Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad was named as one of the three finalists for this year's Calder Memorial Trophy as the NHL's outstanding rookie player. Joining Ekblad are Ottawa's Mark Stone and Calgary's Johnny Gaudreau.
Ekblad, the first overall selection in the 2014 Entry Draft, set franchise rookie records for goals (12), assists (27) and points, (39) while averaging 21:49 TOI. He led the team with a plus-12 rating and suited up in 81 of 82 regular season games. The mature-beyond-his-years defender was recently named to Team Canada's roster for this year's IIHF World Championship.
The only players who produced more points from the blue line than Ekblad as 18-year-olds in NHL history are Phil Housley (66) and the legendary Bobby Orr (41).
Stone and Gaudreau each finished with 64 points to lead all rookies in scoring. Stone scored 26 goals to Johnny Hockey's 24 to earn the top spot by tiebreaker. Nashville's Filip Forsberg, who finished with 63 points, was the leading candidate for much of the season, but this year's strong crop of rookies kept him from a nomination. Forsberg's fine effort would have earned him the trophy in most seasons.
My feeling is the the award will go to either Gaudreau or Ekblad, with the young Flame being the one who wins it. While it's often acknowledged that making a big-time contribution as a rookie defenseman is a tougher task, I think Gaudreau's flash and strong finish will edge out Ekblad's steady overall play. The Panther freshman will be done in by his late season offensive drop off. Ekblad is also the only one of the nominees to not make the postseason, although that had nothing to do with his superb campaign.
The winner will be named at the annual NHL Awards on June 24 in that potential expansion hotbed, Las Vegas.