Rookies in the NHL face an uphill battle as soon as they report to training camp in late summer. After all, when you’re a newbie in the best play-for-pay league in the world, you’re stepping onto the ice with the biggest, fastest and most skillful athletes in the game. Simply put, it’s hard to be a superstar in your debut NHL season. Some guys wash out early, and some guys spend years jetting back and forth between farm teams and the big-league squad before they can forge a true foothold as an everyday NHL player who can contribute on a regular basis.
Still, a few players every season display enough raw, natural talent in their first foray into the league to appear on an NHL team’s game-day roster day in and day out, making a positive impact all season long. Those are the guys who become not only fan-favorites, but memorable, core franchise players who hit the ground running on their way to becoming the next NHL legend.
The ultimate goal for every first-year player, other than a Stanley Cup ring, is the Calder Memorial Trophy, the award given to the league’s top rookie at the conclusion of each season. Sometimes there’s a clear-cut favorite as the season comes to an end, and other times it’s a two- or even three-way race among some of the most impressive rookies in the league.
While many here were Calder Memorial Trophy winners, you may be surprised by others who rose to the top in this of every NHL franchise’s greatest rookie season from Anaheim to Winnipeg.
Anaheim Ducks: Bobby Ryan – 2008-09
31 G – 26 A – 57 P
The Ducks selected Bobby Ryan second overall in 2005, but it wasn’t until the 2008-09 season that he made his mark as an elite rookie in the NHL. Ryan sharpened his offensive skillset with stints in the OHL and the AHL before he made his NHL debut at the beginning of the 2007-08 season. Despite potting a goal in his first NHL start, he was sent back to the Ducks’ AHL affiliate after just four games for more development. He returned at the end of the year but only played a total of 23 games that season to maintain his rookie status heading in to the 2008-09 campaign. His coming out party got cranked up that following year, though, as the 21-year-old rookie broke franchise marks for both goals (31) and points (57) in a season by a rookie, highlighted by a natural hat trick against the Los Angeles Kings on Jan. 8, 2009. In total, he posted 14 multi-point games and finished fourth on the team in points.
Arizona Coyotes/Winnipeg Jets: Teemu Selanne – 1992-93
76 G – 56 A – 132 P
Before the original Jets relocated to Phoenix, Teemu Selanne burst onto the NHL scene in Winnipeg with an eye-popping NHL record 76 goals – which still stands today – in his rookie 1992-93 season. The NHL knew it had trouble on its hands when he scored his first career hat trick in just his fifth game in the league. He ended up with 16 multi-goal games that season, posting four hat tricks and an astounding 0.66 goals per game average and quickly made a name for himself as “The Finnish Flash.” He tacked on 56 assists for a total of 132 points – another rookie record – and tied for fifth in league scoring. He won Rookie of the Year honors that year, as well as a first-team NHL All-star selection for good measure.
Boston Bruins: Ray Bourque – 1979-80
17 G – 48 A – 65 P
On any other franchise, legendary Bobby Orr would have claimed its greatest rookie season with the start of his NHL career in Boston in 1966. Unfortunately for Orr – and fortunately for Beantown fans of the 1980s and ‘90s – however you want to look at it – one Raymond Bourque came along in 1979 and rewrote Bruins history for the better. In a Calder Memorial Trophy-winning debut in the 1979-80 season, Bourque’s impact as an offensive defenseman was immediately felt. He scored a goal against the Jets in his NHL debut and went on to rack up 17 lamp-lighters and 48 assists for what was at the time a record 65 points for a rookie D-man.
Buffalo Sabres: Gilbert Perreault – 1970-71
38 G – 34 A – 72 P
What’s better than making your rookie debut in the NHL as a No. 1 overall draft pick? How about doing it on a brand new team to the league? Then, top it off with a goal in both yours and your team’s very first game in 1970, and you’ve made an entrance worthy of a parade. That’s how the NHL came to know Gilbert Perreault, and they accordingly awarded him the Buffalo Sabres franchise’s first Calder Trophy honors. His adept stickhandling skills made Perreault an instant success, as he led the Sabres in both goals (38) and points (72) in the greatest rookie season the team as ever seen.
