Now that we’ve covered the bottom five candidates for next season’s top Calder Award winner, here’s the top 5:
#5 Darnell Nurse D – Edmonton Oilers
The only defenseman on my list, Darnell Nurse was drafted 7th overall in the 2013 NHL entry draft. Unlike his predecessors and Leon who follows him, he is the only recent first rounder to not make the team post draft.
Perhaps it’s because it takes longer for defenseman to mature, or perhaps Edmonton’s front office finally understood the importance of not rushing a prospect, Darnell was given sufficient time to grow as a player.
The son of former CFL receiver Richard Nurse, Darnell was also the nephew of NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb. The athletic genes seem to run in his family, as both his cousin and sister plays professional sports as well.
Darnell went back to the “Soo” after draft, and played 64 games that season, earning 13 goals and 37 assists. The Greyhounds were again playoff-bound, and Nurse contributed 8 points in 9 games played. He once again returned to juniors this past season, but injury limited him to play in only 36 games, earning 10 goals and 33 points. He was particularly impressive during the Greyhound’s playoff run, especially against McDavid and his Otters team. However, it wasn’t enough to beat his future teammate’s team, as McDavid would have a 5 point night in game 6 to eliminate the squad in red.
The Oilers, under new management and coaching staff will be a very different team comes October. The signing of Andrej Sekera gave the team that extra veteran experience. Sekera with Schultz, Kelfbom and Ference should round out the top four, leaving Nurse a chance to steal a job from Eric Gryba or Mark Fayne.
Two extra seasons of juniors and minor-league experience, plus the extra weight he packs should land him a regular roster spot for this season. Although, Darnell is known more as a two-way defenseman, a player-type that has a slight disadvantage when it comes to the “offense-centric” Rookie-of-the-Year balloting, he definitely has the best chance when it comes to defenseman.
#4 Sam Bennett C – Calgary Flames
Sam’s stock dropped considerably when the hockey world learned that he can’t do a single pull-up during the scouting combine. Originally considered a potential first-overall in his draft year of 2014, Bennett was eventually drafted 4th overall, to the Flames extreme delight.
As it turns out, the reason why Bennett wasn’t able to do any pull-ups is because he was injured. A fact he wished to hide during the all-important entry draft. Although he initially said he sustained the shoulder injury during Flames training camp, he later acknowledges his shoulder has been ailing him for most of the season.
To protect their prized asset, Calgary sat out their first round pick for shoulder repair surgery. Five months later, Bennett was all healed-up and was re-assigned to Kingston with 11 regular season games remained. He scored 24 points during that span, and 3 assists during a quick playoff exit for the Frontenacs.
This early playoff exit was good news to Bennett, as he is now eligible to play for the Flames. Sam made his NHL debut for Calgary in their final regular season game, and he was quick to earn his first point on his first shift, 33 seconds into the game.
Bennett became better in the post season, recording his first NHL goal in a 4-2 victory over the Canucks. That was also the game-winning goal. In 11 playoff games, he scored 3 goals and 1 assist.
Add that together with his 36 goals, 91 points in 57 games season with Kingston, the Calgary Flames have a real gem in Sam Bennett. Position-wise, the Flames are below-average down the middle, with Sean Monahan and Backlund as their top-two.
However, skill-wise, Bennett is way ahead of Backlund and Monahan, so it’s only a matter of time before he takes over top-minutes with the team. Sam will probably start out playing on the wing and eventually replacing Backlund as the No.2 C.
No matter in the middle or on the wing, Sam Bennett is bound for success this coming season.
#3 Nikolaj Ehlers LW – Winnipeg Jets
Ehlers was amongst the final cut for the Jets last season. He was impressive during training camp, but the Jets was in no hurry to rush their 9th overall pick of 2014.
Drafted from the Halifax Moosehead, a junior team that produced the likes of Nathan Mackinnon and Jonathan Drouin, Nikolaj Ehlers may be a year younger than the dynamic-duo, but just as impressive offensively.
