Sammi Silber

Talbot and Kahkonen lead top NHL goaltending tandems

The job of the NHL goalie is probably one of the hardest.

Braden Holtby said it himself last year, joking with a smile on his face after a long practice.

“It’s the worst position in sports,” he grinned.

With the shortened 2020-21 campaign coming down to the wire as divisional opponents become more familiar with one another, having more than one goalie to lean on isn’t the worst option. Here are some of the league’s top 1A/1B netminding duos.

Cam Talbot and Kaapo Kahkonen, Minnesota Wild

Kirill Kaprizov is perhaps the Wild’s biggest headline this season, but it’s hard to overlook their tandem in net. Veteran Cam Talbot and rookie Kaapo Kahkonen have somewhat quietly become a powerhouse between the pipes.

Before last year, Talbot struggled for a few years after leaving the Rangers for Edmonton. However, the 33-year-old is seeing a resurgence. He’s having the best season of his career since his 36-game campaign with the Rangers in 2014-15. Through 16 starts, he’s gone 9-5-1 with a .928 save percentage (fourth in NHL among goalies with at least 10GP) and 2.26 GAA.

“It doesn’t surprise us anymore,” head coach Dean Evason told reporters in regards to Talbot’s outstanding performance and top-notch saves. “It honestly doesn’t. It’s like, ‘Okay, Cam saved our bacon again.'”

Rookie Kaapo Kahkonen is also making his presence known in net. Through 18 games, the 24-year-old is 12-6-0 with a 2.34 GAA and .920 SV% (fourth among rookies). Kahkonen has also taken his game a step further and is entering the Calder conversation. He’s a calm and collected netminder beyond his years, and he also benefits from stellar lateral movement and agility that helps him control the game.

Sergei Bobrovsky and Chris Driedger, Florida Panthers

Another solid 1A/1B tandem is making all the difference in net as Florida defies expectations. The Panthers have gone from a hinge team to one of the top contenders in the Central Division, thanks to strong play up and down Joel Quenneville’s lineup.

Bobrovsky has started the most games for FLA this season, making 20 appearances in net overall. The former Vezina winner is 13-5-2 with a .903 save percentage and 2.91 GAA and can still be trusted to come up big in goal.

It’s Driedger’s play, though, that’s stood out more and has given the Cats the confidence to rely on two netminders. The 26-year-old played in just 12 games for Florida last season but has taken the next step to prove he can be a full-time NHL goalie — and even a starter. He’s 9-4-2 through 15 games this season and boasts a remarkable .927 save percentage and 2.19 GAA. Driedger also doesn’t shy away from highlight-reel plays and is excellent with the paddle, while also showing off excellent lateral movement and a great glove hand.

[MORE: Panthers should resist urge to move Driedger at deadline]

Alex Nedeljkovic, James Reimer and Petr Mrazek, Carolina Hurricanes

It’s currently Three’s Company in the Canes’ crease, and that’s more than okay with Carolina. Mrazek’s return from a broken thumb, which held him out for 31 games, is a huge boost to an already solid netminding situation. Mrazek’s posted three shutouts through his five starts this season, and despite a small sample size, his .968 save percentage and .74 GAA does speak to his ability between the pipes. He’s been great at handling rebounds and playing a shutdown game, and he’s not afraid to come up with major saves to boot.

Still, it’s Nedeljkovic that’s taken the Hurricanes by storm (no pun intended). The rookie has been dominant between the pipes with an 8-4-2 record, 2.12 GAA and .924 save percentage through 14 games. Not only are his numbers some of the best among the NHL’s freshman class, but he’s also one of the league’s top standouts so far. He has incredible athleticism and plays a quick game, and he’s showing progress when it comes to working on his positioning.

In Mrazek’s place, Reimer’s been as solid as he can be, going 14-4-2 with a .905 SV%. He’s been able to come up big from time to time and steal key wins for a Carolina team that’s taking over the Central Division.

