The Russians are coming for the Calder Trophy in 2020-21 – but they’ll have to go through Lafreniere first.
The NHL’s 2020-21 rookie class promises to be a unique one, marked by uncertainty, but that doesn’t mean it’s a poor class. The confluence of several high-end prospects brings an exciting group of Russians who will all be vying for the Calder Trophy at the same time – and thanks to positional differences, you could almost fill out an entire all-rookie team ballot from that one hockey nation. The Russian kids have varying degrees of experience from the KHL, and some have already been league champions back home. their challengers? an assortment of high-end hopefuls coming in one year removed from their draft year plus the first overall pick in 2020.
The big X-factor? How many of Alexis Lafreniere’s peers will join him straight from the (virtual) draft podium? Sweden’s ‘Terror Twins’ – Lucas Raymond and Alexander Holtz – are likely to bide their time in the SHL, where the season began months before the NHL, but Germany’s Tim Stuetzle proclaimed in a pre-draft press conference that he wanted to compete at training camp, even though he was slated to start the season in the DEL.
There might be a bit of a wait for some of the biggest names from 2020 simply because the North American schedule is so out of whack, but it’ll be worth it. Get ready for a lot of dynamic skill, particularly up front, from this season’s freshman class.
Alexis Lafreniere, LW (NY Rangers)
When Lafreniere starts a game, he likes to begin with a bang. The gifted left winger tries to throw a big hit to get the juices flowing – and once he’s in a zone, he’s a handful for the opposition. With his offensive skill and great vision, the No. 1 pick in 2020 is ready for his Broadway debut. And with a talented group of forwards already established in New York, he can take advantage of line matchups – as if the powerhouse scorer needs any more help out there.
Kirill Kaprizov, LW (Minnesota Wild)
It has been a five-year wait for Wild fans, but with Kaprizov’s NHL debut imminent, the excitement can finally boil over. The dynamic Russian, a fifth-round pick in 2015, gives the Wild a high-end goal-scorer who arrives on the scene just as Kevin Fiala seems to be taking his game to the next level. That’s great for a squad that, historically, hasn’t had a lot of pure skill guys. Really, the only question surrounding Kaprizov is how fast he can adapt to the smaller North American ice surface, where decisions have to be quicker and physical play is dialled up a notch.
Igor Shesterkin, G (NY Rangers)
While it’s sad to think about the end of the Henrik Lundqvist era in New York, at least his replacement is elite and already familiar with the NHL. After an exemplary KHL career that included a Gagarin Cup title and Olympic gold in his early 20s, Shesterkin came over to the Rangers fully formed and turned heads in an impressive 12-game NHL stint at the end of last season. The Russian boasts the full complement of tools necessary to be a big-league stopper, and as the Rangers continue to improve as a whole, you can expect the new goalie’s numbers to climb the charts.
Dylan Cozens, C (Buffalo Sabres)
The Sabres are starving for high-end talent to complement cornerstone center Jack Eichel, and they get another kick at the can with Cozens, who hopes to soar where Casey Mittelstadt stumbled. The one advantage Cozens has is that he’ll have veteran pivot Eric Staal on board to help shield him on the roster. Cozens has great size and speed, and should he need to start his NHL career on the wing, he’s capable of doing so: he moved around Canada’s forward corps en route to gold at the WJC while piling up nine points in seven games, second on the team only to Lafreniere.
Alexander Romanov, D (Montreal Canadiens)
Dynamic in many different ways, Romanov is going to be an instant favorite in Montreal. His big shot and penchant for delivering body-splashing hits had players texting warnings to his opponents at the world juniors. While Romanov and Russia had to settle for silver at the tournament, there was no doubt he was ready for the next challenge, and Montreal can use a player with his elements right away as the Habs try to prove their qualifying-round win over Pittsburgh was no fluke. Romanov will help the cause at both ends of the ice, and he’ll do it with flair.
Nick Robertson, LW (Toronto Maple Leafs)
When opportunity knocks, you better take it. That’s exactly what Robertson did when he was invited to Toronto’s bubble for the qualifying round. The kid made the most of it by getting into four post-season games with the Leafs. Of course, he’s just getting started. Thanks to his quick feet, battle level and goal-scoring flair, Robertson is a good bet to join the Leafs full time this season. It also helps that he’s on an entry-level deal, because the team needs all the cap space it can get. Thanks to Robertson’s quick development as a junior, it’s a win-win situation for all involved.
Gabe Vilardi, C (Los Angeles Kings)
In a just and equitable world, we would have seen Vilardi as a full-time member of the Kings a year or two ago, but the two-way pivot has dealt with more than his fair share of injuries as a youngster, dating back to his junior career in the OHL. But now there’s a light for him to follow, and with Vilardi’s size, skill and cycle game, Los Angeles has a young forward who can really make a difference. The rebuilding Kings will see a lot of new faces join them in the next season or two, and Vilardi will be one of the most important to the team’s future success.
Philip Tomasino, RW (Nashville Predators)
At his first NHL training camp, Tomasino impressed with his maturity, and that bodes well for his next foray into the pro ranks. A speedster who found a devastating scoring touch in the OHL last year, Tomasino has the sort of elite skill that Nashville’s forward corps simply lacks right now, outside of Filip Forsberg. Still eligible for Canada’s world junior team, Tomasino could ride a wave from that event right into the NHL come winter. If he falls short, he’d have to return to junior – but he’s too advanced for that level and has NHL written all over him.
Trevor Zegras, C (Anaheim Ducks)
In just one season at Boston University, Zegras proved enough to sign his rookie deal with the Ducks, who are in the trough of a rebuild and can use the youngster’s high-end skill. Zegras’ specialty is playmaking, as the U.S. NTDP product combines vision, timing and creativity to make precision passes. Even that one year of college allowed Zegras to build up his strength. That will help him win more battles and improve his speed – which was pretty decent to begin with. He’s also a student of the game, and that will no doubt impress the veterans in Anaheim.
Barrett Hayton, C (Arizona Coyotes)
Hayton, who was one of Canada’s heroes at the WJC last year thanks to his miraculous injury comeback before the gold-medal game, also saw time in Arizona’s bubble. He got into three playoff games, adding to his 20 contests during the regular season. Expect big growth from a kid who has made leaps already in his career, as Hayton is the kind of complete player who can make a tremendous impact. He’s an all-situations center and the type of guy who steps up when his team needs him the most. The Coyotes need an infusion of compete level, and Hayton can deliver.