Welcome back to the third edition of the Prospect Ramblings quarantine mini-series where I’ve been looking into each NHL pipeline with a goal of uncovering each team’s best candidate for the 2021 Calder Trophy.
As expected, certain teams have made this activity quite challenging. With the Eastern Conference having been covered over the past two weeks, teams like the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins seem to be the least likely of teams to feature Calder contending talent next year. By contrast, teams’ like the New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils, Detroit Red Wings, and the Florida Panthers could feature several candidates for the all-rookie squad.
Week #1: Atlantic Division
Week #2: Metropolitan Division
Moving all the way west this week, the Pacific Division presents a few teams who fit into each category. The division as a whole has recently been home to transitioning teams. While some are only entering that phase, others are coming out the other end with pipeline’s bursting with skill. In both cases, it makes the decision of choosing a single Calder candidate a difficult one, but I’ve done my best…
As a reminder, 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.
Anaheim Ducks – Trevor Zegras
Although the Ducks are in the midst of a changing of the guard phase, they’ve done sufficient work in restocking their shelves with quality talent that will undoubtedly bridge the gap of their rebuild. The jewel of that group of players is last year’s ninth overall selection, Trevor Zegras. The dynamic playmaker had been slightly overshadowed by his fellow USNTDP class of 2019 but made a name for himself at the 2020 U20 tournament in the Czech Republic.
After only one season with the Boston University Terriers, Zegras signed an entry-level contract with the Ducks, confirming his intentions to pursue his professional development immediately. While his place in Anaheim’s lineup is yet to be confirmed, there should be little doubt that Zegras has the jaw-dropping ability to make a memorable impression in short order. His tenacity and undeniable effort level could be a springboard to a hot start with the Ducks.
Arizona Coyotes – Barrett Hayton
The Coyotes are on the cusp of becoming a contending team in the Western Conference. With the demise of other western powerhouses, the team has gone all-in on forwards like Phil Kessel and Taylor Hall.
In addition, the Coyotes have been bringing several of their top prospects along gradually. The CHL-NHL agreement regarding U20 players forced Barrett Hayton into an awkward rookie season with the team last year. Fortunately, the soon-to-be 20-year-old will no longer be bound by the agreement next fall and should have an opportunity to continue his growth properly. Ironically, he could quite easily fit into the gap that will be left by Carl Soderberg this offseason. With an opportunity to be flanked by some of the league’s top wingers, Hayton’s official rookie season with the team could be very prosperous.
Calgary Flames – Glenn Gawdin
The year that wasn’t has postponed the arrival of arguably the Flames top prospect, defenseman Juuso Valimaki. There’s little doubt that the 21-year-old is positioned to become the core of the future Flames blueline. Where doubt lies, however, is that Valimaki is returning from an ACL injury that has hindered his conditioning for nearly a year. In addition to his paused on-ice development, some of the best players struggle to readjust to the timing of the NHL after a recovery like this.
While Valimaki may take a large portion of the season to resume where he left off, if Glenn Gawdin is able to crack the Flames opening lineup, he could become an impact role player who garners top-rookie attention. After a highly successful sophomore slate in the AHL, Gawdin is riding a strong wave of momentum. Although he may not strive to produce like a typical Calder candidate, he could be a refreshing asset in the Flames bottom-six.
Edmonton Oilers – Evan Bouchard
The Oiler’s farm system has finally begun to outgrow their heinous reputation for ruining prospects. Over the last couple of seasons, we’ve begun to see the development of players like Ethan Bear, Tyler Benson, and Kailer Yamamoto as evidence of their improved development strategies.
The next best example of that is Evan Bouchard who, after a humbling demotion to the AHL last fall, has demonstrated growth in his skating and overall awareness. Despite Bouchard previously being regarded as the second most NHL-ready defender at the draft in 2018, he’s been over-cooked by the Oilers in a good way and should slide seamlessly into Mike Green’s spot on the Oilers blueline next fall.
