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Top Rookies to Watch in the 2021–22 NHL Season

Because of last year’s limited season, several young players who have already made their NHL debuts still hold their rookie status. Looking at them and true newcomers to monitor in this year's Calder Trophy race.

Before the pandemic-shortened season, there was little reason to doubt that Wild winger Kirill Kaprizov would thrive in his 24-year-old rookie season. The youngest player to 100 goals in KHL history, Kaprizov dazzled and finished one vote shy of becoming the first unanimous Calder Trophy winner since 1993. Few, if any, prospects enter the NHL with that level of surety.

But, because of last year’s limited games, several young players this season have displayed their talents and still retain their rookie status. A trio of 2019 U.S. blue chips—Cole Caufield, Trevor Zegras, Spencer Knight—sneak past the Calder eligibility cutoff as they compete with true newcomers seeking to make their mark on the 2021–22 season. With the season about to kick off, here are the top rookies to watch.

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Cole Caufield | Montreal Canadiens | RW

Wherever Caufield has gone, goals follow. He smashed Phil Kessel’s USA Hockey National Team Development Program all-time goals record, scoring 126 times in 123 games. He led the NCAA in goals (30) last season and he notched four goals in 10 regular season games with Montreal, too. Once more, he took gold at the 2021 World Juniors, won the Hobey Baker Award with Wisconsin and tallied 12 points in the Canadiens’ surprise run to the Stanley Cup Final. All in the span of six months. Not bad for the 5 ’7”, 162-pound prospect who fell due to size concerns.

Ahead of his first full NHL season, Caufield is poised to rejoin second-year standout Nick Suzuki on the Habs’ top line. The duo dominated on the power play in the postseason, helping Montreal outscore opponents 8–1 and accounting for 40% of Montreal’s extra-strength goals. Caufield opened as the betting market’s favorite to take the 2022 Calder Trophy, and his frontrunner status isn’t likely to change as long as his sniping prowess continues.

Trevor Zegras | Anaheim Ducks | C

Zegras flashed his two-way playmaking ability in Anaheim, dishing out 10 assists in 24 games despite Anaheim’s allergy to scoring. Still, the Ducks … patiently … enacted his development plan. He started with the Ducks’ AHL affiliate. He then earned a late February call-up and played wing to ease his transition, but returned to San Diego after his first multi-point performance to gain seasoning at center—his natural position. The 2021 World Juniors MVP swapped AHL and NHL jerseys twice more before the season ended.

The No. 9 pick in the 2019 NHL draft, Zegras displays quick skating and serene puck distribution only rivaled in his class by Jack Hughes. Not to mention slick stickhandling, either. Meanwhile, the Ducks have fallen into an arduous rebuild and succumbed to the league’s second-worst goal differential since 2018. Expect Zegras to not just stick with the team but to push for a top-six spot and lead Anaheim’s youth movement.

Spencer Knight | Florida Panthers | G

A beguiling puck handler? An explosive skater moving between the pipes? A calm, cool and collected netminder? Knight showcases all of the traits that makeup an elite NHL goaltender and has the expectations to match. With the No. 13 pick, the Panthers made Knight the highest-drafted goalie since the Kings selected Jack Campbell at No. 11 in 2010. Knight parlayed his international success ⁠(a sterling .940 save percentage and 1.63 goals-against average en route to World Junior gold) to the pros, where he became the youngest netminder to win his first four games.

The sensation didn’t end there: Knight filled in for a beleaguered Sergei Bobrovsky and stonewalled the Lightning, stopping 36 of 37 shots, as the Panthers took Game 5 of their first-round series. (Tampa Bay responded with a series-ending 4–0 bludgeoning.) Therein lies the drama, and the greatest roadblock to Knight’s ascendance. Bobrovsky, and his $10 million annual cap hit that runs through 2026, remains the 1A, but prolonged shaky play might have Knight challenging for a more even platoon sooner than not.

Moritz Seider | Detroit Red Wings | D

Before 2020, Seider hadn’t earned many superlatives beyond best German blueliner prospect in nearly two decades. He wasn’t even a top-three European defenseman in his draft class. That changed, quick. Seider, at 19, joined the Swedish Hockey League’s Rögle BK for the 2020–21 season. There he scored seven goals and 28 points, led Rögle BK to the league’s finals and took defenseman of the year honors. He became the youngest winner in the award’s seven-year history.

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A two-way right-handed defenseman who can play with the puck and with an edge, Seider has grown from a draft-day reach to a likely opening-night roster lock. He can thrive on the power play, where the Red Wings have scored the second-fewest goals per game over the last three seasons. Taking instruction from another big-bodied blueliner, Niklas Kronwall, Seider is hoping to develop further into Detroit’s top-pairing defensemen of the future.

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Jamie Drysdale | Anaheim Ducks | D

The No. 6 pick in the 2020 NHL draft, Drysdale, 19, has made a habit out of earning more minutes than his age suggests. He became the seventh 17-year-old defenseman to play for Canada at the World Junior⁠s, joining names like Scott Niedermayer and Wade Redden. Last year, Drysdale debuted with a goal and an assist in a win over the Coyotes as an 18-year-old. That was after winning AHL Rookie of the Month with the San Diego Gulls.

A slick skater and a prototypical power-play quarterback, Drysdale will helm Anaheim’s rebuild on the backend as Zegras attempts to do the same up front. And like Seider, Drysdale’s only barrier to significant playing time is how much he can handle this early in his career.

Vasily Podkolzin | Vancouver Canucks | RW

Heading into the 2019 NHL draft, there was a case to be made that Podkolzin was the third-most talented prospect behind Hughes and Kaapo Kakko. Podkolzin, at 6’ 1”, 196 pounds, boasted dominant physical attributes fused with a finisher’s touch and a defender’s penchant for puck stealing. The problem? He didn’t have on-paper production in limited KHL ice time.

The Russian winger broke through, tallying six goals and five assists in SKA St. Petersburg's run to the KHL Conference Finals. He’s shown glimpses of his potential during the preseason. On a Canucks team searching for a bounceback campaign, Podkolzin offers offensive firepower while the blue line hopes to piece together a respectable unit.

Marco Rossi | Minnesota Wild | C

Last November Rossi tested positive for COVID-19 while playing for the Swiss National League’s Zurich Lions. He recovered and played at the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship, but extreme fatigue kicked in. When he arrived in Minnesota for training camp, Rossi failed his cardiac screening. Doctors diagnosed Rossi with myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle. He couldn’t walk, much less skate.

Rossi was cleared to resume training in May. Now, he’s fighting for a spot on the Wilds’ 23-man roster. The No. 9 pick in the 2020 NHL draft, Rossi led the entire CHL in scoring with 120 points for the Ottawa 67’s in 2019–20. The Austrian playmaker excels in his own end, too, and was considered one of the best defensive forwards in his class.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Quinton Byfield fractured his left ankle in a loss to the Coyotes during the preseason and is out indefinitely, but he had leapfrogged Gabe Vilardi as the Kings’ second-line center last season … Lucas Raymond debuted as a 16-year-old in the Swedish Hockey League and has the talent to crack the Red Wings roster, even if he starts the season in the AHL … Jeremy Swayman won the Mike Richter Award as the NCAA’s best goalie in 2019–20 and had a 1.50 goals-against average and .945 save percentage to go along with a 7–3 record with the Bruins last year. Tuukka Rask remains entrenched as Boston’s unquestioned starter ... Bowen Byram, unlike Seider and Drysdale, has a bigger hill to climb in terms of playing time on Colorado’s blue line.

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