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Rick Scuteri / Associated Press
The Calder Trophy, given to the NHL’s best rookie, makes for one of the best subplots of the 2021-22 NHL season. A combination of the abbreviated 2020-21 season plus a number of top players making the journey over from Europe and college hockey at the right time has resulted in one of the deepest pools ever.
No candidate has dominated the rest of the field, either. A lengthy list of worthwhile players plus a lack of real separation means there is so much room for analysis and debate. Some rookies having successful seasons, such as Anton Lundell, Lucas Raymond and Jeremy Swayman, would be surefire finalists in many other seasons, yet they are on the outside looking in this season.
Here are the five NHL rookies with the best cases to win the 2022 Calder Trophy.
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Matt Slocum / Associated Press
Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas, under immense pressure over the summer to fix the problems that led to yet another first-round exit, made an outrageously bold decision. He allowed Zach Hyman, a net-front force and perfect complement to Auston Matthews on the left wing, to depart to Edmonton via free agency.
Replacing him? A soon-to-be 26-year-old Michael Bunting, who had 11 goals in 26 career NHL games, on a two-year contract with a $ 900,000 cap hit.
The move has been genius. Bunting has proved that his scoring success in Arizona cameos was not a fluke, potting 20 goals along with 37 assists in 72 games in Toronto. He’s been an almost perfect replacement for Hyman, scoring often from above the crease on deflections and rebounds, cycling the puck efficiently, forechecking hard and defending diligently.
Has he benefitted immensely from playing alongside two elite offensive powerhouses in Matthews and Mitch Marner? Of course. But Toronto’s bevy of talent has also meant its power-play opportunities have been fairly reduced; 53 of Bunting’s 57 points have come at even strength.
Bunting turns 27 next September. Does that give him an absurd advantage over the rest of the pack? Of course. He made the cut for Calder eligibility by two days. But that’s not his problem. If you don’t like it then take it up with the rules committee. Bunting leads all rookies in points and has been a 200-foot player for the Leafs. He deserves to be a finalist, at a minimum.
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Paul Sancya / Associated Press
Moritz Seider, who just turned 21, was put into a borderline impossible situation. Much hyped after a jaw-dropping 2020-21 season in the Swedish Hockey League, the German defenseman had the burden of high expectations for a rebuilding Red Wings squad that needed all the help it could get on defense. On a barebones defensive group, Seider was set to play a lot of very tough minutes without much help.
Somehow, he’s not only stayed afloat but has actively become one of the top defensemen in the NHL already. Offensively, Seider has five goals and 40 assists in 72 games. He’s 16th in points among all NHL defensemen. Some of that is boosted by power-play opportunities with Detroit’s top skilled forwards — a role he likely would be bumped out of on a team with a more veteran offensive defenseman. That’s still tremendous production for a rookie defenseman who was 20 for most of the season.
Yet that’s not even the best of it. Seider has been flawless defensively. There aren’t many defensemen in the league of any age better at defending one-on-one. He’s routinely plowed through puck-carriers and is highly proficient at exiting the puck out of the defensive zone.
Seider should be a major contender for the Calder, and within a few years he should find himself in the Norris Trophy conversation.
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Andy Clayton-King / Associated Press
Left wing Matt Boldy has jumped into the NHL for the Minnesota Wild and played the exact style of hockey that made him a household name at the junior and college levels. He doesn’t have the crazy bag of tricks that other top young players do, but few are as effective.
The 2019 first-round pick is a diverse player in the offensive zone. He’s intuitive with and without the puck. When he has it, he makes quick decisions. He shoots the puck a lot, but he pairs that with highly capable playmaking as well. Without the puck, he supports the play when necessary or will get lost on the weak side to spread the ice and become a passing target.
Boldy, 21, has 13 goals and 16 assists in 36 games for the Minnesota Wild. Minnesota has a number of talented, successful offensive wingers, so it’s not to be taken lightly that he’s forced head coach Dean Evason to find opportunities for him.
Boldy is a big part of what elevates the Wild as a borderline contender in the West. The biggest knock against him in the Calder race might just be opportunity. Injuries have sidelined him this season, resulting in his playing only 36 games. Had he produced at a near-point-per-game clip for a full season, he might be running away with the award.
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Derik Hamilton / Associated Press
After playing 24 games in the NHL last season, center Trevor Zegras has produced an impressive 20 goals and 34 assists in his first full season. On its own, that would be commendable. What really sticks out is that he’s done it on an Anaheim Ducks team that doesn’t provide much support. Ryan Getzlaf, retiring at the end of the season, is far removed from the All-Star he was in his prime. Zegras has largely been left to figure things out alongside fellow youngsters Troy Terry and Sonny Milano, while other teams game-plan to shut them down.
Of course, there’s the flash too. He was the main attraction at the All-Star Weekend despite not even technically getting named to the team. There was the “Dishigan” early in the season, plus two Michigan goals, including one that made the entire Arizona Coyotes organization shortcircuit.
Zegras will probably get named as a Calder finalist and is arguably the favorite to win it. Here’s where I become a buzzkill: I’m not sure how fully deserving he is. As good as he’s been offensively, his full game hasn’t fully formed. He’s been a drain on the team defensively, though that’s likely in part because of the elevated role he’s playing as Anaheim’s de-facto first-line center.
Having only just turned 21, there should be little doubt that Zegras will round out his game and become a bona fide star and, with his skill set, hopefully one of the sport’s top marketing engines. But the Calder Trophy isn’t about naming the player with the most upside. It’s about what each rookie has done this season. Zegras has been very good, but there have been a few others with fewer weak spots.
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Karl B DeBlaker / Associated Press
Ask Hurricanes management where they expected Seth Jarvis would play hockey this season and they’d likely admit that they would have bet on junior hockey in Western Canada. Jarvis, who was 19 when the season began, is generously listed at 5’10 “and 175 pounds. The franchise thought the world of their 2020 first-round pick, but playing the length of the season in the NHL is a big ask. Nobody would have been distraught had he looked overwhelmed during his first few games this season after making the team out of training camp.
The winger has instead become a key component of the Metropolitan Division leaders. The point total won’t blow anyone away when compared to other rookies; his 13 goals and 18 goals in 59 games are impressive but not Calder-worthy at face value.
It’s not just about the points. The young, diminutive Jarvis has been a seamless fit in head coach Rod Brind’Amour’s intense, physical systems. It’s not a surprise to anyone who followed Jarvis in junior hockey, as he has played a complete game from a young age. Despite his size, he is strong on his skates. He’s always playing at full throttle, forechecking hard and fighting for every puck. He gets his stick on so many rebounds. He’s also comfortable carrying the puck and always has his head up. If he was a defensive liability, he would have been jettisoned from the Hurricanes long ago, as the team relies heavily on its neutral-zone structure and has little margin for error as it seeks to win a Stanley Cup.
Jarvis is already a 200-foot player at the NHL level. He drives possession for his team, he keeps pucks in the offensive zone, he defends well, and he has the skill to get on the stat sheet. He’s probably not winning any individual awards in his career and may not even make the All-Star Game with frequency, but Jarvis’ contribution to the Hurricanes hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. He’s had a fabulous rookie season and screams “X-factor” for a Stanley Cup winner, perhaps as soon as this season.