[MORE: Q&A: Nedeljkovic discusses journey to NHL, key to goalie goals]

Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin, New York Islanders

The Isles continue to make a strong push for first in the East, and they can credit a lot of their success to their Russian duo in goal.

Varlamov has been outstanding since coming to the Island, putting up a .914 save percentage in 45 games last season. This year, he’s continued that level of success with a 15-7-3 record, 2.26 GAA and .916 SV% through 25 games. He has a great glove hand and moves well laterally, and his fast reflexes and decision-making makes him a solid netminder and is helping him rise to new heights.

“He’s endeared himself to everybody with his personality and play,” bench boss Barry Trotz said of the 32-year-old last season.

In addition to their veteran, New York also has a solid second option in freshman Ilya Sorokin. His highly-anticipated transition to the NHL has been smooth so far, and he’s living up to the hype as he continues to grow his game and show flashes of promise. He’s 9-3-1 through 13 games, boasting a 2.21 GAA (third among rookies) and .914 save percentage (seventh among rookies).

As the Islanders look to make another deep run following their journey to the Eastern Conference Final in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, they at least know they’re covered in the crease.

Anton Khudobin and Jake Oettinger, Dallas Stars

After an impressive run to the Stanley Cup Final last season, Dallas is currently struggling to climb in the Central. However, their goaltending is giving them a boost and the opportunity to steal wins night in and night out.

Oettinger is among the biggest narratives to follow for the Stars, going 6-4-6 with a .918 save percentage (T-5 among rookies) and 2.24 GAA. The 22-year-old has great skill and size in the crease and is a quick learner that’s been able to take on major responsibility.

Khudobin hasn’t been in top form this season, going 7-9-4 with a 2.48 GAA and .908 save percentage, but he’s been able to do what he can to keep the Stars in it. “Dobby” continues to shine with his personality, but he’s still showing flashes of the greatness that helped lead his team to new heights in 2020.

Darcy Kuemper, Antti Raanta and Adin Hill, Arizona Coyotes

Like Carolina, the Coyotes also benefit from having three netminders, and that insurance will go a long way as they battle in a tough West Division. The team has not only relied on Kuemper, who is coming off a stellar campaign last season that helped Arizona to the playoffs for the first time since 2012, but also Raanta and Hill.

Kuemper’s taken his game to the next level over the last couple of seasons and continues to prove his worth in net. Through 18 starts, he’s 7-7-2 with a .914 save percentage and 2.41 GAA. The 6-5 netminder has tremendous size and ability and plays the butterfly position to a tee. He benefits from a terrific glove hand and strong lateral movement. Not only that, he handles the puck well and has great reaction time to boot.

Raanta’s also been strong with a .913 save percentage through 11 games. He’s made some unorthodox saves over the course of the season and can handle a heavier workload with a calm demeanor. The same can be said for Hill, who’s been able to come in and relieve some of the pressure for Arizona with a .909 save percentage combined with promising potential and a versatile skill set.

The Yotes defense will have to improve in front of the crease as both netminders work to keep Arizona in the hunt, and they will also be the key to the team making a deep run if they in fact do qualify for the postseason.

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

Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek, Washington Capitals

The Caps faced a rather unexpected situation in net this season. The plan was for Ilya Samsonov to take the reigns, with newly-signed goaltender Henrik Lundqvist taking on more of a backup and mentorship role while also getting playing time. However, things took a turn after a heart condition held out Lundqvist for the entire season. That’s when Vitek Vanecek got the unexpected call to rise to the occasion – and he hasn’t disappointed.

Through 23 games, Vanecek leads all rookies with wins (15) and ranks in the top-10 with a .907 save percentage and 2.71 GAA. It was a long journey from the AHL to the highest level, and he’s arguably among the top reasons the Capitals are the top team in the East. The Czech netminder shows off quickness in the crease and a terrific glove-hand, and his ten-bell saves and performance has forced the Caps to rely on a two-goalie system.

“[Vanecek’s] given us the opportunity to win hockey games from the start of the year… he’s given us a chance,” head coach Peter Laviolette said.

