First in a weekly "Trophy Thursday" series exploring the NHL's array of trophies, awards and contenders for each one.
The National Hockey League does trophies right. While other leagues in North America hand out replicas for showcases at team facilities, the NHL's championship trophy, the Stanley Cup, is the real deal, authentic, one-of-a-charming kind.
Every player, coach and selected staffers gets to be part of team nameplate for each June postseason title, but those nameplates ring the same trophy handed out to the first NHL championship team in 1918-and same silver cup that was handed out to the Seattle Metropolitans in 1917 when our local heroes won a championship then rendered by playoffs among winners of multiple professional hockey leagues in the U.S. and Canada.
Better yet, the league sports a formidable collection of one-and-only trophies for conference championships and individual awards. One example and today's trophy spotlight: the Calder Memorial Trophy awarded annually to "the player selected as the most proficient in his first year of competition in the National Hockey League.
The trophy is named after Frank Calder, the first president of the NHL when it was founded back in November 1917. With all props to Mr. Calder, fans might recognize the Calder trophy as the Rookie-of-the-Year award. Last year's winner, Elias Pettersson, plays for the soon-to-be NHL Seattle's fiercest rival, Vancouver. The 2017-18 winner was Mathew Barzal, who starred in town for the Western Hockey League's Seattle Thunderbirds.
It's always a fun competition to consider and predict, although the latter is dangerous this early in a season. But, hey, I can learn from my mistakes as much as the next guy. Here's a look at best-guess candidates to win the 2019-20 Calder Memorial Trophy:
Cale Makar, Defenseman, Colorado Avalanche
Makar was a frontrunner in preseason Calder forecasts and his early fast start doesn't deter. He leads all rookies six points as a defenseman. He plays on a powerplay unit with Nathan McKinnon, actually "quarterbacking" or initiating the man-advantage puck movement to create the highest quality scoring chances. That powerplay unit includes Colorado captain Gabriel Landeskog and rising scorer Mikko Rantanen. No first-year defenseman has scored more than 50 points since 193. Makar will likely flood that drought.
Kaako Kappo, Right Wing, New York Rangers
The 18-year-old Finn scored his first NHL goal over last weekend. There will be many more. He might be the most NHL-ready rookie this season despite not playing in the league until this month. In contrast, Makar (listed above) played 10 playoff games last spring and defenseman Quinn Hughes (below) worked the blue line for Vancouver for five regular-season games. Here's why: While Makar and Hughes starred for college teams, Kappo scored a lot against grown men in the respected SM-liiga the Finnish elite pro league. Kappo, the No. 2 overall pick in the NHL Draft last June, is 6-3, 190 pounds, physical enough to take hits and give some. He will score plenty this season on the second line and even more if he gets to play with NYR's scoring machine free-agent signee, Artemi Panarin, on the first line.
Quinn Hughes, Defenseman, Vancouver Canucks
Hughes is another "puck-mover" on defense with a mindset that positions him as a team leader for many seasons ahead. He is the prototype-along with Makar-for what you might call an undersized defenseman but you would be forgetting the NHL has become a speed game. Hughes will do his job defensively to shut down the flotilla of hyper-fast skaters in the Western Conference while helping boost Vancouver's scoring. There's a reason why he leads all rookies in the time-on-ice (TOI) category at 20 minutes. TOI is a major indicator of a coaching staff's confidence in a player to defend at critical times, create scoring chances when the situation beckons or, in Hughes' case, both.
Victor Olofsson, Buffalo Sabres
Here is the early scoring leader among NHL rookies with five goals and two assists. He led the Swedish pro league in goals two seasons ago, then notched 30 in 66 American Hockey League goals last season, finishing the year with the Sabres (two goals in six games). New coach Ralph Krueger has paired Olofsson with first-line center and 22-year-old captain/Buffalo savior Jack Eichel. That is why Oloffson gets a top contender nod.
Jack Hughes, Center, New Jersey Devils
No one is writing off this Hughes brother, who was the top overall pick last June. His first six games are history and scoreless, though he did clang both posts on the same shot in a NJD loss to Florida. He will straighten out his offense and reveal why he was drafted first. But it appears New Jersey's offseason moves, which included a trade for star defenseman P.K. Subban, might require a longer adjustment period than anticipated. Hughes' Calder hopes are not dashed but he is competing against players with more elite playing experience on contending teams.
Martin Nicas, Center, Carolina Panthers
Nicas (pronounced NAY-chas) is one of those aforementioned players with more experience on contending teams. NHL Seattle general manager Ron Francis drafted Nicas in the first round of the 2017 draft, then smartly allowed Nicas to fully develop playing a season in his home Czech pro league and last year with the AHL champion Charlotte Checkers, where he finished with 13 points in 18 postseason games. Plus, Nicas logged dozens of games of international play with
Cody Glass, Center, Vegas Golden Knights
Glass is the first draft choice to play with Vegas, now in its third season. It appears worth the wait. He has five points in seven games, including a highlight goal in his first NHL appearance. Perhaps more importantly, glass is drawing raves from teammates and opponents alike. Seattle Thunderbirds and Everett Silvertips know all about Glass, who dropped 171 points on WHL opponents in 102 games over the last two seasons with the Portland Winterhawks, plus Team Canada work and five points in six AHL games at the end of last season.
It takes a lot for a goaltender to win the Calder, and even more so in recent. Only eight goalies have been named top rookie in the last 50 seasons, including legendary names such Tony Esposito (Chicago 1969-70), Ken Dryden (Montreal 1971-72) and Martin Brodeur (New Jersey 1993-94). One reason why is young goalies share the net with veterans, yet play too many games to qualify as a rookie in a second season when they get more time to show their star form. In any case, here are three rookie goalies to watch-and maybe pick up on fantasy hockey waivers in order of the not-exactly-fully-scientific Trophy Thursday predictive model: Ilya Samsonov, Washington (two wins already); Thatcher Demko (victor in his Vancouver debut) and Elvis Merzlikins (likely to get a significant number of starts for Columbus).
There are other names that demand honorable mention who might well be on the above Top Contenders and Next-Wave Contenders by the midseason all-star break. Best guess for sleepers: forwards Nick Suzuki, Montreal; Alexander Nylander, Chicago; Sam Lafferty, Pittsburgh and defenseman Ville Heinola, Winnipeg. All will be regulars in the highlight reels. Two defensemen, Dante Fabbro, Nashville, and Ethan Bear, Edmonton, are among rookie leaders in time-on-ice with Makar and Quinn Hughes, but don't score enough to win a Calder. They will just have to settle for all-star games in the seasons ahead.