Breaking down the top rookies of the 2020-21 NHL season — Part Two

By Constantine Maragos

The 2020-21 NHL season has posed various challenges for its players, few of which impact anyone more than members of this year\’s rookie crop.

On top of the truncated training camps and strict quarantine rules, rookies have needed to maneuver through the adjustment to life in a new city, with new teammates and new systems, all at the same time. So, jumping through such hurdles make successfully transitioning to every-day NHL life an even more remarkable feat.

Nevertheless, this year\’s rookie crop has yielded some outstanding talent. While the likes of Alexis Lafrenière and Quinton Byfield aren\’t leading the way this year, contrary to previous belief, we are still witnessing the launch of some impressive NHL careers.

In this QSAO series, we will break down the NHL rookie race — who’s excelling, who’s not, and who’s surprised us so far this season. In Part One, we broke down the performances of Kevin Lankinen, Ty Smith, and Alexis Lafrenière. In this piece, we’ll look at the best NHL rookies from the North and West Divisions.

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Photo credited to Marc DesRosiers — USA TODAY Sports

North Divison Rookie Race: Tim Stützle vs. Josh Norris vs. Nils Höglander

Both the Ottawa Senators and Vancouver Canucks have seen an influx of youth over the past few seasons.

This year, the Senators let the kids play; seven rookies have already dressed for the team this year. This season, Tim Stützle and Josh Norris are the rookie pair dazzling Senators fans. Through 30 games, Stützle has scored six goals and 18 points, whereas Norris has recorded seven goals and 17 points in 33 games. Stützle’s electric playstyle may get all the glory, but Norris has quietly put forward an exceptional rookie season. Although, he hasn’t been too quiet as of late, scoring goals in two straight games against Vancouver.

For the Canucks, they’ve had a steady stream of high-quality youth production, boasting three-straight Calder-nominated rookies. This year Nils Höglander has followed in the footsteps of his star teammates. After Höglander impressed the Canucks coaching staff in camp, securing a top-six placement, he’s scored five goals and 13 points through 33 games.

Stützle has received much praise from the media this year, most likely because he scored 12 points in 15 games between February 1st and March 1st. However, his underlying numbers are abysmal. For example, amid Stützle’s hot month, there were claims that he was the rightful first-overall pick in the 2020 Draft over the slumping Lafrenière.

Tired (and I mean absolutely tired): Points to Stützle point totals vs Lafrenière to make an asinine point

Wired: Points at the vast majority of non-points based metrics and the list of North division vs East division defense and goalies to provide vital context pic.twitter.com/u9d9l3J5fy

— Drew Way (@Drews_Way) February 24, 2021

While Lafrenière’s hasn’t been great, he certainly hasn’t been that bad either. Looking deeper, Lafrenière’s RAPM profile at the time, while not particularly jaw-dropping, pales in comparison to that of Stützle. Put simply, Stützle has been awful defensively, and his profile below backs that up.

Graphics retrieved from HockeyViz – you can find the link to their Patreon below

Höglander and Norris, on the other hand, have far more well-rounded games. Looking at each player’s isolated impact, both have far better metrics in all facets of the game.

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Graphic retrieved from Dobber Prospects

For Höglander specifically, his relentless pressure off the puck, strong edgework, and nifty hands have become a patented aspect of his game. His defensive play reflects well on his isolated summary, and since Elias Pettersson’s absence from the Canucks’ lineup, he’s featured on the team’s top line.

Time and time again, the Swede has displayed his capabilities to play tough minutes and perform well, lining up with matchup centre Bo Horvat on a nightly basis before Pettersson’s injury. He’s been one of the Canucks most reliable forwards as the season has progressed, and he’ll only get better. Now, while the rookie Swede’s 7.17% shooting percentage means his high-tempo play hasn’t translated to the goals column just yet, his three Expected Goals per 60 ranks sixth amongst all rookies. If you’d like a more detailed report of Höglander’s play, check out this breakdown of his first career NHL game.