Los Angeles Kings – Gabe Vilardi
Arguably the league’s most stacked pipelines is owned by none other than the 2014 Stanley Cup Champion LA Kings. The team is on the cusp of overflowing with A-level prospects, and will undoubtedly begin shuffling in the years that come. For now, however, the team looks to have three potential candidates who could be a part of the 2021 Calder race.
Between Tyler Madden, Alex Turcotte, and Gabe Vilardi, my money has to lie in the hands of the former Windsor Spitfire. Surprisingly, considering his nagging back injury, Vilardi made a wild impression in his ten games with the Kings this year. He brings aspects of speed, skill, and size to an organization that clearly wants him to have success. With a plethora of favorable lineup combinations to be had by the 20-year-old center, he is a slightly safer bet than the two players coming from the collegiate circuit.
San Jose Sharks – Joachim Blichfeld
There are a couple of both forward and defenseman UFA’s on the current Sharks lineup that could leave holes to be filled by a Sharks rookie next fall. The biggest potential hole would be left by center Joe Thornton, who has been rumored to have entertained the idea of leaving San Jose. In the case that Jumbo does, in fact, vacate Southern California, the prospect who would stand to gain the most would be Joachim Blichfeld.
The Danish winger seemed to have little trouble in his transition to the AHL after his 114 point season with the Portland Winterhawks. Should Thornton leave, his role down the middle would likely be filled by another UFA, or an existing asset. In the case of the latter, Blichfeld would be a prime candidate to jump into the NHL this fall and make an offensive impact.
With that being said, it’s impossible to move on from San Jose without mentioning the potential of Ryan Merkley making his way into the NHL next fall as well. While most would expect Merkley to play a year in the AHL, nothing seems to be typical or out of the question when it comes to the 19-year-old’s development, so an immediate jump to the NHL should not be ruled out.
Vancouver Canucks – Olli Juolevi
Truth be told, the Canucks may have to rely on a savvy selection in the first round of the 2020 draft in order to have a legitimate shot at having one of their players win the Calder Trophy. Despite bringing several first-round draft-picks into the fold over the past couple of years, who’ve competed for the Calder Trophy, the deeper part of their pipeline seems to have few players who would make good Calder candidates next fall.
The most likely of the group include forward Kole Lind, as well as defensemen Olli Juolevi and Brogan Rafferty. While the development of the former two players has been relatively inconsistent, Rafferty, while being a bit of a late bloomer, has come onto the Canuck’s scene with the highest of intentions.
Ultimately, when it comes to opportunity, it appears that a spot on the Canucks blueline will once again be Joulevi’s to lose. The 22-year-old has not lived up to his fifth-overall selection, but may finally be ready to take on a depth role in the Canucks’ defense core. Although he would be far from my first choice as a Calder contender, he is for the Canucks.
Vegas Golden Knights – Lucas Elvenes
If you exempt their overcollection of top-six defensemen in their inaugural season, asset management has been a strength of the Golden Knights brass since very early on. That has meant building their contending roster using a harmonious combination of signing free agents, trading for roster players, and drafting/developing well. Unfortunately, this means that come the offseason, there tend to be fewer questions about their roster and fewer holes for which to be filled by their prospects.
The Knights have two prospects who appear to be on the cusp of being NHL ready in Jack Dugan and Lucas Elvenes. Both are talented forwards who have good NHL upside and are not far off from making an impact. Unfortunately, the Knights simply don’t seem to have the room for them in the NHL, considering their current contractual commitments. Fortunately, this has seemingly been recognized by Jack Dugan and his representation. The Providence sophomore has yet to sign an ELC and appears to be leaning towards returning to Hockey East for a third season.
Thus, Lucas Elvenes may remain as the lone rookie candidate. Again, his spot in the Knights roster is far from secure. Despite an excellent rookie campaign in the AHL, Elvenes has inconsistent and streaky production throughout the season. He may not be the ideal bet for a Calder candidate, but he’s the best that the Knights have got.