makar, Hughes would have both hands on the Calder right now. They’re similar in skating (superior), skill set (supreme) and stature (smallish). Hughes took over the rookie scoring lead after Makar’s injury, and the Canucks defenseman has posted four goals and 14 points in his past 14 games. Hughes is playing more than any other rookie this season, at 21:35 per game.
3. Dominik Kubalik, LW, Chicago: It was about a year ago that the Blackhawks traded a 2019 fifth-round pick to Los Angeles in exchange for a little-known left winger who was a seventh-round pick back in 2013. It’s looking like a pretty good deal for Chicago, with Kubalik leading all rookies in goals (22) and even-strength points (28). Twenty of his 22 goals have come at even strength – no other rookie has more than 10 even-strength goals.
4. Victor Olofsson, LW, Buffalo: Speaking of seventh-round picks, Olofsson – the 181st overall selection in 2014 – was the leading rookie goal-scorer until an injury to his left leg/ankle sent him to the sidelines for six weeks. He just returned to action with two goals against Columbus on Thursday, including the overtime winner. With 37 points in 43 games, Olofsson’s points per game (0.86) is second only to Makar (0.88) among rookies. And the Swedish sniper leads all first-year forwards in ice time at 18:45, nearly three minutes more than Montreal’s Nick Suzuki (15:58).
5. Nick Suzuki, C, Montreal: Speaking of Suzuki, the slick Habs center has climbed the rookie scoring chart with 10 points in his past 10 games. The 20-year-old pivot was picked 15th overall by Vegas in 2017 before being shipped to Montreal as part of the Max Pacioretty deal. Among NHL freshmen, Suzuki ranks in the top five in goals, assists, points, even-strength points, power-play goals, power-play points and shots. The Canadiens’ search for a No. 1 center might finally be over.
6. Denis Gurianov, RW, Dallas: The way he’s going lately, there’s a good chance Gurianov ends up leading all rookies in goals by the end of the season. The 6-foot-3 winger, drafted 12th overall in 2015, has scored six goals in his past nine games and eight in his past 14. Overall, he has 17 goals on the season to rank third behind Kubalik and Olofsson.
7. Adam Fox, D, NY Rangers: The third team’s a charm. Fox was a third-round pick by Calgary in 2016 before being traded to Carolina in 2018 and then dealt to the Rangers last April — and acquiring the Harvard alum is looking like a very smart move indeed. He’s the highest-scoring rookie defenseman not named Makar or Hughes and his ice time has steadily increased throughout the season, with a couple of recent games cresting 23-plus minutes. Perhaps that’s because he’s plus-14 on the year and has only been a minus player once in 18 games since Jan. 1 (minus-1 against Detroit on Jan. 31).
8. Elvis Merzlikins, G, Columbus: The 25-year-old Latvian only had eight starts – and zero wins – in the first three months of the season. Then Joonas Korpisalo went down with an injury on Dec. 29, and Merzlikins took over. He’s gone 12-4-1 over the past six weeks, lifting the Blue Jackets into a playoff position and posting a league-leading five shutouts in the process. He’s tied for the league lead with a .930 save percentage and his 2.18 goals-against average is tied for fourth overall.
9. Martin Necas, C, Carolina: The Hurricanes gave him a look last season, but Necas needed more time. He’s been worth the wait. The 12th overall pick in 2017, Necas ranks fourth in goals (12) and sixth in points (31) among NHL rookies, and he’s been coming on with nine goals and 15 points in his past 22 outings.
10. Ilya Samsonov, G, Washington: He’s played so well it seems a foregone conclusion that franchise pillar and pending UFA Braden Holtby will sign elsewhere this summer. Samsonov, the relatively rare goalie who was a first-round pick (22nd overall in 2015), is proving his pedigree with a 16-4-1 record, 2.38 GAA and .917 save percentage in his first exposure to the NHL.
11. Mackenzie Blackwood, G, New Jersey: Thrown into the fire as a rookie starting goalie for the defensively deficient Devils, Blackwood has more than held his own. He has a winning record (18-12-7) – including more wins than any other freshman netminder – and respectable stats (2.79 GAA, .912 save percentage and three shutouts).
12. John Marino, D, Pittsburgh: Where do the Penguins keep finding these guys? In this case, Pittsburgh traded a conditional sixth-round pick to Edmonton last July to acquire Marino, who himself was a sixth-round pick in 2015. After going pointless in his first nine games, Marino collected 10 points in an 11-game stretch in November and has continued to produce from the blueline, with 25 points in 52 games to sit eighth overall in rookie scoring. He’s playing more than 20 minutes per game and he’s plus-14, too, one of the best marks on the Penguins and tied for third-best among rookies.
13. Ethan Bear, D, Edmonton: Perhaps the Oilers sold low on Marino because they knew Bear was ready to rise up the depth chart. A fifth-round pick in 2015, he’s second among NHL rookies in ice time at 21:29 per game. He’s chipping in offensively – which is the focal point of his game — with five goals and 18 points in 57 games, but more importantly he’s proving his worth on the defensive side of the puck.
14. Ilya Mikheyev, RW, Toronto: A big, rangy winger who’d be higher on this list if not for an injury that has sidelined him since late December. The Leafs signed the undrafted 25-year-old out of the KHL last summer, and he looks like a keeper thanks to his attention to detail and savvy two-play. He had four goals and six points in the six games before he got hurt, and eight goals and 23 points in 39 games overall.
15. Thatcher Demko, G, Vancouver: The Canucks’ goalie of the future has finally arrived after being drafted in the second round (36th overall) in 2014. The 24-year-old is 10-5-2 on the season, and has won five of his past seven decisions.
16. Jack Hughes, C, New Jersey: Yes, we figured he’d be a lot higher on this list after going No. 1 overall in the 2019 draft as a much-hyped offensive prodigy. The points have been slow in coming, but it’s not like the 170-pound 18-year-old has had a whole lot of help in New Jersey. Give him time. He’ll be fine.
17. Kaapo Kakko, RW, NY Rangers: Same as above, except Kakko went No. 2 overall in 2019 and he’s a 200-pound 19-year-old. Give him time. He’ll be fine.
18. Sam Steel, C, Anaheim: The Ducks probably expected more than four goals in 52 games from the 2016 first-round pick (30th overall) – after all, he scored six times in just 22 games last season – but Steel still stands out as one of Anaheim’s most promising young players.
19. Joel Farabee, LW, Philadelphia: The 19-year-old, drafted 14th overall in 2018, arrived in the NHL in late October and has been a fixture in the Flyers’ lineup ever since. Not real big, just real smart.
20. Igor Shesterkin, G, NY Rangers: He’s only played seven games, but the Rangers might have found Henrik Lundqvist’s heir apparent. Shesterkin, a fourth-round pick in 2014, has gone 6-1-0 with a 2.18 GAA and sparkling .941 save percentage since being recalled last month. Keep him tucked away as a Calder candidate next season.