While Samsonov’s 2.87 GAA and .897 SV% appear lackluster, it doesn’t speak to the quality of his play in net since returning from a bout with COVID that had him struggling to walk and breathe. His stellar lateral movement and positioning have helped keep Washington in a number of games, and he’s lost just two games in regulation this season.

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    From the Fortress to the Garden, NHL starting to welcome back fans

    After a year that felt more like a millennium, several NHL teams are saying goodbye to empty arenas as they prepare to open their doors back up to fans.

    The return brings about feelings of nostalgia. Players will once again get to feed off the energy of a crowd, heed reminders to “shoot the puck” and see their names on the back of jerseys that fill the stands.

    “At this time, we have to respect the protocols, we have to respect the safety of the fans and players and everyone working at these facilities is the most important thing,” Capitals defenseman Zdeno Chara said. “Yeah, it would be great to have fans at the arenas and cheering us on and experience these energy swings during games.”

    Here’s where each NHL team currently stands when it comes to welcoming back their respective fan bases.

    East Division

    Buffalo Sabres: New York state allowed the reopening of large stadiums and arenas on Feb. 23 with protocols. Buffalo will open Keybank Center to fans for select home games starting on March 20.

    Boston Bruins: Beantown will see a limited amount of fans return to TD Garden when the Bruins are able to play again. Their originally scheduled game on March 23 against the Islanders, which was to be the first a 12% capacity, has been postponed.

    New York Islanders: The Isles welcomed back 1,000 Northwell Health frontline workers on March 11 and officially brought season ticket holders back to Nassau Coliseum on March 18.

    New York Rangers: The Blueshirts were the first N.Y. team to host a crowd this season. On Feb. 26, Madison Square Garden saw about 2,000 fans return for the first time since the season came to a pause in March 2020.

    New Jersey Devils: N.J. governor Phil Murray gave the go-ahead for venues with a seating capacity of 5,000 or more to operate at 10% capacity in March. The Devils brought back fans with strict protocols in place, and within 48 hours of tickets, they sold out their first eight home games at Prudential Center. New Jersey hosted an audience for the first time in nearly a year on March 2 in a 2-1 loss to the Isles.

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

    Pittsburgh Penguins: PPG Paints Arena opened its doors to fans to kick off the month of March, with the team requiring all spectators to wear masks at all times unless eating or drinking. However, Pittsburgh faces controversy after the team admitted to photoshopping masks onto fans in a social media photo to hide COVID-19 violations. Seventeen people were also ejected for not wearing masks inside.

    Philadelphia Flyers: Gritty’s followers now have a place at Wells Fargo Center, as the venue started hosting fans on March 7 at 15% capacity (about 3,100 people) with COVID-19 protocols in place.

    Washington Capitals: Monumental Sports & Entertainment, the group that owns the Caps, submitted a request to the city of D.C. to safely allow fans back into Capital One Arena, per the Washington Post’s Samantha Pell. There’s no return date set in stone, but the team is a step closer.

    West Division

    Arizona Coyotes: The Yotes were the first NHL team to welcome back fans for a home game in 2021. Local authorities allowed Arizona to open Gila River Arena to 3,450 fans (about 25% capacity) for the team’s season opener in the desert on Jan. 14.

    Vegas Golden Knights: As part of Nevada’s 75-day reopening plan, the Vegas Golden Knights are welcoming faithful back to The Fortress and operating at 15% capacity (around 2,600 people). The Knights’ first home game with fans was on March 1, marking the first time in 363 days that T-Mobile Arena hosted fans. Vegas treated them to a show, rewarding their patience with a 5-4 overtime victory over the Minnesota Wild.

    Minnesota Wild: Right now, only players’ families and select staff are allowed to attend games. However, the team announced that in early March, Minnesota will allow 40 “true fans” to sit in the Bud Light Top Shelf Lounge on the club level. Where it stands, only 250 people are currently allowed in the arena.

    Colorado Avalanche: Ball Arena has received approval from the Colorado Department of Health and Environment to begin hosting 4,050 fans (22% capacity) beginning April 2.

