Last week I kicked off yet another mini-series with the goal of revealing a player from every NHL pipeline, who has the potential to contend for the 2021 Calder Trophy. Obviously, we’re bound to see several newly drafted prospect put their name in the hat, but at this point, it’s difficult to assign them to an organization, since… well… they haven’t been drafted yet. Nonetheless, we shall push forward, considering only the existing NHL affiliated talent, and making coy inferences about some of the NHL’s bottom feeders picking up game-breaking talent at the pending NHL entry draft.
Last week the Atlantic Division presented potential rookie talents such as Jack Studnika of the Providence Bruins, Owen Tippett of the Springfield Thunderbirds, and Josh Norris of the Binghamton Senators. Overall, I would say that we’re bound to see a couple of good rookies in the Atlantic, and especially Ottawa next year, but I wouldn’t put my money on them for bringing home the rookie hardware. And again, in order for a player to be eligible for the Calder Trophy, they 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, and finally, the winner must be no older than 26 by September 15th of their rookie season.
Carolina Hurricanes – Morgan Geekie
The Hurricanes’ pipeline has no shortage of blue-chippers who will be making their way into the NHL over the next couple of seasons, including Dominik Bokk and Ryan Suzuki. At this point, however, there aren’t any that seem to be on the cusp of making an NHL breakout, much less contend for a Calder. The Hurricane’s most likely chance of bringing home the rookie of the year award lies with soon to be 22-year-old forward Morgan Geekie.
The 2017 draft-pick has two full professional campaign’s under his belt with the most recent one highlighting his explosive offensive ability, and production capacity. His just shy of a point per game rate with the Charlotte Checkers earned Geekie a two-game audition in Raleigh, where he centered a third-line with Jordan Martinook and Warren Foegele. In a full NHL slate, he would most likely see deployment similar to in his audition, allowing him to leverage more sheltered matchups to decent production.
Columbus Blue Jackets – Liam Foudy
The lack of fruits born from the non-trades of Columbus’ UFA’s in years gone is beginning to impact the cupboards of their farm system in a fashion typical of perenially contenting organizations. While we need not make mention of Columbus’ level of NHL success, it’s important to note that their pipeline is in fact beginning to dry up. With a handful of C-level prospects holding down the fort in Cleveland, the Jackets’ most probable Calder contender may come direct from major junior.
Although there are a few of Columbus’ prospects with better odds of playing NHL time next year, none will come close to having an impact comparable to what Liam Foudy could be capable of. The 20-year-old is certainly up against some steep odds to make the NHL roster next fall, especially considering the team’s active roster features exactly zero pending UFA’s. If he does, however, the 6-1 centerman has the physical tools and the technical ability to make his coach happy… and in Columbus, that’s king.
New Jersey Devils – Ty Smith
A year removed from nearly making the Devils opening night roster, Ty Smith returns to a much different looking team, once again as the Calder favorite. With the addition of several other high profile prospects to New Jersey’s pipeline, including Janne Kuokkanen and Nick Merkley, Smith now holds the title of Calder favorite by only a slim margin.
Considering the two pending vacancies on the Devils blueline, Smith is a shoo-in for the NHL roster next fall. His improved poise and awareness from a year ago should allow him to transition almost seamlessly into a somewhat sheltered role with the team. If gifted with considerable powerplay deployment, Smith could emerge as the best rookie defenseman in this class, although I wouldn’t expect him to rival this year’s two behemoths.
New York Islanders – Kieffer Bellows
One year ago, nobody could’ve convinced me that I’d be labeling Kieffer Bellows as the Islanders’ best shot at the 2021 Calder Trophy. Tumbling through his development path since leaving the USNTDP from Boston University to Portland of the WHL, and finally, into a frustrating rookie campaign with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, Bellows was looking like anything but a former first-round draft pick.
This year, the tides finally changed for Bellows as he rediscovered his nose for the net, potting 22 goals as a sophomore with Bridgeport. At a time when the Islanders were in need of a value-adding forward, the 21-year-old was recalled to Long Island and left nobody disappointed. In eight contests he scored twice, all the while demonstrating awareness of his actions and making few unnecessary risks. The success in his NHL debut will undoubtedly put him at the front of the line for any vacancies in the NHL lineup.
New York Rangers – Igor Shesterkin
Few bets are as certain as the one projecting Igor Shesterkin as the Rangers top Calder Candidate for the 2021 season. Although the Russian netminder made a significant debut in Manhattan this year, he retains eligibility for the Calder Trophy by playing less than 25-games. With Vitali Kravtsov still likely needing time in the AHL, and both K’Andre Miller and Nils Lundkvist only beginning their professional careers with the Rangers, there is hardly a question of how well Shesterkin stacks up in terms of certainty.
The 24-year-old is the odds-on favorite to take over as the Blueshirts starting netminder next fall and has shown many signs of being capable of protecting the teams’ crease at the same level of his predecessor.
Philadelphia Flyers – Morgan Frost
Philadelphia is another organization whose prospect pool is becoming depleted, however, in their case, it’s more as a result of graduating their A-level prospects quickly and efficiently. One of those prospects who required a little extra development this year was 20-year-old OHL graduate, Morgan Frost. The 5-11 forward had an impactful season with Lehigh Valley of the AHL, before earning a handful of individual recalls towards the middle of the season.
In his NHL audition, Frost predominantly flanked none other than Flyer captain, Claude Giroux. The deployment brought with it a high level of offensive zone starts, but also a high level of opposition strength. Through seven games, he had little trouble keeping pace with the assignments and will likely find himself back in the NHL quite soon.
Pittsburgh Penguins – Samuel Poulin
I really struggled to select a candidate from Pittsburgh’s pipeline… you know… for obvious reasons. The organizations’ top prospect is undoubtedly Samuel Poulin, who tore up the QMJHL this year and has a high probability of making an NHL impact in the next couple of years. Poulin is still 19, and will not be eligible to play in the AHL next year, eliminating his opportunity of being a bubble player to start the year.
On the other hand, we have players like Sam Miletic, who has a very modest fantasy ceiling on his own, but as we know and have seen as recently as with John Marino, when you get into the Penguins lineup, anything can happen. In this case, however, I’m forced to say, Poulin, strictly because I think he has dominated major junior and will be capable of playing almost anywhere in Pittsburgh’s lineup. That being said, he is a major gamble to make the roster, and players like Miletic should not be slept on either.
Washington Capitals – Connor McMichael
Talk about barren. This is the trouble with writing prospect articles in division format. When you get to the bottom of the Metro, things get pretty quiet. Fortunately, the Capitals have a couple of prospects that I think can be considered bubble candidates for next fall’s opening night roster. The first is a soundly developed defenseman in Alexander Alexeyev. In his rookie professional season with the Hershey Bears, Alexeyev did not look out of place, however, he didn’t contribute enormously in terms of production. Second up is a player who finds himself in a comparable situation to Samuel Poulin in Pittsburgh – Connor McMichael. The Caps’ first-round draft pick put on a clinic in the OHL this year, eclipsing the century mark in just 52 games and has an undeniable knack for finding the back of the net. Sadly, I’m not sure that McMichael’s style of play offers the same flexibility as Poulin’s.
In the end, I simply can’t see the Cap’s returning McMichael to the OHL after hitting 100 points as a 19-year-old. If he can hit the ground running in a 9-game trial, he should see every opportunity to prove he’s worthy of a full season.