For Norris, his defensive profile is magnificent. Not only does the centre\’s 0.820 Wins Above Replacement rank him second on the Senators, but that score also places him in the 99th percentile of all NHL forwards. So, now that Norris has caught up to Stützle in points and surpassed him in goals, Stützle’s case for the Calder should take a significant hit.

To bolster Norris’ Calder case, he faces far tougher competition than Stützle on a nightly basis centring the Senators’ top-line, while averaging 15:53 per game, third-most amongst rookie forwards (Stützle sits just behind Norris at 15:51). Further, only lines featuring Norris have produced a positive shot-share while. To that effect, Stützle has started over 70% of his shifts in the offensive zone at even-strength.

Essentially, Stützle’s point totals are a front for his heavily-sheltered role and awful defensive play. Now, that doesn’t mean Stützle isn’t, or won’t be, a good player. It just means that he hasn’t been the best rookie — by a wide margin.

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Photo credited to David Berding — USA Today

Kirill Kaprizov is simply a cut above the rest

That’s it. That’s the article.

Kirill Kaprizov is simply a cut above the rest of this year’s NHL rookie crop. Currently, Kaprizov leads all rookies (and the Minnesota Wild) with 10 goals and 25 points. The 23-year old has an elite mix of speed, power, and creativity, which allows him to pull off mind-boggling passes, such as this one.

Incredible pass from Kaprizov, look at Bjugstad\’s reaction pic.twitter.com/dG4sT67rzF

— CJ Fogler #BlackLivesMatter (@cjzero) March 6, 2021

The Russian’s ability to protect the puck, combined with hands made of magic, has made him an offensive force in the NHL. Here is another example of Kaprizov’s perfect mixture of skill, strength, and dirty dekes

Picking up a loose puck in his own zone, the Russian streaks through the neutral zone with pace. As San Jose Sharks defenseman Marcus Sorenson catches up to him, the rookie exemplifies strong edgework, using a quick pivot to muscle the defender off the puck and drive to the net. Although he doesn’t score, Kaprizov catches the surrounding Sharks players off guard by attempting a quick through the legs shot. This clip is just one of the many eye-popping highlights the rookie has provided this year. It’s safe to say that Kaprizov has made the Wild exciting again.

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Graphics retrieved from JFresh Hockey – you can find the link to their Patreon below

While his 0.540 WAR ranks only fourth amongst Wild forwards (by a hair), he provides the least negative on-ice value on the team, with just a -0.020 WAR from his defensive play, as per JFresh.

The key to Kaprizov, or rather the Wild’s success, is the ability to lean on one of the league’s best shutdown lines, composed of Jordan GreenwayJoel Eriksson Ek, and the now-injured Marcus Foligno. The trio mans the brunt of the team’s tough matchups, which frees the ice for Kaprizov to do his thing — and start over 75% of his shifts in the offensive zone. The Wild’s strategy is working, though, as they currently sit four points behind the Vegas Golden Knights for first in the West, albeit with an extra game played.

Graphics retrieved from JFresh Hockey

Now, the big question on everyone’s mind is, does Kaprizov qualify as a rookie? He’s been playing professional hockey in the KHL since 2014 and had been one of the league’s best players since 2016-17, so how can you group him with younger players in their first year at the top-level?

Unfortunately, as far as being an NHL rookie goes, Kaprizov checks off all the boxes. As mentioned in the introduction, Kaprizov has dealt with the same challenges every other rookie, on top of knowing very little English. Plus, Artemi Panarin won the Calder the year he turned 25, which only reinforces Kaprizov’s argument for the Calder. Among the litany of change a player needs to deal with in their first NHL season, their age shouldn’t be that big of a factor.

Just let the skill speak for itself.

In closing, Kaprizov is far and away the favourite to win the Calder Trophy. Is it close? It should be; Norris and Kevin Lankinen (should he recover from his current slump) would be the closest overall bets, but given Kaprizov’s shiny points record that he is sure to maintain, there is no reason to believe anyone will take this award away from him.

Statistics retrieved from Daily Faceoff, Dobber Prospects, Elite Prospects, HockeyViz, JFresh, MoneyPuck, Natural Stat Trick, and NHL.com

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