We’re barely a few weeks into the NHL season, so let’s leave the Calder Trophy on the shelf for now. It’s too soon to read too much into the rookie race.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t shine the spotlight on some of the young guns who got out of the gates well. Here are 23 NHL rookies who caught our eye with their performance in the early days of the NHL schedule:
Kirill Kaprizov, Minnesota Wild
After marinating in the KHL for years, the 23-year-old left winger flashed his promise with a three-point game in his NHL debut. He’s grabbed the early lead in the rookie scoring race with seven points in eight games, and Kaprizov also leads all freshman forwards in ice time – as well as all Wild forwards – at 18:44 per game, a total that includes 4:55 of power-play time per contest. Pretty impressive for a player drafted 135th overall in 2015.
Ty Smith, New Jersey Devils
The 20-year-old offensive defenseman, drafted 17th overall in 2018, kick-started his NHL career with a five-game point streak, with five of his six points coming at even strength. He’ll get plenty of opportunity in New Jersey, especially if he keeps producing.
Josh Norris, Ottawa Senators
Tim Stutzle, drafted third overall a few months ago, arrived in Ottawa with the most hype, but it’s Norris making the biggest impact early on. It shouldn’t be that surprising – the 6-foot-2, 192-pound center was a first-round pick (19th overall) in 2017 and was the AHL’s rookie of the year last season. Norris ranks among NHL rookie scoring leaders with two goals and five points through eight games, and he’s second among rookie forwards in ice time (16:32).
Pius Suter, Chicago Blackhawks
The undrafted 5-foot-9 Swiss native is the first and only NHL rookie with a hat trick this season. The last time Suter played in North America, he scored 43 goals in 61 games for OHL Guelph in 2014-15. He’ll get a chance in Chicago.
Alexander Romanov, Montreal Canadiens
A second-round pick (38th overall) in 2018, Romanov arrived amid great fanfare in Montreal and the 6-foot, 210-pound defenseman has performed well so far. At 19-plus minutes per game, he trails only Anderson in average ice time among rookies, and he’s seeing duty on both the power play and penalty kill. He also ranks among the rookie leaders in shots (19) and plus/minus (plus-5).
Vitek Vanecek, Washington Capitals
Ilya Samsonov, who played 26 NHL games last season – one too many to retain his rookie eligibility – was supposed to be the talk of the Caps’ crease this year. But it’s been Vanecek who has emerged early, with a 4-0-2 record and .915 save percentage. The 24-year-old was a second-round pick (39th overall) in 2014 and, after spending the past five seasons in the minors, he’s making the most of his NHL opportunity.
Gabriel Vilardi, Los Angeles Kings
The Kings also have super-prospect centers Quinton Byfield and Alex Turcotte on the way, but it’s 21-year-old pivot Vilardi who’s leading L.A.’s rookie brigade at the moment. The 11th overall pick in 2017, he’s tied for the freshman lead with three goals in eight games.
Mikey Anderson, Los Angeles Kings
The 21-year-old defenseman, drafted 103rd overall in 2017, is playing more than any other rookie through the early days of the NHL season. Anderson, who has two-way upside, is getting more than 21 minutes per game on the Kings’ blueline. Kale Clague (16:52 per game) is also seeing a regular shift as part of L.A’s defense corps.
Kevin Lankinen, Chicago Blackhawks
The Hawks opened the season with Malcolm Subban and Collin Delia in net, but quickly turned to the Lankinen and he’s been nothing short of phenomenal in a small sample size. The undrafted 25-year-old is 2-0-2 with a .931 save percentage and 2.18 goals-against average. By comparison, Subban and Delia have combined for an 0-3-1 record with an .871 save percentage and 4.47 GAA.
Zach Whitecloud, Vegas Golden Knights
The undrafted 24-year-old defenseman appeared in all 20 of the Golden Knights’ playoff games last season, which should tell you something about how he’s viewed in Vegas. He remains rookie-eligible since he only dressed in 16 regular-season games last year. He’s a regular on the PK unit.
