A defenceman has won the Calder Trophy just 3 times in the last 23 years, with Tyler Myers being the most recent. There are a number of reasons why it’s rare to see a defenceman win rookie of the year. Opportunities are harder to come by: with teams dressing just 6 defencemen, most young defencemen will spend their rookie seasons on a team’s third pairing or shuttling between the NHL and AHL.
Defencemen also don’t tend to put up the kind of point totals that catch the attention of voters. Myers was a rarity. He finished third in rookie scoring and was just 7 points behind Matt Duchene, who led the league. He also stepped into a lineup that needed a number one defenceman and averaged just short of 24 minutes per game.
This season, the forwards are once again leading the way, as Jonathan Huberdeau and Cory Conacher battling for the rookie scoring lead and Brendan Gallagher making an argument for himself by putting up respectable point totals while playing for a team that is actually playoff-bound. The selection of Gabriel Landeskog for the Calder Trophy over Ryan Nugent-Hopkins last season, however, indicates to me that voters may be paying more attention to the role that a rookie plays on his team.
With that in mind, several defencemen are playing important roles on their respective teams and could, by the end of the season, have worked their way into the Calder conversation. If the forwards falter in the final days of the season, one of them could even win. Here are six rookie defencemen who deserve some attention.
These are in no particular order:
1 | Justin Schultz (5G, 10A, -12, 22:05) – Edmonton Oilers
Schultz is the big name among this year’s crop of rookie defencemen and was considered a favourite for the Calder before the start of the season, largely thanks to his gaudy point totals in the AHL during the lockout. His 18 goals and 30 assists for Oklahoma City Barons still has him atop the the league in scoring from a defenceman, a full 8 points clear of second place Mark Barberio, who has played 31 more games than Schultz.
Schultz is leading the Edmonton Oilers in ice time, but his offensive production has slowed of late, with no points in his last 6 games and just 2 in his last 11. Playing for the leaky Oilers has hurt his plus/minus as well, as his minus-12 is tied with Korbinian Holzer for the worst among rookies. While plus/minus is a flawed statistic, those that vote for awards still place a lot of value in it, which would place a Calder win in jeopardy.
Still, a solid finish to the season that sees Schultz go on a point-streak and bump up his plus/minus could see him in contention.
2 | Jonas Brodin (2G, 4A, +3, 22:35) – Minnesota Wild
While Brodin doesn’t put up a lot of points, he is playing arguably the hardest minutes of any rookie this season, all at the age of 19. He’s also leading all rookies in ice time and is second only to Ryan Suter in ice time on the Wild. Adam Gretz made a compelling case for why Brodin should be in consideration for the Calder and it’s safe to say that no other rookie is playing as important a role for their team than Brodin.
Brodin faces the toughest competition of any Wild defenceman and starts a higher percentage of his shifts in the defensive zone than any other Wild defenceman. He’s also second only to Suter in short-handed ice time. Most importantly, he’s handling those tough minutes remarkably well, staying positive in goal differential and maintaining a respectable Corsi rating considering his minutes.
Brodin isn’t the sexy choice for the Calder Trophy, but so far he’s been the most valuable rookie in the league this season.
3 | Brenden Dillon (3G, 3A, +1, 21:00) – Dallas Stars
Most of what was just said about Brodin can be repeated about Dillon, who is the only rookie defenceman to start a higher percentage of his shifts in the defensive zone than Brodin. While he faces tough competition, however, it’s not quite the toughest on his team. Dillon is 6th in ice time among rookie defencemen, but he leads all rookie defencemen in ice time on the penalty kill, averaging just short of 3 minutes per game.
Working against Dillon, unfortunately, is that he is the second sexiest of the least sexy picks for the Calder. Brodin is grabbing more attention as he leads all rookies in ice time and there likely isn’t room for two defensive defencemen to be considered for the Calder, if there’s even room for one. Still, the Stars have to be thrilled with Dillon, who went undrafted and signed in Dallas as a free agent.
4 | Patrick Wiercioch (4G, 11A, +3, 15:44) – Ottawa Senators
Wiercioch has been on a tear recently, with 9 points in his last 11 games to tie Schultz for the lead in rookie scoring. In the absence of Erik Karlsson, all Senators’ defencemen have had to step into larger roles, and Wiercioch is helping to offset the loss of Karlsson’s scoring.
Unlike Brodin and Dillon, Wiercioch plays sheltered minutes, starting the majority of his shifts in the offensive zone against weaker competition. Wiercioch has feasted on those minutes, however, leading all Senators’ defencemen in Corsi. If he’s able to continue his current point production, and it’s certainly possible that he could, he will end up with close to 30 points in 44 games, which should catch the attention of Calder voters.
He’s also started playing more minutes of late, topping out at just short of 22 minutes in his most recent game. An increase in playing time would certainly help boost his viability as a Calder candidate.
5 | Jake Muzzin (6 G, 7A, +12, 17:48) – Los Angeles Kings
Muzzin has the kinds of numbers that Calder voters like: he leads all rookie defencemen in both goals and plus/minus and, in fact, leads all rookies in plus/minus. As I mentioned before, plus/minus is a flawed statistic, but Muzzin comes by his rookie-leading total honestly: he currently leads all Kings’ defencemen in Corsi with a gawdy +29.55 rate. That basically means that for every 60 minutes that Muzzin is on the ice, the Kings’ get nearly 30 more shots — on goal, missed, or blocked — than their opponents. That is an obscenely high number and is, in fact, second in the entire NHL.
It helps that Muzzin plays for one of the best possession teams in the NHL and receives relatively sheltered minutes, but Muzzin still deserves a lot of credit. His ice time has also increased significantly as the season has progressed, frequently playing over 20 minutes per game and topping out at 25 minutes in a game against Phoenix. If Muzzin can continue his goalscoring and finish near the top in points from a rookie defenceman, he may gain some traction towards being a Calder finalist.
6 | Dougie Hamilton (3G, 10A, +0, 17:00) – Boston Bruins
Hamilton suffers as a Calder candidate by not being spectacular at any one thing. His 13 points are impressive, but other rookie defencemen have more points or more goals and his recent 10-game pointless slump didn’t help. He’s second among Bruins’ defencemen in Corsi, but he plays sheltered minutes, starting a higher percentage of his shifts in the offensive zone than all other Bruins’ defencemen. He doesn’t play on the penalty kill, but he averages over 2 minutes per game on the powerplay. Even his plus/minus doesn’t grab your attention, as he’s a bland even on the season.
As a result, it’s hard to make a compelling argument for Hamilton as a Calder finalist, but his numbers are good enough to be in the conversation with the best rookie defencemen in the league. Hamilton needs a strong finish to the season to worm his way into contention and he certainly seems capable of doing so. Unlike some of the other defencemen on this list, Boston doesn’t need to rely on Hamilton, however, so it remains to be seen how much opportunity he’ll have to make his mark.