At the beginning of the season, there seemed to be one player running away with the Calder Trophy. Then, as the season went on, others stole the spotlight. Igor Shesterkin, Artem Zub, Josh Norris, Pius Suter, Eeli Tolvanen, and Tim Stützle all made their case to be among the finalists. However, the three it came down to are the Minnesota Wild‘s Kirill Kaprizov, the Dallas Stars‘ Jason Robertson, and the Carolina Hurricanes‘ Alex Nedeljkovic. With a race this tight, who should take home the prestigious award for rookie of the year?
Kaprizov came into the season as the new hope for the Wild. After years of mind-numbing hockey (sorry Wild fans), we heard a collective sigh of relief when they finally had someone worth watching. His skating is electric, and how he operates on his edges is otherworldly. He controls the play exceptionally well and creates opportunities for his teammates. His first-ever NHL goal was super awkward – it bounced off his foot – but nevertheless won the game in overtime.
Kaprizov tallied 51 points in 55 games, an incredible feat for a player who just came over to North America. Furthermore, his goals above replacement (GAR) and expected goals above replacement (xGAR) per Evolving-Hockey were among the league’s best for a short while, and his xGAR is still fourth overall. His GAR is 57th overall, so obviously, there is a substantial drop, but either way, it’s clear the numbers support his case. His expected goals for percentage (xGF%) at 5v5 hovered just above 50%, which is perfectly acceptable for a player with his skillset.
Kaprizov’s season was awe-inspiring, which is precisely what most of us expected it to be. I pegged him to win the Calder at the beginning of the season, and his play and numbers make me look good.
One of the most interesting stories to come out of this season, Robertson was a revelation in Dallas; a team that had to deal with a boatload of injuries managed to find a bright spot. He found his place next to budding star Roope Hintz, who had a tremendous season as well, but the numbers love Robertson.
In four fewer games than Kaprizov, he had six fewer points (45), but a higher xGF% at 55.82%. His GAR was barely higher, at 9.5. His xGAR, however, was not even near Kaprizov’s, but his overall results were arguably just as good. The difference in linemates could be a factor, as Kaprizov had Victor Rask and Mats Zuccarello, while Robertson had 2020-21 Hintz, which is all you need. His numbers began to catch up with the young Wild star either way, and the competition is reasonably close. There is a lot to say about the difference in offense created by the two. While Kirill worked his way around the outside and forced shots to the middle, Robertson was on the inside, generating high-quality chances.
Depending on the numbers you look at or the player you watched more during the season, there is a strong case for Robertson to edge out Kaprizov in this race. The two are not as far apart as they might have seemed at first.
Nedeljkovic is difficult to compare to the others because he’s a goalie. Goalies are random, so of course the NHL had to throw one in for good measure. Although he put up excellent numbers in his stint with the Hurricanes this season, so the nomination is not undeserved.
He played a total of 23 games this season, but in those 23, he was spectacular. He placed third in goals saved above expected (GSAx) out of goalies that faced a minimum of 850 unblocked shot attempts. Additionally, he placed seventh in goalie GAR, and he led the league in save percentage among goalies with a minimum of 20 games played. He was an absolute monster in net, which is exactly what the Hurricanes needed.
What concerns me, however, is the sample size. Goalies are already the most volatile position in hockey, so just 23 NHL games, even in the Covid-19 shortened season, is far too few to give him the edge over the others in the Calder race. But, on the other hand, goaltenders tend to get the short end of the stick when it comes to winning awards outside of the ones designated to them.
All three players have made a case to win the award, and the 2021 class was excellent. Many players fought to be nominated, but these three stood out. But since there can only be one winner, it has to be Kaprizov. As much as Robertson stole the back half of the show, Kirill the Thrill elevated his game to new heights and created offense on a team that isn’t known for it. He was the remedy that many had been waiting for, and it would be a shame if he missed out on the award.
However, at 24 years old, many hockey fans and media members have questioned the validity of the Calder criteria, especially considering the conditioning he received playing in arguably the second-toughest league in the world, the KHL, before he made his NHL debut. As much as one might disagree with the rules, in this case, the age limit is being followed, and he’s not even the most senior finalist. This is Kaprizov’s trophy to lose.
Jeff is a consistent source for Predators content here at The Hockey Writers. He enjoys watching all sorts of hockey from juniors to the pros, and playing hockey for his high school and local teams in Nashville. He’s a big proponent of hockey analytics, and you’ll often see him using lots of statistics and data to back up his main talking points. You can find his work here, or check out his contributions on his own Substack, or at Last Word on Hockey and On the Forecheck. Lastly, you can listen to him on the Youth Movement Podcast presented by On the Forecheck or the Triple Shift Podcast. For any inquiries about interviews or questions about statistics, analytics, or just general hockey opinions you can message his twitter, @jjmid04.