In the world of hockey, things can change in an instant, especially when it comes to mid-season discussions about who will win awards. Injury or simply a streak of cold play can make a player who looked like a lock suddenly seem vulnerable.
That’s what happened in the 2021 Calder Trophy race. Just a few months ago, we discussed the favorites to win the award, and Minnesota Wild forward Kirill Kaprizov appeared to have it wrapped up by mid-March. Behind him were goaltenders Kevin Lankinen, Kaapo Kahkonen, and Vitek Vanecek, who all were putting together incredible rookie seasons with talented teams pushing for the postseason.
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As the dust settled and the finalists for the Calder Trophy were announced, the landscape looks very different. Kaprisov still earned a nomination, but none of the three goaltenders mentioned above made the cut. Instead, we saw Jason Robertson of the Dallas Stars and Alex Nedeljkovic of the Carolina Hurricanes come out of nowhere to insert themselves into the conversation.
Now that we know who is nominated, let’s take a look at the three candidates for the 2021 Calder Trophy.
Kirill Kaprisov Remains the Calder Favorite
While he saw his scoring totals dip slightly by the end of the season, there’s no doubt that Kaprizov should be the winner of the 2021 Calder Trophy. Not only did he lead all rookies in goals scored (27) and points (51), but he helped to re-energize the entire Wild franchise.
While Minnesota has been a competitive team in recent years, they always appeared to be missing that spark plug that could power their offense night in and night out. With Kaprizov making the jump to the NHL, they found the perfect player to become the driving force of their forward corps.
He is, without a doubt, one of the brightest young stars in the league, and has the potential to become the future of hockey in Minnesota for years to come. Given how supremely talented he is, one can only expect that this won’t be the last time Kaprizov is on a shortlist to win an award.
Two Unexpected Runners Up
While Kaprizov was expected to be amongst the top rookies heading into 2020-21, no one saw Robertson or Nedeljkovic making the cut early in the season. While both players were in the NHL, neither had taken on a major role with their teams until late February or early March.
For Robertson, this surge came as a new opportunity with the Stars presented itself. Through his first 12 games of the season, he posted just six points while averaging around 11 minutes of ice-time each night. Starting in March, however, things clicked, and he saw his average ice-time increase to about 18-minutes a night.
With this extra time, Robertson cashed in, ending the season second overall in the rookie scoring race with 17 goals and 45 points, a full 10 points ahead of third place.
Nedeljkovic, on the other hand, earned his nomination despite only starting in 23 games this season. While this put him sixth in rookie goaltender starts, in that limited playing time he was, simply, outstanding, posting a 15-5-3 record. His statistics during this stretch were also incredible, with a .932 save percentage, 1.90 goals-against average, along with three shutouts.
While you can argue that these statistics are inflated because he had a relatively small sample size or that he was playing behind one of the best defensive units in the NHL, that shouldn’t take away from what was an incredible year for Nedeljkovic. If this play continues, he will be Carolina’s netminder for years to come.
Rookies Excelled Despite Difficult Season
It really can’t be understated just how impressive the play was from so many rookies throughout what was one of the toughest seasons in NHL history. Along with the three players nominated for the Calder Trophy, a number of potential franchise forwards, defensemen and goaltenders cut their teeth and proved that they had what it took to be part of their franchises’ core.
When you look back at this season in the future, it will be seen as one of those truly special rookie classes. Many new players got a chance due to uncertainty both on and off the ice, and with this chance, they established themselves as true NHL talents.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.