By Kevin O’Keefe
When you hear the term “rookie” mentioned in the NHL this year, it is commonly attached to Minnesota’s budding star Kirill Kaprizov. Rightfully so, as he has seamlessly transitioned from tearing up the KHL to injecting himself as a dynamic player in the league in only his first season. While Kaprizov, from day one, has been the odds-on favorite to run away with the Calder, there are plenty of exciting players this rookie class has to offer that you should take notice of. Below are my top 5 rookie skaters not named Kirill Kaprizov.
- Ty Smith D
Starting off the list, we have Ty Smith, who was drafted 17th overall by the Devils in 2018. Smith is giving a strong showing of his offensive upside at the NHL level with 21 points through 44 games played. His 19 assists tie him with Kaprizov for 2nd overall among rookies, while his 21 points also leads all rookie defensemen. For a 21-year-old kid, he is showing up offensively to the tune of a 40 plus point pace over an 82-game season. Those are great numbers for a veteran defenseman, let alone a young rookie who just stepped into the league. He is expected to contribute to the stat sheet exponentially as his confidence continues to grow at the highest level of competition. At just 5-foot 11-inches and 174 pounds, Smith isn’t turning heads with his size and brawn, but it’s his fluid skating and offensive instincts that landed him on this list. Rookie defensemen are prone to growing pains, and Smith will be no different. This isn’t something that should come as a surprise. Over the next couple of seasons, he should be able to iron out the wrinkles and become a consistent all-around defenseman for the New Jersey Devils.
- Alexis Lafreniere LW
With a slow start to the season, many wondered if Alexis Lafreniere would live up to the hype. Given the obstacles that came along with this COVID-shortened season mixed with the weight on his shoulders of being the Rangers next big star, his quiet start should be taken with a grain of salt. Playing most of the year on the third line, it’s been tough for him to find his footing on the score sheet with only 17 points in 49 games to this point. In the past few weeks, Lafreniere has shown his true potential and the style of play that got him drafted 1st overall to begin with. One of his latest contests saw him propelled to the first line, finishing with a goal and an assist, while showing off the skill set that still makes him one of the best rookies in this year’s class. There’s no doubt that he will be a top player in the league for a long time, and even though he had his struggles in the first half of the season, his recent play makes it hard to leave him off this list.
- Josh Norris C
With the Ottawa Senators sitting dead last in the north division, fans don’t have a lot to be excited about this season. A silver lining for Sens fans comes in the form of center Josh Norris. Norris, drafted 19th overall by the San Jose Sharks in 2017, is following up a solid rookie year in the AHL with a respectable debut for the big club. He sits 3rd among rookies in points with 30 (13 goals, 17 assists) in 48 games played. Since center Derek Stepan went down due to injury, Norris has stepped up in a big way, winning over 50% of his faceoffs. Since April 1st, Norris has been scoring at the pace of a top line center with 12 points in 12 games, while going head-to-head with each team’s best players night in and night out. With a powerful shot, consistency in the faceoff dot and the drive to be his best at the highest level of competition, it’s safe to say Norris has all the tools to become an elite player in this league and be a difference maker Sens fans have been waiting for.
- Tim Stutzle LW
Many experts believed when Ottawa hit the ice in this abbreviated season, you’d be seeing a star in the making in Tim Stutzle. Well….they weren’t wrong. Taken 3rd overall in the 2020 draft, Stutzle is showing the world how good he really is and why he arguably should have been taken higher. He is a very dynamic player who can extend the ice with crisp passes, while also taking the puck the distance with his speed and vision to create something out of nothing. Stutzle’s numbers may not jump off the page, but on a bad Senators team, you could say his numbers have been rather good for a 19-year-old breaking into the league. With the 4th best point total among rookies (25 points) and his 17 assists, he is giving you just a glimpse of his potential to be an elite player in the NHL. His combination of speed and skill makes him an unpredictable and exciting player to watch. While he may not be that elite game changer for the Sens just yet, you can expect him to continue building into a franchise player for Senators fans to enjoy for years to come.
- Jason Robertson LW
If you’re looking for the biggest threat to steal the Calder from Kaprizov, look no further. Jason Robertson, drafted in the 2nd round (39th overall) by the Dallas Stars in 2017 is making the most of his opportunities. With injuries to key players like Seguin and Radulov, Robertson has played his way into a top line role. Robertson in 42 games played has 37 points, which is good for 2nd among all rookies. His 14 goals rank 2nd and his 23 assists top the rookie scoring list. To cap it off, his plus 14 rating leads all rookies in plus minus on the season. His vision and poise on the ice has allowed him to fit seamlessly with line mates Hintz and Pavelski. Between his playmaking abilities and his knack for finding the back of the net, there isn’t a lot to not like about this young wingers game. Most of his scoring comes at 5v5 with only 1 of his 14 goals this season scored on the man advantage. The Stars struggle with even strength scoring, so the fact that Robertson excels in this category makes him extremely valuable to the team. Robertson has been a big piece in propelling the Dallas Stars back into the hunt for the final playoff spot in the central division. If Robertson continues his strong second half of the season, he just may have a shot at the Calder.