The 2013-14 NHL rookie class has been phenomenal. Guys like Hampus Lindholm, Olli Määttä, and Torey Krug have become regulars on the defensive rotation for their teams. And a fantastic new batch of goal-scorers has arrived in the forms of Mark Scheifele, Sean Monahan, Tomáš Hertl, Tyler Johnson, Ondřej Palát, and Nathan MacKinnon. Rookies also left their mark on the goal-tending position with Frederik Andersen, Antti Raanta, Martin Jones, and Eddie Lack all playing valuable minutes for their teams.
Needless to say, the next batch of NHL stars is already making its mark on the league. But who, for the 2013-14 season, is the rookie of the year? As a San Jose Sharks fan, I was very pleased to note that Hertl seemed to have this award in the bag early in the season until an unlucky hit sidelined him for the rest of the season. Since then, Nathan MacKinnon seems to have cemented his place atop the rookie rankings with an impressive 24 goals and 39 assists for a total of 63 points. And a (+/-) rating of +20 for the season doesn't hurt either. But hold up there! Yes, MacKinnon has had a spectacular rookie campaign, and yes, he warrants the attention that he's garnering; but if this were my vote, I'd put Ondřej Palát in line for the Calder Trophy.
Palát finished the season with 59 points to the tune of 23 goals and 36 assists, seemingly placing him below MacKinnon at first glance. But let's keep digging into the numbers. MacKinnon had a nice +20 for the season, but Palát blew that away with a +32! Palát also averaged more time on ice (TOI) than MacKinnon did. Palát has a much more accurate shot that MacKinnon does with a 13.9% shooting percentage on 165 shots to MacKinnon's 10.0% on 241 shots. Palát also averaged more shifts per game at 23.5 vs. 21.2.
But the biggest factor is who they play for. MacKinnon's Colorado Avalanche have come out of nowhere to win the Central division after finishing near the bottom of the league in the previous year. They've been good all year long especially with Semyon Varlamov in goal winning a league-best 41 games. Life is good when you have good goal-tending. But how about Palát's Tampa Bay Lightning? In the off-season they lost one of their all-time greats in Vincent Lecavalier to free agency, before the trade deadline they dealt their other great, Martin St. Louis, to the Rangers, and they lost their best up-and-coming player, Steven Stamkos, to injury for 57 games. Ben Bishop was primed for a breakout year in goal, but he's dealt with injuries all year long. Their three best players were out and Tampa had turmoil in goal most of the year, but they still made the playoffs? Due in large part to Palát, yes! It would not be fair to not also mention that Tyler Johnson has also been a great rookie for Tampa and Valtteri Filppula's instant success has helped to give them some much-needed consistency. But there is no denying that Palát has led the way for Tampa through what could have been a trainwreck of a season.
By the numbers and by the tone of the season, I think it's pretty clear that Ondřej Palát should take home the Calder Memorial Trophy in Vegas this year. The problem is...no one else agrees.