    St. Louis Blues: Starting on Feb. 2, the team announced that Enterprise Center will open its doors to a limited amount of fans, along with frontline workers, families and friends of players, staff, employees and essential personnel. In total, St. Louis has increased attendance to 1,400.

    Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks: There’s no update yet on whether or not California’s teams will get to fill their stands anytime soon.

    Central Division

    Carolina Hurricanes: Fans can now take warning with the team indoors. PNC Arena is operating at 15% capacity and opened back up on March 4 for Carolina’s game vs. Detroit.

    Chicago Blackhawks: Chicago hasn’t made any decisions surrounding United Center at this time. However, per the Parkins and Spiegel Show, it was reported that the Hawks and Chicago Bulls could welcome fans back at 10-15% capacity in April, pending approval from the city.

    [NHL Power Rankings: Hurricanes, Isles climb with winning streaks]

    Columbus Blue Jackets: Fire the cannon: fans are back at Nationwide Arena. Columbus first announced its plan to operate at 10% capacity on Feb. 11 after receiving approval from the State of Ohio. On March 2, a year and a day since the team last hosted spectators– 18,378 to be exact – the Jackets welcomed back 1,953 spectators.

    Dallas Stars: A COVID-19 outbreak for the team at the start of the 2020-21 campaign hasn’t impacted their plan to welcome back Stars faithful. American Airlines Center currently allows 4,200 fans and has taken several steps to stop the spread of COVID-19, including selling tickets as part of socially-distanced pod seating groups.

    Detroit Red Wings: Hockeytown’s residents are coming back slowly and surely. The home opener saw 250 fans allowed in the arena (mainly team personnel family and friends) before that number was expanded to 500 on Jan. 30. Michigan’s eased restrictions allowed Little Caesar’s to open doors to an additional 250 people in March.

    Florida Panthers: Sunrise decided that the team would host fans at 25% capacity before the puck even dropped on the 2020-21 campaign. Nearly 5,000 people can fill the stands at BB&T Center, which has several safety measures in place and “became the first NHL hockey arena to achieve the International WELL Building Institute’s (IWBI) WELL Health-Safety Rating.” It’s a good thing for the Cats, who are off to one of their best starts in years.

    Nashville Predators: The Metro Public Health Department gave the Preds the green light for 15% capacity at the start of the year, but Nashville elected to wait. Then, on Jan. 26, Smashville welcomed back fans with open arms and put on quite the show, snapping a three-game skid with a 3-2 overtime victory over Chicago.

    Tampa Bay Lightning: The defending Stanley Cup champions brought back a crowd on March 13 after Vinik Sports Group, the Bolts’ parent company, announced it will allow up to 3,800 spectators into Amalie Arena. Tampa made it a night to remember, as the Bolts finally raised their 2020 Stanley Cup Championship banner to the rafters, sharing that moment with their fans.

    North Division

    It appears the nation of Canada is playing things safe, with no spectators allowed for any Canadian teams so far. It may be for the best, with the Canucks currently in the throes of a major COVID-19 outbreak following relatively little to no interference from the pandemic to start the season for the North.

    Ovechkin, Marleau, Crosby closing in on NHL milestones

    The milestone is a significant part of any NHL player’s career and can be marked in a variety of ways. In one instance, a player’s puck will be collected from the twine and handed to the trainer, who will tape the puck and cement the record in thick black Sharpie. In others, teammates will chip in for a commemorative watch or ownership will reward a player with a silver stick. And even on the road, teams will pay tribute to visiting players for their achievements on the jumbotron.

    Despite the shortened season and several protocols, COVID-19 hasn’t put an end to tributes and significant strides for players. From the all-time goal-scoring record to the most games played in the NHL and beyond, there are several records to be broken this season.

    Here are the top NHL milestones to watch for in 2020-21.

    Alex Ovechkin

    The Great 8 is still in pursuit of Wayne Gretzky’s goal-scoring record of 894 and currently sits at 719. He passed Phil Esposito for sixth on the NHL’s all-time goals list with a tally in the Caps’ March 15 victory over New York. In the bigger picture, he’s 177 tallies from passing Gretzky.