Calgary Flames: Joe Nieuwendyk – 1987-88
51 G – 41 A – 92 P
Joe Nieuwendyk wrapped up one of the best college hockey careers all time at Cornell in 1987 and then picked up right where he left off in his rookie campaign with the Calgary Flames the following year. The forward out of Oshawa, Ontario lit the lamp 51 times that season – 31 of which were on the power play – to lead the team and become only the second rookie ever to score 50 times in a season. He helped the Flames finish first in the Smythe Division that season and advance to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs before being swept by the Oilers. For his efforts, Nieuwendyk was selected to the 1988 All-Star Game, was named to the All-Rookie Team and won the Flames’ second Calder Memorial Trophy in three seasons.
Carolina Hurricanes/Hartford Whalers: Sylvain Turgeon – 1983-84
40 G – 32 A – 72 P
Sylvain Turgeon’s record-setting season in 1983-84 was one of the few bright spots for the Hartford Whalers, who finished dead last in the Adams Division that year. Turgeon’s adept knack for finding the net helped him score a team-high 40 goals on his way to being named to the NHL All-Rookie Team. He tacked on 32 assists to finish third on the team in scoring, and that was enough to set a Hartford record 72 points for a rookie, which still stands today between both the Hartford and Carolina eras. Turgeon would go on to play five more seasons for the Whalers, leading the team to its first four of seven straight Stanley Cup Playoff appearances from 1986-1989 before being shipped off to the New Jersey Devils.
Chicago Blackhawks: Tony Esposito – 1969-70
38 W – 15 SO
A name synonymous with the Chicago hockey scene, Tony Esposito’s Hall-of-Fame career blossomed quickly in the 1969-70 season after he was picked up off the waiver wire by the Blackhawks. Esposito appeared in 13 games with the Montreal Canadiens the season prior and posted mostly unexceptional numbers, but the change in scenery apparently was just what the doctor ordered. In his first season in Chicago, Esposito backstopped 63 games, posting a remarkable 38-17-9 record, a 2.17 GAA and a .932 save percentage, all while setting a modern-day NHL record with 15 shutouts. For his trouble, he was named to the NHL First All-Star Team, awarded the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender and the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie and was runner-up for league MVP.
Colorado Avalanche/Quebec Nordiques: Peter Stastny – 1980-81
39 G – 70 A – 109 P
If you take a gander at Peter Stastny’s lengthy list of records and achievements he accomplished during his 15-year career in the NHL, you’ll understand why he became better known as Peter the Great. After defecting from Czechoslovakia in 1980, Stastny joined the NHL with the Quebec Nordiques and quickly made himself at home in the world’s toughest league. In his first season, Stastny led all Nordiques with 109 points on 39 goals and a whopping 70 assists and finished eighth in the league in scoring. During that time, he became the first NHLer in history to score over 100 points in his rookie year, tied Joe Juneau for assists by a rookie, set the record for points in a game by a rookie (8), set the overall record for points in a road game (8), set the overall record for points in two consecutive games (14), earned a trip to the NHL All-Star Game and was awarded the Calder Memorial Trophy at the end of the year. And that’s just scratching the surface. Oddly enough, his son, Paul Stastny, later made his NHL debut with the Colorado Avalanche in 2006 after the franchise relocated to Denver and currently holds the post-relocation franchise record for points by a rookie with 78.
