Last season’s crop of NHL rookies faced an incredible challenge, coming into the world’s best hockey league while navigating COVID postponements, a truncated schedule, taxi squads and all the other challenges presented by the current global situation.
For example, No. 1 pick Alexis Lafreniere hadn’t played a competitive hockey game for over 10 months between the time COVID cancelled the QMJHL’s 2019-20 season and his NHL debut for the Rangers in January 2021. Still, many NHL newcomers thrived despite the trying circumstances.
But which members of the 2020-21 rookie cohort have avoided succumbing to the sophomore slump? That’s the question we seek to answer in this blog. So far, five players have stood out above their peers.
Something to keep in mind: while it’s an admittedly arbitrary qualification, I did not consider any player who still qualifies as an NHL rookie this season for placement on this list. Call them redshirt freshmen. So while players such as Trevor Zegras and Alex Nedeljkovic, among others, saw significant action last season and are playing well this year, they won’t be highlighted here.
Kirill Kaprizov – Minnesota Wild
It takes exceptional talent to override an organization’s 20-plus-year reputation for playing boring, plodding hockey, but ‘Kirill the Thrill’ quickly made the Wild must-watch as a rookie in Minnesota last season. The Wild chose Kaprizov in the fifth round (135th overall) in 2015, and the electrifying left winger played his first five post-draft seasons at home in the KHL, winning the Gagarin Cup with CSKA Moscow in 2018-19.
The 5-foot-10 product of Novokuznetsk, Russia, finally came to North America in 2020-21 and had 22 goals and 51 points in 55 games, staking him to Calder Trophy honors as the NHL’s most outstanding rookie.
This season, Kaprizov has continued his torrid production, putting up 13 goals and 39 points in 31 games, tied for fifth in the NHL scoring race. And, as all great players do, Kaprizov has also made those around him better. Linemate Mats Zuccarello has 60 points in 67 games the past season-and-a-half, after putting up 37 in 65 his first season in Minnesota. Center Ryan Hartman, too, has found chemistry with Kaprizov, scoring eight goals of his 15 goals and 14 of his 28 points in just over 200 minutes played with the Russian at even strength. Hartman – who had some early-career success in Chicago playing with another slick winger, Marian Hossa – has scored at per-60 rates well exceeding his career averages while teamed with Kaprizov and Zuccarello.
Kaprizov was a near-unanimous choice as the NHL’s rookie of the year, taking home 99.7 percent of possible voting points, with 99 first-place votes and one second-place vote. Kaprizov’s domination of the Calder race represented the single largest share of the vote any one player achieved since Teemu Selanne received all 50 first-place votes in 1992-93.
Igor Shesterkin – New York Rangers
Though he first arrived in North America in 2019-20, Shesterkin was still considered a rookie by NHL standards last season, having played only 12 games in his first campaign with the New York Rangers. Like Kaprizov, Shesterkin was a long-anticipated Russian prospect several seasons out from his draft year. And like Kaprizov, he was well worth the wait.
Shesterkin was 16-14-3 in 2020-21, with a .916 save percentage and 2.62 goals-against average. Though the Rangers failed to make the playoffs for the third time in four seasons, Shesterkin firmly established himself as the club’s starter. His efforts were enough to earn him a fifth-place finish in the Calder race.
This year, the 6-foot-1, 189-pound goalie has continued to blossom into one of the best young stoppers in the world. Shesterkin has been spectacular in 2021-22, with a 14-4-2 record, .932 SP and 2.20 GAA. Of all goalies with 10 or more games played, Shesterkin is tied for second in SP and is seventh in GAA. Despite missing eight games in December with a lower-body injury, Shesterkin’s 14 wins tie him for eighth among all NHL goalies. He also has the league’s third-best SP while shorthanded, rocking a ridiculous .940 while down a man – a huge part of the Rangers’ fifth-ranked PK unit.
Having turned 26 Thursday, Shesterkin is just beginning to reach his athletic prime. And if he continues his early form into the new year, Shesterkin will be in the hunt for the Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goaltender. So it’s probably a good thing the Rangers have him locked in for another three seasons after this one at an average annual value of $5.66 million.
Jason Robertson – Dallas Stars
Dallas Stars left winger Jason Robertson was the first runner-up for the Calder last season, taking home the lone first-place vote Kaprizov failed to secure, plus 94 of the second-place ballots.
And like Kaprizov, Robertson has bumped his scoring pace up above a point per game in his sophomore campaign. Though his current shooting percentage of 16.9 should regress in the new year, Robertson’s 10 goals and 25 points in 23 games are good for second on the Stars in scoring, behind linemate Joe Pavelski, who has played an additional six games.
Whether or not Robertson’s puck luck regresses in 2022, he’s been a consistently positive presence on the ice for a Stars team on the fringes of playoff contention. Of the 277 forwards who’ve skated more than 300 minutes at 5-on-5 this season, Robertson ranks eighth with an on-ice expected goals for percentage of 60.67. The Stars allow just 1.98 expected goals per hour with Robertson on the ice – tying him for 15th of those 277 forwards.
Robertson missed six games with an upper-body injury in October and was recently one of several Dallas players added to the COVID-19 list. It’s unclear exactly how much – if any – game action he’ll miss, as the Stars’ scheduled Sunday contest with Arizona has been postponed due to the team outbreak. The team is otherwise off until Jan. 6, when they welcome Florida to the American Airlines Center.
Josh Norris – Ottawa Senators
Norris finished fourth in last season's Calder race behind Kaprizov, Robertson and then-Carolina goalie Alex Nedeljkovic. Originally a San Jose Sharks draft pick – 19th overall in 2017 – Norris was a vital part of the Senators' return in the Erik Karlsson trade.
After starting his season with just one goal in his first four games as the Sens stumbled out of the gate, Norris has reclaimed his rookie form by amassing 13 goals and 21 points in his subsequent 24 games. The 22-year-old Oxford, Mich., product is tied with Brady Tkachuk for second on his team in scoring, six points behind linemate Drake Batherson.
He missed the Sens contest with the Maple Leafs Saturday after being placed in COVID protocol Friday.
Norris shoulders tough minutes as the acting first-line center on a struggling Senators team, and he’s third among Sens forwards in average time on ice. He’s a giant part of the rebuild moving forward.
Jake Oettinger – Dallas Stars
The Stars had a fairly anonymous 2020-21, and rookie goalie Jake Oettinger flew under the radar as a result. Oettinger, drafted 26th overall in 2017, played in 29 games last year, just eclipsing the 25 needed to lose rookie status. In that time, he had an 11-8-7 record with a .911 SP and 2.36 GAA.
The sample size is small so far in 2021-22, with both Braden Holtby and Anton Khudobin also seeing regular action between the pipes for Dallas early. But Oettinger has been brilliant when called upon, putting together a .922 SP and 2.24 GAA in nine starts. He’s also 7-2 for a Stars team that needs every point it can get. With Khudobin now down with AHL Texas, Oettinger should continue to see steady action in the new year.
Oettinger is also a one-time honorable mention featured on the popular Minnesota State Hockey Tournament All Hockey Hair video series.
HM: Nils Hoglander – Vancouver Canucks
Watch for Hoglander’s point pace to increase in the new year. His underlying numbers are fair – especially with Bo Horvat – and his 5-on-5 on-ice shooting percentage (5.26) is insanely low. In that category, Hoglander ranks 253rd of the 277 forwards with at least 300 minutes played.