Kaprizov, Stutzle among standouts as Calder race heats up

With silky mitts, highlight-reel defensive plays and ten-bell saves, the 2020-21 NHL rookie class is making its presence known — and not in the way many would have predicted.

Following the 2020 NHL Draft, first-overall pick Alexis Lafrenière and teammate Igor Shesterkin led the Calder predictions. But things took a rather unexpected turn in a season unlike any other, and instead of a No. 1 pick, a former Michigan Wolverine, an undrafted goaltender, and a KHL standout shining in his first North American season headline the race for the Calder Trophy.

Here are the top five rookies and a few honorable mentions who could end up being voted 2020-21 rookie of the year.

Top 5 Calder standouts

Kirill Kaprizov, Minnesota Wild

Arguably the Calder frontrunner, Kaprizov’s success is nothing unexpected. He was taken in the fifth round of the 2015 draft and broke out onto the scene in the KHL as one of the NHL’s top prospects. In his final year with CSKA Moscow, he put up 33 goals and 62 points in 57 games before making the much-anticipated trip overseas to start his NHL career with Minnesota.

Since joining the show, the 23-year-old has thrived; he leads all rookies in scoring with 10 goals and 25 points in 27 games this season and has been an absolute force.

“There was a lot of talk about how he was gonna in and how he was gonna play and he certainly has not disappointed,” head coach Dean Evason said of Kaprizov. “He’s a wonderful teammate, he works every night. He’s obviously got a skill set that will allow him to produce offensively… he’s willing to [learn to improve] so he’ll continue to get better.”

Kaprizov takes incredible care of the puck and is a tremendous playmaker whose craftiness and stickhandling serve as his biggest assets. A natural scorer, he plays with fearlessness and edge every time he’s on the ice, which allows him to win battles for the puck, weave around defenders and come up with highlight-reel plays on the fly.

Josh Norris, Ottawa Senators

The Erik Karlsson trade is starting to pay off for the Sens with Norris. The 2017 first-rounder, who was traded to Ottawa as part of the blockbuster deal, has seven goals and 10 assists and sits third in the rookie scoring race.

“[Points are] just something extra that comes along when you play well… it’s a product of the work you put in every day,” Norris explained to reporters. “I just try to be more confident every game. I think I’m slowly finding a way to bring something to the table every night. Game by game, I’m starting to make more of an impact.”

A product of the Big Ten, Norris is a reliable two-way forward and his ability goes beyond the scoresheet. He can play well at both ends of the ice, and his intelligence, drive and awareness may be enough to lead him to the Calder.

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Kaapo Kahkonen, Minnesota Wild

Another freshman sensation for Minnesota, Kahkonen has taken over the spotlight between the pipes. The 24-year-old has split the netminding duties with veteran Cam Talbot to start this season, but he’s poised to take over that starting spot. Through 16 games, he’s 12-4-0 with a 2.05 GAA and .927 save percentage, which both rank first among rookie goaltenders with at least 10GP. He’s also tied with fellow first-year and Caps netminder Vitek Vanecek for the rookie lead in wins (12).

Kahkonen got his start in Liiga and was taken in the fourth round of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. Since then, he’s worked his way up the organization and, following a spectacular season with the team’s AHL affiliate in Iowa, he made the NHL leap this year and hasn’t looked back. His lateral movement and athleticism are among his biggest strengths, and he’s only going to get better as he continues to learn and grow his game.

Pius Suter, Chicago Blackhawks

Expectations were split for Suter after his 2019-20 campaign with the Swiss League’s ZSC Lions. Although he led the league with 53 points in 50 games and was crowned the regular-season MVP, some wondered how he would fare in the transition to North America.

So far, he’s been proving his worth, breaking out onto the scene for Chicago with his first three NHL goals for a hat trick vs. Detroit in just his sixth game with the big club. The 24-year-old sits second in rookie goal-scoring (8) and has taken charge for the Blackhawks, who are without Jonathan Toews and Kirby Dach.

Still in the hunt

Nils Hoglander, Vancouver Canucks

Hoglander has been one of the positives in a rather tough season for Vancouver. The 2019 second-round pick has five goals and 13 points for the Canucks this season and is among the top rookie scorers this season.

He possesses great speed and hands, and his hockey IQ allows him to generate chances around the net. Hoglander’s maturity is evident both on and off the ice as he takes on a first-line role and more responsibility for Vancouver, all while playing with confidence and adding new elements to his game. At 20 years old, Hoglander is still just getting started while making his presence known.

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Ty Smith, New Jersey Devils

Smith, like his team, has been a major surprise to start the season; both he and the Devils overcame a major COVID-19 outbreak to maintain momentum and silence critics in the East Division. He leads all rookie blueliners in scoring with 14 points and has been stellar at both ends of the ice.

On defense, the 20-year-old is leading the way with maturity and poise. He’s been taking on a top-4 role and logging minutes on both the first and second pairings. Offensively, he uses his strong skating, hockey IQ and impressive shot to quarterback the power play and be a catalyst on the forecheck. Expect him to stay hot as New Jersey looks to battle hard in the East and make the playoffs for the first time since 2017-18.

“Just watching him up there, it looks almost like my brother Quinn,” Jack Hughes told reporters in regards to Smith’s role on the man advantage. “Just a real natural up there who can maneuver the blue line. He knows where to put the puck. So I think he’s just got to keep going, keep playing his game and keep shooting the puck and open things up for us.”

Tim Stützle, Ottawa Senators

Out of the whole 2020 draft class, one could argue that Stützle is having the biggest impact. The third-overall selection has six goals and 18 points (second among rookies) on the season and is showing flashes of great potential for Ottawa.

Stützle has become a major threat every time he’s on the ice. His tremendous speed and skating allow him to win 1-on-1 battles, get to high-danger areas and hold onto the puck. Not only that, he has great hands and a wicked shot. He still has ways to go but remains in the Calder conversation.

Igor Shesterkin, New York Rangers

It was obvious that Shesterkin had big skates to fill following Henrik Lundqvist‘s legendary tenure with the Rangers. However, he’s come up huge for New York and plays with confidence and collectiveness that makes it hard to believe he’s only 25 years old. In 21 games this season, the Russian netminder is 6-7-1 with a .921 save percentage (third among rookies with at least 10GP) and 2.31 GAA. He’s also tied for first with Vanecek for the most games started by a rookie.

Shesterkin’s play is highlighted by quickness and strong lateral movement, as well as a great glove hand and blocker. He’s also excellent with the goalie stick and isn’t afraid to leave the crease and challenge the shooter. He’s proven that he’ll be a top starter for years to come and could make enough noise to be considered as the league’s top rookie.

Kevin Lankinen, Chicago Blackhawks

Lankinen’s been not only among the best rookies, but top netminders league-wide since taking over the crease in Chicago. In 20 games for the Hawks this season, Lankinen is 10-6-4 with a .914 save percentage, 2.86 GAA and one shutout. He ranks third among freshmen in wins (10).

“Every single game, every single period I’m out there, I feel more and more relaxed,” Lankinen said. “I don’t like to judge my game by the numbers that much.”

The 25-year-old signed an entry-level contract with Chicago after going undrafted in 2018 and shined between the pipes for the AHL-affiliate Rockford Ice Hogs. After a season-ending shoulder injury in 2019-20, the AHL All-Star worked his way onto the main roster for the shortened 2020-21 campaign. He started the year strong, and if he can get back the momentum he started the year with, he could be still contend for the Calder.

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