Every week throughout the 2020-21 season, we’re highlighting a handful of rookie performances and milestones from around the league.
Last week was all about shining a spotlight on rookie defenders. Now, let’s take a look at the most productive first-year forwards so far.
Blackhawks’ Suter, Kurashev make rebuilding look easy
Remember when the Chicago Blackhawks’ season was supposed to be… painful? Officially embarking on a rebuild after watching their window of contention close following an incredible run of Stanley Cups, the club entered 2020-21 without a proven No. 1 netminder, young star Kirby Dach, and veteran captain Jonathan Toews while throwing a handful of rookies into the fray.
And yet, a month into the season, the 9-5-4 Blackhawks are looking like a team very much in the mix, sitting second in the Central Division 18 games into the campaign. While their place in the standings is skewed by COVID-cancellations (the Stars, Lightning, and Hurricanes are playing catchup after missing time), they’re certainly exceeding expectations regardless.
Perhaps just as surprising as Kevin Lankinen’s emergence in the crease is Pius Suter’s jump from the Swiss National League to the Blackhawks’ top line. The 24-year-old undrafted forward attended the Ottawa Senators’ training camp in 2017 but couldn’t earn a spot with the club, and now three years later it looks like he’s found his perfect fit centring Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat.
Suter’s six goals and 10 points through 18 games leads all league rookies in both categories (he’s tied with Senators forward Josh Norris in points). Three of those goals came in one game, which saw the Swiss forward follow up his first career NHL goal with two more for his first career hat trick in just his sixth career game.
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) February 12, 2021
Just one point behind his Blackhawks teammate is fellow rookie forward Philipp Kurashev, who has tallied five goals and nine points through 17 games this year. His latest marker was a defence-splitting beauty a la Mario Lemieux:
— #NHLOutdoors on NBC (@NHLonNBCSports) February 18, 2021
“He’s such a skilled player,” Lankinen said of the 2018 fourth-rounder (via NBC Sports’ Charlie Roumeliotis). “You see that in practice pretty much every day. He can dangle guys, he can shoot the puck, he can make plays. I’ve known him a couple of years now, even last year in Rockford, he showed his skill. It’s just huge to see a young guy that can jump into the National Hockey League and do those things in the best league in the world, it’s really impressive. He’s a really valuable player for us now.”
Senators’ Norris, Stützle among Ottawa’s bright spots
Compared to the rebuild happening in Chicago, Ottawa’s overhaul has… not been as much fun from a win-loss perspective.
But there are bright spots among the struggles, and one of those is Josh Norris. Norris was part of the package that came over in the trade that sent Erik Karlsson to San Jose, and his rise to becoming one of the young team’s best point producers has been faster than expected. With three goals and 10 points, the 21-year-old is tied for the league rookie scoring lead, and his sound defensive game is also earning him plenty of praise.
Where he’s really shone is on the Senators’ power-play unit — two goals and five points with the man advantage have him leading all rookies there.
Right behind Norris on Ottawa’s points leaderboard is German power forward (and Norris’ roommate!) Tim Stützle, third overall pick last fall and the club’s most highly-anticipated prospect. The 19-year-old is currently ranked second in goals and fifth in points (nine) among all NHL rookie forwards and is already among the most entertaining NHLers to watch.
Sportsnet’s Justin Bourne did a deep dive into Stützle’s rookie campaign so far, and perfectly sums up Stützle with this:
His vision is unbelievable, the pop in his step is dynamic, and his unpredictability is off the charts. He’s like watching a cat all hepped up on the ‘nip, yet he’s composed enough to mix in little slips under sticks and smart cuts to dangerous areas. I can’t imagine watching him and wondering if he’s ever going to find “it” as an elite offensive player in the league.
Wild’s Kaprizov playing like a veteran
Minnesota Wild rookie Kirill Kaprizov entered the 2020-21 season with some pretty high expectations, and the 23-year-old has lived up to just about all of them. The Russian forward has several KHL seasons already under his belt, making for a pretty seamless transition into the North American game.
He’s had Calder candidate written all over him from the start — his three-point NHL debut certainly helped — and if Minnesota can regain ground in the standings following an extended COVID-related absence, he’ll be a major reason why.
Hoglander among Canucks’ best so far
The 2020-21 season has not been kind to the Vancouver Canucks, who haven’t been able to harness the same power they had during last season’s thrilling playoff run. But among the many negatives circulating Rogers Arena is a bright spot named Nils Hoglander.
His trio of goals and nine points has him sitting fourth in NHL rookie scoring, but more impressive than his point tallies is how he plays the game.
Regardless of where your hockey allegiances lie, it’s tough not to love the 2019 second-rounder. Known first for his flashy, lacrosse-style goals, his actual game is built on sound defensive play, crafty takeaways, and precise passes.
“Hogs has been awesome,” Canucks captain Bo Horvat said (via Ben Kuzma of The Province). “Not only does he make plays, he works hard. And that’s the biggest thing. He takes care of his own end, too, and he’s just all over the ice. He’s a bit of a water bug out there. He’s constantly moving and getting in on the forecheck and he’s being rewarded for it.”