The Calder Trophy race may run through Broadway in 2021.
Last season’s first-year crop was easy to breakdown – it was Cale Makar, Quinn Hughes, and then everyone else. This time around, the field seems to be a little more diverse – with the New York Rangers owning not one, but two legitimate frontrunners for the prestigious award.
One thing is for certain: this class is littered with Russian flavour. In total, four Russians have won the Calder Trophy in the past 20 years - Artemi Panarin, the latest, back in 2015-16 with the Chicago Blackhawks. Panarin was 24 when he won the award. And remember, any player at least 26 years of age (by September 15th of that season) is not considered a rookie.
In general, handicapping this year’s group of freshmen is trickier than normal, especially given the fact that no one has really played competitive hockey since last March. In order to be eligible for the Calder, a player must not have played in more than 25 NHL games in any preceding season, nor in six or more NHL games in each of any two preceding seasons.
Here’s a top-10 list of rookies to watch who should have an impact this season:
The below rankings are derived from Sportsnet’s top-250 pre-season fantasy rankings and quantified based on projection, age and potential.
1. Igor Shesterkin, G, New York Rangers (SN Rank: 109)
Shesterkin will be 25 at the time of puck drop – as if he needed it, that’s already a leg up on the competition. In 12 NHL appearances last season, the phenom posted a 10-2-0 record with a 2.56 goals-against and .932 save percentage. With backup Alexandar Georgiev there to push him and New York’s talent up front, Shesterkin has the ability to be an elite fantasy goalie this season.
2. Kirill Kaprizov, LW, Minnesota Wild (SN Rank: 126)
After several years of trying, the Wild were finally successful in getting their 2015 fifth round pick over to North America. And he comes with gigantic expectations to say the least – the 23-year-old led the KHL with 33 goals in 57 games last season and is primed to make a significant fantasy impact right away. Look out for the Fiala/Kaprizov combo in Saint Paul.
3. Alexis Lafreniere, LW, New York Rangers (SN Rank: 128)
Lafreniere has been NHL-ready for several months now, a big reason why the Rangers saw no reason to lend him to Team Canada for the World Juniors. Not only did the 19-year-old take home MVP honours at last year’s tournament, but he also terrorized the QMJHL to the tune of 35 goals and 112 points. With all the firepower around him on Broadway, Lafreniere should have no problem consistently producing right away.
4. Ilya Sorokin, G, New York Islanders (SN Rank: 138)
Regardless of what you think about the KHL, it would be foolish to ignore Sorokin’s body of work last season. In 40 appearances with CSKA Moscow, the 25-year-old notched 26 wins to go along with a sparkling 1.50 goals-against average and .935 save percentage. Combining Sorokin’s potential with goalie whisperer Mitch Korn could prove to be great news for the Islanders and bad news for the rest of the NHL. Look for Sorokin to start the season in a timeshare with Semyon Varlamov.
5. Tim Stuetzle, LW, Ottawa Senators (SN Rank: 212)
Set to turn 19 just two days into the season (January 15), the blue chipper is expected to crack Ottawa’s roster out of training camp. He’s currently captaining Germany at the World Junior in Edmonton. While Stuetzle projects to play up the middle long term, he’ll likely start at the wing. Goal scoring could be a problem for the Sens, so don’t be surprised if Stuetzle emerges as a legitimate fantasy option.
6. Quinton Byfield, C, Los Angeles Kings (SN Rank: 233)
With the Kings firmly in a rebuild, Byfield will likely get every opportunity to be a full-time NHLer right off the hop. Physically speaking, the 18-year-old is ready. Additionally, playing for Canada at the World Junior could only be looked at as a positive - both short-term and long-term. While it’s fair to temper expectations for Byfield in year one, it wouldn’t be shocking to see him earn a top-six role out of camp.
7. Grigori Denisenko, LW, Florida Panthers (SN Rank: 246)
With Evgenii Dadonov and Mike Hoffman gone, the 20-year-old Denisenko will almost certainly be in the mix to fill one of the voids in Florida’s top-six. That said, the competition will be stiff with the likes of fellow rookie Owen Tippett as well as newcomers Patric Hornqvist and Anthony Duclair likely to get looks as well. For what it’s worth, considering Denisenko’s supreme skill level, it could be worth your time to take a flier on him.
8. Bowen Byram, D, Colorado Avalanche (SN Rank: 249)
Lo and behold, another stud defenceman coming for GM Joe Sakic and the Avalanche. Unequivocally, Byram could turn out to be the best sleeper pick of this entire rookie class. While it’s likely that Colorado eases the 19-year-old into the fold, Byram could prove to be too good to hold down for long. Look for a strong second half; this kid’s ridiculous.
9. Kaapo Kahkonen, G, Minnesota Wild (SN Rank: Unranked)
If you’re looking for a sleeper goalie to take a shot on, Kahkonen’s your guy - especially given the news that Alex Stalock will be out indefinitely to start the season. In five NHL appearances last season for the Wild, the 24-year-old went 3-1-1 with a 2.96 GAA and .913 save percentage. Undeniably, there’s some value to be found here.
10. Liam Foudy, C, Columbus Blue Jackets (SN Rank: Unranked)
Through 12 NHL games, it’s quite clear that John Tortorella sees something legitimate in Foudy. In the span of a few games in the Toronto bubble, the 19-year-old went from being Columbus’ extra forward to playing a prolific role in the top-nine. Foudy has a solid mix of speed and skill, perfect for that system and also the ‘new’ NHL. With Gustav Nyquist on the sidelines, Foudy should get a shot to prove his worth. Try Foudy out in daily fantasy.