2021 NHL Award Watch: Evaluating the Calder Race

This is the third part of a five-part series examining the award races for the major awards (Hart, Selke, Calder, Vezina & Norris) as the season comes to a close. The first volume in the series took a look at the Hart Trophy race and the second volume of the series took a look at the Vezina Trophy race. This is the third volume looking at the Calder race. Along with the winner and two finalists, there will also be an honorable mention section.

It is important to note that this series will emphasize analytics and take into account other critical elements. In this shortened season, there are some clear frontrunners while some races are very close. Unless something dramatically changes in these final games, this is my final ballot for each award.

Calder Race

The award is given to the player selected as the most proficient in his first year of competition in the NHL

Kirill KaprizovMINWinner
Jason RobertsonDALFinalist
Alex NedeljkovicCARFinalist

Kirill Kaprizov has not only been the league’s best rookie, but he has completely transformed the Wild with his polished game. He has already cemented himself as one of the best forwards in the league and is poised to help the Wild make noise in the postseason. Whether you believe he should be a rookie or not, he is according to the rulebook, thus making the eligibility argument a conversation for another day.

Kirill Kaprizov Minnesota Wild
Kirill Kaprizov, Minnesota Wild (Photo by Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Kaprizov not only leads rookies with 27 goals but is eighth league-wide, which is very impressive and something new for the Wild. He has been average defensively, which is very positive for a rookie. One big facet that has gone unnoticed and differentiates him from Jason Robertson is his elite transition game. Furthermore, he has done it all this season: first career hat trick, clutch game-tying and winning goals, and breaking ankles with his elite edgework and skating. He’s been incredible this season, and there is no doubt that he deserves to win the Calder Trophy.

Robertson certainly wasn’t far behind Kaprizov and definitely put pressure on him. In any other season, Robertson would have won the Calder Trophy, but Kaprizov is bound to win it. He has 16 goals, 27 assists, and 43 points in just 50 games. He has been very good offensively this season despite his poor start.

Jason Robertson Dallas Stars
Jason Robertson, Dallas Stars (Photo by Glenn James/NHLI via Getty Images)

Robertson is 6th in the league in RAPM on-ice goals for per hour behind the likes of Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, and Leon Draisaitl, which speaks volumes. However, another factor that gives the edge to Kaprizov is the defensive aspect, as Robertson hasn’t been very strong defensively. Robertson’s 1.4 wins above replacement (WAR) is just behind Kaprizov’s 1.7.

Alex Nedeljkovic has been one of the biggest surprises this season, as not only does he deserve to be a Calder Trophy finalist, but he arguably should have consideration for the Vezina Trophy. His 12.91 goals saved above expected now is the third-best behind Vasilevskiy and Fleury.

Alex Nedeljkovic Carolina Hurricanes
Alex Nedeljkovic, Carolina Hurricanes (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)

Nedeljkovic’s 14.68 goals saved above average ranks fifth-best in the league behind the likes of Semyon Varlamov, Vasilevskiy, Marc-Andre Fleury, and company. Furthermore, he has a .932 save percentage through 23 games. If it wasn’t for his amount of games played, there is no doubt he could be competing against Vasilevskiy and Fleury for the Vezina; he has been that good this season.

Honorable Mentions

Igor ShesterykinNYR
Nils HoglanderVAN
Josh NorrisOTT

Igor Shesterkin had a strong rookie campaign and was a finalist until Nedeljkovic stole his spot. He has saved 3.97 goals above expected, which is good for ninth-best in the league among goalies who have played at least 25 games. Likewise, he boasts a 7.32 goals saved above average and a .916 save percentage. He has been a reliable presence between the pipes for the Rangers.

Including Nils Hoglander over players like Eeli Tolvanen, Pius Suter, and co., might be a hot take. With that said, he has been a very impactful rookie, as seen in his strong underlying numbers despite it not necessarily translating to the scoresheet. He has 10 goals, 14 assists, and 24 points in 49 games.

He’s actually been a strong two-way presence with above-average defensive results, according to Evolving-Hockey’s RAPM expected goals against per hour. Hoglander is 12th in Corsi for and 16th in expected goals for, per that same model. He’s been a formidable possession and play-driving forward, which deserves recognition despite it not always being recognized on the scoresheet.

The third honorable mention could have gone to Josh Norris or Eeli Tolvanen. I went with Norris because they both have been dependent on finishing and strong power play results, but Norris has been a little better at 5-on-5. Norris has had a very respectable rookie campaign with 34 points in 55 games. His underlying numbers at even strength haven’t been nearly as strong as other rookies, but his power play results have been very good, and he’s been average defensively too.

Final Thoughts

There is no doubt Kaprizov deserves to win the Calder Trophy, as he’s been the league’s best rookie. However, it wasn’t a landslide win due to multiple other rookies testing him, including an early-season scare with incredible play from Kevin Lankinen, who would eventually come back to earth, and then Robertson’s brilliant second half that propelled him into consideration.

(All Data Via Evolving-Hockey, Natural Stat Trick & Hockey-Reference)

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