2021 Calder Candidates – Atlantic Division
Despite the NHL continuing to hold on to the 2019-20 season by a thread, the year’s Calder Trophy race is all but made official. Between Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes, the award has largely been a two-horse race since November, with a couple of other players jockeying in the distance for third place.
Looking forward to the 2020-21 campaign, the race will begin anew with an entirely fresh and eager class of rookies having their eyes set on the Calder Trophy. The class will no doubt have favorites, but today I want to begin the broad discussion of who, from each team could contend. While we often discuss each NHL organizations’ top prospects, that player is sometimes not the team’s most NHL ready, but rather, the player with the best long-term ceiling. Beginning with the Atlantic Division, over the next few weeks of NHL hiatus, we’ll dig into each NHL organizational depth chart and discuss which player might be each team’s best shot at the 2021 Calder Trophy.
*Disclaimer* Pending the 2020 NHL draft results, these Organizational Calder favorites could change. There are, however, likely only three or four players from the 2020 NHL draft who will play a full-time role in the NHL next season.
First off, the most important thing to note is that in order for a player to be eligible for the Calder Trophy, players must not have played more than 25 regular-season games in any one season preceding the current one. They also must not have played more than six games in any two seasons preceding the current one. Finally, the winner must be no older than 26 by September 15th of their rookie season.
Boston Bruins – Jack Studnicka
Despite finding themselves picking in the latter half of the first round for nearly a decade, the Boston Bruins have done extremely well to identify and develop talent quickly and effectively. Yet another example of their efficient development tendencies is 21-year-old Jack Studnicka, who the B’s were able to nab in the second-round of the ultra-deep 2017 entry draft.
After graduating from the OHL, Studnicka joined the Baby B’s in Providence where he exemplified an outstanding commitment to playing the pro game the right way. His growth earned him a two-game call-up to Boston in late November where he made a positive impression on the team, and most importantly, Bruce Cassidy. The biggest obstacle in Studnicka’s way is the Bruin’s logjammed spine. Fortunately, much of the 21-year-old’s game suits the style of play that would fill the role of a third-line winger in Boston. With the right linemates and even a minor opportunity on the man advantage, there’s a good chance that he could notch 40-points in his rookie slate.
Buffalo Sabres – Dylan Cozens
The decision of who would be Buffalo’s top contender for the Calder Trophy in 2021 was a difficult one for all of the wrong reasons. Their pipeline is largely depleted, and those youngsters who have a good chance of performing well in the NHL next year have already burned their eligibility by being fringe NHL players for the past season or more (see Rasmus Asplund, Casey Mittelstadt, Tage Thompson , Victor Olofsson).
Ultimately, Dylan Cozens does have a leg up on Mathias Samuelsson in terms of potentially being the Sabres best rookie next year. While I’d be somewhat surprised to see either of them play more than 45 games in Buffalo next year, Cozens is certainly the safer bet. Coincidentally, he certainly has the higher upside of the two and will be a more fantasy-relevant player for years to come. The extended offseason could mean a lot of change though, and if certain roster players don’t live up to their expectations, a window of opportunity could emerge for the 19-year-old center. I’d estimate that his rookie upside if all goes perfectly, would be around the 20-30-50 range. For my money though, we’ll see a truncated version of this production, with Cozens loaned to Team Canada for the WJC and back in Lethbridge to round out 2021.
Detroit Red Wings – Moritz Seider
Between Joe Veleno, Moritz Seider, and whomever Detroit is fortunate enough to select in the upcoming NHL Entry Draft, Steve Yzerman’s Red Wings are bound to ice a young and exciting lineup. Either of the Wings’ last two first-round draft picks are bound to be challenged by one selected in 2020, but unless that person is Alexis Lafreniere, I believe Seider will have the upper-hand in terms of Detroit’s internal Calder race.
The defenseman had a strong rookie campaign with Grand Rapids of the AHL, in which he finished first in scoring among U19 defensemen in terms of total points. Besides being successful in terms of his offense, Seider also translated a strong 200-foot game from his days with Adler Mannheim of the Deutsche league. Though he hasn’t been fortunate enough to earn a recall to Detroit this year, the German should not be ruled out for 2020-21. Detroit’s current blueline features four pending free-agents which will allow the Wings ample flexibility to find Seider the most appropriate slot for him to make his way into the NHL.
More than likely, Seider will not play a full campaign with the Wings, however, as mentioned above, the flexibility that the organization currently has could motivate them to seek the second coming of Filip Hronek right away.
Florida Panthers – Owen Tippett
The Florida Panthers are poised to ice a 2020-21 lineup that features two legitimate Calder candidates, which made the selection of Owen Tippet quite difficult. In addition to the AHL All-Star, the Panthers look ready to welcome 19-year-old Grigori Denisenko to North America after completing his D+2 season with Lokomotiv of the KHL. Obviously it isn’t certain that either will debut as a Panther next fall, however, considering the excellent development paths that both players have been on over the course of the last 12-months, it would be surprising if neither of them did.
