Auston Matthews lived up to his hype in his first NHL game, scoring four goals during a rookie performance that’s unlikely to be repeated. Patrik Laine also started his pro hockey career with a bang, earning a power play goal and an assist in his NHL debut. However, while these two Calder Trophy favorites for the 2016-17 NHL regular season are attracting the most attention, someone else may take the prize. Don’t be surprised if one of these three dark-horse candidates establishes himself as the best rookie this year.
Missing the first month of the season could make earning top rookie honors challenging for Matt Murray, as the Penguins will likely ease him back into action. Nonetheless, he’s already lifted the Stanley Cup, so this standout goalie remains the top dark horse for the Calder Trophy.
Before his Dryden-esque run to Stanley Cup glory, he was named the AHL’s best goaltender and rookie of the year during his inaugural pro season with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. If Murray replicates his stellar postseason play throughout the 2016-17 season, his Stanley Cup ring might push his ballot over the top.
Toronto’s management has turned over a new leaf, developing the team through smart drafting and player development instead of attempting to buy a Stanley Cup. This strategic change plunged the Toronto Maple Leafs to the bottom of the standings, creating the strongest rookie roster in the NHL.
Mitch Marner spent an extra year in the OHL developing his game, earning a Memorial Cup with the London Knights while winning praise as the OHL’s most outstanding player and playoff MVP. Despite his excellence, Marner still had to earn his way onto Mike Babcock’s roster. Thus far, he’s rewarded his coach with early season scoring, lightning-quick skating and intensity, lifting him into dark-horse contention for the Calder Trophy.
Sebastian Aho isn’t a well-known prospect despite his international success. Last year, he led his team in scoring en route to making the European Champions League final with Karpat Oulu. He also paired with Calder favorite Patrik Laine during a breakout championship performance at the World Juniors, finishing second to his other linemate, Jesse Puljujarvi, in the tournament scoring race.
Aho started strong with the Carolina Hurricanes, a team that includes an unheralded group of young, talented players ready to contribute at the NHL level. The Canes have been thrilled with his progress, and Bill Peters appears ready to grant him lots of power play time, which makes Sebastian one of the sneakiest dark-horse candidates for rookie of the year.