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Let’s establish a few things about the Calder Trophy race.
The first is that it’s a two-horse race.
Yes, defenseman Zach Werenski of the Columbus Blue Jackets has been spectacularly solid, and has given them the same kind of transformative boost that Auston Matthews has given the Toronto Maple Leafs. Yes, Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray is a rookie who is 21-7-3 with a .924 save percentage. He may end up being the hipster pick for the Calder, but one wonders if he has the work rate commiserate with Calder-winning goalies – not to mention the support from enough voters outside of Pittsburgh to Ken Dryden this thing.
Yes, Mitch Marner might end winning the points race for rookies, but one look at his regular linemates and those of Matthews and you’re not handing him the Calder if he finishes a point ahead of his Maple Leafs teammate. There’s also a rather large hype gap between Marner and Matthews, as well as Marner and Laine.
The second thing, as the two rookies prepare to battle on Tuesday night in Toronto, is the obvious acknowledgement that in the Patrik Laine vs. Auston Matthews showdown for rookie of the year, we all win.
This is great. It’s the best thing we’ve had since Alex Ovechkin vs. Sidney Crosby, and it’s not a coincidence that we’re seeing the same dynamics play out: Foreign player vs. North American-made; winger vs. center; rock star vs. stoic leader guy. The only twist is that it’s Matthews, 19, who has the larger highlight reel this season than Laine, 18, who has to settle for the better numbers in fewer games.
So who has the edge for the Calder right now?
Let’s get the basic stuff out of the way. Laine leads all rookies in points (52) and is tied with Matthews in goals (28).
(I’ve seen the argument that Laine’s three empty-net goals should somehow be dismissed, which is a rather incredible argument when Team Matthews is all like “look at the defensive responsibility he has as a teenage center!” and all Patrik Laine gets is the trust of his coach as an 18-year-old to be out there in the most critical defensive moment of the game … and scoring three goals during it.)
Matthews has 49 points, and has played 58 games, while Laine has played 54. Which means that Laine (0.96) has a significant lead over Matthews in points per game (0.84), so it’ll be fun to see all those Connor McDavid voters from last season who planted their flag on that stat completely forget it exists when voting against Laine.
Laine leads all rookie forwards with 15:26 TOI at even strength, with Matthews right behind him at 15:13. Laine has the edge in even-strength points (40) over Matthews, despite playing fewer games. Laine has a goals-for-per-60-minutes at even strength of 3.34, while Matthews is at 2.68 – that said, Matthews leads all rookies with 24 even-strength goals, while Laine has 20.
(Keep in mind that Ovechkin only had 28 EV goals when he won the Calder with 52 goals overall. So we’re seeing remarkable even-strength play from both rookies.)
Matthews is slightly more protected than Laine, with 39.74 percent of his shifts starting in the offensive zone vs. 35.77 for Laine. They’re both seeing similar quality of opponents.
Matthews has an advantage in possession, with a Corsi of 52.49 percent to Laine’s 48.11 percent. But it should be said that the Leafs are a better overall Corsi team than the Jets are this season.
Matthews also has 10 first goals of the game, best in the NHL, a stat that yours truly weighs a little heavier than others.
Let’s get to the three major arguments for Matthews:
1 – He’s doing more with less. Matthews has played the majority of his minutes with Zach Hyman and Connor Brown this season, with William Nylander next-highest. Laine has played mostly with Mark Scheifele and Nikolaj Ehlers, and with Dustin Byfuglien as his primary defenseman on the ice. That’s … better.
2 – He’s shooting at an historic rate. Auston Matthews has a shots-per-60 rate of 12.11. Laine is at 6.68. Matthews has 884 shot attempts this season. Laine has 648. What we’re seeing is one of the best shot-generating seasons for a rookie in NHL history, and he’s a center.
3 – He has the bigger moments. Not only are the Leafs poised to be a playoff team in the East, but you have the four-goal game and the highlight reel goals and the Centennial Classic and the backstory and the Toronto hype machine turning everything this kid does into another chapter in a children’s book called “How Auston Saved The Leafs.”
Let’s get to the main argument for Laine:
1 – There is a significant chance that he leads all rookies in goals and points despite playing fewer games than his peers.
The last time a forward won the Calder without winning either the rookie points title or the rookie goals title was Chris Drury in 1998-99, who had 20 goals to Mark Parrish’s 24 and 44 points to Milan Hejduk’s 48. (Brendan Morrison also had more points, while Marian Hossa was Marian Hossa.)
Drury’s win was one of recency bias, as he had six goals in his last 20 games. He was also from Connecticut. Hejduk and Hossa, his Calder finalist rivals, were not, at last check. (Hejduk led all rookies in points and finished third in the voting.)
OK, back on track: When a rookie forward wins the Calder, it’s usually a rookie forward that leads all rookies in points. When a rookie forward wins both the points and goals titles … well, that’s a hard case to argue against, especially when the player will have done it in fewer games than his primary rivals.
And that’s where we are with the Calder, at the moment: You don’t have to make a case for Laine.
You can point to the leaderboard, you can point to his rates, and you can have those numbers speak for themselves. But unless Matthews finishes ahead of him in goals or points, you have to make a case for him to win the Calder despite not having better basic glamour stats than Laine.
What makes this Calder Trophy race so damn interesting is that, as we noted above, Matthews has a very strong case that he’s the League’s best rookie even if he doesn’t lead all rookies in either major offensive category. It’s been a truly special rookie season for both players, but Matthews might have more going on for him in underlying numbers.
Failing that: He’s the Great American Hope playing in the Centre of the Hockey Universe, while Laine is a Finn in Winnipeg.
Which, in the end, might be all we remember about this race.
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