by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist
Jim Benning and Joe Sakic are focused on their teams. But the general managers are like the rest of us at times, sitting back and enjoying rookie defensemen Quinn Hughes of the Vancouver Canucks and Cale Makar of the Colorado Avalanche.
"It's fun, I think, just being a fan for a second, to go to a game when we play Colorado and to be able to watch Quinn Hughes play against Makar," said Benning, the Canucks GM. "It's a fun game, because every time those guys get the puck, there's a chance they can do something really exciting with it."
The Canucks and Avalanche play at Rogers Arena on Friday (10 p.m. ET; ESPN+, SNP, ALT, NHL.TV). Makar is day-to-day with an upper-body injury.
"You see what these two players are doing for each club," said Sakic, the Avalanche GM. "As a fan of the game, these are two guys that you pay money to go see. Fans want to go see these two guys dominate from the back end, pushing the play, making great plays for the forwards, what they can do in the offensive zone. Two fun guys to watch."
They headline the race for the Calder Trophy, which goes to the rookie of the year, specifically "the player selected as the most proficient in his first year of competition in the National Hockey League."
Hughes leads rookies with 52 points (eight goals, 44 assists). Makar is second with 47 points (12 goals, 35 assists).
Never in the modern era (since 1943-44) have two defensemen led rookies in scoring.
Only twice has it happened in more than a century: in 1931-32, when Doug Young of the Detroit Falcons (12 points), Earl Seibert of the New York Rangers (10) and Alex Levinsky of the Toronto Maple Leafs (10) were the top three in rookie scoring, and 1920-21, when Moylan McDonnell of the Hamilton Tigers and Billy Stuart of the Toronto St. Pats had three points apiece, tied with Toronto forward Rod Smylie.
This week at the NHL general managers meetings in Boca Raton, Florida, NHL.com asked the GMs of five of the top Calder candidates to make their cases:
Vancouver Canucks defenseman Quinn Hughes
The conversation starts with Hughes' skill with the puck.
"His ability to get back and transition the puck up ice, either through a good pass or skating it up and then joining the rush, and all the things he's capable of doing at the offensive blue line," Benning said.
But the rest of Hughes' game is perhaps underappreciated by those who don't watch him game in and game out.
"I think there's a misconception about how good he is defensively," Benning said. "The way he skates, the way he can eliminate time and space, how smart he is, like, stick on stick, reading the play. We play him against the other teams' top lines every night and he holds his own, and because he's such a great skater, he shuts down some of the best players in the League."
Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar
Makar is five points behind Hughes but has played 56 games to Hughes' 65. He missed eight games from Dec. 9-23 and the past two, each time with an upper-body injury. Among rookies who have played more than one game, he leads in points per game at 0.84. Hughes is second at 0.80.
Like Hughes, Makar flashes offensive skill but excels at each end of the ice.
"He's been unbelievable," Sakic said. "You see how electrifying he is. I mean, he's been good defensively as well. He's got a full 200-foot game. He plays hard defensively. He's a really reliable, responsible guy. He takes pride in it. Obviously everybody sees what he can do with the puck, but away from the puck, he's a very competitive guy in the defensive zone."
Chicago Blackhawks forward Dominik Kubalik
Kubalik has 29 goals, nine more than any other rookie (Dennis Gurianov of the Dallas Stars has 20); has 45 points, five more than any other rookie not named Makar or Hughes; and didn't play an offensive role until relatively recently, when the Blackhawks put him with center Jonathan Toews and gave him power-play time.
Twenty-five of Kubalik's goals have come at even strength, a dozen more than any other rookie (Gurianov is second with 13) and tied for seventh in the NHL. Eighteen of his goals have come since Jan. 1. He's averaging 14:15 of ice time, the lowest among the top six rookie scorers.
"He's been very productive in his short time," Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman said. "For that reason, it's impressive to see what he's done."
Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Elvis Merzlikins
Merzlikins is 12-9-8 with a 2.39 goals-against average, a .922 save percentage and five shutouts. Among goalies who have played at least 30 games, he ranks sixth in GAA and fifth in save percentage, and he's tied for first in shutouts with Marc-Andre Fleury of the Vegas Golden Knights and Connor Hellebuyck of the Winnipeg Jets.
Is it enough that he has played 32 games and started 30?
"Goaltending's a little different position," Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen said. "Jordan Binnington didn't play more last year, and he was in consideration. So, yeah, I guess that would be something he has earned."
Binnington played 32 games and started 30 for the St. Louis Blues last season, helping them go from last in the NHL to the Stanley Cup Playoffs (and eventually the Cup). He went 24-5-1 with a 1.89 goals-against average, a .927 save percentage and five shutouts in the regular season and finished second in the voting for the Calder.
New York Rangers defenseman Adam Fox
Hughes and Makar have shined so brightly, you might call Fox a dark horse. Rangers GM Jeff Gorton would not.
"I don't think there's anything dark horse about it," Gorton said. "I think from Day 1, Adam's been really good, I think consistent. He's been a big part of our team, and he just keeps getting better and better."
Fox is sixth in rookie scoring with 36 points (seven goals, 29 assists).
"I think beyond the offense, if you look at him in his own zone, I think it's been a real good surprise, his competitiveness," Gorton said. "Not so much physically as it is with his brain and his stick. He can play against anybody, and he's shown that.
"Him and (Ryan) Lindgren have been a really good pair together, and it's been nice to watch and huge for our team. If you look at the whole sheet, people would be surprised how good Adam really is."