Forward Dominik Kubalik’s impressive rookie season has earned him a fully deserved title: Calder Trophy finalist.
The NHL announced Wednesday that Kubalik, Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar and Canucks defenseman Quinn Hughes were the top three vote-getters in the race for Rookie of the Year.
On a Zoom interview virtually alongside Makar and Hughes, Kubalik was characteristically understated at first: “I think the season was pretty good, yeah,” he said.
But after a few minutes, the significance of the achievement started to seep into his emotions. He said he found out about being a finalist Tuesday, a day before the official announcement, then came close to tearing up on the call.
“It’s an honor,’’ he said. ‘‘I just couldn’t believe it. Coming from Europe, obviously you have some goals, but you don’t think you could be a finalist for something like that.
“It’s just great. Lots of guys could be here, too, so I’m really happy that I’m here. It’s kind of hard to talk about it.”
Indeed, Kubalik — despite his immediate success in his first North American season — never seemed to fully believe what was happening.
The 24-year-old Czech import frequently mentioned, all year long, how happy he was to simply be on the Blackhawks’ roster.
After being a healthy scratch Nov. 7, Kubalik was harsher on himself than coach Jeremy Colliton, who scratched him.
“I’ve got to do a better job, that’s for sure, to help my teammates,” Kubalik said.
And even when his scoring erupted — he had a stretch of 10 goals in eight games between Jan. 5 and Jan. 19 — Kubalik remained as bewildered as all those watching from the outside.
“I’ve got so much luck on my stick right now,” he said in Ottawa on Jan. 14.
“It sounds unreal,” he said a few days later in Toronto, surrounded by a mob of reporters after scoring one of the NHL’s goals of the year. “I don’t know what happened there.”
Yet his self-amazement never crossed the line into fluster, and Kubalik’s confidence, poise and knack for getting open in high-danger areas only increased as the season went along.
He credited captain Jonathan Toews — his most common linemate — for helping with that on Wednesday.
Kubalik squeaked onto the 30-goal plateau with a rocketing slap shot in the final minutes of the Sharks-Hawks game March 11, which turned out to be the last game of the regular season.
He finished with 30 goals and 16 assists in 68 games, leading all rookies in goals by a wide margin. Buffalo’s Victor Olofsson and Dallas’ Denis Gurianov tied for second with 20.
Even more impressive, 26 of his goals came at even strength, good for seventh in the NHL in that regard — ahead of Patrick Kane, Nathan MacKinnon and Connor McDavid.
“It’s a big honor, a big accolade for him, which he fully deserves,” Colliton said. “He has an excellent work ethic, very coachable, great skater, great release, loves playing the game, great personality in the room. So we’re very happy he’s part of our team and happy that he’s being recognized for the season he had.”
It has been only four years since the Hawks boasted a Calder Trophy winner, with Artemi Panarin taking it home in 2015-16. And Kubalik almost certainly won’t win this year; Makar and Hughes stand alone as the neck-and-neck front-runners.
But the finalist designation still serves as a shiny cherry on top of Kubalik’s fantastic debut season.