Jakub Zboril, Boston Bruins
The UFA departures of Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug created some openings on the blueline in Boston, and Zboril is getting a chance to show what he can do, playing close to 19 minutes a night, including time on both the PP and PK units. Zboril was drafted 13th overall in 2015, the first of Boston’s three back-to-back-to-back first-round picks (Jake DeBrusk 14th, Zach Senyshen 15th). Rookie centers Jack Studnicka and Trent Frederic are also seeing action with the B’s.
K’Andre Miller, New York Rangers
A full-grown rookie defenseman at 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds, Miller has mobility and an offensive bent to go along with his size. He’s playing more than 17 minutes a night and leads all rookies – as well as all Rangers – with a plus-6 rating.
Alexis Lafreniere, New York Rangers
The Rangers struggled early and the No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft failed to hit the scoresheet in his first six games, then scored the overtime winner in Game 7. He’s worth the wait.
Bowen Byram, Colorado Avalanche
The Avs already had Calder Trophy-winning Cale Makar and mobile 22-year-old Samuel Girard on the blueline, and now they’ve added another offensive dynamo in 19-year-old Byram, the fourth overall pick in 2019. Plus, Conor Timmins, 22, has recovered from the concussion symptoms that plagued him last season and is vying for a regular ‘D’ spot as well. Heck, even Ryan Graves and Devon Toews are only 25 and 26, respectively. In conclusion: Colorado appears set on defense for the next decade.
Kaapo Kahkonen, Minnesota Wild
Minnesota brought in Cam Talbot to be the No. 1, but he’s dealing with injury, pushing Kahkonen to the forefront. The 24-year-old native of Finland acquitted himself well in a five-game audition last season and he’s picked up where he left off, going 3-2-0 with a .917 save percentage and 2.40 GAA.
Ty Dellandrea, Dallas Stars
The Stars have played only four games due to coronavirus concerns, but it looks like they’re ready to use the 20-year-old center who was drafted 13th overall in 2018. At nearly 16 minutes per contest, Dellandrea sits third in average ice time among rookie forwards – and he’s the only rookie forward in the league who’s seeing regular duty on both the PP and PK units.
Eetu Luostarinen, Florida Panthers
The Panthers were also forced to postpone some early games due to COVID-19, but the 22-year-old Finnish native made the most of the abbreviated schedule with two goals and three points. A second-round pick by Carolina in 2017, he’s a two-way center who kills penalties.
Nils Hoglander, Vancouver Canucks
A second-round pick (40th overall) in 2019, the 20-year-old, 5-foot-9 winger scored in his NHL debut and then played nearly 22 minutes in his second game. His ice time dropped to around 12 minutes per game as the Canucks struggled to get out the gates.
Dylan Cozens, Buffalo Sabres
The Sabres are breaking in the 6-foot-3 center slowly, but they have high hopes for the No. 7 pick in the 2019 draft. He notched an assist in his first NHL game and scored in back-to-back contests in Week 2.
Juuso Valimaki, Calgary Flames
Robbed of his rightful rookie season last year due to an ACL injury, Valimaki gets a do-over and another chance to prove his worth on the Flames’ blueline. Drafted 16th overall in 2017, the 22-year-old is a two-way talent who’ll likely focus on the defensive end before showing off his big shot.
Liam Foudy, Columbus Blue Jackets
You knew he was good when John Tortorella didn’t hesitate to play Loudy in the playoff bubble last season – and at times, he was one of the Blue Jackets’ flashiest offensive players. He hasn’t unleashed his talent yet this season, but he’s too fast and too skilled to be quiet for long.
Barrett Hayton, Arizona Coyotes
Hayton made his case with a 20-game NHL stint last season, plus three more in the playoffs. Like Foudy, he hasn’t gotten untracked yet this year, but – like Foudy – he’s a potential Calder candidate if all goes according to plan.
Igor Shesterkin, New York Rangers
Hopes were high after Shesterkin checked into the NHL with a 10-2-0 record down the stretch last season. His start this season has been less successful (1-2-1, .894 save percentage), but it’s more of a team-wide issue in New York than Shesterkin in particular.