Calder Trophy Top 8: Who's Leading the Race as the NHL's Best Rookie?

Franklin Steele@SteeleOnIceFeatured Columnist IIIJanuary 31, 2022

Calder Trophy Top 8: Who's Leading the Race as the NHL's Best Rookie?

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    NHL players only have one opportunity to win the Calder Trophy. Unless you're Alex Nedeljkovic. Then you get two cracks at it.

    But usually, skaters are only able to add this award to their mantle during their rookie season. This year's crop of freshmen has been particularly electric, with players establishing themselves as budding superstars on rebuilding teams such as the Detroit Red Wings and Anaheim Ducks.

    That's not a tipping of our hand if you have been keeping track of the Calder Trophy race this year, either. It's mostly been a three-player competition since the middle of October, with a few other skaters gaining a bit of traction as the campaign has gone on.

    Meanwhile, en vogue offseason favorites such as Cole Caufield and Marco Rossi quickly fell out of contention or, in the case of Rossi, didn't debut until Jan. 6. The competition has been exciting to watch, and the PHWA is going to have its hands full in naming its winner during the offseason.

    We'll look at the three most obvious choices first and then examine the cases for a few other upstarts who could be one hot streak away from nosing into the Calder Trophy conversation.

    As always, feel free to sound off in the comments to let us know who is missing or getting too much credit.

Trevor Zegras

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    Let's clear up one thing about Trevor Zegras: He's so much more than flashy, highlight-reel plays and his kinda-but-not-really beef with former coach turned NHL talking head John Tortorella. He has a real opportunity to be a legit rockstar forward for the Anaheim Ducks for the next decade-plus, and fans of the team should be ecstatic about how the ninth overall pick from the 2019 draft has performed this season.

    He's on pace to crack 20 goals and possibly push past 60 points and has been driving play for his line. Put another way, here's a 20-year-old center who is scoring goals and producing points while still playing responsibly in all three zones.

    Pivots like that are remarkably hard to come by, and two-way centers such as Zegras are almost always present on Stanley Cup-winning teams. The Ducks have some team building to do before they catch up with the likes of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Colorado Avalanche, but they have a special player in the Bedford, New York, native.

    Zegras is a betting favorite to win the Calder Trophy, and if the season ended today, it would be tough to not vote for the forward.

Lucas Raymond

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    Zegras isn't the only exciting, creative forward who has helped jumpstart his team's rebuild. Lucas Raymond has had a similar impact for the Detroit Red Wings, locking up a spot on the squad's top line and forming almost instant chemistry with captain Dylan Larkin.

    His defensive impact has been more typical of a rookie than that of Zegras, but head coach Jeff Blashill has still been pleased with Raymond's attention to detail in the neutral and defensive zones. During a 14-game goal-scoring drought (that could cost him the Calder Trophy) earlier in the year, the bench boss still praised the 19-year-old's play.

    "I think he's been a consistently good player defensively," Blashill said in mid-January, according to Ansar Khan of the Detroit Free Press. "I think he's a guy who goes out and does the right things to win a shift. Ultimately that's what you're looking for. If every player goes on the ice and they win their shift on a consistent basis—meaning you gain territory, you play in the O-zone more, you create more chances than you give up—you're going to win a ton as a hockey team. He's done those things."

    Raymond has since rediscovered his scoring touch, and he's on pace to score 20 goals and crack 60 points. Not too shabby for a player who seemed destined to start the year in the AHL with the Grand Rapids Griffins.

    Now it's tough to imagine this Detroit roster without Raymond on it, and he'll be a staple for the franchise whether or not he wins the Calder Trophy.

Moritz Seider

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    Raymond is one of two dynamic rookies who have locked in important roles and roster spots for the Red Wings. The other is defenseman Moritz Seider, and the pair have inspired a feeling that has been missing in Hockeytown for quite some time: hope.

    Some were surprised when general manager Steve Yzerman snagged the blueliner with the sixth overall selection in the 2019 draft, but Seider has proved to be a steal at that spot with his play to this point. Standing 6'4" and weighing more than 200 pounds as a 20-year-old, he's got the looks of a cornerstone defenseman for Detroit.

    He's not cut from the same cloth as a Scott Stevens or Chris Pronger, but Seider has the kind of physicality that will wear down opponents in a playoff series. We could be looking at the next Victor Hedman here. A postseason run likely won't be happening this season, but the emergence of Seider and Raymond has the Red Wings looking like a team on the rise.

    Not only has the German become a physical force on the blue line, but his offensive game has also been better than advertised. He's been a part of the Red Wings' power play all year and could finish the campaign with more than 50 points.

    That would be a remarkable pace for a rookie defender on a rebuilding team. Barring a rapid decline in play and production, Seider will almost certainly be a Calder Trophy finalist.

Tanner Jeannot

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    If the Calder Trophy were given to the rookie with the most winding road to the NHL, Tanner Jeannot would be running away with the award.

