NHL.com's midseason edition of Trophy Trackers attempts to project winners of the major individual awards. Today we predict the winner of the Calder Trophy, an annual award given to the player selected as the most proficient in his first year of competition in the National Hockey League.
Shortly before Christmas, San Jose Sharks forward Tomas Hertl began to break away from a pack of impressive NHL rookies. On Dec. 19, Hertl led all freshmen with 25 points (15 goals, 10 assists) and a plus-11 rating in 35 games before a knee-on-knee collision led to surgery that may have ended his season.
Without Hertl, the Calder Trophy race at midseason is a close call, and New York Rangers forward Chris Kreider owns the smallest of edges.
An unceremonious demotion to Hartford of the American Hockey League at the end of training camp put Kreider's regular season on hold, but since his Oct. 24 debut, he has 11 goals and 24 points with a plus-9 rating in 37 games, five fewer than rookie scoring leader Nathan MacKinnon (14-14-28). Eighteen of his points are either goals or primary assists and 10 of his goals have come in Rangers wins. Playing with three United States Olympians (Derek Stepan, Ryan McDonagh, Ryan Callahan), Kreider's physical nature has been the trendsetter. His 93 hits lead Rangers forwards and rank fourth among rookies.
For the Rangers, in the hunt for the Stanley Cup Playoffs despite their flirtation with .500, it's been better late than never.
"Ever since he's been back, he's been one of our more efficient players," coach Alain Vigneault said. "He uses his strength; he's a good skater, he's a strong skater, he could push the defense back and make them pay on the forecheck, and he's real tough to handle in front of the net. When he goes there -- he loves those tough areas -- he gets rebounds. He's been a real good player for us."
Even without the puck, Kreider imposes his will and his presence has pumped life into a team 24th in scoring (108 goals) and 24th in goals per game (2.39).
"You can't play the game without some level of intrinsic motivation, passion or whatever term you want to use to describe it," said Hartford coach Ken Gernander, who watched Kreider perform like he never wanted to see the AHL again. "It's not like where you check in, put in your time and you'll get rewarded. It has to be done passionately if you want to get results from it."
Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche: If there was anything positive MacKinnon took away from a 7-2 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Dec. 27, it was watching a player with whom he has something in common. Like MacKinnon, Patrick Kane is a former No. 1 pick, and patience was required before Kane blossomed into a 30-goal scorer in his third season.
"I know I have the tools. I just have to get some experience and the game will eventually slow down for me," MacKinnon told the Denver Post. "You look at a guy like Kane, and it seems like he's at that [stage] now."
The top pick in the 2013 NHL Draft scored one goal in October, but is now on his way to stardom. MacKinnon set an Avalanche record on Jan. 4 against the Sharks when he became the youngest player to score two goals in a game at 18 years, 125 days old, and has 10 points (eight goals, two assists) in his past 11 games. If the game is too fast for MacKinnon now, imagine watching him in two years.
"[Pucks] are starting to go in a little more than they did at the beginning of the year, which is nice," MacKinnon told the Post. "I'm a little bit more relaxed. Hopefully, it continues. It's night and day since the beginning of the year; I feel a lot more comfortable out there."
Valeri Nichushkin, Dallas Stars: Nichushkin's game took off in December, when he had five goals and seven assists in 15 games, putting him into consideration for the League's rookie of the month. Thriving on Dallas' top line with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, the No. 10 pick in the 2013 draft has 22 points (nine goals, 13 assists) and a plus-13 rating.
"He's been good. Just the fact that now he's more comfortable around the guys makes a big change in the way you play," Stars rookie forward Alex Chiasson said. "But you can tell he's going to be a special player for this organization. He's got skills. He's got size. He can skate. His willingness to get better, it's awesome."