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The Rare Depth of Next NHL Season’s Rookie Class

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Although it seems like just yesterday we were watching the biggest stars of the 2022-23 season walk the red carpet for the NHL awards, preseason odds for next season’s winners have already been released by DraftKings Sportsbook. Something really unique about the odds for next season is the depth of the rookie class in regards to the Calder Trophy. The Calder trophy, named after the first president of the NHL, Frank Calder, is given to the player selected as the most proficient in his first year of competition in the NHL. And while most fans have already picked their favorite to win (we’ll get to *him*, don’t worry), there is plenty of depth that could close the gap and add plenty of competition for this year’s winner.

Before we get into my top 5 candidates for the running this year, let’s look at what the term “rookie” means in the NHL. By NHL standards, in order for a player to be considered a rookie, they must not have played in more than 25 NHL games in any preceding seasons, nor in six or more NHL games in any two other preceding seasons. A player must also be 26 or under as of September 15 of that particular season to maintain rookie status. To give an example, even though Luke Hughes has technically made his “NHL debut” and even scored his first NHL goal last season, he still is going to be considered a rookie for the 2023-24 season, as he hasn’t played in more than 25 games. Now that we have the technicalities out of the way, let’s look at my top five candidates for this season’s Calder Trophy.

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#1: Connor Bedard

It wouldn’t be talk of “stars of the season” without mentioning Connor Bedard’s name at least once. The 2023 first overall draft pick by the Chicago Blackhawks is without a doubt the most talked-about rookie entering the 2023-24 season. The 18-year-old 5 foot 10 inch center has -140 odds of winning the Calder Trophy according to DraftKings, which is miles above every other rookie who made the list. Bedard is the first player in CHL history to simultaneously win the league's Player of the Year, Top Draft Prospect, and Top Scorer awards. He was also voted MVP of the 2023 World Juniors Championship, where he scored 23 points in seven games throughout the tournament with team Canada, leading them to a gold medal. During the 2022-23 season with the Regina Pats, Bedard scored an insane 143 points in only 57 games. Known for his wicked shot and insane goal scoring ability, Bedard has caught the eye of every coach and player in the NHL, but these aren’t the only things that bring his game to the next level. He is also known for having a world class hockey IQ, and his quick decision making and eye for the game really set him apart from everyone else. Regardless of how the season turns out, all eyes will be on Bedard when he makes his NHL debut in one month.

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#2: Luke Hughes

Coming in right behind Bedard with +600 odds is a very familiar name for all NHL fans: Luke Hughes. The 6-foot-2-inch defenseman was New Jersey’s first pick in the 2021 NHL draft, making him the 4th overall player to be selected that year. Just like his brothers, he is an exceptional point scorer, scoring 48 points in 39 games with the University of Michigan in the 2022-23 season. Hughes is known for being an exceptional skater with great edges and is very quick out of the gate. The 19-year-old makes his presence known every time he’s on the ice, as he has a good knack for finding dangerous scoring positions, not to mention his smart hockey IQ and defensive work. As I mentioned earlier, Luke did get the chance this past season to join the New Jersey Devils at the very end of the season where he scored the game-winning overtime goal, which also happened to be his first goal at the NHL level. He also made his first NHL playoffs debut during game three in round two against Carolina, and recorded two assists during his time with the team. One talented Hughes brother clearly wasn’t enough for New Jersey, and with Luke on the ice now, Devils fans have a lot to look forward to this season.

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#3: Adam Fantilli

Another key player to look out for this season is Adam Fantilli. The 6-foot-2-inch center is only 18 years old, and was the third overall draft pick in the 2023 NHL draft. He recently signed his entry-level contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets, and has already proven himself to be a big threat when he joined the team for their development camp a few weeks ago. Fantilli has +1000 odds of winning the trophy this year, but he has never struggled to prove himself worthy of this recognition in the past. Fantilli is the only player to win the Hobey Baker (award presented to best player in the NCAA), a World Juniors gold medal, and a Men’s Worlds gold medal all in the same year. Just like Hughes, Fantilli also played for the University of Michigan this past year where he scored 65 points in 36 games with the team. We all know about his ability to score points, but Fantilli is also very well known for being a two-way center, and his skating is also very strong. Coaches say that he sees the game very well in all three zones, and usually ends up making the right split-second decisions because of this. Even though he was overshadowed by Bedard in this year’s draft, Fantilli will certainly put up a good fight in the race for best rookie this year.

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#4: Matthew Knies

This past season, Matthew Knies made his presence known to all Toronto fans, as he joined the team for the 2022-23 playoffs and recorded one goal and two assists in his seven games played with the team. After only playing three regular season games with the team, Knies came out of the gate flying during the playoffs, and immediately added himself to everyone’s radar for the 2023-24 season in regards to the rookie race. Coming in at 6 feet 10 inches, the left winger has +2500 odds right now of winning the Calder trophy, but I believe that that will change come the start of the season. The 20-year-old played two seasons for the University of Minnesota, and tallied 75 points in 73 games over the course of his time with the Gophers. He was named Big Ten Player of the Year, and was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as well. While watching him play, it is clear that Knies always tries to be the first to every puck and to win every puck battle he finds himself in. Coaches also say that his off-puck awareness makes him a big scoring threat, as he can find holes where there are none, and swiftly find the back of the net. Knies signed his entry-level contract with Toronto on April 9, and fans of the Leafs are very excited for him to start next season and see what he can do.

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#5: Luke Evangelista

Imagine that your team trades away half of its veteran players and the remaining veterans on the team get injured a few weeks later. Most NHL fans would say, “That’s it for the season, we will watch again next year”, but for Nashville Predators fans, something very entertaining came about at the end of their season. After being called up from Milwaukee after Nashville ran out of players, 24-year-old Luke Evangelista made his NHL debut on February 28 against the Pittsburgh Penguins. After laying a flattening hit to Evgeni Malkin in the same game in which he debuted, Evangelista quickly became a fan favorite. The 6-foot right winger scored 15 points in 24 games with the Predators in the 2022-23 season and scored 41 points in 49 games during his time in Milwaukee, including 15 points in 16 games during the Calder Cup Playoffs, making him one of the highest point scorers of those playoffs. After being drafted 42nd overall in 2020, Evangelista went on to captain his London Knights team, where he scored an amazing 111 points in 62 games. Nashville fans are hoping Evangelista brings a much-needed spark to a team that has been lacking goal-scoring ability in recent years. Evangelista has the ability to catch everyone’s attention and make his presence in the running for the Calder trophy known, as this past season he became the second rookie in franchise history to score four points in a single game, and also reached the benchmark of fastest rookie in franchise history to score three points, doing it in just six minutes and one second. Even though he has +3000 odds of winning the trophy, Evangelista’s knack for making a play out of nothing and his creativeness are sure to draw attention this season. He always seems to find a way to get the puck to his teammates and is very aggressive on the forecheck. He is known for being a defensive problem solver, and diffuses tricky situations to make them into creative scoring opportunities. Talk to any Predators fan and they will tell you that they can’t wait to see what Luke can accomplish this season.

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