The start of the 2021-22 NHL season is just over a month away, and I can’t wait. There are so many storylines I’m excited about, but at the forefront is just how profoundly, overwhelmingly loaded this season’s rookie class will be.
In a few weeks, I’ll have season predictions put together for the entire year, including the Calder Trophy for the league’s top rookie. But as I sit at my computer to write this, I have absolutely no idea who that winner will be.
Last year, I heralded Kirill Kaprizov’s Calder candidacy, and he responded with a remarkable first NHL season, leading the Minnesota Wild with 27 goals and 51 points in 55 games. This year, the waters of prediction are muddier than ever.
The NHL Experience Factor
The NHL defines a rookie player as a player who “must not have played in more than 25 NHL games in any preceding seasons, nor in six or more NHL games in each of any two preceding seasons. Any player at least 26 years of age (by September 15th of that season) is not considered a rookie.”
However, playoff games are not a considering factor in that equation. For example, Cole Caufield played in 20 playoff games for the Montreal Canadiens during their run to the Stanley Cup Finals last year, scoring four goals and adding eight assists. Caufield is currently the odds-on favorite to win the Calder at +115.
Trevor Zegras is another strong contender, with some sportsbooks listing Zegras at even money. Zegras played in 24 games for the Anaheim Ducks last season, one game short of exceeding his eligibility. He scored three goals and 10 assists in those games before heading to the AHL, where he scored 10 goals and 11 assists in 17 games.
Other 2021-22 rookies who saw NHL ice last year include Colorado Avalanche forward Alex Newhook (three assists in six games), Florida Panthers goaltender Spencer Knight (four games, won all four), Toronto Maple Leafs forward Nick Robertson (six games), and Ducks defenseman Jamie Drysdale (eight points in 24 games), among 145 other skaters who played 24 games or fewer.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some of the highest-rated European prospects remained overseas to continue training and competing among the top clubs outside of North America.
Detroit Red Wings defenseman Moritz Seider was a machine while playing for Rögle BK of the Swedish Hockey League (SHL). As a 19-year-old, Seider scored seven goals and added 21 assists to finish tied for fifth (and second among defensemen) in points. Seider is expected to make the NHL club out of camp, and with newly acquired Nick Leddy bolstering the blue line, Seider should make an immediate impact.
Seider won’t be the only SHLer to debut for the Red Wings this year either. Winger Lucas Raymond enters the fold as well after scoring six goals and 12 assists for Frölunda HC. Raymond also scored two goals and three assists in five games at World Juniors.
Other top prospects who should be arriving from Europe include New Jersey Devils winger Alexander Holtz (18 points last year for Djurgårdens IF of the SHL), Florida Panthers center Anton Lundell (16 goals in 26 games for HIFK in the Liiga), Los Angeles Kings winger Vladimir Tkachyov (38 points in 45 games for SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL), and Vancouver Canucks winger Vasili Podkolzin (Tkachyov’s teammate with SKA St. Petersburg).
College Stars Make the Grade
NCAA Hockey is becoming almost as good of a development route for prospects as playing in the top tier Junior leagues.
Caufield made the jump to the NHL after winning the 2021 Hobey Baker Award as the top Division I Men’s Hockey player, leading the Wisconsin Badgers with 30 goals and 22 assists in 31 games. Similarly, Knight was a finalist for the Mike RIchter Award as college hockey’s top goaltender and finished in the Top 10 in Hobey Baker voting.
Scott Perunovich, the 2020 Hobey Baker winner, missed the 2021 season after undergoing shoulder surgery. Now healthy, Perunovich should be a key piece of the St. Louis Blues’ defense group and could be a part of their power-play unit.
Matt Boldy of the Minnesota Wild had a solid season at Boston College (31 points in 22 games) before joining the Wild’s AHL affiliate in Iowa, scoring 18 points in 14 games. If the Wild can figure out Kaprizov’s contract situation, Boldy could hop on Kaprizov’s opposite wing for some serious star power.
Boldy’s Boston College teammate Newhook is the rookie whose team is likely to go the furthest into the playoffs next season, playing for the Colorado Avalanche. However, because of the Avalanche’s roster makeup, Newhook will likely be a bottom-six forward for most of the season unless he’s made unprecedented progress over the summer.
Knight has the best Calder odds of any goaltender in the mix in 2020, but Boston Bruins goaltender Jeremy Swayman could give him a run for the money. Swayman played in 10 games for the Bruins last year, racking up a 7-3-0 record, a 1.50 GAA, a .945 save percentage and two shutouts. The Bruins signed Linus Ullmark to be the starter, and Tuukka Rask is still unsigned while recovering from hip surgery, so there’s a path to considerable ice time for Swayman this year.
Dan Vladar, Swayman’s teammate with the Bruins, signed with the Calgary Flames this offseason. Vladar should be the backup to Jacob Markstrӧm, and while I don’t know if he’ll be anywhere near Calder contention given the other names on this list, he’s still going to be one of the top rookie goaltenders next season.
Others You Should Know
Minnesota’s Marco Rossi was the ninth overall pick in the 2020 Draft. However, after dealing with complications from COVID-19, Rossi did not play at all in 2020. He recently competed with the Austrian National Team during Olympic Qualifiers, but may start the year in the AHL.
Another Top 10 pick from 2020, Quinton Byfield went second overall to the Kings. After scoring 20 points in 32 AHL games as an 18-year-old, Byfield may need another year to polish his game before making the NHL jump, but the Kings have an incredible prospect pool which should raise everyone’s compete level. Byfield is the cream of that crop, and I’m excited to see what he brings to the table this year.
Finally, Peyton Krebs is a player I’ve had my eye on since before he was drafted in the first round in 2019 when he scored 68 points in 64 games for the Kootenay Ice. He’s got a tough route to Calder contention while playing for an incredibly talented Vegas Golden Knights team.
However, Krebs’ early development was hampered by an Achilles injury. Now healthy and ready to go, Krebs will either be the top prospect in Vegas’ system for one more season or he’ll make the team out of camp and be ready to go.
It will be a long time before the NHL sees another rookie class with this much talent. With experienced returners from last season, top European prospects ready to shine on the North American stage, and young guns ready to make the leap to the pros, this year’s race should be tighter than ever, and fans around the world should be soaking up every second.