Flashback to January 2nd.
Elias Pettersson put on one of his most dominant performances in the NHL, recording his first career hat trick, completing it with the overtime winner against the Ottawa Senators.
The Canucks rookie had 22 goals and 42 points in 38 games. No other first-year player had a bigger impact on his team, and it wasn’t even close.
Colin White was next in rookie scoring with 25 points in 40 games. Andrei Svechnikov was next in goals with 11 – half of Pettersson’s total.
It was shaping up to be one of the most lopsided Calder races of all-time.
That’s not the case any longer.
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Rookies star on Day 1 of the playoffs
While regular season awards are voted on before the playoffs, goaltender Jordan Binnington and defenceman Miro Heiskanen showed why they’re getting serious consideration for the Calder on the first night of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Binnington led the St Louis Blues to a 2-1 win over the Winnipeg Jets. He was unfazed by the boisterous Winnipeg crowd, steering away 24 of the 25 shots he faced.
Heiskanen, meanwhile, had a goal and two assists for the Dallas Stars in their 3-2 upset win over the Nashville Predators.
Binnington’s meteoric rise
While Pettersson was running away with the Calder on January 2nd, Binnington had only played two games in relief on a bad St. Louis Blues team.
He let in four goals on 25 shots in those two games in December. However, everything changed for Binnington on January 7.
The 25-year-old shut out the Philadelphia Flyers during his first career NHL start, while squaring off against the Flyers’ 20-year-old rookie netminder, Carter Hart.
From there, all Binnington did was save the Blues season by going 23-5-1 over his next 29 games, propelling the Blues to an unlikely playoff birth.
Many Canucks fans might want to write off his Calder chase due to a lack of games played, and that’s a valid argument. Binnington only started 30 games, which is equivalent to that of an often-used backup goalie.
However, Binnington’s Calder case is a strong one. He’s the only goalie in the salary cap era to lose only five regulation games in 30 starts as a rookie. His save percentage of .927 is the fourth-best by a rookie netminder in the last 20 years.
In fact, Andrew Raycroft won the Calder in 2003-04 with a .926 save percentage, although he did start 55 games.
Two franchise defencemen
In discussing the race for the Calder, you have to include future franchise defencemen, Heiskanen and Rasmus Dahlin of the Buffalo Sabres.
It took Dahlin about a month to find his footing in the NHL. The 18-year-old was used in a third-pairing role early on, but his undeniable talent had him rocketing up the Sabres depth chart.
Dahlin was averaging about 22 minutes per game from December onwards, and he finished the season with 44 points in 82 games. It was one of the best seasons by an 18-year-old blueliner in NHL history.
It’s crazy to think that Dahlin might actually end up fourth in Calder voting after the season he had, but you could make the argument that Heiskanen was more valuable to the Stars this season.
When the Stars’ top defenceman John Klingberg went down with an injury in November, Heiskanen was thrown to the wolves. The 19-year-old was thrust into the role of No. 1 defenceman, where he performed admirably in Klingberg’s absence.
He finished the season with 12 goals and 33 points while playing in all 82 games for the Stars. You can see why Stars general manager Jim Nill didn’t want to part with Heiskanen for Erik Karlsson.
While the Canucks might feel like they selected the best player in the 2017 draft in Pettersson, the Stars might still be happy with their choice.
Pettersson should still win
The race for Rookie of the Year became more interesting down the stretch.
Nonetheless, Pettersson should still win it. When you look at rookies who had the largest impact on their team, it boils down to Pettersson and Binnington. However, the fact that Binnington played as much hockey as most back-ups works against him.
You shouldn’t punish Pettersson for “slowing down” in the second half of the season (he still led all rookies in scoring after the new year) in favour of someone who played the first half of the season in the AHL.
If Binnington started 15 more games and posted the same numbers, this race might be different. Binnington’s numbers are phenomenal, but Pettersson has transformed the Canucks’ future outlook, seemingly overnight. He scored at a rate through the first half the of the season that was comparable to the rookie seasons of Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin.
It’s asking too much for Pettersson to reach those heights, but he made it abundantly clear this season that he has the potential to be one of the best players in the NHL.