Considering Tippett’s experience playing in the Panthers system, he has the undeniable upper hand when it comes to making an immediate impact. While it’s certainly still up for debate which of the two forwards will have a greater impact over the course of their career, currently, Tippett seems like the more potentially impactful player. His 19 goals were eighth among AHLers under the age of 22, while his 40 total points were twelfth. With both Evgeni Dadonov and Mike Hoffman up for renewal (and raises) in Sunrise, either rookie could find their way into the lineup purely based on their cost-effectiveness.
Montreal Canadiens – Alexander Romanov
Although not confirmed, it’s widely suspected that the Hab’s 20-year-old prospect defenseman will make his way to North America after this lengthy offseason. While Romanov’s ceiling is certainly much lower than another of the Hab’s would-be rookies, it’s also been reported that Cole Caufield will not be turning pro after his first season with the University of Wisconsin. Romanov, however, is hardly a consolation and has the potential to make an immediate impact in the NHL.
Montreal brass is very high on the defenseman and seems to have intentionally created a hole in their lineup for him to fill next year. The biggest question about Romanov’s immediate future will be where and how Claude Julien decides to deploy the youngster. His most recent deployment with CSKA Moskow became limited after the team became aware that they were losing him upon the season-ending. His development, while likely at a level that makes him competent in the NHL, is far from complete. There are certainly a range of outcomes that he could fulfill next season, but the most likely one is that he begins with a modestly sheltered role, working his way into the teams top-four by year-end. This outlook would give him a possible upside of 15-20 points, but his 200-foot game and underlying statistics are likely what will earn him Calder votes.
Ottawa Senators – Josh Norris
Thanks to Eugene Melnyk’s unique style of ownership, the Senators have no shortage of opportunity among their forward lineup for the 2020-21 season. In terms of contractual obligations, the Sens’ forwards are currently limited to Bobby Ryan, Colin White, Artem Anisimov, and Brady Tkachuk… four forwards, that’s all. Six additional RFA’s leave the team with two or three optimal holes in their lineup which will undoubtedly be filled by the likes of Drake Batherson, Logan Brown, and Josh Norris. Of the three, the team is in a position to earn Calder votes for only one, Josh Norris. Among the entire Sens’ depth of young players, Norris is still in the mix to emerge as the most impactful fantasy option long-term as well.
The 20-year-old American led all Belleville Senators in points through the 2019-20 campaign, in addition to finishing fourth in the entire AHL. After leaving college early to pursue his professional career, it’s possible that Norris thought he was ready for the NHL already last offseason. Judging by his production with Belleville, he may not have been wrong either. If he adjusts quickly, and with a full 82-game NHL season under his belt, Norris could be one of the top contenders for the Calder trophy, that is, among players not selected in the 2020 Entry Draft.
Tampa Bay Lightning – Cal Foote
The Tampa Bay Lightning have done an extraordinary job of wading through the waters of a difficult cap situation over the past several years to the point where it truly isn’t much of a concern for them anymore. As such, the team has been able to allow their underdeveloped prospects to simmer in the AHL while filling their lineup with journeymen veterans from around the league. My prediction that Alex Barre-Boulet would have become one of the Lightning’s top rookies this season did not come to fruition, and I’m beginning to think that the team may not see a top-six future for the 22-year-old undrafted free agent. While I haven’t entirely given up on Barre-Boulet (he did lead the Syracuse Crunch with 56 points this year), I don’t believe that he will be the Lightning’s best shot at a Calder Trophy next year (although he may be their best shot at a Calder Cup).
Rather, the team’s top defense prospect, Cal Foote, who made an immediate impact in the AHL seems like he will be ready to take the next step at some point in the next few months. The last remaining Foote in the Tampa system finished his sophomore AHL slate with around half a point per game in Syracuse, a slight uptick from his rookie season. Tampa will undoubtedly have a spot for him in the lineup, considering the expiration of contracts belonging to Kevin Shattenkirk, Zach Bogosian, and Luke Schenn. Foote should complement the remaining defense core quite well and have the ability to play in either of the teams’ second two pairs throughout the year.
Toronto Maple Leafs – Timothy Liljegren
Say what you will about the Leafs’ gross mismanagement of the salary cap, but one glance at their NHL roster commitments will show that the team projects to have very few holes in the core of their lineup for the next several years. The timely graduation of Rasmus Sandin has helped to stop the panic with regards to the teams’ blueline, and the satisfactory development of Timothy Liljegren could take that another step further next fall. The 20-year-old Swede showed signs of exceptional growth in the AHL this season, especially in terms of his offense. While Leaf fans may cringe at the comparison, Liljergren is beginning to look as though he may fill the shoes of dearly departed Jake Gardiner quite well.
In the case that Tyson Barrie or Cody Ceci are not re-upped by TO, Liljegren stands a great chance at being the teams’ top vote-getter for the 2021 Calder Trophy.
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