The only thing more challenging than winning the Calder Trophy as a goaltender is winning it as a defenceman.
Since the NHL’s rookie of the year award was introduced for the 1936-37 season, 15 goaltenders and 13 defencemen have won the honour, with forwards securing the hardware the remaining 55 times.
This season, however, two rookie defencemen are leading the charge when it comes to potential Calder recipients. Those two defencemen are 20-year-old Vancouver Canucks defenceman Quinn Hughes and 21-year-old Colorado Avalanche defenceman Cale Makar.
Makar was chosen one spot ahead of 2019 Calder winner Elias Pettersson at the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, while Hughes fell to seventh overall after the draft order saw an unexpected twist at the 2018 Draft. The Canucks allegedly had Hughes in the top three of their draft list, and based on how he’s performed this far, it’s easy to see why.
The impact Hughes has had on the organization is not unlike what we saw from Pettersson just a year ago.. Hughes has been instrumental in turning around a power play that was ranked 21st in the league last year in goals, by giving it entirely new ways to produce. Hughes has been able to control the puck in the offensive zone than anybody in the NHL, and has been able to pick up 23 assists in the process.
Only two defenceman have managed to take home the Calder in the post-lockout era: Tyler Myers and Aaron Ekblad. Myers picked up 37 total points, while Ekblad tallied 39. It’s safe to say that both Hughes and Makar have the capabilities to surpass those numbers this season — we’re barely a quarter into the season and both have already surpassed 20 points.
At this point in time, the award seems like Makar’s to lose. He has been a huge part of the Avalanche’s success early on, producing at a point-per-game clip through 24 games. Thomas Drance of The Athletic made an intriguing case as to why Hughes will actually surpass Makar in the Calder conversation. Among his arguments is the fact that Makar’s current pace, and his 17% shooting percentage, isn’t sustainable over the long-term.
Makar currently has a major advantage in terms of even-strength offence, but Hughes and Makar’s even-strength assists are actually quite similar. Both have been producing at a high rate on the power play, but once Makar’s even-strength numbers come back down to earth, this race could get a whole lot closer.
Makar left the Avalanche’s Saturday night tilt with the Boston Bruins after colliding with Brad Marchand, and head coach Jared Bednar said that he should have an update on Makar in the coming days. Nobody wants to see any player — especially an exciting young talent like Makar — go down with an injury, but Canucks fans can certainly attest to the effect an injury can have on the outcome of the Calder race. Brock Boeser suffered a season-ending injury with a little more than a month to go in his rookie campaign, effectively handing the award to Mat Barzal in the process.
Even if Makar doesn’t miss time with an injury, Hughes is a good enough talent and a significant difference-maker each and every night to make this race closer than many seem to think it will be. So what will it take for Hughes to actually win the Calder? He’s in tough to make a dent in the case Makar is making for rookie of the year, but it’s far from impossible. All that needs to happen is a bit of shooting percentage regression from each of the two players. The biggest difference between the two right now offensively is easily Makar’s goal totals, especially at even-strength. All it takes is a couple of fortuitous bounces for Hughes to launch himself into the same offensive territory as Makar.
Hughes may have a lot of distance to cover before he can be considered the Calder frontrunner, but he’s still a shoo-in to be named one of the top three nominees. If that comes to pass, it will mark the third straight year that the Canucks have had a rookie be nominated for the award. Boeser in 17-18, Pettersson in 18-19, and Hughes in 19-20, which would make them the first team to accomplish that feat since the 1970-71 New York Rangers.