Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar and Vancouver Canucks defender Quinn Hughes have long been thought of as the only two legitimate Calder Trophy candidates. But is it really just a two-horse race? One of those two players will likely be named rookie of the year, there are other first-year players having impressive seasons in 2019-20.
So, we decided to build the all-underrated rookie team for the 2019-20 season. We’ll pick two wingers, a center, a pair of defensemen and a starting netminder. These first-year players have received their share of recognition, but none of them has gotten serious Calder consideration.
Here we go:
• Dominik Kubalik – W – Chicago Blackhawks: The 24-year-old scored a hat trick in last night’s win over the Tampa Bay Lightning. He’s now up to 29 goals and 44 points in 62 games this season. That puts him on pace for 37 goals in 2019-20. That’s an impressive total for any player, let alone someone who is in their first season in North America.
Even his teammates are openly campaigning for him now:
Kubalik’s numbers are even more impressive when you consider that 25 of his 29 goals and 35 of his 44 points have come at even strength. No other rookie has more than 12 even-strength goals in 2019-20. That’s how good the ‘Hawks freshman has been.
• Nick Suzuki – C – Montreal Canadiens: Suzuki was acquired from the Vegas Golden Knights along with Tomas Tatar and a second-round draft pick. The Habs had to give up captain Max Pacioretty to them that haul, but it’s a deal that’s worked out well for both sides.
Suzuki started the year playing wing on the fourth line and he’s since emerged as a valuable contributor down the middle. The 20-year-old is in the middle of a four-game pointless drought, but he’s managed to pick up 13 goals and 40 points in 66 games. His numbers are solid, but don’t jump off the page. That’s mainly because he didn’t start getting power play time until later on in the season.
He deserves to be mentioned among the group of under the radar rookies. He’s shown that his hockey IQ is up there for a player of his age and he has the offensive instincts to chip in offensively with regularity.
“He’s a smart player, he figures it out, but at the end of the day it’s having been through that grind before,” head coach Claude Julien said of the rookie’s heavy workload in junior hockey, per CBC. “Once the guys go through it once they’re a lot better the second time around. So to me, he had it before he got here and that’s why he’s doing well.”
• Victor Olofsson – W – Buffalo Sabres: Olofsson is to power play goals what Kubalik is to even-strength production. The Sabres rookie has scored 19 goals this season and 11 of them have come on the man-advantage. Sure, you’d like to see him produce more at five-on-five, but when you can get this type of offense from a player drafted in seventh round, you shouldn’t complain.
No matter what you think of his even-strength production, you have to be encouraged by the fact that his first NHL campaign has gone this well. It’s definitely something he can build on going forward. And since when is being a lethal weapon on the power play such a bad thing anyway?
• Adam Fox – D – New York Rangers: How is it possible to be underrated in New York? Well, Fox has found a way. The 22-year-old has an impressive seven goals and 34 points in 63 games this season. He’s also averaging 18:45 of ice time per game, but he’s played over 20 minutes in each of the last eight games.
It’s always good for a youngster to be mentioned in the same breath as a player like John Carlson. The numbers in the above tweet are really impressive.
Canadiens forward Max Domi banked a puck off Fox and into the Rangers net in the first period of last night’s game, but the rookie responded with a goal and an assist in his team’s comeback victory.
• Ethan Bear – D – Edmonton Oilers: Penguins defenseman John Marino would’ve probably been in the spot had he been healthy, but he’s been sidelined for a while now. Bear is worthy of being here. The 22-year-old played 18 games in the NHL last year, but he still qualifies as a rookie in 2019-20.
He’s emerged as a key piece on a team that’s been lacking quality defenders for a while now. Bear has begun getting more power play time recently and he’s also averaging 21:42 of ice time, which is more than Makar (20:52) and slightly less than Hughes (21:44).
Bear has five goals and 20 points in 64 games this season. Those numbers should continue to climb now that he’s getting added time on special teams.
• Elvis Merzlikins – G – Columbus Blue Jackets: How could it not be Elvis? Yes, Capitals goalie Ilya Samsonov has also put together a strong rookie year, but no one expected the Blue Jackets to compete for a playoff spot this year.
Merzlikins suffered an injury on Tuesday night and Columbus needs him to get back as soon as possible. He’s posted a 12-9-8 record with a 2.39 goals-against-average and a .922 save percentage this season. And, oh by the way, he’s also tied for the league lead in shutouts, with five.
The 25-year-old’s first season in North America has gone as well as anybody could’ve expected. The Blue Jackets are 1-4-5 in their last 10 games, but they’re still clinging on to the final Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference. They need Elvis to get back in the building (sorry) as soon as possible.
Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.