Calder Trophy Finalists Revealed: Who Will Win and Who Should Win?

This article was written in collaboration with Kush Malhotra.

The time has come for rookies across the NHL to receive the recognition they deserve. Although only three rookies were acknowledged as finalists, many more put together fantastic seasons, warranting panic from division rivals for years to come. Whereas top selections in the 2019 NHL Draft, such as Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko, failed to meet expectations this season, high selections in previous drafts excelled this year. Therefore, we are pleased to present to you our picks for who will win the Calder Memorial Trophy and who should win the Calder Memorial Trophy.

The NHL’s Finalists: Cale Makar, Quinn Hughes, Dominik Kubalik

Who Will Win:

It is no surprise that Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes have been named finalists for the 2019-20 Calder Memorial Trophy. Both defensemen have seemingly separated themselves from the rest of the rookie class, making for a really exciting Calder Trophy race. Dominik Kubalik put together a fantastic season as well, which is why he earned himself a spot as a finalist, but in reality, this is truly just a race between Makar and Hughes. Most voters appear to prioritize points over impact statistics, and both Hughes and Makar have put together very strong point totals. That said, Makar has played 11 fewer games than Hughes while totaling only three fewer points than Hughes, so Makar beats Hughes in the points-per-game department. Additionally, Makar has scored four more goals than Hughes, so voters will appreciate his perceived offensive versatility. Lastly, the fact that Makar has the second-highest point total on one of the best teams in the NHL truly exhibits his value on a league-wide scale. Ultimately, we expect Makar to edge out Hughes ever so slightly, giving the Colorado Avalanche their third Calder Trophy winner in the past nine years.

Who Should Win the Calder Trophy:

Aidan’s Finalists: Adam Fox, Quinn Hughes, Cale Makar

Aidan’s Winner: Adam Fox

The Calder Trophy seems to be my favorite one each year because it is beyond exciting to watch youngsters tear up the NHL as if they are 10-year veterans. This year, the headline since the first month of the season has been Cale Makar versus Quinn Hughes– which of the two deserves the Norris Trophy? Well, without neglecting all of the time and effort that has been devoted to figuring out which of these two young defensemen has been more productive, what if I completely changed the narrative by introducing the rookie who, in my opinion, deserves the Calder Trophy over these two young stars?

Although Makar is an extremely close second on my rankings, Adam Fox has earned the right to take home this piece of hardware this season. As a leader of a defense core that lacks defensive defensemen, Fox excels not only on the defensive end but also on the offensive end of the ice. At even strength, Fox’s Goals For (GF) ranks eighteenth among skaters and sixth among defensemen, and his Expected Goals For (xGF) ranks thirteenth among skaters and fourth among defensemen, which shows that his offensive production is elite not only among rookies and defensemen but also among all skaters. Whereas the defensive impact of Makar and Hughes can be viewed as hardly above replacement-level at this point in their young careers, Fox has already established himself as one of the league’s elite defensive defensemen; his Expected Defensive Goals Above Replacement (xDef) ranks ninth among all defensemen in the NHL. Fox’s biggest weakness this season has been his lack of ice time on the penalty-kill, but Makar and Hughes seldom kill penalties, as well, so this flaw is not of much harm to him in the Calder Trophy race. He does not have an elite point total to boast like Makar and Hughes do, but his impact has exceeded that of any other rookie this season, which is why he is my pick for the Calder Trophy.

I never wanted to make it seem as if the Makar-Hughes debate is moot to me because it is indicative of whom I should deem my runner-up to Fox. That said, it is very clear in my mind that Makar has outperformed Hughes this season. Both Makar and Hughes have relatively struggled on defense this season, and as addressed before, neither one is heavily utilized on the penalty-kill. Contrarily, Makar and Hughes have each been among the best defensemen in the NHL on the power play. Where their impact is really unequal, however, is on offense at even strength. Makar’s Even-Strength Offense Goals Above Replacement (EVO) ranks 5th among NHL defensemen, whereas Hughes’ ranks 37th. Similarly, Makar’s Expected Even-Strength Offense (xEVO) ranks 14th among NHL defensemen, whereas Hughes’ ranks 26th. Given that the rest of their skillsets are relatively similar, Makar gets the clear nod over Hughes because of his ability to dominate the offensive zone at even strength.

