NHL Rookie Notebook: Calder candidates at each position

Carolina Hurricanes goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic. (Paul Battaglia/AP)

With the finale of the regular season just around the corner, so too is awards season.

But, when it comes to naming this season's top rookies, why just stop at one? Inspired by the NFL's award format, which gives out an award for the best first-year player on both sides of the ball, we're taking it one step further with three: Best rookie forward, defenceman, and goaltender of this talented class of 2020-21.


Winner: Kirill Kaprizov, Minnesota Wild
Runner-up: Jason Robertson, Dallas Stars

Just like last year, the 2020-21 Calder Memorial Trophy battle is a two-horse race. But while last season was a battle of the blue-liners in Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes, this year's top contenders are a pair of forwards who have been making big impacts on their respective clubs' top-six.

Wild forward Kirill Kaprizov has led the way since the start of the season in a number of categories, and through 52 games is the league's rookie leader in goals (26) and points (47). He also leads all first-year skaters in power-play goals (eight). His stat line is what has made him the Calder Trophy frontrunner since Game 1, and it's his remarkable impact on the team that should see his name called for the award this summer. He's the club's leading scoring and has quickly become a face of the franchise (he's even got t-shirts!). Without him, the Wild were a middling team toeing the line between retooling and contending. With him, Minnesota is one of the most exciting teams to watch and has kept pace with Western powerhouses like Vegas and Colorado.

Right behind him in the rookie scoring race, with four fewer games to his name, is Dallas Stars winger Jason Robertson. Through 48 games, Robertson has tallied 16 goals and 43 points -- good for second among rookies in both categories -- and leads all first-years in assists with 27. He's Dallas's team leader in assists and sits second behind veteran Joe Pavelski in team goals and points. He's worked his way up to the Stars' top line and has been a major bright spot in what's been a tough season filled with obstacles. His dynamic offensive game and chemistry with teammates like Roope Hintz and Pavelski has been a huge driving force in the Stars' playoff push down the stretch.

Both Kaprizov and Robertson have a rookie-leading 0.90 points per game, showing just how tight this Calder race really is. Strong arguments can be made for each rookie, with many pointing out Kaprizov's age (24) and extensive pre-NHL experience in the KHL giving him a sizeable advantage, making 21-year-old Robertson's accomplishments to keep pace all the more impressive.

Kaprizov said last month that while it's team wins that matter most, having an opponent like Robertson so close on his heels does serve as motivation.

"I don't think about it much, but with all the Instagram, you do see it and, of course, seeing another opponent there, it helps motivate you," he said, via Jessi Pierce of NHL.com. "It makes you want to do better and that's as any competitor would. But other than that, I don't focus or think about it, to be honest.

"...I'm constantly getting messages [about the Calder race]. I see it everywhere. It's hard not to notice it. ... I don't stress about it. Obviously, it's always great to win something, but for me personally, the team performance is first, and any personal accolades come after that."


Winner: Ty Smith, New Jersey Devils
Runners-up: K'Andre Miller, New York Rangers; and Mikey Anderson, Los Angeles Kings

Wins were hard to come by for the New Jersey Devils this season, but there were still plenty of victories -- and the development of Ty Smith has been a big one. The rebuilding Devils have another piece of their core of the future in place with Smith, who has shown his ability to be a top-pairing rearguard all season while driving play from the blue line. His 21 helpers on the season rank him second on the team in assists and also tie him for second league-wide among rookies. He leads all NHL rookie defencemen in points, with 23, and logged big minutes -- second-most among all first-years, behind K'Andre Miller and Mikey Anderson, who are tied (21:05).

Miller and Anderson have also made seamless transitions into the pros, two important building blocks for the Kings' and Rangers' respective blue lines as they continue to build what look to be winning foundations. Both have been used on top-pairings, with Anderson being able to learn alongside veteran Drew Doughty and Miller forming a dynamic duo with Adam Fox. Logging big minutes and coming out on top in the plus-minus (Miller has a plus-8 ranking; Anderson plus-5) is tough to do as a rookie, and both players have thrived in their big-league opportunities.


Winner: Alex Nedeljkovic, Carolina Hurricanes
Runner-up: Vitek Vanecek, Washington Capitals

Looking around the league, some of the best stories of the year took place in the blue paint -- from unlikely heroes emerging in Chicago, Boston, Washington and Carolina to emotional post-game interviews in Ottawa and late-season success from a late-bloomer in Buffalo. While Vanecek's larger sample size gives him an advantage in this made-up award, it was a tougher call than anticipated, and Nedeljkovic's numbers down the stretch and contributions to Carolina's success simply cannot be ignored.

The emergence of Nedeljkovic in Carolina has been remarkable, and had he gotten more starts earlier in the season he could very likely be under serious Calder consideration alongside Kaprizov and Robertson. In 22 starts this season, the 25-year-old has lost in regulation just four times. His 15-4-3 record made a strong Carolina club even stronger down the stretch as it dealt with the absence of Petr Mrazek. It also gives the club the goalie depth needed for a strong playoff run. Among all league goalies with at least 20 starts, Nedeljkovic leads in save percentage (.932) and goals-against average (1.89) and two of his three shutouts -- and many of his clutch saves -- have come against the league's most dangerous offences in Tampa Bay and Florida.

Speaking of clutch... how 'bout this assist?

With Braden Holtby off to Vancouver, Henrik Lundqvist sidelined with a heart condition and should-be starter Ilya Samsonov spending a significant amount of time on COVID-19 protocol, the door was opened for Vanecek to step into the spotlight in Washington. He not only filled in admirably -- the former third-string netminder has been a steady presence, backstopping the club into playoff position.

Vanecek, 25, had never started an NHL game prior to this season. Thirty-four starts later, he's sixth league-wide in goalie wins on the season (20) and is the top-ranked rookie goalie thanks to a decent 20-9-4 record, .907 save percentage and 2.73 goals-against average with two shutouts.

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