You’ve probably heard by now that the Toronto Maple Leafs have an unusually talented crop of rookies. As of Monday night the Leafs had three of the four highest scoring rookies in the NHL, as well as three more in the top 15. But as much as the Leafs rookies have been talked about, I think a lot of people don’t realise just how unusually good the trio has been.
Here’s one example: Last season’s highest scoring rookie was Jack Eichel with 56 points (I’m not including Artemi Panarin, who’s barely a year younger than Nazem Kadri and had significant KHL experience). With 15 games to go, Auston Matthews is only one point behind Eichel and Mitch Marner is only two back. William Nylander is on pace to pass that total before the season is done. So the Leafs have three rookies on pace to outscore every single rookie last season.
And that’s just the beginning of how unusual it is to do what the Leafs trio are doing.
Let’s start by taking a look at how the numbers for these three player shake out:
In the past decade only two rookies have scored more than 67 points: Patrick Kane and Nicklas Backstrom. If you go by points per game so players with injuries aren’t penalized, we get a handful of other players: Bobby Ryan, Anze Kopitar, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Jonathan Toews. If you extend the timeframe to the entire salary cap era, looking only at truly young rookies (22 years old or younger), which is what I’m going to do for the rest of this post, you add in some pretty impressive names: Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Paul Stastny. No other rookie has scored as many points as Matthews and Marner are on pace for.
Since Nylander is the lowest scoring of the group, let’s take a look at all the rookies to score at least 59 points in the salary cap era:
One thing you’ll notice is that there are no instances of two players on the same team doing it in the same season, let alone three! The Leafs are quite unique in that regard.
59 points is kind of a weird cut-off, though. Let’s expand the list a bit and add in everyone with at least 55 points in their rookie season:
A couple bounces gets any of these players up to Nylander’s pace, so I think we can call this group the comparables for Toronto’s trio. That gives us 18 players over 12 seasons, an average of 1.5 per season. Just this year alone the Leafs have three rookies on pace to do something that isn’t done league-wide by more than two players in an average NHL season. No team in the salary cap era has had two players, let alone three, do it in the same season.
In order to try and find a comparison, I decided to expand the list again, this time including all the players with at least 50 points in the rookie campaign.
By dropping the cut-off to 50 points, we now have two examples of teams with two high-scoring rookies in the same season. The first one is the 2007/08 Chicago Blackhawks. Things have turned out pretty well for them! The other is the 2006/07 Colorado Avalanche. Things didn’t turn out as well for them, but it’s worth noting that Wolski was a very good player whose career was derailed by concussions.
One complaint you might have of what I’ve presented so far, and I think this is a fair criticism, is that other teams may have had similarly impressive rookies spread out over two or three seasons. After all, Matthews, Marner, and Nylander were all taken in different draft years.
As it turns out, that doesn’t really make much difference. The Chicago Blackhawks are the only team to have three rookies with 50+ points in a three season span: Toews, Kane, and Kris Versteeg. Versteeg has won two Stanley Cups with the Hawks, while Toews and Kane have each won three, so if that’s the comparison for what the Leafs are putting together, that’s quite good.
Taking three consecutive seasons into account brings the Washington Capitals into the conversation, as Ovechkin and Backstrom debuted two years apart. And that’s it. In the entire salary cap era only three teams have had two or more rookies score 50 or more points within a three season span.
This all got me wondering if there had ever been an NHL team with three rookies aged 22 or younger to score above 50 points in the same season. I looked back 30 years, to the 1987-88 season, and I couldn’t find any team that had done it. If I relax the criteria to just 40 points, I get two examples:
The Boston Bruins in 1988-89 had Craig Janney (62), Bob Joyce (49), and Greg Hawgood (40). The 1987-88 Buffalo Sabres had Ray Sheppard (65), Calle Johansson (42), and Pierre Turgeon (42). That’s it. In 30 years of NHL history I couldn’t find another example of an NHL team having three rookies score 40 or more points in the same season. What the Toronto trio are accomplishing this year appears to be unprecedented over the past three decades of NHL hockey.