    Undrafted after a four-year career with the WHL's Moose Jaw Warriors, he was signed to a two-year deal with the Nashville Predators in July. That came after he spent time in both the ECHL and the AHL over the past five seasons, including a 13-game stint with the Chicago Wolves a year ago.

    He established himself as a dependable forward for the Preds toward the end of the 2020-21 campaign, which lead to him making his NHL playoff debut and the aforementioned contract. Good luck finding him on any preseason Calder Trophy favorites list, but Jeannot has continued to make the most of his opportunities in Nashville.

    The 6'2" wing will likely find the back of the net at least 20 times and could end up with 25 or more if he goes on any kind of noteworthy heater. Nashville was supposed to be a team on the downslide this year, but with a handful of veterans rediscovering their scoring touches and Jeannot shooting out the lights, the Predators are firmly entrenched in playoff position.

Michael Bunting

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    Here's another unforeseen forward possibly nudging his way into the Calder Trophy discussion despite having virtually no noteworthy pedigree to speak of. Michael Bunting has a fantastic story too, a rare Group VI free agent who had played at least three pro seasons but fewer than 80 NHL games prior to turning 25.

    He decided to walk away from the Arizona Coyotes this past summer, choosing to sign with his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs on the cheap. At the time, general manager Kyle Dubas said that the move "all comes down to value," according to Luke Fox of Sportsnet.

    Bunting has provided that in spades for a Maple Leafs team that badly needs production from forwards who aren't a part of their tremendously expensive core-four group. He's clicked wonderfully on the team's top six, playing an aggressive style despite his relatively small stature (5'11", 197 pounds).

    Like Jeannot with the Predators, Bunting has taken every opportunity he's earned in Toronto and crushed it. He's still on the outside looking in when it comes to the Calder Trophy, but hat trick games on the road like the one he recently had against the Red Wings will put him on a lot more radars as a contender.

Dawson Mercer

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    The New Jersey Devils could be a scary team within the next few seasons, thanks in no small part to the collection of young centers they have pieced together in recent years. With Jack Hughes in the midst of a breakout season and Nico Hischier playing well, Dawson Mercer adds yet another wrinkle to this team's offense.

    His game lends itself to multiple roles on multiple lines, making him the perfect complement to two legit top-six centers like Hughes and Hischier. Mercer's do-it-all game hasn't made the same kinds of headlines as those of Zegras, Raymond or even Bunting, but he proved to be an important part of New Jersey's lineup as they struggled with injuries.

    As with the Red Wings and Ducks, this is a franchise that is in the midst of rebuilding, so even if their candidate doesn't end up winning the Calder Trophy, his contributions at the NHL level can't be ignored. He has a shot at breaking the 40-point barrier and has established himself as a legit middle-six forward in New Jersey.

    Mercer has cooled off after a hot start and might not be able to box his way back into contention to be in the final three, but this is still a successful start to a promising career.

Jamie Drysdale

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    We're going to use these last two picks to highlight the play of skaters who probably aren't getting enough attention for the seasons they are having. Zegras is the rookie who is receiving all the rave reviews in Anaheim, but don't sleep on what defenseman Jamie Drysdale has been providing for a Ducks team that has a decent chance of making the playoffs.

    The Ducks have hung tough in the Pacific Division for most of the season, and while the standings are starting to look more like what we expected during the preseason, that's still impressive for this group. Drysdale has been a huge part of Anaheim's surprising campaign, skating more than 20 minutes a night on average while playing at a 30-plus-point pace.

    If Seider wasn't hoovering up all the concentration for the campaign he's having as a young defenseman eating major minutes, Drysdale would be in a lot more Calder Trophy conversations. Being a solid defender at the NHL level is difficult. Doing it as a 19-year-old who is still learning how to be a professional is even more complicated.

    Anaheim has a good one in Drysdale, and the Ducks appear to be a team on the rise in the Pacific Division.

Cole Sillinger

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    Playing center as a teenager in the NHL might be even more difficult than finding your way on defense. No one is going to blame an 18-year-old blueliner for not scoring points at a high level. But teams lean heavily on their top-line pivots in all situations, usually asking them to go up against the other team's best on a nightly basis.

    For Cole Sillinger, the 2021-22 season has been a baptism of fire. There was no easing him into life at the NHL level on the wing, no time in the AHL and no time spent on the third or fourth lines in checking roles.

    Instead, Sillinger earned the opportunity to be a top-six center for the Columbus Blue Jackets out of training camp and has done an admirable job in handling the duties associated with that role. He's the only player from last year's draft to have stuck in the NHL, which is a tremendous accomplishment for the rookie.

    Sure, the Blue Jackets are desperate for help down the middle, but they wouldn't have burned a year off of Sillinger's entry-level deal and kept him on their roster during the World Juniors if he weren't an important part of their roster.

    That's exactly what Sillinger has become at a staggeringly young age, and the center position could be a source of strength in Columbus as early as next season. He's not going to make the final three but still deserves a pat on the back for how well he's played at such a young age, epecially when you consider what has been asked of him.