That pass. Wow.
Tomas Tatar couldn’t have dreamed up more perfectly placed puck. It traversed two bluelines to land on his stick, with no Toronto Maple Leaf player within several feet of him. The entire offensive zone to himself, Tatar cruised in and beat Frederik Andersen, five-hole.
The heads-up feed that sprung Tatar looked like something you’d see from a veteran all-star caliber defenseman. But it came from a rookie about 27 minutes into his first NHL game. Alexander Romanov arrived with plenty of hype, projected to be an all-around, top-pair shutdown blueliner for the Montreal Canadiens in the long term. But if he also has the offensive acumen to make passes like that? Whoa. He played 21:30, put three shots on net and blocked four. The Habs held a 17-14 shot-attempt share at 5-on-5 with him on the ice. Romanov has entered the chat – and the Calder Trophy race.
“I think he battles really hard,” Tatar said in the post-game Zoom conference Wednesday night following Montreal’s 5-4 overtime loss to Toronto. “He’s moving the puck very well, even on our second power-play unit. This kid…is a good hockey player for sure.”
And Romanov wasn’t the only rookie making a splash on Day 1 of the 2020-21 NHL season. Vancouver Canucks left winger Nils Hoglander lived up to the buzz he generated in camp and buried his first goal in his first game, looking extremely comfortable on the second line with Bo Horvat and Tanner Pearson.
We can expect to see a lot more of these performances in the days and weeks to come. The COVID-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented rookie environment. With rosters expanded and rookies simply having fewer places to play as we await the start of the AHL season and perilous fates of the OHL and WHL seasons, some will get opportunities they may not have previously received. Plenty of other teams are rolling with high-profile rookies in their lineups to start the season, perhaps aware that the team with the freshest legs will have an advantage in a 56-game sprint loaded with back-to-backs and stretches of three games in four nights.
The New York Rangers are the league’s most rookie-rich team to open the season. Uber-competitive and sublimely talented left winger Alexis Lafreniere, bubble wrapped and held out of the 2021 world juniors, will debut on the third line after being selected No. 1 overall in the draft in October. Big, athletic blueliner K’Andre Miller begins his career on the top defensive pair with Jacob Trouba. Starting goaltender Igor Shesterkin remains a rookie after only appearing in 12 games last season, dominating with a .932 save percentage despite facing the highest degree of 5-on-5 chance difficulty of any goalie in the league aside from his then-teammate Henrik Lundqvist. The Rangers’ New York rivals have their own rookie Russian phenom goalie in Ilya Sorokin, expected to split starts for the Islanders with Semyon Varlamov this season.
In Ottawa, highlight machine Tim Stutzle is a day away from his first look at the NHL after lighting up the WJC for Germany. Joining him in the same lineup: the AHL rookie of the year, Josh Norris, set to center Brady Tkachuk and Drake Batherson on a high-ceiling first line. In Boston? How about Jack Studnicka, the promising two-way center, getting a look on the first line in place of injured David Pastrnak, manning the right wing alongside Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron. In Buffalo, center Dylan Cozens will soon see his first NHL action after making the team. He has insulation above him on the depth chart in Eric Staal and Cody Eakin but could climb as the season progresses.
And then, of course, there’s Minnesota’s Kirill Kaprizov, arguably the Calder Trophy frontrunner, the ultra-polished, 23-year-old left winger who arrives as the most prolific goal scorer in KHL history relative to age.
“To me it’s a combination of the hockey sense, hands and skating,” Wild GM Bill Guerin told me a few months ago. “He’s got everything. A lot of guys have tools, but maybe they don’t have the thought process to go with it, but he seems to have really good amount of everything.”
Intriguing rookies such as the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Nick Robertson are ready and waiting on taxi squads, too. And two of the season’s most highly anticipated rookies, powerhouse center Quinton Byfield and world junior MVP Trevor Zegras, have been sent to the AHL to open their seasons but could rejoin their teams before long and immediately become high-impact players. It seems like 2020-21 is set up to produce one of the strongest, deepest Calder Trophy fields we’ve ever seen.