As the race for the Calder Memorial Trophy comes down to the final stretch, there are not too many questions about who will be named the NHL's best rookie player this season, but there certainly are many worthy contenders.
This year saw the debut of many talented rookies. For some, their season will soon come to an end, but many will go on to the playoffs and continue to play a pivotal role for their team. These 10 players, based on their overall performance this regular season, are in favor of taking home some NHL hardware from Las Vegas this summer after an impressive first year.
1. Nathan MacKinnon - Colorado Avalanche, C
Drafted 2013: 1st overall
Why MacKinnon could win: MacKinnon has lived up to his expectations, leading all rookies in numbers so far with 62 points from 24 goals 38 assists. Playing along with other young talent, he has helped the Avalanche clinch its first playoff berth since 2010 and first 100+ point season since 2004. The young center also broke one of Wayne Gretzky's records last month, becoming the first 18 year old to ride a 13-game point streak. Another area of MacKinnon's performance that makes him a leading favorite is his flexibility, as he has adapted to playing right wing this season, too.
2. Ondrej Palat - Tampa Bay Lightning, LW
Drafted 2011: 208th overall
Why Palat could win: Palat is one of the key rookie players the Tampa Bay Lightning has relied on this season to help the team make its first trip back to the playoffs in three years. Though considered one of the older candidates, Palat's 22 goals and 35 assists ranks him in the top 50 of players by points this season with 57. One area that gives the 23 year old rookie an edge over MacKinnon is his relentless penalty kill, averaging 2:02 minutes of ice time when shorthanded. Palat's ability to control the puck and help out defensively has increased tremendously this season and will only continue to improve.
3. Torey Krug - Boston Bruins, D
Undrafted: Signed March 2012
Why Krug could win: One of the more standout defensive players closer in the race, Krug is fourth among rookies with 38 points. His biggest contribution for the Bruins has been on the power play, leading all rookies with 18 points on the one man advantage. For a Bruins team that ranked 26th on the power play last season, Krug has helped fill in the gaps for Boston who hopes to make another run at the Stanley Cup this year. Having scored four goals in his first five playoff games last year, Krug will be a contributing factor to how far the Bruins make it back this year.
4. Tyler Johnson - Tampa Bay Lightning, C
Undrafted: Signed March 2011
Why Johnson could win: Just like Palat, Johnson has been one the main pieces to the puzzle to help turn around the Lightning this year. During the 45-game absence of center Steven Stamkos who was injured with a broken tibia earlier this season, Johnson stepped up and kept the Lightning a top contender in the Eastern Conference with 14 goals and 17 assists. Johnson's 23 goals so far also match the Lightning's franchise record set by Stamkos for most goals by a rookie. The 5'9" center will continue to play a crucial role along with other young talent under coach Jon Cooper's team, preparing for its first playoff series since 2011.
5. Olli Maatta - Pittsburgh Penguins, D
Drafted 2012: 22nd overall
Why Maatta could win: The 19 year old defenseman exceeded many expectations this season to aid a frequently injured Penguins team. Maatta has averaged over 20 minutes of ice time and his paring with fellow defenseman Matt Niskanen has greatly benefited his power play and penalty kill. It is also worth noting his performance at the Sochi Winter Olympics with Team Finland, where he racked up two goals and three assists that earned him a bronze medal. Although somewhat overshadowed from being on a team with stars like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Maatta will play a vital role for the Penguins in this year's playoffs.
6. Jacob Trouba - Winnipeg Jets, D
Drafted 2012: 9th overall
Why Trouba could win: Despite being sidelined earlier this season due to a neck injury, Trouba has come through huge for the Jets. He leads all rookies in ice time at over 22 minutes and has provided a more physical style of play for Winnipeg by racking up 43 penalty minutes, third most out of defensive rookies. He also is second (behind Radko Gudas) among rookies for most blocked shots with 129. Although the Jets will not be going to the playoffs, Trouba will provide a defensive caliber for a growing Winnipeg team to help them become a more serious contender in the future. His ability to score 10 goals so far this season certainly does not hurt either.
7. Sean Monahan - Calgary Flames, C
Drafted 2013: 6th overall
Why Monahan could win: Jumping right into the League after last year's draft just like MacKinnon, Monahan started out the season on fire (no pun intended), scoring six goals in his first eight games. He also has the second most goals on the Flames, despite being the youngest player on the roster, and has proven he could very well be a future leader for the team. A foot injury in November, however, did set the 19 year old center back a few weeks which caused a noticeable impact on his performance. With a long offseason coming up for Monahan since Calgary will not be going to the postseason, he still has time to improve his game to an even higher level.
8. Hampus Lindholm - Anaheim Ducks, D
Drafted 2012: 6th overall
Why Lindholm could win: Lindholm's +29 (only second behind Palat's +30) has been one of the many key roles in helping the Ducks maintain a strong record this season. Pairing alongside veteran defenseman Francois Beauchemin has also benefited Lindholm, making him one of the more dynamic rookie players all year. Despite being injured most of last year, Lindholm's 29 points so far from 6 goals and 23 assists make it evident he plays with smart puck control and knows when to pass. Recently listed as a healthy scratch to rest up for the playoffs, Lindholm should play a strong part in helping the Ducks make a deep run this year.
9. Nick Bjugstad - Florida Panthers, C
Drafted 2010: 19th overall
Why Bjugstad could win: Although they will not be going to the postseason, Panther fans can still be excited for the promising years Bjugstad has ahead of him. After rookie Aleksander Barkov, drafted 2nd overall by Florida last year, ended his season with a knee-injury at the Sochi Olympics, Bjugstad has provided the much needed young talent to a struggling Panthers team. He currently is tied for second with most points on Florida's roster with 35. Bjugstad's size also provides him with an advantage of a more physical style of play in addition to his sharpshooting. Florida's recent addition by trading for center Brandon Pirri from the Blackhawks will also be beneficial for the Panthers' offense.
10. Valeri Nichushkin - Dallas Stars, RW
Drafted 2013: 10th overall
Why Nichushkin could win: The Stars were probably not expecting Nichushkin to have the standout season he currently is when they drafted him last year. Nevertheless, Nichushkin has been a huge contributor to the Star's offense in only his first season. His 6'4", 205 pound body helped him make a smooth transition into playing a physical game against other large players. Getting some spotlight on the top line with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin has also improved Nichushkin's game, where he currently sits at 14 goals and 20 assists, ranking eighth among rookies. With the Stars' season coming down to the wire trying to claim the last available wildcard spot, look for Nichushkin to be helping Dallas put up a hard fight for it.