Ranking the 10 Best Candidates for the 2021 Calder Trophy
The 2021 NHL season has not been without its drama, but sadly most of that has come from team shutdowns and coronavirus outbreaks. However, it has been an exciting season for the rookies of the league.
Opportunities for rookies have been opened up this season with the use of the taxi squads and the shortened season. Teams have more flexibility to work younger players into the rotations with the taxi squads, and it helps that the American and Canadian Hockey Leagues have delayed their seasons.
Any given night, a team has a top rookie on the active roster. A few have already made themselves lineup staples. There are so many good rookies this season that some will undoubtedly be left off this list.
Here's a look at 10 of the top rookies in the NHL season and where they rank in competition for the Calder Trophy, the NHL's rookie of the year award. These rankings are based on points production, advanced stats (all stats from Natural Stat Trick) and surveying Professional Hockey Writers Association awards voters.
Honorable Mention: The Goalies
The Washington Capitals were planning on using a tandem of Ilya Samsonov and Henrik Lundqvist, but they had to alter their plans when Lundqvist was diagnosed with a heart condition.
Vitek Vanecek has been somewhat of a late bloomer. Washington drafted the 25-year-old at No. 39 in 2014, and he spent the next few seasons in his native Czech Republic before coming to North America and splitting time in the ECHL and the AHL. He was named the NHL's Rookie of the Month for January after going 5-0-2 with a .918 save percentage and amassing a seven-game point streak.
Jake Oettinger has stepped in for the Dallas Stars in Ben Bishop's absence and played well, going 2-0-2 with a .919 save percentage. Some consideration should go to the Chicago Blackhawks' Kevin Lankinen, who had the lowest GAA and save percentage among all rookies as of Tuesday (5-1-0, .913 GAA and .933 save percentage), as well as the Minnesota Wild's Kaapo Kahkonen (3-3-0, 2.91 GAA).
10. Alexander Romanov, D, Montreal Canadiens
Young Russian and European players all face the same question: Can they adapt to the North American game and can they do it quickly? Romanov, a 21-year-old who was drafted in the second round in 2018, is proving that he is suited for the NHL after two years in the KHL with CSKA Moscow.
Romanov has shown a strong two-way game, showing some improved offense in the NHL. He's mobile, moves the puck well and his trigger-happy style fits in well with the Habs' structure. Defensively, he has the potential to be a shutdown defenseman soon. Those around the organization believe that he has the work ethic and the competitiveness to do so as well.
However, the competition for the best rookie defenseman is strong. He could be in the mix, but there are a few others who are probably better.
9. Alexis Lafreniere, LW, New York Rangers
It's tough to know what to make of Lafreniere. He plays in a tough market where you're either a star or a bust, which is unfair. But it was tough for his own teammate, winger Kaapo Kakko, to adjust to the NHL last season, and Devils center Jack Hughes went through the same growing pains as an 18-year-old last year.
The reality is Lafreniere is still adjusting to an NHL game. He's had trouble getting the puck into open ice, but he's not exactly skating with a top passing center in Brett Howden. Coach David Quinn has sheltered him at times, which is to be expected with a teenager. He'll have plenty of chances to be on the ice in tight, late-game situations, but the Rangers believe they are a playoff team, and they need their most experienced players out there in situations like that.
Player development is an inexact science, and each player develops at their own speed. Lafreniere's one goal through 11 games is similar to how another top pick, Joe Thornton, started his career. Lafreniere has him beat with his one goal; Thornton was pointless through his first 21, and his career turned out fine.
So will Lafreniere's, but he may not be the lock many thought for the Calder Trophy.
8. Pierre-Olivier Joseph, D, Pittsburgh Penguins
Defensemen typically develop a little slower than forwards, but Joseph is developing at a great pace.
The Penguins' lack of blue-line depth at the NHL level has allowed for Joseph to show what he can do this season. They have steadily been giving Tampa Bay Lightning forward Mathieu Joseph's little brother more ice time, and he's earning it. He has one goal and four assists and is creating scoring chances thanks to confident passing. Playing with Kris Letang doesn't hurt either.
He spent much of the offseason training with his brother and the Lightning, which helped increase his strength. He's 6'2" and 185 pounds, so he'll need to continue putting on weight, but it will come as the 21-year-old gets older and adapts his training to the NHL game. This is only his second pro season, and so far he's making a strong impression.
7. K'Andre Miller, D, New York Rangers
The 2018 first-round pick ranks among the top three rookies in ice time, even-strength ice time, plus/minus, takeaways and blocked shots. He's sixth among all defensemen with 10 takeaways. The 21-year-old has one goal and three assists, but more importantly, the Rangers have more scoring chances when he's on the ice than the other team.