    “Obviously it’s history,” Ovechkin said of passing Esposito. “It’s great numbers. I’m happy to be in that category.”

    The 35-year-old captain picked up another milestone on the same night, hitting 1,300 points with an assist on a T.J. Oshie goal. He ranks second in points among active players, trailing only Joe Thornton with 1,520 points) and continues to inspire his teammates as he continues to check off several NHL milestones.

    “He took me under his wing and then when we got older, I took him under my wing,” Backstrom joked about his bond with the Russian winger, adding, “There’s never a boring day around that guy.”

    Patrick Marleau

    One of the NHL’s iron men, Marleau has cemented his legacy in San Jose. The 41-year-old is the franchise’s all-time leader in goals (563), points (1,193), and most importantly, games played (1,750).

    “I still love playing,” Marleau told reporters in October. “I still love the competition. Still going after my dream of winning the Stanley Cup, and still able to get out there and play and have fun, and I think that’s the thing that gets me going.”

    Beyond being seven points away from 1,200, there is something even more remarkable about his stat line. He sits just 17 games behind Gordie Howe as the NHL’s all-time leader in games played and is set to become the league’s longest-tenured player this year, considering he dresses for the majority of games to close out the regular season.

    Sidney Crosby

    The three-time Stanley Cup champion recently celebrated 1,000 games in the league and continues to make history year after year. Crosby also has another NHL milestone waiting for him a he is just eight points from joining fellow No. 1 overall pick Alex Ovechkin in the 1,300-point club.

    Pittsburgh’s captain continues to shine through several injuries and setbacks, producing at an exponential rate of 1.28 points per game. As he continues to pursue another title, he’s also just 19 goals shy of 500 in his career and has 29 points in 28 games this season.

    “He sets the example each and every day,” head coach Mike Sullivan told reporters of No. 87. “The accountability starts with him and then trickles down through our organization. He’s the standard… Sid is the standard that everyone holds themselves accountable to.”

    Anze Kopitar

    Despite the Kings’ struggles in recent years, Kopitar’s been a constant. The Slovenian center skated in his 1,100th career NHL game on Sunday and eyes an even bigger NHL milestone to finish 2020-21: 1,000 career points.

    Kopitar has seven goals and 25 assists through 27 games this season and currently sits at 982 career points. He’s on pace to hit 66 points this season, which puts him on track to easily pass the 1,000-point plateau. Not to mention, he’s making a strong case for the Hart.

    “I keep working on my game,” Kopitar said of his play. “I’m trying to study it and I’m having fun, most importantly.”

    “He’s about as consistent a player as I’ve been around in my 20, 25 years of pro hockey,” head coach Todd McLellan added. “Credit to him and everybody else seems to follow.”

    Victor Hedman

    Hedman has made his presence known from the first day he entered the league as not only a force to be reckoned with on the backcheck but a major catalyst on offense to boot. The 6-6 blueliner joined the 500-point club with an assist in Tampa’s 4-2 victory over Detroit on March 18, where he also added a goal for 501 total career points.

    The 2020 Conn Smythe winner leads the league in scoring among defensemen (29 points) and will join fellow defenseman John Carlson as the second blueliner to join the 500 club this season. Hedman is arguably the favorite for the Norris and is tied with Ondrej Palat as the Bolts’ leading scorer.

    “I want to be at the top of my career… I put the pressure on myself to go out there and try to be as good as I can every night to help my team win,” Hedman said of his play this season.

    [Your 2020-21 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

    Tuukka Rask

    Boston’s netminder celebrated hitting the 50-shutout mark last season, and is ready to add another impressive NHL milestone to his resume. Rask currently has 299 career wins and when he returns from injury, he’s poised to capture his 300th victory.

    “Tuukka’s is one of the best goalies in the league,” Brad Marchand said. “He’s the backbone of our team. Every great team has a great goalie. That’s what we need out of him if we want to go all the way this year.”

