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.

[MORE: Your 2020-21 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

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.

[NHL Power Rankings: Maple Leafs running away with North, climb to top spot]

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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    NHL top prospect Connor Bedard draws comparisons to Connor McDavid as draft approaches

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    Anne-Marie Sorvin/USA TODAY Sports

    BUFFALO, N.Y. — The NHL is going to have another Connor to contend with very shortly.

    For everything two-time NHL MVP Connor McDavid has accomplished in Edmonton since being selected No. 1 in the 2015 draft, Connor Bedard is on the same trajectory in being pegged as this year’s top eligible draft prospect, Central Scouting director Dan Marr said Friday.

    “He’s right up there with Connor McDavid, it’s just the next generation,” Marr said in touting Bedard’s quickness, shot and ability to read and adapt. “So Connor McDavid started that trend, and Connor Bedard is going to lead it into the next trend.”

    The annual NHL pre-draft combine in Buffalo, New York, is resembling more of a coronation for the 17-year-old Bedard, who has spent the past two years putting up generational numbers with the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League while also shining against his peers on the international stage.

    “I think you can use a lot of adjectives to describe it,” Regina coach John Paddock told The Associated Press recently in comparing Bedard’s production at the same age level to McDavid and Penguins captain Sidney Crosby.

    “That’s quite a high ceiling,” said Paddock, a former NHL coach and player. “But there’s no indication he’s not going to do that based on what he’s done to date.”

    The Chicago Blackhawks own the No. 1 pick, and are highly anticipated to use it on Bedard when the draft opens in Nashville, Tennessee, on June 28.

    Bedard held his latest meeting with the Blackhawks at the combine in a relationship that began at a top-prospects camp in Toronto last summer.

    Bedard’s arrival would coincide with the franchise in transition, with Chicago moving on from its aging core after trading 2007 No. 1 pick, Patrick Kane, and with captain Jonathan Toews’ future uncertain.

    “Yeah, it’d be awesome,” Bedard said of the possibility of being selected by the Blackhawks. “The history of that organization, that city with sports would be unbelievable. We’ll see what happens, but to be selected, that would be a huge honor.”

    Bedard said he’s following McDavid’s advice to stay in the moment and not peak too far ahead. He added, his dream to play in the NHL began no different than those of his colleagues: the moment he picked up a hockey stick growing up in North Vancouver, British Columbia.

    What separates Bedard, however, is his exceptional skating ability and a hard shot, which is even more lethal given his quick release.

    With Bedard the likely top pick, the intrigue at the draft is likely to revolve around who rounds out the remainder of the top five selections.

    University of Michigan’s Adam Fantilli is second among North American skaters on Central Scouting’s final list, followed by top American prospect, William Smith, who played for USA Hockey’s developmental program. The top two European skaters are also considered in the mix with Sweden’s Leo Carlsson and Russia’s Matvei Michkov.

    Anaheim is scheduled to pick second followed by Columbus, San Jose and Montreal.

    Marr gives the edge to Bedard while also being impressed with Fantilli – just the third freshman to win the Hobey Baker Trophy awarded to college hockey’s top players – in a draft class considered very deep with offensive-minded forwards.

    “You’re going to win with both,” Marr said. “And whoever gets these two players they’re going to help define a franchise.”

    What distinguishes Bedard, who doesn’t turn 18 until next month, has been his consistency.

    Last season, his 71 goals in just 57 games were the most in the WHL since Pavel Brendl scored 73 in 1998-99. Bedard’s 143 points were the most in the CHL since three players topped that mark in 1995-96. And it was a season in which he enjoyed 10 games with five or more points, and just five games in which he failed to register a point.

    In 2020-21, Bedard became just the third WHL 16-year-old to reach 100 points, and was the youngest to score 50 goals in finishing with 51.

    He’s also made a splash on the international stage. Bedard led Canada with nine goals and 23 points at the world juniors last winter, and his combined production of 17 goals and 36 points in just 16 games ranks fourth on the career tournament list.

    Bedard has honed his talent by spending countless hours practicing shots in his backyard, which he referred to as his “Happy Place.” He was so dedicated to work on his shot that he preferred practicing than joining his family for a vacation to Disneyland, and eventually vacationed in Hawaii but only after he was allowed to bring his inline skates and sticks to practice.

    Noted for being soft-spoken, Bedard said he’s not yet allowed himself to envision being drafted or making his NHL debut yet.

    “It’s hard kind of think of that. But of course, I’ll work as hard as I can to try to achieve that goal,” he said. “And hopefully I do.”

    Blue Jackets acquire D Damon Severson from Devils after he signs 8-year deal

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    Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

    The Columbus Blue Jackets acquired Damon Severson from the New Jersey Devils on Friday after the veteran defenseman and soon-to-be free agent signed an eight-year $50 million contract.

    Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen sent a third-round pick, 80th overall, in this month’s draft to the Devils for Severson, who will be under contract through the 2030-31 NHL season.

    Severson had 58 goals and 205 assists in 647 career appearances with the Devils since making his NHL debut in 2014-15. He scored seven game-winning goals and averaged more than 21 minutes of playing time during his nine seasons. The 28-year-old had seven goals and 26 assists this season, including two game-winning goals, in 81 games.

    “Damon is a versatile defenseman who has great vision, moves the puck extremely well, has good size and can play heavy minutes at both ends of the ice,” Kekalainen said.

