With the NHL announcing on Tuesday its return to play plan to take place later this summer, there were a lot of questions left unanswered. Which hub cities will win the right to showcase the NHL playoffs? Will we actually get to see the entire playoffs?
Or, if you’re like me, you’re wondering who’ll win the Calder Trophy.
Awarded to the NHL’s top rookie, the race was so, so tight in 2019-20. I personally predicted that Cale Makar would take the title after seizing his opportunity in Colorado. He lived up to the expectations, no doubt, but then came fellow college defender Quinn Hughes in Vancouver. Solid from the get-go, Hughes was chasing records early and taking full advantage of the spotlight when Makar went down with an injury early in the season.
Now here we are: just about to enter June, the usual month for the NHL Awards but with no actual date in 2020 confirmed now, looking at the race between two of the best rookie defensemen we’ve seen in some time. Who wins? How close is it truly? Let’s take a look:
Makar vs. Hughes
On the surface, it’s easy to say Hughes was the more important defenseman to his respective franchise. The Canucks weren’t expected to be a contender in the west, while the Avalanche likely would have still been a force without Makar. Hughes’ 53 points was the most by an active defenseman in their rookie season and the best since Niklas Lidstrom’s 60-point effort in 1991-92. But prior to the shutdown, Hughes was on pace for 63 points – the eighth-best by a rookie defenseman in NHL history. And to think that Makar, who played in nine fewer games, was three points out… that shows you how good both of them were. For all rookie defensemen with at least 50 games played, Makar’s 1.82 points-per-60 was tops, with Hughes sitting second with a 1.27.
Hughes played heavy shutdown minutes for the Canucks, but with a 6-26-6 record when he played at least 23 minutes, that raises some questions. Should the Canucks have been relying so much on a rookie a year removed from college? That’s the problem: the Canucks needed an upgrade on defense in a way Tyler Myers couldn’t match, and Hughes was forced to fill in as a result. Statistically, some of his best hockey came in the 18-21 minute mark, with all four of his three-point games coming when he played under 20 minutes. In a non-overtime affair, Hughes had two points while playing over 20 minutes just once. Albeit on a smaller scale, the Avalanche faired a bit better with a 5-4-3 record when Makar skated in over 23 minutes. But then again, Makar, who mainly played second-pairing minutes for the Avalanche as opposed to Hughes’ top pair, played 34.1 percent of his shifts against “elite” quality players, per PuckIq. Hughes tracked at 32.6 percent, but also played more games overall. Those numbers sit among the top for all rookie defensemen, so it’s not like one was drastically better than the other. But we can gather that Hughes needed to take on more responsibility in Vancouver, based on his ice time, than Makar did.
The point difference between the two is close, and we’re talking about defensemen here. So let’s dig deeper. At 5-on-5, Makar has the edge with eight goals, 10 first assists and 28 points. He’s also one of two defenders at even strength to have at least five goals and a 10 percent shooting percentage, with Carson Soucy sitting at 10.53 with six goals. Hughes had a slight Corsi-for percentage advantage at 52.64 over 52.33 – so close. Only Los Angeles’ Matt Roy had a better CF percentage among players with at least 30 games played.
Hughes was forced to face tougher matchups this year as a shutdown defender and his numbers were fantastic given the situation: his 49.87 expected-goals-for, 44.49 expected-goals-gainst tops Makar’s 37.16 xGF and 32.32 xGA at 5-on-5 by a solid margin.
In the chart below measuring goals above replacement, Makar is the highest among rookie defensemen at 15.8, while Hughes finished with 11. Despite the deficit, it’s an impressive number for Hughes, with John Marino and Adam Fox being the only other rookie defenders to beat out the Canucks star.
What do these numbers tell us? When you put all the stats together, it’s too close to say one player was much more deserving than the other. In fact, we’re detailing two defensemen who, in any other year, would be just as commendable in the Calder Trophy race. One plays on a team loaded with young talent and a threat to win it all when the playoffs kick off, even if he isn’t playing top-pairing minutes just yet. The other is a on a team nearing the end of a rebuild that still has some holes to work on, yet gets great results out of its youngest blueliner. No matter what, we’re talking about a player who’ll be a Norris Trophy contender for at least the next decade, and that’s something that doesn’t happen each season.
It also depends on what matters the most to you: the overall team situation or points. By rates, Makar had the better offensive season, but he also spent significant time passing to Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen – a line, when healthy, is among the NHL’s top trios. It’s not like Hughes had a bunch of nobodies to setup, though: Elias Pettersson, J.T. Miller and Brock Boeser were, as expected, important offensive leaders for the ‘Nucks, but Makar had one of the NHL’s best players to pass to each night.
