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Over the last 15 years or so, the NHL has had some really fun battles for the Calder Memorial Trophy, which goes to the rookie of the year. This season there have been a ton of really impressive rookie performances, but one stands out above the rest.
The Minnesota Wild have become a must-see team in the NHL because of one reason – Kirill Kaprizov. The 23-year-old Russian, who was drafted way back in 2015, is playing his first season in the NHL after years of eagerly awaiting his arrival. Has it ever been worth the wait for Wild fans.
Kaprizov leads all first-year players with 27 points in 32 games. He’s also the top rookie goalscorer with 11 so far this season, including a beautiful goal scored on Thursday night as the Wild found a way to beat the St. Louis Blues despite being badly outshot. Kaprizov also leads the Wild in scoring, looking like the team’s MVP through his first 32 NHL games.
That Kaprizov has been a producer in his first foray into the NHL has hardly been a surprise. This is merely a continuation of the stature he built up while playing in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League. He led Europe’s top pro circuit over the previous two seasons with 30 goals in 2018-19 and 33 in 2019-20. He also helped the Olympic Athletes of Russia win Olympic gold by scoring the game-winner against Germany in 2018.
With all due respect to Wild teams of the past, they have not been very fun to watch. With so few superstar players on their roster in their history as a franchise, they’ve got a player who is just entering the prime of his career, injecting excitement into a team that hasn’t had enough of it despite playing in the hockey-mad state of Minnesota.
What’s kind of amazing about Kaprizov’s success with the Wild is that some of his biggest competition for the league’s rookie of the year award is going to come from within as his teammate, rookie goaltender Kaapo Kahkonen, is putting up some really impressive numbers.
The 24-year-old Finnish netminder is 12-5-0 in 17 appearances so far this season. Kahkonen owns a .921 save percentage, 2.29 goals-against average and two shutouts. He is one in a crop of especially talented young goaltenders that have come into the league and made a significant impact on their respective teams.
Kahkonen was the goaltender of the year in the AHL, the NHL’s top farm league, last season. But he’s looked even better as a No. 1 goalie in the NHL. He’s playing in a platoon role with veteran Cam Talbot and that’s allowed the Wild to really maximize the position at a reasonable cost.
No one expected the Wild to be in the position they’re in right now – right in the mix to win the West Division. They’re almost keeping pace with Vegas and Colorado and it’s been the young players carrying the team. In addition to rookies Kahkonen and Kaprizov, the Wild have seen 23-year-old Jordan Greenway and 24-year-old Joel Eriksson Ek step up in a significant way – they’re among the top four scorers on the roster presently.
While Kaprizov and Kahkonen are probably the odds-on favorites for the rookie of the year award, there is still some competition.
That’s especially true of the goaltending position. Kahkonen’s fiercest rival in the goalie rookie race may be fellow Finn Kevin Lankinen, who has far exceeded expectations for the Chicago Blackhawks so far this season.
Lankinen has appeared in 23 games for Chicago so far this season, going 12-7-4 with a .920 save percentage and two shutouts. Due in large part to the quality goaltending he’s provided, Chicago is way ahead of where many thought they would be, firmly in the mix for a playoff spot despite a diminished roster compared to the teams they rode to three Stanley Cups in the 2010s.
The goaltending position is obviously key in hockey, but it’s been especially true during this condensed season, with many rookies getting their first taste of the NHL, and some have been thrust into roles they may not have been totally ready for.
While Lankinen has played more minutes than any rookie goalie, Washington Captials first-year netminder Vitek Vanecek is right there. He leads all rookie goaltenders in wins, but has had his ups and downs with a .910 save percentage.
One of the hottest goalies in the league could be Ilya Sorokin, the New York Islanders rookie, who the team had to patiently wait for to complete his KHL service time to get him under contract. Sorokin is 8-2-2 with a .922 save percentage and two shutouts.
In addition to the rookies mentioned, here are some others that you should know about.
Jason Robertson | Dallas Stars
Despite appearing in just 25 games to date, Robertson has still launched himself into the rookie scoring race with 20 points as a first-year player.
He’s second behind Kaprizov, while averaging 0.80 points per game. Robertson was an absolute star in junior hockey, had a strong year in the AHL and has made the transition to the NHL look easy.
Tim Stützle | Ottawa Senators
The No. 3 overall pick in the most recent draft, Stützle has been an especially exciting player to watch. He has scored some nice goals and uses speed to get around defenses and put pressure on other teams.
He’s looking like a cornerstone kind of player for the Sens, who are essentially on the tail end of their rebuilding process.
Ty Smith | New Jersey Devils
Smith has been the best rookie defenseman by a large margin this year. He averages nearly 19:30 of ice time per game, which is among the rookie leaders.
He is tied with Kaprizov for most assists by a rookie this year. While the Devils have been inconsistent, they’ve been able to lean pretty reliably on Smith.
K’Andre Miller | New York Rangers
Miller doesn’t have the numbers of Smith, but he has played exceptionally well, averaging over 20 minutes per game while also helping the Rangers be a much better possession team with him on the ice.
Miller is a big defenseman who skates like the wind and can get pucks out of the zone with the best of them.
Oliver Wahlstrom | New York Islanders
It didn’t look like Wahlstrom was going to play a ton for the Islanders at the start of the year, but he’s managed to get into 27 games and has been a scoring machine of late. He is third among rookies with nine goals.
Considering he doesn’t get a ton of ice time, he’s really maximizing the faith the Isles have put in him. He’s one of those guys that has heated up and is worth noting.
If you’re looking at futures for a potential rookie of the year pick, it’s going to be really difficult for anyone to catch Kaprizov. He’s made such a name for himself already that it seems his status as a star of the league is already assured.
If you’re looking for value plays though, keep an eye on the lines offered for Lankinen, Sorokin and Stützle. Still, it feels like Kaprizov already has this thing locked up, barring something catastrophic.
There just aren’t many players who can single-handedly make you want to watch a specific team. Kaprizov has become one of those guys, which makes him an especially rare and extremely special player.