    The Canadian was selected in the second round in the 2012 draft. He has collected 30 or more points five times in his career and twice notched 11 or more goals. He played in every game in three straight seasons from 2018-21 and has played 80 or more contests four times in his career.

    With the addition of the third-round pick, New Jersey now has six selections in the draft, including its own picks in rounds two, four, five, six and seven.

    Matthew Tkachuk returns from big hit in Stanley Cup Final, adds more playoff heroics

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    Matthew Tkachuk was down, out briefly and then back with plenty of time to make a difference.

    The Florida Panthers star left early in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final after a big hit from Vegas Golden Knights forward Keegan Kolesar, and he missed most of the first period and didn’t return immediately following intermission while being evaluated for a concussion. After looking as if he might be lost for the night, Tkachuk returned in the second and then came through with more of his now trademark playoff heroics.

    Tkachuk scored the tying goal with 2:13 left in regulation, forcing overtime and giving the Panthers new life. He then provided the screen on Carter Verhaeghe‘s OT goal for a 3-2 victory that cut Florida’s series deficit to 2-1.

    The 25-year-old said he knew he was coming back when he left the game, pulled by concussion spotters. That absence felt like a long time ago in the aftermath of another big win he was largely responsible for.

    “I felt great – I feel great,” Tkachuk said. “I’m ready to go. Everybody’s excited that we’re in this position right now.”

    Florida is in this position rather than facing elimination in Game 4 on Saturday thanks in large part to Tkachuk, who also set up Brandon Montour‘s goal that opened the scoring less than five minutes in.

    Not long after, Tkachuk stumbled getting up after the hit from Kolesar and skated to the bench. He took a shift on Florida’s power play before going down the tunnel at the demand of concussion spotters mandated by NHL protocol.

    At that point, there was zero clarity, even on the Florida bench.

    “You’re not informed at all: It’s a complete shutdown,” coach Paul Maurice said. “You are completely in the dark on those. You don’t know when the player’s coming back. There’s not an update.”

    Players insist they were not worried. Montour called it a no-brainer.

    “He’s going to come back no matter what,” captain Aleksander Barkov said. “He’s really tough guy, and he’s going to battle through everything.”

    Tkachuk rejoined his teammates on the bench a few minutes into the second. When he stepped back onto the ice for his first shift since leaving, fans cheered and chanted, “Chucky! Chucky!”

    The crowd was even louder and threw rats when Tkachuk scored his biggest goal of many during this run to tie it. He didn’t get an assist on Verhaeghe’s goal but made it happen with a tape-to-tape pass in the neutral zone and was in front of Adin Hill when it happened.

    Asked if he was happy Tkachuk returned, Maurice joked that it was after midnight.

    “It was fine,” he quipped.

    Panthers rally, top Golden Knights 3-2 in OT of Game 3 of Stanley Cup final

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    Sam Navarro/USA TODAY Sports

    SUNRISE, Fla. — Carter Verhaeghe scored 4:27 into overtime and the Florida Panthers pulled off some more postseason dramatics to beat the Vegas Golden Knights 3-2 in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final on Thursday night.

    Matthew Tkachuk tied it with 2:13 left in the third period for the Panthers, who got the franchise’s first title-series game win in seven tries. Florida had to fend off a power play to start overtime, and Verhaeghe got the winner from the slot to get the Panthers within 2-1 in the series.

    Game 4 is Saturday night.

    Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 25 shots for Florida. Adin Hill made 20 saves for Vegas, but got beat on the only shot that came his way in overtime.

    Brandon Montour also scored for Florida, which pulled Bobrovsky down 2-1 late in the third for the extra attacker and Tkachuk — who left for parts of the first and second periods after taking a big hit — made that move pay off when he tied the game.

    His goal breathed life into a very nervous building. But the Panthers were furious — and replays showed they had a case — when Gustav Forsling was sent to the box with 11.2 seconds remaining for tripping. Florida survived that scare, and a few minutes later, had life in the series again.

    The odds are still long, but the Panthers at least have a bit more statistical hope now. Of the previous 55 teams to trail 2-1 at this point of the Stanley Cup Final, 11 have actually rallied to hoist the trophy.

    It’s improbable, sure. So are the Panthers, who were the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, were down 3-1 to Boston in Round 1, were 133 seconds away from trailing this series 3-0 — and now have tons of reasons for optimism.

    Jonathan Marchessault and Mark Stone each had power-play goals for Vegas.

    Marchessault’s goal was his 13th in his last 13 playoff games, his fourth of this series and his third with the man advantage.

    As if all that wasn’t enough, there was a little history in there as well. Vegas joined the 1980 New York Islanders as the only team with at least two power-play goals in three consecutive games in the Cup final. And Marchessault became the third player in the last 35 years to score in each of the first three games of a title series — joining Steve Yzerman in 1997 with Detroit and Jake Guentzel with Pittsburgh in 2017.

    But it wasn’t enough to give Vegas a 3-0 lead in the series.


    Before Thursday, Florida’s last home game in the title series was June 10, 1996, when Uwe Krupp scored in the third overtime for a 1-0 win as Colorado finished off a four-game sweep of the Panthers for the Cup. … Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was in the crowd, as was NBA great Charles Barkley, and former Dolphins star Dan Marino was the celebrity drummer to welcome the Panthers onto the ice.