While forwards Patrik Laine of the Winnipeg Jets and Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner of Toronto may be getting all the attention when it comes to talk of the Calder Trophy, the best rookie in the NHL right now may very well be defenceman Zach Werenski of Columbus. The 19-year-old was chosen with the eighth pick in the 2015 draft and has quietly become one of the league’s best blueliners in his first season at the age of 19. Learning how to become an elite defenceman in the world’s toughest hockey league typically takes several seasons to master, but the native of Grosse Point, Michigan has made it look easy.
Paired with 22-year-old Seth Jones, Werenski averages close to 22 minutes of ice time per game and excels on the power play and penalty kill as well as five-on-five. November’s NHL rookie of the month had racked up six goals and 15 assists for 21 points in 29 games by December 18th and was a plus-seven. At his current pace, the 6-foot-2-inch, 212 lb. youngster is projected to finish the season with 18 goals and 42 assists for 60 points and post a plus-21 mark.
Werenski grew up studying the play of Detroit Red Wing hall of famer Nicklas Lidstrom and lists Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings as another huge inspiration. However, Werenski is making a name for himself in the league with his stellar play and should easily set a couple of rookie records for the Blue Jackets franchise this season. He’s already tied the mark for points by a first-year defenceman with 21 which was set by Ryan Murray in 2013/14, and should be able to top Rick Nash’s record of 39 points by a Columbus rookie which was set in 2002/03.
As a teenager, the left-shooting defenceman played with the U.S. National team program and then finished high school at 17 so he could play for the University of Michigan. When he arrived in the NCAA he was the youngest player in the league. He spent two years at the school as its best defenceman and scored 20 goals and 41 assists in 71 games. When the 2015/16 college season ended, Werenski signed an amateur tryout with the Lake Erie Monsters of the American Hockey League for just $5,000 and helped the club win the Calder Cup championship with 14 points in 17 playoff games.
He believes the time spent riding the buses in the AHL prepared him for the jump to the NHL and it looks like he made the right move. He now leads his NHL team’s defencemen in possession statistics and has the seventh-lowest turnover rate in the league for all blueliners. Columbus first noticed Werenski when he played for the U.S. at the World Junior Championships in 2013/14. But while he definitely interested them, he wasn’t their first choice when the 2015 NHL Entry Draft got underway.
The Blue Jackets tried to move up to fourth position in the draft, which was held by Carolina, as they wanted to select fellow defenceman Noah Hanifin. However, they considered the Hurricanes’ asking price to be too high and believed Werenski would still be available when it was their turn to choose at number eight. Therefore, they perhaps landed the potential 2016/17 rookie of the year by an odd twist of fate. There’s no guarantee Werenski’s play won’t tail off as the season goes along, but he’s already proven he’s got what it takes to become a premier NHL defenceman for years to come.
With at least half a dozen rookies in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ lineup this season, it’s highly likely that one of the more skillful ones will break the franchise’s long standing scoring record for a first-year player. The storied franchise hasn’t done much in the last half century, but at one time it was home to numerous elite players and hall of famers. When it comes to rookies though, just eight Leafs have managed to win the Calder Trophy over the club’s 100-year history. The last was Brit Selby way back in the 1965/66 campaign.
There are definitely some talented rookies in Toronto this season, including this year’s number-one overall draft pick Auston Matthews along with fellow forwards Mitch Marner and William Nylander. This isn’t to say that one of them will take home the rookie of the year honours for their play this season, especially with close to 100 first-year players in the league at the moment, but it’s almost certain one of them will set a new franchise record for rookie scoring. The current Maple Leafs’ rookie scoring record belongs to former centre Peter Ihnacak, who registered 28 goals and 38 assists for 66 points in 1982/83.
However, Ihnacak was 25 years old at the time and basically a seasoned pro as he had been playing for the national team in the former nation of Czechoslovakia as well as one of the country’s top club teams. Ihnacak, who was drafted 25th overall in the second round in 1982 went on to enjoy a solid if unspectacular NHL career with the Leafs with 267 points in 417 games. However, the record for goals by a rookie is 36 which was set by Wendel Clark in 1985/86 and the assists record is held by Gus Bodnar at 40 from 1943/44.
