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

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 this first piece, we’ll look at some of the NHL’s freshmen from the Central and East Divisions.

Click here to view Part Two of this series, covering the North and West Divisions.

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Photo credited to Getty Images

Kevin Lankinen commands the Blackhawks crease

They say opportunity is a hell of a drug, and there is no shortage of it in Chicago this year.

On top of the Blackhawks\’ mass roster turnover, Chicago\’s season outlook looked bleak after captain Jonathan Toews, unfortunately, withdrew from the season, and Kirby Dach fractured his wrist while captaining Team Canada at the World Junior Championships.

Following the unceremonious departure of franchise servant Corey Crawford, the Blackhawks starting job became wide open. Initially thought to be Malcolm Subban\’s net, Finnish goaltender Kevin Lankinen stormed the Hawks crease, embroiling the club in a heated playoff battle in the process; a playoff battle once thought to be a pipe dream before the season started.

Lankinen\’s arrival to the NHL is an intriguing story, as, despite his somewhat unexpected entrance this season, he has been no stranger to the limelight. Signed from HIFK in the Finnish Liiga in 2018, Lankinen plied his trade in Rockford for two seasons. The 25-year-old netminder was an AHL All-Star in 2019-20 and was also one of the top goalies at the 2019 IIHF World Championships, backstopping Finland to a gold medal with 1.50 GAA and 0.942Sv%.

Nevertheless, the Blackhawks have found what looks to be a solid foundation in goal this season. As per Hockey Reference, Lankinen ranks 10th in quality starts, recording 12 through 19 games (min. 10 games played). 

Lankinen has been one of the NHL\’s best goaltenders at even-strength, facing the third-highest volume of shots (562), along with a 0.936Sv%, as per Natural Stat Trick. Further, the rookie goalie ranks second in the NHL with 11.69 Goals Saved Above Average, as per Natural Stat Trick.

For roughly the first half of the season, Lankinen was one of the league\’s best goalies, ranking second in Goals Saved Above Expected through the first month of the season, as per Andy & Rono.

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

Unfortunately, the Blackhawks have not been exactly one of the most regimented teams this season, boasting a less-than-impressive Expected Goals For & Against per 60.

Additionally, their special teams have lacked success, tied for ninth in penalties taken, Chicago sports a meagre 73.1% penalty-kill percentage, good for 27th in the NHL. Playing in a division with four of the most potent powerplays (themselves included) will do that, but it\’s something to keep in mind when assessing Lankinen\’s stats.

So, while Lankinen\’s experienced a dip in form as of late, he still owns a 1.0 Goals Saved Above Expected at even-strength, as per MoneyPuck, and has backstopped the Blackhawks to some incredible wins this season. Most recently, he carried the Hawks to a 4-2 win over the Dallas Stars, where it\’s safe to say Dallas was snake-bitten by the Finnish goalie.

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Graphic retrieved from Natural Stat Trick

Despite Dallas outshooting Chicago 16-30 and surrendering a 61.46% shot-share, Lankinen came away with the win off the back of a 28-save, 0.933Sv% performance, along with some jaw-dropping saves.

Kevin Lankinen is good #Blackhawks pic.twitter.com/kZDULhoUcx

— Austin Pedue (@BlackhawksDzone) March 12, 2021

In terms of play, the Hawks goalie possesses excellent reflexes, and despite Blackhawks\’ high propensity to bleed shot attempts, the Finn fuses his reaction skills with great positional awareness, making the most impressive saves look easy. Take this save, for example.

What a save by #Blackhawks Kevin Lankinen on #GoBolts Blake Coleman
🎥 @NBCSChicago pic.twitter.com/evK1xlgGCu

— Here\’s Your Replay ⬇️ (@HeresYourReplay) March 7, 2021

The rookie netminder calmly tracks the play from the blueline through to the shot itself, and while the sprawling save looks magnificent, Lankinen used only a small push from his right skate to get to the puck. Lankinen isn\’t exactly a giant either. At 6\’2\”, he isn\’t towering over any other goalies, making this stop all the more impressive.

Looking ahead, Lankinen and the Blackhawks are in tough the rest of the way with the league’s sixth-most difficult schedule. So, while they sit fourth in the Central Division, they\’ll need to outpace the Dallas Stars the rest of the way, even with over half of their games coming against Carolina, Tampa Bay, and Florida. 

So, should the Blackhawks made the big dance, Lankinen will have a significant hand in getting them there, and should they do so, Lankinen could very well find himself in more serious contention for the Calder.

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Photo credited to Getty Images

Ty Smith taking on big responsibilities in New Jersey

Before the season started, I mentioned that Ty Smith would be joining the New Jersey Devils lineup and making considerable contributions within the next two seasons; it took him one month to become a core member of the Devils blueline. With two goals and 13 points, while averaging 19:31, Smith has wasted no time properly adjusting to the NHL.