Since Mackinnon’s graduation to the NHL, Drouin was expected to be lead the Moosehead in every category, but Ehlers’ emergence became the true story. Playing in just 63 games, Ehlers scored 49 goals and 55 assists for 104 point season. In the post-season, he would score 11 goals and 28 points in just 16 games.
After he got draft, Ehlers was sent back to Halifax, and he continue his dominance with a 101 point season, scoring 37 goals in 51 games. He was even stronger in the playoffs, scoring 10 goals, 21 assists in just 14 games.
Nikolaj is best winger not playing in the NHL right now. He has exceptional upside and is the purest form of goal-scorer you can find. Blessed with blazing speed and an accurate sniper shot, the Dynamic Dane can easily dance through defender and create plays all on his own.
Ehlers has an excellent chance to make the Jets roster this season, especially with the departure of Evander Kane. With the big-three of Ladd-Little-Wheeler playing well together, the Jets have long for a true goal-scorer to play in the top-six, perhaps with their future 1C Mark Scheifele.
At the moment, Perreault and Stafford is ahead of Ehlers on the depth chart, but with half a season under his belt, Nikolaj should easily play top-six minutes. Since goal scoring has always been the number one criteria, if the Calder-Award winner’s decision is based of goals-scored, Ehlers has the best chance to win the Calder this coming season.
#2 Jack Eichel C – Buffalo Sabres
The only other player to even be considered as the first of his draft class, Jack Eichel is already one of the best prospect in the world, perhaps in his generation as well. Little need to be said of the best hockey player ever played for the United States, Eichel would easily be crowned as the first overall pick, if not for a kid named McDavid.
Immediately following their lottery draft loss, Sabres GM Tim Murray’s disappointment was easily understood. But Jack Eichel as a consolation prize is nothing to be upset about. Every year we hear a comparison between two top draft picks, Stamkos vs Doughty, Tavares vs Hedman, Taylor vs Tyler, RNH v Landeskog, Yakupov vs Galchenyuk, Mackinnon vs Drouin. This past draft, it was McDavid vs Eichel.
How close are they, in terms of value, is the real question.
For elite players, sometimes statistics itself can only say so much. Jack Eichel doesn’t have the eye-popping 120 points in 47 games season, like that of McDavid, but he did scored 39G, 86P in 36 games when he was only 16, playing in the EmJHL.
In the 24 games he played in the USHL, he scored 20 goals, 25 assists for 45 points. In the same year, while playing for the U18 National Team, he scored 38 goals and 87 points in 53 games. Last season at Boston University, he scored 26 goals and 71 points in 40 games.
He is the only other freshman to win the Hobey Baker Award since Paul Kariya, 22 years ago. Playing for BU in the Hockey East league, he is the Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year, and a member of the First Team Hockey, and All-Rookie Team. He was also named MVP for the conference tournament.
Yet, these numbers and achievements aren’t comparable to his Canadian counterparts, as the players, league and competitive levels are very different.
For Jack Eichel, one has to actually watch him play to understand how special he is. At 6’2, he’s fast but in control, strong but smart, offensive-minded but reliable. He has the unique ability, a gift found in generation player, to drastically slow down the game. His powerful stride and puck-control ability makes him unbeatable around the boards, and his scoring ability is as impressive as his playmaking skills.
Playing for a rebuilding Sabres team, Eichel is almost certain to make the team this season. Buffalo is deep down the middle though, with newly acquired Ryan O’Reilly heading the first line. Fellow first-rounders, Zemgus Girgensons (14th overall 2012) and Sam Reinhart (2nd overall, 2914) rounds out the center depth chart with Tyler Ennis and aging veteran Legwand as other choices down the middle.
Reinhart will be battling with Eichel for the third center spot, while Girgensons will probably start the season anchoring the second line. It is of course very common for young centermen to play the wing early in their career, so it’s highly possible for both Eichel and Reinhart to shift to the wing, or even play with each other.
In any case, a player of Eichel’s skill level won’t be deterred by the position he plays in. As long as he gets to play, you can bet that he will produce on the score sheet.
It is still McDavid’s trophy to lose at the moment, but crazier things have happened before, and the only certainty in hockey is perhaps uncertainty.