Now if all of the Leafs’ top-scoring rookies can stay healthy, one or more of them may be able to break Ihnacak’s, Clark’s of Bodnar’s record by the time the 82ndgame of the season rolls around. Matthews appears to have the best chance since he had racked up 20 points in 26 games as of December 12th. However, Marner was just one point behind him with 19 points and the pair was followed closely by Nylander and his 17 points. In addition to staying healthy, the rookies will also have to continue producing points at their current pace over the grueling 82-game schedule.
At their current pace, Matthews would end the season with 38 goals and 25 assists for 63 points, which means he’d break Clark’s record for goals and that’s it. Marner is on pace to score 22 goals and 38 assists for 60 points, meaning he’d fall short of all three current Leafs’ rookie marks ad Nylander would also be shy of the records with 19 goals and 36 assists for 55 points. So even though this is arguably the best crop of rookies that have ever suited up with the Leafs, it’s still going to be a tough task to break the existing franchise records. It’s sure going to be fun for fans to watch them try though.
There are dozens of NHL players making between one and four million dollars this season who will finish the campaign with 40 points or less. Therefore, 25-year-old Jonathan Marchessault of the Florida Panthers could very well be the bargain of the season at just $750,000. With 10 goals and nine assists under his belt after 24 games, the 5-foot-8 forward is on pace for 34 goals and 31 assists this season for an impressive 65 points. That’s not bad for a player who went undrafted and was deemed too small for just about every league he’s played in. He’s not just a part-time player either, as the centre/winger is averaging over 18 minutes of ice time per game.
The undersized Marchessault has been skating between a pair of big wingers in Aleksander Barkov and Jaromir Jagr for most of the year and has fit in perfectly. He realizes he was given a chance by the Panthers to prove just how good he is because Jonathan Huberdeau has been sidelined with an injury and Jussi Jokinen and Nick Bjugstad have also missed time due to injuries. He’s making the most of his opportunity and it appears Marchessault will remain one of the club’s top six forwards for the remainder of the season. He impressed the Panthers’ brass over the past couple of seasons while playing with Tampa Bay and they decided to offer him a two-year deal worth a total of $1.5 million.
Marchessault said he understands why he didn’t crack the Tampa Bay lineup as a regular and that’s because the team has been playing extremely well and winning with the same core roster for the past few years. Ironically, a spot for an offensively talented forward opened up earlier this season when Lightning captain Steven Stamkos was ruled out for several months due to a knee injury. The native of Cap-Rouge, Quebec managed to appear in 45 games with Tampa last season though and scored seven goals and 11 assists for 18 points while averaging 12 minutes and five seconds of ice time a night.
Marchessault also played two games for Tampa the season before and chipped in with a goal and assist. He contributed an assist in five playoff outings with the Lightning last season and went pointless in two postseason contests the year before. However, his NHL debut didn’t come in Florida; it took place in the 2012/13 season when he went pointless in a pair of games with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Marchessault’s path to the NHL started via the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) when he was drafted in the 12th round as a 16-year-old. The speedster racked up 239 points in 254 games and added 54 points in 52 playoff encounters.
Marchessault then proved he could handle the North American professional game as one of the AHL’s smallest players by playing a season in Connecticut, two in Springfield and parts of three campaigns with Syracuse. He appeared in a combined 306 regular-season games in the American League and produced 98 goals and 165 assists for 263 points. He’s said he didn’t think he was going to be drafted in the summer of 2009, but is thankful that he was given the chance to prove his worth at the AHL level. He played in three AHL All Star Games and was named a First-Team all star in 2012/13.
It’s still way too early to rank Marchessault with the top undrafted players the NHL has ever seen, such as Martin St. Louis, Steve Thomas, Dino Ciccarelli, Tim Kerr, Adam Oates, Peter Stastny, Joey Mullen and Borje Salming. But if he can stay healthy and can continue to score at his current pace, Marchessault may someday be mentioned in the same breath as those former stars.