Here’s what you’ve have been waiting for, so I’ll just jump right in.
#10 Jake Virtanen RW – Vancouver Canucks
When I first prepared this list, Virtanen was somewhat of a sleeper, since outside of the Vancouver fan-base, not many have heard about him since being drafted sixth overall in 2014’s entry draft. But everyone’s heard of him now, he will forever be known as the player to land a major hit on Connor McDavid’s first game in an Oiler uniform.
Hopefully, this is not what Jake will be remembered for when he retires from the NHL decades from now. There are definitely many signs suggesting otherwise.
Drafted highest for the Canucks since the Sedin Twins, Virtanen is the first Canuck I’ve ever considered a Calder candidate this early in the season.
Although still a longshot, (Who isn’t? If McDavid can stay healthy to finish the season.) Virtanen has always been known as a harder-hitting power forward who can score. In the 2013-2014 season with the Calgary Hitmen, Jake scored 45 goals and 71 points in 71 games while getting 100 penalty minutes. He would go on to finish with 13 points in 14 playoff games.
A 6’1 point-per-game power forward who hits and has tons of PIM, this sounds like Calder material. But even if he doesn’t win Rookie-of-the-Year, Virtanen is a player with excellent fantasy hockey potential, especially in Keeper’s league.
#9 Dylan Larkin C – Detroit Red Wings
This might finally be the year for the Red Wing’s change of guards. With the departure of head coach Mike Babcock and the rapidly aging Datsyuk and Zetterberg, Detroit is the underdog for making the playoffs 25th consecutive years.
With the maturation of wingers Tatar and Nyquist, there’s still hope for the perennial hockey powerhouse. However, in today’s NHL, no team can have much success without good centermen. There might still be some gas in the tanks for the Captain and the Magic Man, but their bodies are catching up with all the mileage, no-one expects either one of the all-star veterans to play all 82 games.
First-rounder Riley Sheahan, drafted 21st overall in 2010, might have been the perfect choice for stepping up, as he’s spent one-and-a-half seasons with the big club. A player that went through all the proper steps demanded by coach Babcock, Sheahan is dependable and reliable. However, with his 36 points in 79 games last season, he lacks offensive potential to take up even the 2nd-line center duties.
This is where 15th overall draft pick in 2014, Dylan Larkin comes in. Straight out of juniors, Dylan joined the Grand Rapids Griffins during post-season and got a decent 3 goals, 5 points in 6 games. Larkin played college hockey in the states, and was a point-per game centerman, highlighted by his 15 goals, 47 points in 35 games season at the University of Michigan.
During this centerman-lacking era in Hockey Town, Larkin has a good chance to bypass the usually-long process of player development typical during Babcock’s regime. New head coach Blashill, if he’s smart, will maintain most of the systems set out by his all-star predecessor.
But desperate times call for desperate measures, Blashill will enter his first season with his top 3 centermen having an average age of 35. One should expect he has to play Larkin some time down the road, most likely sooner than later.
#8 William Nylander C -Toronto Maple Leafs
Mike Babcock said “…there’s pain coming” and he’s absolutely right. The Toronto club underwent a lot of changes in the off-season, picking up Mitch Marner, shipping away Phil Kessel and the hiring of Babcock and Lou Lamoriello.
If Babcock’s past track record indicates anything, it’s that fans probably won’t see Marner playing for the big club at least two more years. However, the top six of JVR, Kadri, Parenteau, Lupul, Bozak and Panik is more than worrisome. Even if Shanahan intends to tank for a few seasons in an effort to gather young talent, will Lupul, Bozak, Parenteau or even Kadri be there to witness the “Original Six’ team’s revival? Probably not.
Bozak, JVR and Lupul still have three years of contract left. Lupus is 31, and most likely isn’t part of the future core, so it’s going to be a “show-and-sell” scenario for him. He’s getting traded whether he plays well or not, it’s only a matter of return for the Leafs. Bozak, signed as an undrafted free-agent, in many ways has over-performed. At 4.2M per season, he’s no elite centerman, but has significant trading value for teams looking for that reliable No.2 in the center.
Parenteau and Kadri’s contracts will expire by the end of this season. Unless P.A. is able to suddenly revive his career in a talent-depleted squad, he should be gone before trading deadline. Nazim Kadri is on a bridging contract at 4.1M per season, so it’s up to him to show he has the elite talent to stay in Toronto and play that all-important 1C role.
I might not be alone to bet against Kadri having a successful season playing alongside Lupul or Parenteau. So it’s very likely he’s gone, via trade, since he’s RFA by season end. But even if he gets re-signed, you are still looking at a very very weak top-six.
This leaves a great opportunity for young player to step up. But the bottom-six roster players at this moment are, precisely that, bottom-six players with little upside to step up. Despite Babcock’s usual tendency, it’s gonna to be difficult to ignore the fact that they have a great prospect player on the fringe of readiness to step in.