If it ever sounded as if I construed the Calder Trophy race as a three-player one, I would like to apologize for neglecting the fantastic season that Dominik Kubalik has put together. To put things into perspective, I will list the top four skaters in order in xEVO this season: Nikita Kucherov, Auston Matthews, Kubalik, and Brad Marchand. In other words, Kubalik is in remarkably elite company with his offensive chances generated at even strength this season. The only reason he falls short of this award is that he has played every aspect of the game aside from even-strength offense at approximately replacement-level. Nonetheless, although he should not be a finalist in my book, Kubalik has established himself as a promising young player in the NHL. Elvis Merzlikins, John Marino, and Igor Shestyorkin, although not Calder Trophy finalists in my opinion, all have put together very strong campaigns that deserve recognition. Altogether, it is a bright rookie class, highlighted by three or four rookies who should do some damage to opposing teams in their careers.

Kush’s Finalists: Adam Fox, Quinn Hughes, Cale Makar

Kush’s Winner: Cale Makar

Since the first few weeks of the season, there have been four rookies who have truly stood out from the rest: Cale Makar, Quinn Hughes, Adam Fox, and Dominik Kubalik. Each player has been extremely successful on their respective teams; however, Makar stands out as most deserving of the Calder Trophy. Makar is one of the best offensive rookie defensemen in recent memory, and he is set to be one of the league’s top players in the future. His offensive talent is remarkable, as he ranks within the top two defensemen in Goals For per 60 Minutes (GF/60) at even strength, as well as within the top fifteen defensemen in GF on the power play. His offense on both even strength and the power play is what sets him apart from the rest of the rookies. Among the previous rookies listed, Makar ranks in the top two in GF, xGF, Goals Against (GA), Expected Goals Against (xGA), Corsi For (CF), and Corsi Against (CA) on the power play, proving his versatility as an offensive defenseman. Due to his sheer dominance offensively, Makar is my choice for the Calder Trophy.

Nonetheless, both Fox and Hughes have put together strong campaigns as well. Makar and Hughes have been the favorites to win the Calder Trophy for months; as the season progressed, Makar outshined the rest of the pack, but Hughes still had a fantastic season. Both defensemen were stars on the power play, while Makar was stronger offensively during even strength, and Hughes was more well-rounded. Hughes was around 1.5 standard deviations above average in Corsi Against per 60 Minutes (CA/60), whereas Makar was approximately average. Furthermore, Hughes’ ability to prevent high-quality offensive chances around his own net was very strong this season. That said, whereas Makar ranks among the top two defensemen in GF/60 at even strength, Hughes ranks 50th among all defensemen. The significant difference offensively prompted me to choose Makar, but Hughes truly had a strong season altogether.

Jan 18, 2020; Vancouver, British Columbia, CAN; San Jose Sharks forward Joe Thornton (19) chases down a puck against Vancouver Canucks defenseman Quinn Hughes (43) during the second period at Rogers Arena. Mandatory Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

On a rather weak defensive team, Fox has excelled defensively, for he ranks ninth among all defensemen in xDef. Additionally, Fox ranks top four in xGF in all defensemen, further proving his success on both sides of the ice. Whereas Makar was more of an offensive powerhouse and stronger on the power play, Fox was committed to more of a two-way game. He has a very strong case for the Calder Trophy, but he ultimately falls short of Makar in my opinion.

Another possible candidate is Kubalik, who has had a phenomenal offensive season on the Blackhawks, but his lackluster defensive and power-play production is what ultimately landed him in the four spot on the list. Other possible candidates include John Marino and Igor Shestyorkin, who both have proved their value on their respective Metropolitan Division teams. I’m certainly excited for the future of this stellar rookie class, highlighted by its rookie defensemen.

TORONTO, ON – JANUARY 18: Dominik Kubalik #8 of the Chicago Blackhawks skates against the Toronto Maple Leafs during an NHL game at Scotiabank Arena on January 18, 2020 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Blackhawks defeated the Maple Leafs 6-2. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

Whereas the last four Calder Trophies have been won by forwards, there is little doubt that this narrative will change this season. As evidenced above, Cale Makar, Quinn Hughes, Adam Fox, and many more, all have compelling arguments for taking home this award. The Calder Trophy will almost definitely be won by Makar or Hughes this season, but don’t let that detract from the spectacular campaigns put together by rookies all around the league.

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