Columbus Blue Jackets: Steve Mason – 2008-09
33 W – 10 SO
At the ripe old age of 20, goaltender Steve Mason turned in the even-younger Blue Jackets franchise’s best rookie season in its history. A first-year netminder out of Oakville, Ontario, Mason made his pro debut with the Blue Jackets’ AHL affiliate in 2008 before being called up to the big-league club when its regular starter, Pascal Leclaire, went out with an injury. In his first start on Nov. 5, 2008, he made 26 saves to defeat the Edmonton Oilers, and from there, the rest is history. He would go on to play in 61 games over the course of the season, earning a 33-20-7 record, posting a .916 save percentage, a 2.29 GAA and 10 shutouts, including three straight in late December to set a franchise record shutout streak of 182 minutes and eight seconds. He was named to the 2009 NHL YoungStars game and then awarded the franchise’s first and only Calder Trophy.
Dallas Stars/Minnesota North Stars: Neal Broten – 1981-82
38 G – 60 A – 98 P
To say U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer Neal Broten knows a thing or two about winning in hockey would be quite the understatement. Broten won a WCHA Rookie of the Year in his first season at the University of Minnesota, an NCAA championship with the Golden Gophers in 1979, a gold medal with Team U.S.A. in the 1980 Miracle on Ice, the inaugural Hobey Baker Award with in 1981 and a Stanley Cup championship with the New Jersey Devils in 1995. That’s why it’s not surprising that Broten is responsible for the Dallas Stars/Minnesota North Stars franchise’s best ever rookie season. Coming off a 71-point senior year at Minnesota, Broten broke into the league with the North Stars in 1981 and scored 38 goals and 60 assists for 98 points in his first full season, finishing third among his teammates in that category. His goals and points marks still stand as the franchise’s benchmarks for a rookie.
Detroit Red Wings: Terry Sawchuk – 1950-51
44 W – 11 SO
Terry Sawchuk’s rookie campaign for the Detroit Red Wings in 1950-51 will go down as one of if not the greatest first-year goaltender’s season for the entire league, let alone the Red Wings. Sawchuk started (and finished) all 70 regular season games that year, standing on his head all season long and ended the year with an amazing 44-13-13 record, a 1.99 GAA and 11 shutouts. The Wings finished first in the league as the only team to eclipse the 100-point mark but ultimately lost to the Canadiens in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But Sawchuk would go on to backstop the team to three Cup championships over the next four years before he was traded to the Boston Bruins in 1955. He was selected to the 1950 NHL All-Star Game and was awarded the Calder Memorial Trophy at the end of his rookie year.
Edmonton Oilers: Jari Kurri – 1980-81
32 G -43 A – 75 P
Yes, Wayne Gretzky had the most points of any Edmonton player in his first year in the NHL, but he wasn’t considered a rookie after the Oilers transitioned from a WHL team to an NHL team in the 1979-80 season, because he already had a full season under his belt before the leagues merged. Hence, Jari Kurri. Now, while it might sound bad to say Kurri finished with less than half the points of the Oilers’ team leader during his NHL debut in 1980-81, the only man to beat him was – you guessed it – Wayne Gretzky, only the greatest player ever to live. With that in mind, his 75 points (32 goals, 43 assists), which is still an Edmonton team record for a rookie, is darn good. Interestingly enough, no Oiler has ever won the Calder Memorial Trophy.
Florida Panthers: Aaron Ekblad – 2014-15
12 G – 27 A – 39 P
Hockey is a two-way sport, and in a two-way sport, you’re going to need some strong defensemen. Enter Aaron Ekblad. As one of just a few D-men to make this list, Ekblad earned his spot and then some during his rookie campaign with the Panthers in 2014-15. After being chosen first overall in the 2014 draft, the Panthers made haste, installing Edblad on the blue line to help shore up their defensive platoon. The 6-foot-4 newcomer did well to establish a strong defensive zone presence, but his offensive abilities are what earned him his paycheck. Ekblad notched an assist in his NHL debut on Oct. 9, 2014 and went on to win the Panthers’ second Calder Trophy in three years by way of tallying 12 goals and 27 assists over 81 games, good for fourth on the team in points and first among defensemen.
