NHL rookie race: Sizing up the Calder Trophy chase at the midway point of the season

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TORONTO, ON - JANUARY 1: Auston Matthews #34 and Mitch Marner #16 of the Toronto Maple Leafs take part in warmup before playing the Detroit Red Wings during the 2017 Scotiabank NHL Centennial Classic game at Exhibition Stadium on January 1, 2017 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)
Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs take part in warmups before playing the Detroit Red Wings in the 2017 NHL Centennial Classic game at BMO Field on January 1, 2017, in Toronto. (Getty Images)

The NHL rookie race is coming into focus as the 2016-17 NHL regular season approaches the halfway point.

Here’s a look at the top contenders for the Calder Trophy, as well as secondary candidates, fringe hopefuls and a masked man or two:

THE CONTENDERS

Patrik Laine, RW, Winnipeg Jets: Well, no kidding. The Jets gunner has the game to back up his swagger. He leads all rookies in goals and points, he’s a power forward in-the-making, and there’s no doubt the best is yet to come. Sidney Crosby, with 26 goals, is the only player in the league — rookie or otherwise — who has more tallies than Laine’s 21. Buckle up, Jets fans, and enjoy the ride.

Auston Matthews, C, Toronto Maple Leafs: Another no-brainer. Matthews burst onto the scene with a four-goal game in his NHL debut and he hasn’t looked back. Recently, he was named the NHL’s rookie of the month for December, and he could’ve been the player of the month, period, with eight goals and 12 points in eight games. Matthews and Laine, drafted first and second overall last June, have been going back and forth all season — entering Friday night’s game in New Jersey, the Leafs teenager had 20 goals, just one back of the Jets kid — and it’s shaping up to be a great race in the second half of 2016-17.

Mitch Marner, C, Toronto Maple Leafs: Hey look, another Leaf. (Get used to it, there’s a theme coming.) Marner has played second fiddle to Matthews in Toronto, but he’s a dazzling talent in his own right who’s a great skater, a fine playmaker and boasts a laser shot as well. Will he wear down a bit during the second-half stretch run? Perhaps, but he played around 90 games last season — between the OHL regular season, playoffs, Memorial Cup and world juniors — and he produced at every stage. He has some catching up to do if he wants to win the Calder, but he’s within sight of the two prodigies.

Zach Werenski, D, Columbus Blue Jackets: There aren’t many 19-year-old defencemen in the NHL, and there certainly aren’t many playing more than 21 minutes a night for the league’s best team. Only three defencemen have won the Calder Trophy in the past 20 years and Werenski is in tough this season with the likes of Laine and Matthews producing such as they are. But there’s no denying he deserves to be ranked with the best of the NHL’s young talent this season. Puck Daddy’s Greg Wyshynski goes a step further, saying Werenski is already Columbus’ best defenceman and should be considered a top candidate for the Norris Trophy.

SAN JOSE, CA - DECEMBER 30: Ivan Provorov #9 of the Philadelphia Flyers looks on during the game against the San Jose Sharks at SAP Center on December 30, 2016 in San Jose, California. (Photo by Rocky W. Widner/NHL/Getty Images)
Ivan Provorov of the Philadelphia Flyers looks on during a game against the San Jose Sharks at SAP Center on December 30, 2016, in San Jose. (Getty Images)

FIRST YEAR, SECOND TIER

Ivan Provorov, D, Philadelphia Flyers: Like Werenski, he’s 19 years old and playing more than 21 minutes a night. And like Werenski, he might already be the best all-around defenceman on his team. Provorov could turn into the No. 1 stud the Flyers have been waiting for since Chris Pronger’s departure.

William Nylander, C, Toronto Maple Leafs: He’s fourth in NHL rookie scoring, but two of the guys ahead of him are his teammates so Nylander isn’t likely to get much trophy love.

Matthew Tkachuk, LW, Calgary Flames: Keith’s son has his dad’s power forward style, but they’re bringing the teenager along slowly in Calgary. At about 14 minutes per game, he’s getting the least ice time among the NHL’s top 15 rookie scorers.

Sebastian Aho, RW, Carolina Hurricanes: Another teenager with high-end talent, he’s not real big but he makes up for it with quickness and jaw-dropping skill. Also worth noting, Aho has been producing at about a point-per-game clip in his past 10 outings; he’s starting to figure things out.

Jimmy Vesey, LW, New York Rangers: The highly coveted NCAA star who opted for the bright lights and big city, the speedy Vesey definitely looks like he was worth the free agency runaround even if he’s eased up a bit in the past few weeks.

Travis Konecny, C, Philadelphia Flyers: He’s undersized and he’s 19 years old, so he’s not your typical Broad Street Bully. But the fans in Philadelphia are going to like his offensive production, especially his playmaking ability.

Connor Brown, RW, Toronto Maple Leafs: Yes, another Leafs kid. Brown has good upside as a point-producing winger, he can bang along the boards and he’s got a scoring touch, too.

TORONTO, CANADA - JANUARY 1: Anthony Mantha #39 of the Detroit Red Wings skates during the third period of the 2017 Scotiabank NHL Centennial Classic against the Toronto Maple Leafs at BMO Field on January 1, 2017 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
Anthony Mantha of the Detroit Red Wings skates during the 2017 NHL Centennial Classic against the Toronto Maple Leafs at BMO Field on January 1, 2017, in Toronto. (Getty Images)

WORTH MENTIONING

Nikita Zaitsev, D, Toronto Maple Leafs: The 25-year-old native of Russia leads all NHL rookies in ice time at more than 22 minutes per game.

Brandan Carlo, D, Boston Bruins: A big, physical presence and he gets to watch and learn from Zdeno Chara every day.

Anthony Mantha, RW, Detroit Red Wings: A big body who ripped up the AHL for a few weeks (eight goals, 10 points in 10 games) and he hasn’t slowed down since being called up to the NHL (10 goals, 18 points in 24 games).

Mikko Rantanen, RW, Colorado Avalanche: It’s all gone wrong in Denver this season, but Rantanen’s sublime skill level bodes well for the franchise’s future.

Brady Skjei, D, New York Rangers: Among rookie defencemen, only Werenski has more assists than Skjei’s 16.

Michael Matheson, D, Florida Panthers: He’s logging more than 20 minutes a night and chipping in offensively.

Zach Hyman, C, Toronto Maple Leafs: Seriously?! How many rookies do the Leafs have, anyway? (Eight. They have eight. Forwards Nikita Soshnikov and Frederik Gauthier are the other two.)

MASKED MEN

Matt Murray, G, Pittsburgh Penguins: He missed the start of the season with a concussion, and he’s currently out week-to-week with a lower-body injury. Too bad, when he was healthy he was playing well enough to merit Calder consideration. Then again, he’s already got a Stanley Cup ring and that’s the important thing.

Juuse Saros, G, Nashville Predators: He’s putting up incredible numbers (.957 save percentage, 1.16 goals-against average), but when you’re backing up Pekka Rinne it’s tough to get much playing time (six starts).

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