The 2015-16 campaign looked like it would feature a superb rookie crop and it really didn't disappoint. Sure, Connor McDavid was limited to 45 games due to injury, but he was amazing when he did play and Jack Eichel had a solid campaign in his own right. What really made the 2015-16 crop special was the rise of Shayne Gostisbehere and the immediate success Artemi Panarin enjoyed.
To an extent, 2016-17 might not be as good, but this year's potential rookie crop is still impressive. There's some value to be had if you want to gamble on a rookie in the late rounds of a standard league draft and you should always be open to taking a chance on ones that slip through the cracks in October because every year there's at least a rookie or two who proves to be a pleasant surprise.
Below is a list of our top-10 picks for the Calder Trophy. As always, this list should be seen as a guideline for players to watch and consider gambling on, but it needs to be taken with a grain of salt given how unpredictable rookies can be.
1) Matt Murray (PIT) - It kind of feels like Murray shouldn't be eligible for the Calder Trophy, but playoff games don't count against you as far as eligibility goes so Murray is entering the 2016-17 campaign as a rookie. Murray is unquestionably the most accomplished rookie vying for the award this season. He was an absolutely crushing force in the AHL with a 1.58 GAA and .941 save percentage in 40 contests in 2014-15 and his success translated well to the NHL last season as he posted a 2.00 GAA and .930 save percentage in 13 regular season games followed by a 2.08 GAA and .923 save percentage in 21 postseason contests. Already a Stanley Cup-winning goaltender, Murray has proven that he can handle high-pressure situations. That doesn't mean he's a lock this season though. Young goaltenders, even ones with playoff success, can still wind up being inconsistent and Marc-Andre Fleury's presence threatens to limit Murray's playing time. Even still, Murray is a heavy favorite to win the Calder Trophy in my eyes.
2) Dylan Strome (ARI) - Those willing to concede to the idea of Matt Murray being the top pick might still feel that Auston Matthews should then be second. My feeling is that while both have a ton of offensive upside, Strome is just a little bit of a better bet in the short-term. He's had an extra year to develop and has excelled in the OHL with 129 points in 68 contests in 2014-15 followed by 111 points in 56 games last season. He's also joining a Coyotes' offense that's a touch further along in its transition than Toronto's and Strome has a fair shot at playing a significant role with the Coyotes this season while the Leafs under Mike Babcock are likely to take a more slow and steady approach with Matthews' initial role. None of that is meant to put down Matthews, these are just slight edges that I think Strome has going into the 2016-17. Long-term I still think Matthews is a better prospect.
3) Auston Matthews (TOR) - I already talked a fair bit about Matthews in the Strome section, but I'll add that I'm very interested in how Matthews' decision to play in Switzerland last season will impact his transition into the NHL. The truth is we'll probably never know either way because it's not like there's a second Matthews who went the CHL route for us to compare and contrast against, but in deciding to head to Europe, Matthews was afforded an opportunity to play against men as a 17-year-old. He did really well against them too, scoring 24 goals and 46 points in 36 contests with Zurich. As I said, I do think Matthews might play in a limited role this season though and that could hinder him somewhat. Think back to 2008-09 when Steven Stamkos averaged just 14:56 minutes per contest and the Calder Trophy finalists were Steve Mason, Bobby Ryan, and Kris Versteeg. I think you'll agree that Stamkos proved to be a far better player than any of them, but it's not always the most talented player that gets the award. Instead it's typically the one that simply had the most responsibilities off the bat.
4) William Nylander (TOR) - Nylander barely qualifies as a rookie after scoring six goals and 13 points in 22 games last season while averaging 16:20 minutes per game. He also has plenty of experience playing against men between his time in the Swedish league (27 points in 43 games) followed by his AHL stint (77 points in 75 games). Not only will Nylander make the Leafs, but he should be playing in a top-six role. Although he doesn't have the offensive upside of his new teammate Auston Matthews, you could make the argument that Nylander is actually more likely to win the Calder Trophy simply because he'll be getting more opportunities. Still, I felt the opportunities Strome and Matthews are both getting, coupled with their higher upside, is enough to justify ranking them above Nylander, even if just barely.
5) Pavel Zacha (NJD) - Even after acquiring Taylor Hall, the New Jersey Devils still look like a team that's lacking offensively, but the hope is that Zacha will be a big part of the solution. Though he didn't make the Devils for the 2015-16 season opener, he ended up making his debut on April 9 and registered two assists in that game. Before that he had 28 goals, 64 points, and 97 penalty minutes in 51 OHL games. As his numbers suggest, he's got power forward potential, which makes him an even better fantasy option than he is a player. Though nothing is guaranteed, he's very likely to make the Devils this season and could end up with 40-50 points along with 70-90 penalty minutes.
6) Patrik Laine (WPG) - Taken with the second overall pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, Laine is brimming with confidence. He's predicted he will be the next Alex Ovechkin in five years and he feels he was on par with first overall selection Auston Matthews. Laine isn't just talk though. He had 17 goals and 33 points in 46 Finnish league games last season and also scored seven goals and 13 points in seven games during the 2016 World Junior Championship. Then in the 2016 World Championship he scored another seven goals and 12 points in 10 games, showing that he can hold his own against some of the best talent in the world. He might need some time to transition to North American hockey, but he'd be a great late round gamble in standard league drafts.
