Photo courtesy of Reuters.com
Now about a third of the way through the season, the race for the Calder Trophy is well underway, and there are some unexpected names that are proving their worth. With the constant lineup adjustments and players being unavailable, this has been the year for rookies to step in immediately into key roles on their teams and make an impact. With these young players more skilled than ever at a young age, it is to no one’s surprise that they can be difference makers on their teams even if they aren’t as highly touted.
Calder Trophy Update
While many would have penciled Alexis Lafreniere as the lock to win the trophy, that has not manifested itself and likely won’t unless the former first overall selection finds his game and goes on a run.
The 2020 second overall selection has not been a factor as he has seen most of his season in the AHL and will likely not see any time on the big stage until next season. In a season like this, the rookie that may win the trophy may be the one that stays the healthiest and on the ice the most because of how close the race is thus far.
The Minnesota Wild have returned from a lengthy COVID-related absence but Kaprizov has been able to pick up right where he left off. He has arguably been the Wild’s best player and the addition of Zuccarello to his line should also boost his production. He leads all rookies in scoring producing at almost a point per game pace with 13 through 15 games. The opportunity he is getting should only increase as the season goes on and as he gets more comfortable and finds chemistry with linemates should also help his cause.
In the Mix
Aside from missing a few games early on this season to injuries, Stutzle has played night in and night out for a lowly Senators team focused on the future. He has been given plenty of opportunity and ice time and head coach D.J Smith has allowed him to play freely and use his speed, skill, and creativity to his advantage while making the transition to North America. Stutzle is up to nine points in 17 games played and is the only draft pick from the 2020 Draft that has a shot at claiming the title.
Despite Stutzle’s pedigree, there are a handful of rookies that are making strong cases early on to win the trophy. Fellow teammate of Stutzle’s in Ottawa, Josh Norris has seized his opportunity this season playing on the team’s top-line. He has been the team’s first-line center right out of training camp playing alongside Brady Tkachuk and a mixture of right-wingers such as Connor Brown and Evgenii Dadonov. Either way despite his tough matchups against opposing teams’ top defense pairs Norris has been able to put up 11 points in 20 games this season good enough for second in scoring among rookies.
The Chicago Blackhawks also have a few youngsters who have impressed thus far in Pius Suter, Philipp Kurashev, and Kevin Lankinen. Suter has been the beneficiary of the absence of Jonathan Toews and Kirby Dach this season, leaving him to handle top-six minutes with one of the games best in Patrick Kane. Kurashev has shown flashes of strong play but has been shuffled up and down the lineup. Lankinen on the other hand is one that came out of the woodwork and has taken a firm hold on the Blackhawks’ goaltending job. The team took lots of criticism for not signing a goaltender after Corey Crawford left in the offseason but it seems they have found their guy.
Lankinen has backstopped a below-average Chicago team to third place in a tough Central Division albeit, they have played more games than most teams in the division. Through 13 games the Finnish netminder has gone 7-3-3 with a goals-against-average below 2.50 and a save percentage of .927 to go along with one shutout. The trajectory of these three players will likely move in opposite directions as the team gets bodies back as Suter and Kurashev will likely be bumped down the lineup upon the return of Dach and possibly Toews later this season, while they will likely help lead Lankinen to larger win totals and better stats.
Under the Radar Candidates
If it wasn’t for the Canucks up and downplay this season there is a good chance Nils Hoglander would be much higher in the rookie scoring race. The team has lacked consistency and seemingly has taken a step back from what they looked like last season. Hoglander is getting plenty of run in the canucks top-six and is up to nine points in 22 games. With a reliable and consistent player like Bo Horvat centering him in a high-scoring North Division, he could easily climb the ranks quickly with a couple of big games.
Despite Gabriel Vilardi being taken back in the 2017 NHL Draft he still classifies as a rookie this season because of the injuries that have hampered him up until last season. Vilardi has found a spot on the Kings’ second line and is getting exposure to veteran Jeff Carter and another youngster in Adrian Kempe. The Kings have been a pleasant surprise this season and Vilardi has been a big part of that. Without much center depth, he should not be challenged for his spot and his exposure to the second powerplay unit should also help with production. They are invested in the future and Vilardi should continue to get every opportunity to be a difference-maker as long as he can stay healthy. If bodies get moved out closer to the deadline if they aren’t competing for a playoff spot it should lead to an even larger role.
He is not a household name but Jason Robertson is making the most of his opportunity at the NHL level. The 2017 second-round selection has been with the big club for eight games this season due to injuries to Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov. He has been up and down the lineup and has been able to tally six points in those eight games. With the constant tinkering of lineups, Robertson will have to show he is capable of this type of production on a nightly basis and hopefully can find stability and chemistry in the team’s top-nine forward group to continue his hot streak. Even if they get bodies back he should continue to be a factor and someone that should be on fantasy managers radars.
Marco Rossi Update
If you don’t know by now why we haven’t seen Marco Rossi you must be hibernating for the winter. The 2020 ninth overall selection reported for training camp but was unavailable due to contracting COVID-19. The virus plagued the young Austrian to the point where the team announced that Rossi would miss the entirety of the 2020-2021 season, due to complications with the virus. Rossi returned home to Austria where he will rest up. He should be nearing a return to North America where he can be evaluated by the team doctors and likely get acclimated to the environment in Minnesota and get himself settled and prepped for next season.
Although this is a lost season for the forward, it may actually be better for Rossi’s long-term outlook to wait a year to make his debut. He will not be relied upon this year to have to carry a team that is going through a transition stage. Kaprizov will have one year of NHL experience under his belt next season, and he and Rossi could make up a dynamic duo for years to come. He’s a hold in dynasty leagues if you own him and if you don’t it would be a good idea to target him as a buy-low candidate if you can afford to wait a year for his arrival because of his immense upside.
The race for the Calder will be an interesting one to watch through the rest of the season because of how wide open the race is thus far. We will see if some of the above-mentioned players can begin to distance themselves from their competition as they approach the halfway point of the season or if anyone new emerges and wants to throw their hat in the ring. Follow me on Twitter: @JulianMongillo