There are many things to be excited about for the upcoming NHL season. Just the fact that there is going to be a season is enough for me, but the growing and continuous group of young players entering the league is also exciting. As such, there are going to be several quality candidates for the 2021 Calder trophy – NHL’s best rookie. Below, you can find my way too early predictions – one goaltender, a defenseman and one forward that could be candidates for rookie of the year.
Igor Shesterkin (G) – New York Rangers
Last season was Igor Shesterkin’s first in North America. The Moscow native was the New York Rangers 4th round selection back in 2014. He and the Rangers were patient in not rushing his development but instead took their time until both parties felt he was ready to make an impact at the NHL level.
That patience is about to pay off. After spending five seasons with SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL, Shesterkin split last season between the AHL’s Hartford Wolfpack and New York. During 25 games with Hartford, he posted 17 wins, with a 1.90 goals against average and sturdy .934 save percentage. The bright lights of Broadway didn’t seem to bother him either posting a 2.52 GAA, a .932 (SV%), and 10 wins over his first 12 NHL games.
The 25-year-old Shesterkin is the Rangers starter of the future, but his partner Alexandar Georgiev has proven to be a capable running mate over the last three seasons in New York. That should translate into a good tandem giving Shesterkin the opportunity to remain fresh so he can play his best hockey.
I am no goalie expert but watching him a few times last year was impressive – a very calm, efficient style of play. The Rangers are going to be a very good team in the next several years. Shesterkin has the potential to speed up the process and my guess is that he will make that clear sooner than later.
Bowen Byram (D) – Colorado Avalanche
This was a close decision between Detroit Red Wings 6th overall 2019 selection, Moritz Seider and Bowen Byram. Although Seider is tearing up the Swedish league, I have been fortunate enough to watch Byram since he was 13 and it probably explains my bias in this case.
At 19, he is still eligible to play junior, which means he either must play in Colorado or back in the WHL with the Vancouver Giants – the AHL is not an option for him this season. This presents a bit of a conundrum for the Avalanche as they have six very capable defenseman under contract for the upcoming season.
Do they keep the youngster in Denver where he is at minimum a part of the taxi squad and able to acclimate himself to the league? Or do they wait until the WHL season starts – where Byram has been a point-per-game player over the last two seasons? Only Avalanche GM Joe Sakic and head coach Jared Bednar know the eventual plan.
After watching him at the World Junior Championships during the past week I have my own prediction: Byram stays in Colorado and very quickly proves that he can not only play but also be an impact player. What kind of moves the Avalanche make after that is anyone’s guess, but this is a youngster that has always made big jumps in play look easy.
Kirill Kaprizov (LW) – Minnesota Wild
Picking a forward candidate for the Calder is much harder. There are several good candidates from the 2019 draft including Dylan Cozens (Buffalo Sabres) or Trevor Zegras (Anaheim Ducks) that look like they might be ready to make an impact based on their recent play at the World Juniors.
Then again, 2020 first overall pick Alex Lafrenière might also be a good pick as he steps into an offensively dangerous New York Ranger line-up. Maybe the growing fan favorite Tim Stuetzle will also be able to breakout with the Ottawa Senators – or Quinton Byfield with the Los Angeles Kings – or Marco Rossi with the Wild in Minnesota?
All great candidates, but in the end, I chose a player with more professional experience – Russian star Kirill Kaprizov. Minnesota selected him in the 5th round back in 2015, and like Shesterkin has taken his time developing within the confines of Russia with CSKA Moscow of the KHL.
The 23-year-old signed his entry level contract with the Wild in July of 2020 and the excitement around Minnesota has been lively since. The anticipation is warranted as his point totals have steadily risen during his time in the KHL. In 2019-20 he reached a point per game pace scoring 33 goals and adding 29 helpers (62) over 57 KHL games.
The reaction to previous Kaprizov stories has been definitive – both ways. There are many Wild fans that are convinced he will be an immediate star and others who think he is overhyped.
Personally speaking, numbers don’t lie. The fact that he has always been a big part of the Russian junior and Olympic programs, along with his steady offensive contribution, makes him a good candidate as a great NHL player. That said, I am making the prediction that he lives up to the hype and makes an immediate impact on a Wild team searching for more offence.
Either way, the NHL is continuously being graced with great young players and this years Calder race should be an interesting one!
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