RALEIGH — It took 31 years before the Carolina Hurricanes franchise produced a Calder Trophy winner. Could it even be possible the Hurricanes could produce two straight?
A year after Jeff Skinner took home the trophy that goes to the NHL's rookie of the year, 19-year-old defenseman Justin Faulk is making a case for himself. He's a long shot, there's no doubt about that, but less of one with each passing game.
"Being a young defenseman, he hasn't had the same kind of name coming into the NHL," Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller said. "I think there are a lot of people who are still unaware of what he does."
As the season has moved along, Faulk's candidacy has strengthened while a clear favorite has yet to distinguish himself from among the preseason favorites.
To a certain degree, it's mind-boggling that the Hurricanes even have a second straight Calder candidate. The franchise, whether the Hurricanes or Hartford Whalers, hasn't even had many legitimate contenders over the years. (Sylvain Turgeon, in 1984, came closest - and lost to future Hurricanes goalie and current assistant coach Tom Barrasso.) Even Faulk doesn't really consider himself a candidate at this point.
"I'm not even expecting to be nominated or anything like that," Faulk said. "I'm not paying any attention to it. It's not something I'm worrying too much about. It doesn't affect how I'm going to play or anything - just going to keep going out there every day. If it ended up coming up, it'd be an honor, but right now I'm not really focusing on anything along those lines."
Faulk is moving fast, though. In November, Faulk was in the AHL. In January, he was a rookie invitee to All-Star weekend. Faulk leads all NHL rookies in ice time by a reasonably wide margin and he's tied for the lead in goals among rookie defensemen, but if he wins the award, it won't be because of his offense. It'll be because of his value to the Hurricanes defensively.
Traditionally, defensemen without big scoring numbers haven't had much luck getting Calder attention, but St. Louis Blues defenseman Barret Jackman won the award in 2003, beating out Henrik Zetterberg and Rick Nash despite recording only 19 points (Faulk is on pace for 21). The field of forwards Faulk faces doesn't include a Zetterberg or a Nash - or even a Skinner.
There are six rookie forwards with 30-35 points, with only a couple even sniffing 20 goals - not exactly blow-me-away numbers to begin with, and no one stands out from the crowd, while no rookies are holding down a No. 1 spot in goal.
Coming into the season, the defenseman given the best chance to win the Calder was Adam Larsson of the New Jersey Devils, and he remains a candidate, but he's missed time with a bad back and his numbers are similar to Faulk's. Toronto's Jake Gardiner leads rookie defensemen in points, and joins Larsson and Faulk as the only rookie defensemen playing more than 21 minutes a game.
Given that competition, and Faulk's value to a rapidly improving Hurricanes team, there's no reason he can't make a late run at the trophy, although it would help his case immensely if the Hurricanes could move a few spots up the standings.
"It's not too often you look at a team that's in last and talk about a rookie of the year," Muller acknowledged.
It doesn't happen often, but it's not impossible. Three of the past six winners played for teams that missed the playoffs, including one Faulk knows well: Skinner.