Los Angeles Kings: Luc Robitaille – 1986-87
45 G – 39 A – 84 P
The Kings’ 1984 ninth-round draft pick beat out the their 1986 first-round draft pick in an unlikely intra-team battle of the rookies during the 1986-87 season. After taking Michigan native Jimmy Carson second overall, the Kings deployed him immediately, the same year their afterthought-of-a-ninth-rounder from Montreal two years prior made the opening day roster for the first time. Though the pair battled it out for the rookie title that first year, they became linemates and fast friends both on and off the ice. Robitaille ended up setting the team record for points as a rookie with 84, beating out Carson by a mere five points, and won the one and only Calder Trophy in Kings history.
Minnesota Wild: Marian Gaborik – 2000-01
18 G – 18 A – 36 P
The Minnesota Wild’s debut NHL season in 2000-01 produced its greatest rookie season yet, when current Wild all-time leading goal scorer Marian Gaborik made his own NHL debut. The Wild struggled in their first season, as most expansion teams do, but Gaborik’s 18 goals led the team, and he finished second only to Scott Pellerin in points with 36. That benchmark stands today as the highest rookie scoring output for the still-young franchise.
Montreal Canadiens: Ken Dryden – 1971-72
39 W – 8 SO
It’s been close to half a century since a Montreal Canadien won a Calder Memorial Trophy, and Ken Dryden was the last to do it. Dryden made his NHL debut in a late-season call-up in 1971, when he started six regular season games, going 6-0 and posting a phenomenal 1.65 GAA. With the hot hand, the Canadiens started Dryden throughout the playoffs, and he led the team to its 15th Stanley Cup Final, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs MVP in the process, without any prior NHL postseason experience. In his official rookie season the following year, Dryden maintained his dominance between the pipes, winning an NHL-high 39 games with a low-low 2.24 GAA and was awarded rookie of the year honors.
Nashville Predators: Filip Forsberg – 2014-15
26 G – 37 A – 63 P
The Swedish Filip Forsberg (no relation to Peter Forsberg) saw action in two seasons with the Nashville Predators before his true rookie season in 2014-15. That experience came in handy, as the 20-year-old put together a solid rookie campaign in which he led the team in both goals (26) and points (63) and helped the Predators return to the Stanley Cup Finals after not qualifying the previous two seasons. He earned a trip to the 2015 NHL All-Star Game as a replacement for Pittsburgh Penguins’ injured Evgeni Malkin. In the playoffs, Forsberg became the youngest player ever to score a playoff goal in a Nashville jersey and added the first playoff hat trick in the history of the franchise.
New Jersey Devils: Scott Gomez – 1999-00
19 G – 51 A – 70 P
As just the fifth Alaskan to play in the NHL, Scott Gomez made his home state proud in his rookie campaign with the New Jersey Devils in 1999-00. After scoring an astonishing 108 points for the WHL’s Tri-City Americans the year prior, Gomez, the Devils’ gritty first-round pick in the 1998 draft, appeared in all 82 games, scoring a team-high 51 assists and helping the Devils to their second Stanley Cup championship in franchise history. His natural playmaking ability and willingness to get after in in the trenches earned him the Calder Trophy to go along with his NHL All-Star Game appearance, an All-Rookie Team selection and, oh, Lord Stanley’s cup.
New York Islanders: Mike Bossy – 1977-78
53 G – 38 A – 91 P
Canadian Mike Bossy became the third Islanders skater in five seasons to win the Calder Memorial Trophy after he entered the league in 1977, so it says a lot that his debut 1977-78 season is the greatest in an Islanders history steeped in hockey lore. Right out of the gate, Bossy was a scoring machine for the powerful Islanders offense. He notched a then-record and team high 53 goals in his first year and added 38 assists to finish third on the team in scoring. Bossy would go on to produce an NHL-record nine consecutive 50-goal seasons and help the Islanders to four straight Stanley Cup championships from 1980-1983.