William Nylander, drafted 8th overall in 2014, the son of Ex-NHL player Michael Nylander, had a great 2014-2015 season. Playing for SHL’s Modo, he scored 8 goals and 12 assists in 21 games, at the age 18. He then joined the AHL Marlies mid-season, and went on to score 32 points in 37 games, contributing heavily in bringing the bottom-feeding team into playoff.
Mentioned as a possible AHL Rookie of the Year, despite playing only half a season, Nylander actually wasn’t that far away from making the Leafs straight out of training camp last season. He played well during the pre-season, and finished 5th in scoring at World Juniors.
Able to play both RW and Center positions, Nylander has a good chance to make the team a month from now, especially on a weak squad as it is. If he’s able to stick with the club, he immediately becomes the most offensively-gifted player behind JVR and Kadri, and that can mean Calder consideration.
#7 Michael Dal Colle LW, New York Islanders
The Islanders have drastically improved under the leadership of one John Tavares. The club that will play their next home game at Barclays Center in Brooklyn is on the verge of becoming one of NHL’s elite.
Years of finishing near the bottom of the standings have given the Islanders dozens and dozens of high-end prospects. Players like Strome, Lee, Nelson, Bailey and de Haan are all high-end regulars still under the age of 25.
For the 2014 5th overall draft pick – Michael Dal Colle, this situation isn’t optimal, as it won’t be easy to grab a job away from such talented players. Even within his same draft, GM Grath Snow was able to draft the risky but talented Joshua Ho-Sang using their second 1st-round pick at the 28th pick.
Still, the 6’2 left winger is no slouch. One time ranked to go first is his draft, Dal Colle’s fall to the fifth spots has a lot to do with teams needing centermen instead of wingers. If the Islanders had a higher pick in 2014, Dal Colle could have easily end up being draft 2nd or 3rd.
Scoring 95 points with the Generals, Dal Colle showed his offensive prowess during his draft year. Failing to make the jam-packed Islander squad, Michael went back to Oshawa for another year of junior hockey. He finished the season with 42 goals and 51 assists in only 56 games. Leading his team in scoring, Dal Colle carried his team to the Memorial Cup finals, and ultimately winning the championship against Draisaitl’s Kelowna Rockets.
Although Lee and Okposo thrived playing on Tavares’ wings last season, Kyle Okposo’s contract will expire by the end of the season. At $2.8M, he will look for a hefty raise. But with his injury records, the two-sides might not be able to come to an agreement. Therefore, it makes good sense to try Dal Colle on the top-line for a while, if he is able to perform, Garth Snow will have the option to trade Okposo before deadline.
If Dal Colle gets the chance to play with Tavares, the sky is the limit for the Woodbridge, Ontario native.
#6 Dylan Strome C – Arizona Coyotes
The player drafted behind McDavid and Eichel could’ve easily been a first-overall pick in any other draft but 2015. Used to play in another’s shadow, Dylan is the brother of Ryan, another highly-touted first-round draft pick now playing for the Islanders. Of course, there’s also this teammate name Connor who “also” plays for the Erie Otters.
Dylan probably won’t be a better player than his slightly-more popular teammate, but he has every tool and chance to out-perform his older brother.
Drafted second overall by the Erie Otters in 2013, Dylan was an exceptional player during minor midget hockey. Although some will consider early success in the GTMMHL to mean little over the course of one’s career, Strome was the league’s Player of the Year, scoring 143 points in 60 games.
But perhaps the biggest reason why Strome ranks sixth for Calder Award consideration is his opportunity. The Arizona Coyotes has been a bad team for a long long time. A big reason is finance, as the Coyotes is simply not a successful money-making franchise. It’s a vicious cycle with NHL teams. If the team doesn’t win often, no one wants to spend money to watch them. Yet, without a strong budget, it’s rather hard to build a winning team.
The Coyotes are weak in many positions, but as I so often mention, no team has any chance of winning without a strong C core. Had Antonie Vermette not return to Arizona, the situation could have been worse – Hanzal and Boyd Gordon as no.1 and no.2.
Yes, there’s Max Domi, but at 5’10, Max’s figure isn’t suitable to play center at the NHL level, unless his offensive game suddenly picks up exponentially.
On the contrary, Dylan is 6’3. He’s a rare breed of size, speed and powerful shot. A shooting-center, Dylan scored 45 goals and 84 assists for a total of 129 points in just 68 games last season, and yes those stats has little to do with McDavid, as they played different lines.
Sometimes compared to Ryan Getzlaf, Dylan Strome is exactly what the Coyotes need, if they weren’t lucky enough to land McDavid or Eichel. Strome seems physically ready for NHL, and the depth chart on his team is so shallow that it just make sense to give him a try. If he sticks with the club, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit to see him contend for the Calder by year end.
That’s it for the bottom five candidates. Keep posted to see the remaining top 5 candidates for Rookie of the Year 2016.