In many ways, the 2021 Calder Trophy Race represents the uncertainty and constant change of the 2020-21 NHL season. It started off with a few big names that appeared to be clear favorites to win the award, including 2020 first-overall pick Alexis Lafreniere, heir to the New York Rangers goaltending throne Igor Shesterkin and KHL star Kirill Kaprizov.
However, as the season pushed on, some real surprises found their way into the conversation. As many big-name rookies had slow starts to their careers, players few had on their lists back in January started establishing themselves not only as starters for their teams, but real contenders for the Calder Trophy.
This has created a very interesting Calder Trophy race when compared to previous seasons, as there is a clear-cut favorite, but the players in the hunt could change at a moment’s notice depending on how far they can carry their respective teams. So, with this in mind, who are the favorites to win the 2021 Calder Trophy as we cross the halfway point in the season?
The Favorite: Kirill Kaprizov
To say that Kaprizov has been a bit of a revelation for the Minnesota Wild would be an understatement. For the Wild, their goal with Kaprizov was clear since he decided to sign with the team and transition to the NHL back in July. The franchise needed a top-end scoring talent to round out their roster, which was lacking punch throughout the 2019-20 season.
In 28 games, the KHL star has been everything the franchise could have hoped for and more. He’s posted 10 goals and 25 points while going +11, which not only leads all rookies but makes him the top scorer for the Wild as well. He is that offensive driver that the Wild desperately needed, elevating the play of his teammates around him.
There’s a real conversation that Kaprizov could be the league’s MVP with how he has helped transform Minnesota from a fringe playoff team to a legit contender for the Honda West Division title. Given how dominant his play has been, he is hands down the favorite for the Calder.
The Runner-Up: Kevin Lankinen
Heading into the 2020-21 season, the future of the Chicago Blackhawks was uncertain. Between long-term injuries to Jonathan Toews and Kirby Dach, uncertainty in net after the departure of Corey Crawford, and the franchise committing to a rebuild, expectations were such that the once-dominant franchise would struggle in the Discover NHL Central Division, likely finishing out of the playoff hunt.
Instead, Chicago has taken a firm hold over fourth place in the division due in no small part to the stellar play of their rookie goaltender Kevin Lenkinen. In 21 starts, he has amassed a record of 10-7-4 along with a goals-against average (GAA) of 2.87 and a save percentage (SV%) of .914.
For a rookie with no real expectations before the start of the season, Lankinen’s play has been truly spectacular. He has stolen points for the Blackhawks, even as the team around him was experiencing uncertainty. If he continues to play this well, he will be an easy nomination for the 2021 Calder Trophy.
The Dark Horse: Kaapo Kahkonen
Whenever you discuss the Calder Trophy race, there’s always a rookie that gets glossed over in the conversation. This can be for many reasons, from the fact that they are playing on a good team, that they recently took on a new role with their team due to injury or they are simply getting overshadowed by a bigger name. That’s why THW added a dark horse section to this discussion, as a player can suddenly emerge and ride a stellar midseason streak to an eventual nomination.
Right now, the player that fits this description perfectly is Minnesota Wild goaltender Kaapo Kahkonen. While his name may not have the word of mouth like his teammate Kaprizov, as the season continues, the entire NHL will know who he is.
See, as Cam Talbot has been in and out of the line-up with injury this season, Minnesota has called upon their backup goaltender more often than planned. This has forced Kahkonen into a starting role, where he has excelled. In 16 games played, he has a 12-4-0 record, with a .927 SV% and a GAA of 2.05. Also, since Feb. 18th, he has been on a nine-game winning streak (as of the time of this writing), including two shutouts.
So, keep an eye on Kahkonen for the rest of the season. If he can further establish himself as the starter in Minnesota and earn the bulk of the playing time, he could have a resume that can’t be ignored when discussing the Calder Trophy. He’s excelled so far, so there’s a real possibility that he pushes his way into the top-three in the coming weeks.
The Calder Trophy Race is Far From Over
Right now, the odds-on favorite to win the Calder Trophy is Kaprizov. He deserves this distinction, as he is one of the best forwards in his division and across the entire NHL this season. Things change quickly in sports, however, so don’t assume the race is over.
While there appears to be some certainty at the top, below Kaprizov there’s still a lot to be worked out. Besides the two netminders mentioned above, you also have goaltender Vitek Vanecek of the Washington Capitals who could be a legitimate candidate as well. As it stands right now, two goalies could earn nominations for the trophy, which hasn’t happened since 1964-65.
In many ways, it is fitting that the 2021 Calder Trophy race could be dominated by goaltenders. In a year with so much uncertainty, teams are relying on their goalies more than ever, which is forcing these rookies to take on bigger roles sooner than expected. They are excelling when called up, helping to carry their teams into the postseason hunt.
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.