Another NHL season is suddenly around the corner and with it comes a new group of young talent primed to break into the league.

Though the 2021 NHL Draft likely won’t even produce a single NHL player this season (a real rarity), this year’s rookie class shapes up as an exciting one.

For the fourth year in a row at The Athletic, this is my ranking of the top 20 Calder Trophy candidates. This list differs from my annual top 50 drafted prospects ranking because it has to broaden its scope beyond projecting players into the future to consider their circumstances in the present, weighing their likely role and production for only this season. My work usually consists of only my own assessment of a player’s talent and upside, with very little attention paid to their trajectory, minutes, their team’s depth chart and the rest. Here, there’s greater emphasis placed on a young player’s likely counting stats for this season (which, whether we like it or not, drives awards voting). This is meant almost as a tutor for fantasy hockey managers to fill in the gaps that Dom’s fantasy projections have trouble modeling for young players.

The criteria for inclusion here also differs from the one I use for my own prospects work. In my other work, I don’t use the Calder Trophy’s definition of a rookie because I find it too rigid in some ways (the 25 games played cutoff) and too loose in others (the Calder’s age criteria is under 27, which does not align with what aging curves tell us about when a prospect is done being a prospect). As a result, Kings signee Vladimir Tkachyov, who I would not normally consider a prospect, remains eligible for the league’s top rookie award this season (and for this list) at the age of 25.

 

1. Cole Caufield, RW, 20 (Montreal Canadiens — 15th overall, 2019)

I debated each of the first three names on this list for pole position but I always seemed to come back to Caufield. He played 30 NHL games last season, which would normally preclude him from rookie status, but because 20 of those games came in the playoffs, he remains eligible. We saw in those games, when he started to play regularly and shoot the puck a little more, that he was one of the Canadiens’ best forwards. He’s bound to end up with a good linemate on his opposite wing, where the Habs now have strong depth with Mike Hoffman, Jonathan Drouin and Tyler Toffoli. And while they’re decidedly thinner down the middle, he’s likely going to get to play with one of Nick Suzuki (who he has already shown real chemistry with) or the newly acquired Christian Dvorak as his center, on top of the power play usage he’s guaranteed to get. His puck luck will probably determine where he lands in the Calder race, but if he can shoot at the 13.3 percent rate he did a year ago and generate the 3.0 shots per game he did, that’s a 33-goal clip across 82 games without accounting for any uptick in the 13:58 per night he averaged or any progression in terms of his level of play. Even if he’s closer to 10 percent on the year, he’s still probably going to have 25-plus goals. That’ll put in him range.

 

2. Trevor Zegras, C/W, 20 (Anaheim Ducks — 9th overall, 2019)

Zegras’ 24 games with the Ducks last season left him one game shy of not being eligible for rookie status this year. Once he got comfortable in those minutes, he looked like himself out there too, producing 13 points (a 44-point, 82-game pace) while shooting just 5.7 percent on 2.2 shots per game (which was nice to see, because I was worried he wouldn’t pull the trigger as much as he should as he tried to acclimatize himself). I think his outcomes will be heavily influenced by whether or not he plays down center or the wing, though. It sounds like center is the more likely outcome, which is big. Because the Ducks are stronger on the flanks than they are down the middle, he’ll get to play with slightly better linemates (and slightly higher in the lineup) as a result, and he needs to get as many touches as he can so that he can build the confidence and creativity at the NHL level that has made him who he is at every other level he’s ever played at. And while the Ducks aren’t going to be good, neither is the Pacific Division. If Zegras can play with two of Maxime Comtois, Adam Henrique, Rickard Rakell, Jakob Silfverberg or Troy Terry (assuming Terry takes a step) in a top-six role that also comes with PP1 duty, he’ll be in nice shape. And all of that seems likely.

 

3. Moritz Seider, RHD, 20 (Detroit Red Wings — 6th overall, 2019)

I think there are decent odds Seider is the most impactful rookie in the NHL this season and doesn’t win the Calder. That’s because the reality is that defensemen rarely win the award. In fact, in the 88 times the award has been handed out, it has been given to a defenseman just 12 times. So defensemen represent 33 percent of the players in the NHL but have won just 14 percent of the rookie of the year awards, including just two times in the last 11 seasons (Cale Makar in 2020 and Aaron Ekblad in 2015). Traditionally, when defensemen do win it’s typically because their counting stats really pop (Makar had 50 points in 57 games in a pandemic-shortened season at the high end and Ekblad scored 12 goals and 39 points as a bare minimum). And while I think Seider’s likely going to put up point totals around that Ekblad season (though probably not from a goal-scoring point of view) throughout his career, I’m not convinced he’ll do that right out of the gate. I expect him to be really good in Detroit this year. He’s going to get to play, probably a lot, and he’s going to thrive no different than he did at world championships (or in the SHL, AHL and DEL before them). But goals are still going to be hard to come by for the Red Wings and that will impact him, rightly or wrongly, in the Calder race.