From what we’ve seen, Hughes’ value offensively is on the power play. Nearly half (25) of his 53 points came with the man advantage – six points clear of Makar and four off of Torey Krug for the lead among all defenders. Given that 47.1 percent of his points come with the man advantage (despite being just over 17 percent of his total ice time), it’s safe to assume that’s where the Canucks trust him to do his most offensive damage.
So, again, you have to have context to evaluate both situations. Regardless, what a crazy battle between the league’s top two rookie defenders.
The Second Tier
When I put my poll up earlier this week, a bunch of people wrote-in New York Rangers defenseman Adam Fox, and rightfully so. On a team with so much potential in its young players, Fox was the best of the bunch. In an interview with Newsday’s Colin Stephenson a few months back, Ryan Strome said “It’s not only what he does with the puck – his poise is unbelievable in how savvy he is with the puck – but he seems to be able to play defense without hitting anyone. He takes the puck away from guys, and he just starts skating up the ice. He’s a real gem.’’
Statistically, Fox was one of the only guys who could hang with Makar and Hughes. Fox’s 14.9 goals-above replacement and 2.7 wins-above replacement put him nearly on par with Makar, and his 22 points at full strength were good for third among rookie defensemen. For most of the season, Fox was a second-pairing guy on a poor team, but his numbers show a much bigger impact than you’d expect in that situation. In a normal year, he’d be the best rookie defenseman in the class and his numbers suffered a bit given the team he was on, but Fox is going to be so good for a long, long time.
Further down the Calder clash, Dominik Kubalik scored 30 goals in Chicago, a non-playoff contender not too shabby for a former seventh-round pick who took six years to hit the NHL. Say what you want about high point totals on traditional non-contenders (Chicago was unlikely to make the post-season before the 24-team format was announced), but Kubalik brought offense to a team that didn’t get much out of reigning 40-goal scorer Alex DeBrincat. Kubalik was the only forward to record at least 20 goals (23) and 30 points at full strength (35) and was generally seen as the league’s top rookie forward. Playing with a stout playmaker like Jonathan Toews helped, but Kubalik deserved that opportunity.
What about John Marino? The 23-year-old joined the Pittsburgh Penguins after a three-year stint at Harvard University, recording a career-high 16 points in 2017-18. But through all the injuries in Pittsburgh this season, Marino was one of the steady forces on the blueline, making guys like Jack Johnson look better than ever. Marino was lauded for his stellar defensive stylings and he deserves praise as one of the best rookie blueliners in his own zone. Granted, he doesn’t have the pizzazz the three ahead of him do, but in terms of reliability, Marino deserves a ton of credit.
Victor Olofsson proved he was one of the best goal-scorers that Eichel ever had in Buffalo and should have no issue putting up 30 goals a year when healthy. On the power-play, Olofsson played a huge role with 11 goals and 17 points. But at five-aside, Olofsson had six goals 19 points, putting him in a three-way tie with Jeff Skinner and Rasmus Dahlin for fourth on the Sabres. The Sabres will want a bit more production out of him at 5-on-5 in the future, but he gave the team some hope.
I can’t leave this without giving a shoutout to Martin Necas, who impressed, as expected, in Carolina this season. As he continues to develop, he’ll play a role on a team set to contend for the Stanley Cup over the next decade – and I hope you’re excited, Caniacs. Same goes for Edmonton’s Ethan Bear, who emerged as one of the best options on the backend for Edmonton in a system with a few notable prospects in the pipeline. I profiled him back in November, and not much has changed – other than he proved he can handle full-season duties. Nick Suzuki also deserves a shoutout for his impressive numbers in Montreal – the chase for the No. 1 center spot in Habsland looks a little but clearer.
How about goaltenders? We saw one of the most exciting freshmen goalie classes in some time. It all starts with Ilya Samsonov, who, for a while in Washington, was unbeatable. It came at the best time possible for the Capitals, who may finally have an out on an expensive Braden Holtby extension. Samsonov’s .927 save percentage at 5-on-5 was 11th among goalies with at least 25 games played, with his 4.34 goals-saved above average placing him 20th. Holtby was near the bottom in both categories and given it was Samsonov’s first shot at the NHL, the Capitals will likely continue putting their trust in the youngster with so much talent.
It’s a shame that MacKenzie Blackwood’s momentum came to an abrupt end the way it did because he was unstoppable for a few weeks. From Jan. 27 until March 10, Blackwood had an 8-2-2 record with two shutouts. His .939 save percentage and 6.52 GSAA at 5-on-5 made him a dominant force in the weeks leading up to the shutdown, giving the Devils something to look forward to after the rough campaign on the ice (and disappointing results from big-name newcomers P.K. Subban and Jack Hughes). Blackwood was inconsistent at times and having to lead a team that was out of the post-season picture as soon as the season kicked off didn’t help his case, but it appears as though the Devils finally have a young stud to lead the charge for the first time in the post-Martin Brodeur era.