New York Rangers: Brian Leetch – 1988-89
Brian Leetch’s 1988-89 rookie season in New York paved the way for what would become one of the greatest careers ever by an American-born defenseman. An offensive-minded D-man, Leetch asserted himself in the attacking zone with skating and playmaking abilities few had seen from a blueliner. In his rookie season, Leetch finished second on the team in both assists and points and first among defenseman by a long shot. His 23 rookie goals still stand as an NHL record for rookie defensemen. Those efforts earned him a selection to the 1989 NHL All-Rookie Team and the only Calder Trophy awarded to a New York Ranger in the past four decades.
Ottawa Senators: Alexei Yashin – 1993-94
Alexei Yashin became the first draft pick of the expansion Ottawa Senators franchise when he went second overall in 1992. After playing one more season in his native Russia, he had instant success in the NHL as a big power forward on the young Ottawa team. He put up 79 points as a rookie – a Senators record that still stands today – and led the team in all scoring categories with 30 goals and 49 assists despite a -49 plus-minus rating. He was nominated for the Calder Trophy, but it was ultimately awarded to New Jersey goaltender Martin Brodeur. Yashin would go on to serve as the Senators’ captain during the 1998-99 season, and he is currently the third leading scorer in team history.
Philadelphia Flyers: Ron Hextall – 1986-87
Legendary Goaltender Ron Hextall’s Hall-of-Fame career began with a highly decorated rookie season in 1986-87. As a 22-year-old, he made the jump to the NHL from the minor leagues and went 37-21-6, posting the most wins of any goaltender on the season while backstopping 66 games to lead the Flyers to a 100-point season and a first-place finish in the Prince of Wales Conference. In the playoffs, Hextall went 15-11 with a .908 save percentage and a 2.77 GAA, as the Flyers got to within one win of the Stanley Cup Championship, falling 3-1 in Game 7 of the finals to the Edmonton Oilers. His outstanding rookie performance was rewarded with the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender, the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP and an NHL All-Rookie Team selection to go along with his NHL All-Star Game appearance earlier in the season.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Sidney Crosby – 2005-06
Sidney Crosby immediately drew comparisons to The Great One when he rode into Pittsburgh on his proverbial white horse as the No. 1 draft pick in 2005. And if we’re being honest, it’s not a totally inaccurate assessment. At just 18 years old, the Nova Scotia native became the youngest player in NHL history to eclipse 100 points when he did it in his debut season in 2005-06. He had 102 points (39 goals and 63 assists) that year to lead the team in scoring, finishing sixth in the league. If it weren’t for Alexander Ovechkin’s phenomenal 106-point rookie output that same year, Crosby would easily have hoisted the Calder Memorial Trophy as Rookie of the Year. And if it weren’t for Crosby, we’d be talking about Mario Lemieux’s 1984-85 rookie debut when he notched 100 points and won the Penguins’ first-ever Calder Trophy.
St. Louis Blues: Barret Jackman – 2002-03
Despite what would be a sweet name for a NASCAR pit crewmember, Barret Jackman was good at hockey. So much so that the St. Louis Blues drafted the British Columbian defenseman with their first pick in the 1999 draft. After development seasons in both the WHL and AHL, Jackman played in all 82 games for the Blues during his rookie season in 2002-03, finishing with a plus-23 rating and ranked near the top of the list for average ice time per game among all rookies. He was awarded the Calder Trophy at the end of the season, becoming the Blues franchise’s first player and the league’s ninth defenseman to do so.
San Jose Sharks: Logan Couture – 2010-11
Logan Couture played his first full season as a rookie for the San Jose Sharks as a 21-year old in 2010-11. Despite playing in 25 games for San Jose the year prior, his status remained as a rookie, and he made the most of it. His 56 points fell three short of the Shark’s rookie mark set by Pat Falloon in the 1991-92 season, but his 32 goals were enough to re-write the team record books. By the end of the season, his offensive expertise led him to finish second in the league in both rookie goals and points, and he also set the NHL record for most game-winning goals on the road by a rookie with seven. He scored seven goals in the playoffs, tying for the team lead, before the Sharks were eliminated in the Western Conference Finals by the Vancouver Canucks.
