By Chris Nosek
The one trophy that can never be won by the same person a second time is also one of the most exciting to see won. Last year, Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar joined the likes of guys like Barzal, Matthews, Panarin, and MacKinnon by taking home the Calder Memorial Trophy and edging out Quinn Hughes and Dominik Kubalik. So, who will be the best rookie of this season?
Igor Shesterkin, Alexis Lafreniere, and Kirill Kaprizov lead the way when it comes to the Vegas odds. The MassMutual East will certainly test the Rangers this season, and with the departure of Henrik Lundqvist, Shesterkin will get plenty of opportunity between the pipes to prove himself, while Lafreniere will find himself in the top 6 with plenty of ice time. Kaprizov is the one fewer hockey fans will be aware of, as he spent the past few seasons blowing up the KHL over in Russia. If his 62 points in 57 games from last season and 51 points in 57 games from the season before can translate to the NHL, then Wild fans are in for a pleasant surprise and will be able to make some unexpected noise in the Honda West division.
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Drafted in 2017, the now 21-year-old posted 61 points in 56 games last season for the Belleville Senators – Ottawa’s American Hockey League affiliate. Prior to his time in the AHL, he spent two seasons at the University of Michigan. He now looks to be the top line center for the Senators, who are looking to speed up their rebuild, having brought in veterans like Alex Galchenyuk, Evegnii Dadonov, and Matt Murray. While the restructured divisions certainly hinder the Senators chances for a playoff berth this season, the experience that the young team gets will be invaluable for the future of the franchise. Should Norris help lead this team into the playoffs sooner than expected, he will absolutely earn himself consideration for this award – as he should.
The number 7 overall pick in 2019 for the Buffalo Sabres is slated to be in their top 6 this season and will be playing with a solid veteran in Eric Staal. Playing a solid two-way game and possessing a great shot with a quick release, Cozens will see plenty of ice time in Buffalo to make a solid rookie season stand out and in arguably the strongest division. At 6’3” 187lbs, he will be able to stand out if he plays to his proven abilities.
The 2014 draft pick for New York has finally decided to make his way over to America from the KHL, where he had been playing since the age of 18. “Playing” would also be an understatement for the numbers he was putting up in the second best league in the world. For the past 6 seasons, he has had a GAA UNDER 1.62 each year all the way back to 2015-16 and a save percentage of at least .906 EACH season. The Islanders come into the season with Semyon Varlamov penciled in as the number one, and having him signed for 2 more seasons, but that doesn’t mean the 25-year-old Russian won’t come in, take over, and establish himself as their new number one. If he is able to post numbers close to what he put up in Russia, then not only will he take over the starting role on the island, but he should be expected to walk away with this award easily.
Early projections don’t have Byram starting in the lineup for the Avalanche, however the 2019 1st round pick will certainly be given his chances. The Avalanche proved last season that they aren’t afraid to trust their young talent, as not only was Cale Makar the winner of this trophy last season, but he won it while averaging north of 21 minutes per night. Byram has dominated the WHL the past two seasons and is poised to repeat what Makar did last season. Once he steps on the ice, it will be hard for 5th year head coach Jared Bednar to justify taking ice time away from the 19-year-old.
As if he didn’t make a name for himself in the 2019-20 World Juniors with 9 points in 5 games, this year Zegras helped lead the US to the gold metal with 18 points over just 7 games. The number 9 overall pick by the Anaheim Ducks showed his ability to score from anywhere below the blue line and his dynamic play-making abilities. With some new defenders getting acclimated in Anaheim, it looks like Zegras will start the season in the American Hockey League. Once this 6’ forward gets the call-up to the NHL, he will likely never look back and turn some heads from his first game in the league.
In order for any young player to have a chance at the Calder Trophy, the number one thing they need is an opportunity to play. Having been drafted 13th overall in the 2015 draft (yes, one of Boston’s three consecutive picks – get over it Bruins’ fans), Zboril has been in the American Hockey League with the Providence Bruins working on perfecting his game. After showing patience in the system, Zboril has seen the opportunity flood gates open for him with the Bruins allowing both Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug to sign elsewhere during this offseason. Projected to pair with Charlie McAvoy, Bruins fans will never accept him as a replacement for Chara, but if he can play well enough that the statistically the team doesn’t miss him – then Zboril can put himself in a position for league recognition…which still won’t be enough for some of the Bruins faithful. The only question that remains is will he post the offensive numbers that it takes for a defensemen to overtake awards like this.
Another Ottawa Senator, who will be looking to take some of the spotlight from Josh Norris, also had by far the most memorable draft experience of anyone. After being selected 3rd overall by the legendary Alex Trebek, on behalf of the Senators, the 19-year-old forward made a name for himself in the World Junior Tournament by posting 13 points over just 8 games for the Germans. Ottawa now looks to Stützle to be a crucial piece of their rebuild and he will be given plenty of opportunities to do just that at the NHL level. With a very talented Scotia North division for the Senators this season, his ability to play both center and wing will allow Stützle the chance to have his name in the same sentences as McDavid, Draisaitl, Matthews, and Marner – not a bad thing when it comes to awards and gaining recognition.