With the 2013-14 regular season rapidly coming to a close, NHL.com looks at some of its biggest storylines and award contenders.
During a close race for the Calder Trophy, Colorado Avalanche rookie Nathan MacKinnon often found himself mentioned in the same breath as Wayne Gretzky, even breaking a record held by "The Great One" for 34 years along the way.
Combine that with MacKinnon's standing at or near the top of most major scoring categories and his role in Colorado's stunning turnaround from Western Conference basement dwellers to legitimate Stanley Cup contenders, and the Avalanche forward is NHL.com's pick as the League's top rookie.
MacKinnon's 13-game point streak from Jan. 25 to March 6 broke Gretzky's record of 12 for the longest run by an 18-year-old in NHL history. The Avalanche reached 100 points for the first time since 2003-04 and will play in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2010 due in large part to MacKinnon's meteoric rise to the head of the rookie class.
MacKinnon leads all rookies in goals (24), assists (36), points (60), power-play goals (eight) and shots (219), is tied with Los Angeles Kings forward Tyler Toffoli and Columbus Blue Jackets forward Boone Jenner with five game-winning goals, and his point total is second-most by a rookie in Avalanche history behind Paul Stastny's 78 in 2006-07. With a goal and an assist in Colorado's 4-0 win against the St. Louis Blues on Saturday, MacKinnon became the first rookie to score 60 points since Carolina Hurricanes forward Jeff Skinner had 63 in 2010-11. He could also be the first Calder winner selected No. 1 in the draft since Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane in 2007-08.
MacKinnon got better as the season progressed and earned more ice time when games increased in importance. He averaged 13:33 in October and more than 17 minutes in November and December. After dipping to 16:27 in January, MacKinnon's average time increased to 17:14 in February and 19:43 in March, when he equaled or surpassed 20 minutes in seven of 14 games.
"It's amazing what's going on right now," Avalanche coach Patrick Roy said in March. "Every game he wants more and more. It's amazing to look at him. He's been really sharp lately and performing really well. He deserves his ice time and he's fun to watch. The speed that he has is just great to watch. For our fans it's entertaining. For us even as coaches, it's fun to see when he explodes on the outside."
If MacKinnon wins the Calder, he'll be the second Avalanche player in three seasons to do so (Gabriel Landeskog, 2011-12).
"It is pretty cool," MacKinnon said. "It was always nice when I was watching as a kid, all the young guys who had a chance at it. It's a pretty cool award to win. If I happen to win, it would be pretty flattering, but there are some very talented rookies that came into the League this year. It's definitely a tough trophy to win. Everybody has a different opinion and is going to vote differently. I guess we'll see if they vote for me or not. It's not the main thing on my mind, but with social media these days it's all you hear about."
Ondrej Palat, Tampa Bay Lightning: Palat made a late Calder push in March with 16 points (five goals, 11 assists) and six multipoint performances in 16 games to be named the League's Rookie of the Month for the second time (January). His plus-28 rating leads all rookies and his 40 points (14 goals, 26 assists) since Jan. 1 lead all first-year players.
Since Martin St. Louis was traded to the New York Rangers on March 5, Palat has 18 points while jelling on the second line with Valtteri Filppula and Ryan Callahan (acquired for St. Louis). A seventh-round pick (No. 208) at the 2011 NHL Draft, Palat is enjoying a ride that's gone beyond his expectations.
"I didn't know if I would make the team this year," Palat told ESPN.com. "Then when I made it, I thought I'd be a fourth-line guy. So I'm real happy with the season and how it's gone."
Tyler Johnson, Tampa Bay Lightning: Johnson went undrafted mainly due to his diminutive 5-foot-9, 182-pound frame. In response, he stepped up to produce on the Lightning's top line while star forward Steven Stamkos was out with a broken tibia.
Johnson's 23 goals are one behind MacKinnon for the rookie lead and match Stamkos' Lightning record for the most by a first-year player. His average ice time of 18:46 tops all first-year forwards, his five shorthanded goals are tied with Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand for the League lead, and he is the second rookie in history to have at least five shorthanded and five power-play goals in a season (Dennis Maruk, 1975-76), according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Like Palat, Johnson has blossomed from a longshot to a valuable contributor to the Lightning's first playoff appearance since 2010-11.
"I don’t know if people are going to put those guys up in the conversation for the rookie of the year award, but I'll be really hard-pressed not to see those two names up there for what they've done for us in a situation where we were missing players and we needed guys to step up," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "Those guys stepped up."
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