    Through 14 games this season, the Finnish netminder is 8-4-2 with a 2.46 GAA and .906 save percentage. He also gave us one of the league’s best bloopers of 2021.

    Marc-Andre Fleury

    At the start of the season, questions surrounding Marc-Andre Fleury’s role in Vegas and if his time with the Golden Knights was coming to an end with Robin Lehner ready to take over the crease. However, an injury to Lehner in mid-February, combined with Fleury’s dominance between the posts of late, has helped him win back that starting spot as he sits just 21 victories away from 500 career wins.

    Through 19 games this season, Fleury is 15-5-0 and leads the league with a 1.77 GAA and .936 save percentage. He’s tied with Philipp Grubauer for first in shutouts (4) and is just five away from 70 in his career. Additionally, the future Hall of Famer recently hit the NHL milestone of 50,000 minutes in the NHL and leads all active goaltenders in victories.

    “Every game I try to do my best, try to keep my team in the game. It doesn’t matter if my legs are tired or not, I just try to find a way to keep the game close,” Fleury said of his increased workload this season. “The guys in front of me help a lot.”

    Additional NHL milestones to watch

    • “Jumbo” Joe Thornton is two assists shy of 1,100 in his career.

    Phil Kessel is seven games away from playing in his 1,100th career game and is one assist shy of 500 in his career.

    Zdeno Chara (1,581 GP) will reach 1,600 games if he plays consistently through the regular season.

    Ryan Suter (596 points) and Keith Yandle (591 points) are closing in on 600 in their respective careers. Yandle recently skated in his 1,000th career NHL game. Mark Giordano (496) is also closing in on the 500-point mark.

    How Lafrenière, top 2020 NHL Draft picks stack up so far

    It’s a Tuesday night on Oct. 6, 2020. The world is still at a standstill from COVID-19. The NHL is preparing a safe return to regular-season play after pulling off a successful postseason in the bubble. And, despite everything, the 2020 NHL Draft is starting.

    Instead of walking through the halls of Bell Centre, players and their families boot up their computers and turn on their webcams for the occasion. In the “new normal,” potential picks still dress in suits and ties and have jerseys on standby as they wait to hear their names called.

    Fast forward months later, and prospects have taken several steps toward their NHL dreams. Here’s where the top five 2020 NHL draft picks are now and how they’re faring with their new organizations.

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

    No. 1: Alexis Lafrenière, New York Rangers

    When the Rangers’ ping-pong ball declared them winners of the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery, there was no doubt that they’d take Lafrenière, the league’s most highly-touted prospect, to join an already-lethal arsenal that features the likes of Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, Kaapo Kakko and Chris Kreider.

    Lafrenière is a product of the QMJHL’s Rimouski Oceanic and has been compared to Sidney Crosby, who also played for the Oceanic before taking over the NHL. His hockey IQ makes him a force at both ends of the ice, and he’s both an elite playmaker and goal-scorer. He also has the size and strength to play well at the NHL level and has the potential to become an elite franchise player.

    His rookie season hasn’t gone exactly to plan. Though the 19-year-old is a full-time NHLer and a top-6 forward, he hasn’t had too much luck finding twine. Through 21 games, Lafrenière has four goals and seven points and is a minus-5 while averaging 14:48 per game.

    It does appear, however, that he’s starting to find his stride. Lafrenière has points in five of his last six games and is riding a four-game point streak. He’s becoming more confident and moving his feet more as he becomes more of a threat on the first line.

    “I think I like the way I’ve played recently,” Lafrenière said after practice to kick off the month of March. “I had not the best start, I would say, but I’m getting more comfortable out there. I’m making more plays, so just keep working hard in practices and games. Like I said, I’m getting more comfortable, and that’s a positive for me.”

    New York is 9-9-3 to start the season and sits sixth in the East Division. As Lafrenière continues to transition to the big club, expect him to get more comfortable and his scoring totals to rise.