Elvis Merzlikins was exactly as advertised once he finally got comfortable in Ohio and is ready to lead the team to glory in the post-Sergei Bobrovsky era. I was a huge fan of his back in the Swiss league and we can’t forget all those incredible performances at the Spengler Cup and World Championship. But a rocky start in 2019-20, where it took him nearly half a season to finally start a game at home, really made people wonder if he had what it takes to be what the Blue Jackets needed. That all changed when Joonas Korpisalo went down with an injury following the Christmas break, Merzlikins gave the team new life in January with a 9-2-0 record and three shutouts before eventually landing on the sidelines himself. Merzlikins was magical when he found his flame, but we’ll have to wait until 2020-21, or whatever next season ends up being, to see what he can do for an extended period of time.
And just imagine if Igor Shestyorkin played enough games. The fight would have truly been on.
The Top Draft Picks
Sure, Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko – the No. 1 and 2 picks from the 2019 draft respectively – didn’t live up to the hype in season one, but they didn’t stand a chance in the Calder Trophy race once it became clear Quinn Hughes and Makar were going pro at the end of 2018-19. Hughes’ struggles were well documented – the 5-foot-10 forward had just 21 points in 61 games, with his points-per-game mark of .344 becoming the lowest by a first overall pick in their rookie season since Vincent Lecalvier had a weak .341 in 1998-99. But that’s the thing – Lecavalier had nearly 1,000 career NHL points, and while they’re completley different players, Hughes will have the chance to rebound once he gets a bit of seasoning behind him – and perhaps a few linemates to play with.
In Kakko’s case, it’s fair to say the adjustment of moving to North America after spending your entire life in Finland had something to do with it. The New York Rangers showed some true promise at points, but was invisible far too often. At 6-foot-2 and just shy of 200 pounds, Kakko had the size to make an immediate jump, but as the Rangers continue to work out kinks in the development system (especially in regards to Vitali Kravtsov and Lias Andersson, Kakko should be in good shape to show why he was one of the best U-18 players in Liiga history.
Chicago’s Kirby Dach was the third 2019 draft pick to stick in the NHL all year and while there were moments of greatness, it was far from a desirable year for the 6-foot-4 center. With 23 points in 64 games, Dach went long stretches without scoring, highlighted by just one point in 28 games from Nov. 21 – Jan. 18. I was hoping to see the Hawks send Dach to the World Junior Championship in December to help him earn more confidence, but the team felt it was in his best interests to remain with the pros in Illinois. Hopefully, we see more out of Dach in 2020 because it was far from a memorable rookie season for the No. 3 overall pick in 2019.
What the people say
I had my own opinions on the winner, but I wanted to see how other people reacted, too. A few nights ago, I put out a tweet asking for people to share who they think was going to win the Calder Trophy. The options were Makar, Hughes, Kubalik (the top forward) and other. I can’t say I expected Hughes to have nearly double the results, but I also have a significant number of Canucks followers and many made sure to share their thoughts.
The comments were mainly “Hughes and it’s not even close” and “Makar and don’t bother saying anyone else.” Of Course, as we’ve seen, the numbers suggest that, yes, in fact, it is quite close.
I then asked a few of my peers – prospect experts you likely know quite well and trust with their opinions. The name that came up more than any: Quinn Hughes. A few specifically detailed just how important he was playing heavy, vital shutdown minutes for the Canucks. Sure, his point-percentage wasn’t as impressive as Makar’s, but they’re defenseman after all. And when a team trusts you to come in and help change a team’s D-core like Hughes did, people notice.
It’s been a very long time since we’ve had a Calder trophy battle this close. I would be happy with either choice. But when it’s this close, you have to go with your first instinct. And that’s why I think Quinn Hughes is going to win the Calder Trophy.
Like it or not, the PHWA – which I am listed as a member of – selects the winner of the Calder Trophy. Trust me, it’s still split among the voters. It’s as much of a coin toss at this point as you’d imagine. The hunch, though, is that Hughes will be the winner in the end. Whether or not the numbers support it, people have pointed out that Hughes had such an impact on a team that likely was another year or two from a playoff birth. The stats say Makar, but the “eye test” says Hughes was relied upon more.
Either defensemen is deserving of the award, and, in the end, it’s still a personal award. It doesn’t have any effect on the rest of us, other than for discussion’s sake.
But man oh man, the discussions are going to be fun.
Follow me on Twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.