Since February 16th, Smith averaged 20:46 through 16 games, possesses a 56.90% shot-share at all strengths, fourth amongst all rookies. However, not only has Smith started only 52.53% of his starts in the offensive zone (ahead of only two other players in the top ten), but he’s the only player ranking top ten in Corsi percentage to have played over 300 minutes in that span, and the only player in the top 40 to average over 20-minutes per game. He also ranks third amongst all rookies in ice time and one of only four rookies to surpass the 20-minute mark in that span.

What’s even more telling is that in January, Smith began 81.58% of his shifts in the offensive zone. So, it’s incredible how seamless his transition has been. As a whole, while the Devils’ defense-corps has been an operation by committee, Smith has been paired with Devils number-one defenseman Damon Severson (311:37) for 70.3% of his minutes at even-strength.

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Graphics retrieved from JFresh Hockey

Further, Smith hasn’t exactly been incredible on the defensive side of the puck, although keep in mind the growing pains of adjusting to NHL competition, and the sub-par overall play of the Devils does have an impact on such numbers as well.

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Currently, Smith ranks second in WAR (0.190) amongst Devils defensemen and third amongst rookie defensemen, behind only Artem Zub (0.410) and K’Andre Miller (0.320), as per JFresh. Looking at his WAR composition, his even-strength offense and shooting represent his primary contributions on the ice, while his even-strength defense is the biggest detractor to his game.

Regardless, Smith has all the tools to be a dynamic puck-moving defenseman; he’s an intelligent passer, has a wicked shot, and has proven to be an effective powerplay quarterback. Check out his slick work on the Devils’ powerplay here.

Ty Smith walks into an absolute HOWITZER!! Tie game! #NJDevils pic.twitter.com/6tjJ3M0Yfi

— Hosers Panel (@hoserspanel) January 30, 2021

Despite only three powerplay points on an abysmal New Jersey powerplay, Smith should be the go-to guy for the Devils for years to come, filling an important role amongst the Devils core.

Looking ahead, Smith should remain in the Calder conversation, and if his defensive play can improve at the same pace as his offensive game has, he’ll make a much more convincing case for the trophy.

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Photo credited to Eric Hartline — USA TODAY Sports

Why isn’t Alexis Lafrenière lighting the lamp yet?

Sports is a fickle industry, so when the 2020 first-overall pick has only eight points in 28 games, ranking 21st in rookie scoring, you can bet that fans will be making their displeasure known. However, Lafrenière hasn’t been as bad as advertised.

To start, of rookies with 100 minutes-played, Lafrenière ranks 10th-worst in PDO, the luck statistic, with a score of 0.963. What’s worse is that his 6.44 shooting percentage ranks sixth-worst amongst rookie forwards. While some hockey purists may be skeptical about using PDO to evaluate luck, Lafrenière also ranks eighth amongst all rookies with 18.07 xGF in all situations, yet has only been on the ice for 13, the largest negative difference of any rookie (min. 100-minutes played).

So, it is safe to say that Lafrenière has had the chances; he just hasn’t been able to bury. Hockey fans shouldn’t be so quick to forget why the Rangers drafted the winger first-overall; he certainly has elite talent.

LAFRENIERE makes it 6 with a sick wrister pic.twitter.com/RIkh4J30QY

— Rangers on MSG (@RangersMSGN) March 5, 2021

Further, despite the positive advanced statistics, the 2020 first-overall pick isn’t getting consistent opportunities with better linemates. Despite spending roughly 26% of his ice-time alongside Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich, Lafrenière has recently spent much of his time featuring in the Rangers bottom-six. Again, the major caveat here is that Lafrenière defensive play has also lagged this year, which is natural for rookies. 

Lafrenière sported a measly 39.4 CF% When playing on the top line, so clearly, his defensive game is not up to par against tougher matchups, as per Dobber Prospects. Although, as you can see in his isolated summary, he has generated opportunities in prime areas and decent volume at that. 

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

So, while Lafrenière hasn’t had the glimmering start to his career as we would’ve hoped, the chances will come, especially if the Rangers put him in a situation to do so. So, don’t fret Rangers fans; Lafrenière’s chances will come. Some people tend to forget that another first-overall pick faced similar woes just across the Hudson River, and look how he’s doing this season.

Looking ahead, while it would take a miracle for Lafrenière to make up any lost ground in the Calder race, he is still the centrepiece of one of the best young cores in the NHL for years to come.

Statistics retrieved from Andy & Rono, Daily Faceoff, Elite Prospects, ESPN.com, Hockey-Reference, HockeyViz, JFresh, MoneyPuck, Natural Stat Trick, and NHL.com

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