7) Mitch Marner (TOR) - Toronto might not be a good team in 2016-17, but the Leafs will certainly be an interesting one given the number of promising rookies they might feature. Marner was taken with the fourth overall pick of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft after scoring 44 goals and 126 points in 63 OHL games with the London Knights. He didn't end up making the Leafs' roster, but that honestly might have been for the best because rather than be part of an abysmal Leafs squad, he got to play a leading role on a superb Knights team. He had 39 goals and 116 points in 57 regular season contests and then an overwhelming 16 goals and 44 points in 18 playoff games. The London Knights won the Memorial Cup thanks in large part to his efforts and he was named the CHL Player of the Year. After that kind of season, he deserves to make the Leafs, but he might not play a big role for them off the bat.
8) Pavel Buchnevich (NYR) - There's several players on this list that feel like they have too much experience to be considered a true rookie and Pavel Buchnevich is certainly part of that group. The 21-year-old already has 158 games worth of KHL experience over the last four seasons, so at this point he's already very used to playing against men in a very talented league. That might lead some to draw comparisons to Artemi Panarin, but really the main thing linking them is simply that they had plenty of KHL experience before jumping into the NHL. Panarin was a star in the KHL with 62 points in 54 contests in 2014-15. In contrast, Buchnevich has been a great player in the KHL, but he wasn't a top-tier scorer as evidenced by his 16 goals and 37 points in 58 games in 2015-16. Buchnevich might end up with a top-six spot on the Rangers this season and he might be worth picking up if that happens, but he's not likely to turn a lot of heads in the way Panarin did.
9) Mikko Rantanen (COL) - If the 2015-16 campaign was about having Mikko Rantanen adjust to North America after previously playing in the Finnish league, then it can be considered a complete success. Rantanen excelled in the AHL last season with 24 goals and 60 points in 52 contests. He played in nine games with the Colorado Avalanche too, but had no points and a minus-seven rating. That might lead some to write him off, but keep in mind he was just averaging 8:57 minutes per game in Colorado, so he wasn't getting enough ice time to make it a fair assessment of what he's capable of. If he makes the team in 2016-17 it will likely be in a more meaningful role and he should go on to have a decent rookie season.
10) Jimmy Vesey (NYR) - College free agents tend to get a lot of attention because in a way they're practically free prospects. The New York Rangers didn't have to spend a draft pick or trade a player to get Vesey - although the Rangers gain is Nashville and Buffalo's loss in this case - so really any help Vesey can provide the Rangers is gravy. That being said, I feel like the attention that those college free agents gets sometimes leads to overblown expectations. In the case of Vesey you have a 23-year-old winger who was great with Harvard University, scoring 56 goals and 104 points in 70 games. He has the potential to make a significant contribution to the Rangers in the long term, but he's not likely to be a star. In the short-term though, he's a safe bet to make the Rangers and play in a top-nine role. He might get up to 40 points, but that's about a best case scenario for him this season and I'd recommend instead penciling him in for 30-35.
I feel pretty good about my top-10 list this year, but there's always going to be rookies that surprise - pleasantly or otherwise - and it consequently wouldn't be surprising to see someone outside of that list end up having a great season. With that in mind, here are some players that didn't make my list, but might end up demonstrating that myself and others have underestimated their short-term potential:
Ivan Provorov (PHI) - Part of the Philadelphia Flyers' really promising crop of defensive prospects, Provorov could quickly follow in Shayne Gostisbehere's footsteps. Provorov had 21 goals and 73 points in 62 WHL games with the Brandon Wheat Kings in 2015-16.
Jesse Puljujarvi (EDM) - Puljujarvi was arguably a steal for the Edmonton Oilers with the fourth overall pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft. He had 13 goals and 28 points in 50 Finnish league games last season and has an outside chance of serving a top-six role with the Oilers in 2016-17.
Sebastian Aho (CAR) - Speaking of talented Finnish players that might turn out to be steals, Carolina took Aho with the 35th overall pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft and he went on to have a superb campaign. He had 20 goals and 45 points in 45 Finnish league games in 2015-16 and another four goals and 15 points in 14 playoff contests. Internationally he added five goals and 14 points in seven 2016 World Junior Championship contests as well as three goals and seven points in 10 games during the 2016 World Championship. He'll be shifting to North America in 2016-17 after signing with the Hurricanes in June.
Matthew Tkachuk (CGY) - Of the players that made the top-10 list, I think all of them have a fairly good chance of starting the season in the NHL. Tkachuk I'm a little more on the fence about and that's a big part of the reason why he's not on the top-10. He's certainly not outside of it for lack of offensive upside. Like Mitch Marner, Tkachuk was part of the Memorial Cup-winning London Knights last season and he played a sizable role as well. Tkachuk scored 30 goals and 107 points in 57 regular season games and then added another 20 goals and 40 points in 18 playoff contests. In the long run, Tkachuk could be a top-line power forward, but for now his role with the Calgary Flames will probably be limited, if he makes the team at all.