    [MORE: Changes or not, NHL Draft Lottery will always leave someone unhappy]

    No. 2: Quinton Byfield, Los Angeles Kings

    As was the case with Lafreniere, Byfield going second was no surprise. He made history as the highest-drafted Black player in NHL history and is set to be a next-generation center. The Kings are already seeing flashes of major promise from Sudbury Wolves product.

    Towering at 6-foot-4, Byfield has been compared to Joe Thornton for his size and ability. He’s a powerful puck-mover and skater with great hands and terrific scoring sense. He can make highlight-reel plays and make noise on the forecheck while also playing well in his own end.

    For the 2020-21 season, Byfield played in the World Juniors for Canada, putting up seven points in seven games (six of those came in one game against Switzerland) to help lead his country to silver.

    Despite his production and ability, Los Angeles elected to have him play with their AHL affiliate Ontario Reign for his first pro year. There, he’s getting the opportunity to play top minutes and develop under the leadership of first-year Reign coach John Wroblewski, who has a great resume in regards to player development.

    In 11 games with Ontario so far, Byfield has a goal and seven points and is currently the team’s first-line center. This is just the beginning for Byfield, who’ll eventually slot in at No. 1 center for L.A.

    No. 3: Tim Stützle, Ottawa Senators

    One can argue that Stützle is currently the top player from his NHL draft class so far. The Sens made a wise selection when they took the German winger third overall with the help of late Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek and they haven’t looked back since.

    Stützle’s been a staple in Ottawa’s lineup this season and hasn’t shied away from putting on a skills competition in the NHL. He has great hands and stickhandling ability that allows him to win battles and generate scoring chances. Stützle’s also an excellent skater who can make clean zone entries and take care of the puck.

    The 19-year-old sits third in the rookie scoring race with 14 points through 23 games has points in four of his last six games (that stretch includes a four-game point streak). Playing on the third line, Stützle has shown tremendous chemistry with Drake Batherson and both are breaking out and making the Sens a powerhouse.

    He also received a major endorsement from head coach D.J. Smith, who said the freshman “belongs” in the NHL back in January.

    [MORE: Kaprizov, Lankinen among standouts as Calder race heats up]

    No. 4: Lucas Raymond, Detroit Red Wings

    Another European talent, Raymond is going to make headlines in Detroit in years to come. Ranked as the fourth international skater in the 2020 NHL Draft, Raymond plays with wisdom beyond his years. He made his SHL debut at the age of 16 and has plenty of experience playing against grown men overseas.

    The 18-year-old winger is a dangerous player who benefits from great speed and vision. Raymond doesn’t shy away from generating high-danger chances, and his excellent hands and wicked shot make him a major asset offensively. Defensively, Raymond’s a strong penalty killer, and his intense style helps him win battles and take away the puck

    In 34 SHL games with Frolunda HC, he has six goals and 18 points. However, he suffered an arm injury and is expected to be sidelined as he recovers from a procedure to “remove bone fragments.” Detroit GM Steve Yzerman expects him to miss at eight weeks and says the injury won’t be a long-term concern.

    No. 5: Jake Sanderson, Ottawa Senators

    After winning big with Stützle, the Sens got another top-five draft pick and made the most of it with Sanderson from the U.S. National Team Development Program. The son of longtime-NHLer Geoff Sanderson, he wore the “C” for the USNTDP in 2019-20, registering seven goals and 29 games in 47 games.

    The 18-year-old blueliner is a smooth, efficient skater with a great hockey IQ and puck-moving ability. He’s a defensive player first and isn’t afraid to engage in battles for the puck and play in all game situations. When he can, he’ll contribute offensively and is starting to improve that aspect of his game. At the NHL level, he’s expected to log a lot of ice team at even strength and on special teams, while being capable of shutdown play.

    Right now, Sanderson is thriving with the University of North Dakota and has two goals and 11 points in 16 games so far. As he builds his game, he’s well on his way to being a top-4 defenseman in the show. In the coming years, he’ll likely become the first player born and trained in Montana to lace ’em up in the NHL.

    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.