Tampa Bay Lighting: Brad Richards – 2000-01
As a third-round pick by Tampa Bay in 1998, Brad Richards outplayed his draft stock from Day 1, eventually winning two Stanley Cup Championships, including the Conn Sythe Trophy in 2004 when the Lightning won its first and only league title. In that first season in 2000-01, Richards led his team in both assists (41) and points (62) and was selected to the 2001 NHL All-Rookie Team. Two seasons later, Richards would help the Lightning return to the playoffs, where they made four straight appearances, including the 2004 championship run. His 62 rookie points is still the high mark for the Lightning.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Frank McCool 1944-45
Frank McCool only played two seasons for the storied Toronto Maple Leafs in the mid-1940s, but the impact he had in his first year there can still be felt today as the greatest rookie season the Maple Leafs franchise has ever had. As the only goaltender Leafs to see ice time the entire season, McCool backstopped the team to a 24-22-4 record, in which he turned in a mediocre 3.22 GAA. But it was in the playoffs that McCool really hit his stride. The Leafs dispatched the top-seeded Montreal Canadiens in six games and faced the Detroit Red Wings in the finals. During those finals, McCool broke out, setting an NHL record for consecutive postseason shutouts with three. He also set the NHL record for fewest goals allowed in a final with nine, and it stood intact until Tim Thomas beat the mark in 2011. Toronto ended up beating the Wings in seven games, and McCool earned the third straight Calder Memorial Trophy awarded to a Maple Leafs player, along, of course, with the Stanley Cup. McCool did all of it as a 25-year-old rookie phenom.
Vancouver Canucks: Pavel Bure – 1991-92
Before he became known affectionately around the league as “The Russian Rocket,” Moscow native Pavel Bure lay down a solid career foundation in his rookie season in the NHL. Bure was a sixth-round pick of the Canucks in 1989, and after some controversy, made his league debut in 1991, a month into the season. Bure used his unmatched speed to tie the team record for points by a rookie at 60, leading the team in goals (34) and adding 26 assists. He finished second in scoring among all rookies but ended up winning the Calder Trophy anyways. He scored his first career hat trick in Game 6 of the 1992 Stanley Cup Playoffs and finished with 10 points in 13 games before the Canucks were eliminated in the second round.
Washington Capitals: Alexander Ovechkin – 2005-06
Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby are commonly mentioned in the same breath. After all, they were both heralded as a pair of the greatest players since the Gretzky era before they even entered the league in 2005. That’s why it’s no surprise that both recorded the greatest rookie seasons for their respective clubs. What some people might forget, though, is that Ovechkin had the better rookie season. His 106 points in 2005-06 out-scored Crosby by four, and he was deservedly awarded the Calder Memorial Trophy, the first for a Washington player. Ovechkin led his team in scoring by nearly 50 points and finished third in the league, behind only Jaromir Jagr and Joe Thornton. Since Ovechkin’s 52-goal rookie output, no other first-year player has eclipsed the 50-goal plateau.
Winnipeg Jets/Atlanta Thrashers: Dany Heatley – 2001-02
Dany Heatley was the No. 2 overall selection by the Atlanta Thrashers in the 2000 draft and made his NHL debut after his 57-point final season at the University of Wisconsin. Languishing on the worst team in the league his rookie year, Heatley made the most of it by leading all first-year skaters and setting franchise rookie scoring records with 67 points and 41 assists 41. He finished second in goals only to his Thrashers teammate, Illya Kovalchuk. Heatley earned NHL All-Rookie honors and was awarded the Calder Memorial Trophy after the conclusion of the season.
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