This probably wasn't the rookie season Miller dreamed of. The Rangers had to put to rest the notion that his training camp skating partner, Tony DeAngelo, had swiped the puck from his first NHL goal. The Rangers have parted ways with DeAngelo, burying him in taxi squad purgatory while they attempt to trade him. Miller has shown maturity in the way he's handled a difficult season.
The competition is tough, but should Miller keep playing the way he has been, then he'll receive plenty of votes.
6. Ty Smith, D, New Jersey Devils
Smith came close to cracking the Devils roster during his draft year in 2018. The Devils were thin on the blue line at every level of their system, and Smith had a great training camp. But he was ultimately sent back to his junior team, Spokane of the Western Hockey League, for another year of development.
The Devils had hoped to use him in 2019-20, but it was clear at training camp that he still wasn't ready. It was a big blow for Smith, who was forced to go back to Spokane because of his birthday. He felt he had nothing left to prove at the junior level, but he made the most of it.
But now, Smith is finally having his moment. He's producing nearly a point per game (two goals, six assists in nine games) and he's quarterbacking the power play. His defensive aptitude has improved and probably helps that he's paired with Damon Severson, a solid two-way defenseman. The Devils have been shut down because of COVID-19 protocols, but prior to the break, Smith's play had voters impressed.
5. Josh Norris, C, Ottawa Senators
Norris has excelled at every level he's played, so it's no surprise he's excelling in the NHL. He played for the U.S. National Team Development Program before going on to play college hockey at Michigan and then scoring 31 goals for Belleville of the AHL last season.
He ranks third in rookie scoring with seven points, which ties him for the most points on the team. On a young Ottawa team, Norris is playing on the top power-play unit, where he's generating scoring chances and attacking the net front with purpose. He has also found himself centering the top line, averaging 16 minutes per game. There's a lot to like about the way Norris plays and the positive impact he's having on a bad team, which voters tend to emphasize.
4. Igor Shesterkin, G, New York Rangers
Shesterkin (2-3-1, 2.43 GAA and .916 save percentage) is getting the bulk of the work for the Rangers as they try to figure out how to play consistent hockey. The Rangers could afford to give him a little more offensive help, but he makes dynamic saves and gives the team a chance to win every time he’s in the net. Quinn had initially planned to alternate his two goalies, Shesterkin and Alexander Georgiev, but Shesterkin has made that decision tough.
But Shesterkin is 25 and played six seasons in the KHL, which might sway some voters from considering him a true rookie. The impact that he has on the Rangers is hard to ignore when it comes to voting, so he has a good chance to at least become a finalist.
3. Tim Stutzle, LW, Ottawa Senators
The winger has five points in seven games and had a nice three-game goal streak going to end the month of January. The Senators are nothing for him to write home to Germany about, but his steady performances have been.
Kyle Bukaskas of Sportsnet recently talked to his former Mannheim teammate, David Wolf, about why he fits in with his teammates in Ottawa. Wolf said he thinks he has endeared himself to his teammates with his humility.
"Because he never tried to be someone special. He is just a kid who loves the game. He was always himself," Wolf told Bukaskas.
Stutzle's size (6'1", 187 lbs) is a little on the smaller side, but he's exceptionally skilled. With today's game so heavily predicated on speed and skill, players like Stutzle thrive. The Senators are last in the North Division, so it's another building year in Canada's capital, but they have an exciting building block in Stutzle.
2. Nils Hoglander, LW, Vancouver Canucks
The Vancouver Canucks have taken a nosedive since their playoff performance in the bubble last summer. Star goalie Jakob Markstrom is now in Calgary, and Tyler Toffoli is in Montreal. General manager Jim Benning's seat might be getting hot.
But the Canucks do have one thing going for them right now and that's Hoglander. Another smaller, speedier forward of the Patrick Kane mold, his seven points is third among all NHL rookies. He's been exceptionally competitive as well, unafraid to take on bigger players and go into the dirty areas for pucks.
When the 20-year-old is on the ice, he's making an impact, as is evidenced by Hoglander's 52.36 expected goals for percentage and his 50.12 Corsi. Hoglander is almost enough to make you forget that the Canucks chose Jake Virtanen over Toffoli. Almost.
1. Kirill Kaprizov, RW, Minnesota Wild
The speedy winger produced at more than a point-per-game pace in the KHL last season with CSKA Moscow, so there was a fair amount of excitement surrounding his first NHL season. He has not disappointed.
The 23-year-old Kaprizov has nine points in 11 games, sparking Minnesota's offense. He's adept at creating space and opening up the ice for his teammates. He's a phenomenal passer, creating the type of tic-tac-toe plays that you see on highlight reels. Scouts love him for more than his skill; it's the smarts as well. One scout told me he might be the smartest prospect in the world at the moment.
The Wild are currently on hiatus because of COVID-19 protocols, halting their strong start. But whenever they resume their season, Kaprizov will dazzle, and he'll probably dazzle all the way to the Calder Trophy.