Trevor Zegras, Moritz Seider Lead First Edition Of NHL Rookie Tiers
As of this writing, 68 rookies have hit the ice in the NHL this season. Many have found ways to make an impact, while others have shown there is more work to be done. At this early stage of the season, I wanted to dive in and try to categorize the players a bit to assess what their season outlook could be.
One thing that is really difficult to do amid the excitement of the beginning of a new season and getting to see all these players in the NHL is to read too much into the first week of the season. There is a lot more to be learned as the season progresses. So with that in mind, I thought I’d give you a look at how I view this rookie class so far, commenting on a larger number of players to give you some insight into how to assess their early season play with the bigger picture in mind.
Tier 1 – Star Rookies
These are players that have the best chance to become top-six forwards, top-four defensemen and starting goalies on their respective teams immediately and play a significant role for that club on a game-to-game basis and be among the most serious competitors for the Calder Trophy.
Trevor Zegras, C, Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks are not going to be a great team, but Zegras has a chance to be the main attraction as this season progresses. One of the most creative players outside of the NHL ahead of this season will bring the creativity to an outsized role for the Ducks, likely playing top-six minutes. That elevated role gives him a leg up on some of his fellow rookies in terms of the kind of impact he can make. With elite vision and passing ability, Zegras makes confident plays and isn’t afraid to try different things to get pucks through traffic. He handles pressure with skill as opposed to strength, which sometimes won’t work at the NHL level, but he’s going to have the puck a lot. That’s how Zegras wants to play, with the puck on his stick and in control of the game. While growing pains will exist, Zegras has game-breaker potential.
Moritz Seider, RHD, Detroit Red Wings: Finally, we have gotten to see the big German take his place in an NHL lineup after playing very well in the AHL in 2019-20 and outright dominating Sweden’s top pro league in 2020-21. Seider was named the defenseman of the year after playing big minutes for Rögle, leading the team to the championship series where they ultimately fell to Växjö. The Red Wings have taken their time after shocking the draft floor by taking Seider sixth overall in 2019. He has become a physical defender with good two-way capabilities. There will be some strides that need to be made against NHL forwards, but once Seider learns a concept or gets some extra experience, he maximizes those elements of his game pretty quickly. He’s already averaging over 18 minutes a game in the early goings of the season and the Red Wings have performed better than expected out the gates. They’re letting their young guys get some significant reps.
Cole Caufield, RW, Montreal Canadiens: Having a preview of a player during the Stanley Cup Playoffs always helps. When that player becomes one of his team’s top scorers during the postseason, you can’t help but get excited for the season ahead. Cole Caufield is an elite offensive talent. It’s not just the goal scoring that he can bring to the table. Over the last year he’s become more comfortable carrying pucks, making plays and he’s refined his decision making to better read shot-pass opportunities. While Caufield is going to shoot a good chunk of the time, he takes that extra second that high-end offensive players seem to have a better handle on and uses it to make the best play. His release is excellent and he can get it off from anywhere. His play away from the puck and in pursuit has improved as he’s gotten stronger. Caufield does a good job of stripping pucks and as has always been the case, he knows how to get himself into dangerous positions on the ice. The Habs are struggling right now, though, and when the whole team is down, it’s hard to expect a rookie to be the one to pull them out of it.
Shane Pinto, C, Ottawa Senators: I think Pinto has to be a guy you’ve got to watch super closely in the Calder race. He was NHL-ready throughout the college season as he was one of the best players in the NCAA not named Cole Caufield. Pinto has the size and strength to contend with today’s NHLers, protect pucks and play solidly on both offense and defense. Pinto does a lot of his damage from beneath the faceoff dots, but also has a good shot to score from distance. In his brief stint with the Sens at the end of the season, he looked ready and after a big camp for him, Pinto should have both the role and the talent to be a legit rookie of the year contender.
Spencer Knight, G, Florida Panthers: For Knight, it all comes down to opportunity. We saw last year that he is more than capable of playing the position at the NHL level. He is unshaken by the grandeur of playing in the top professional league. Having won all four of his regular-season starts and his first postseason start, he’s bought himself some faith. Now he has to sustain it enough to take some playing time from Sergei Bobrovsky. If Knight can’t take enough NHL reps, the Panthers have no choice but to send him back to the AHL where he’s going to get the playing time needed to keep pushing his development forward. Knight is one of the most gifted young goaltenders we’ve seen come through the U.S. ranks ever and he has a chance to be special at the NHL level.
Anton Lundell, C, Florida Panthers: Being a middle-six center on a contending team is heady territory for a rookie, but Lundell has always had a maturity beyond his years. It served him well as a productive player in Finland’s top pro league which he has played in since he was 16, and it should help him make an impact for the Panthers. With Florida’s depth, Lundell is probably not going to get the ice time to pose significant challenges to some of the other rookies, but I also would not put it past him to elbow his way into bigger opportunities with the NHL club. His two-way play should endear him to head coach Joel Quenneville, but it remains to be seen if his offensive capabilities will translate immediately to being Calder-level producer.
Jamie Drysdale, RHD, Anaheim Ducks: Already a staple of Anaheim’s top four, Drysdale looks confident on the puck and he’s making plays. Part of Anaheim’s top power play unit already, Drysdale is being given a ton of responsibility and he’s making the most of it. The Ducks are competing in games because their young guys have a lot of skill. Drysdale is another player that I think is way ahead of schedule in his development and has turned himself into an integral piece of the team already.
Jeremy Swayman, G, Boston Bruins: A rookie story that flew under the radar last season was just how good Swayman was in his introduction to the NHL over 10 regular-season games. He transitioned to the top level just one year removed from NCAA hockey and managed to put forth dominating efforts. Though Tuukka Rask is still by far the No. 1 goalie in Boston, Swayman is going to get ample reps. Additionally, if Rask gets injured at any point, Swayman suddenly becomes the No. 1 guy with a strong NHL squad in front of him. Having that veteran group up front and an above-average defense, Swayman is going to get a great opportunity to showcase himself in Boston as he takes more steps towards proving he could be Boston’s long-term solution in net.
Tier 2 – Instant-Impact Players
These are rookies that have a chance to make a significant impact on their teams on a game-to-game basis, but because of role or ice time may not be able to make the same level of contribution as the ones listed above.
Bowen Byram, LHD, Colorado Avalanche: Getting a regular spot in the lineup and quality ice time is going to allow Byram to flourish in his first full season. He got into 19 games in 2020-21 and didn’t really have a terribly large impact on the games. This year, he’s already putting points on the board, while averaging over 18 minutes per game. Being part of a good team and getting that kind of ice time portends to higher points and a significant enough role to make a positive impact. It will be interesting to see how his role shifts as Colorado gets healthier, but Byram is making an impact already.
Lucas Raymond, RW, Detroit Red Wings: Electric skill with a hunger to score, Raymond is ahead of where I thought he’d be after missing time to injury last year. He still needs to get stronger and get a little smarter about his decisions, but there’s a lot of creativity in his game. The Red Wings are surprising early, and even though I don’t think that will be sustained, it’s undeniable that the young players are injecting something into that lineup. If they’re going to have Raymond on their NHL roster for the duration of the season, the focus still has to be on development. There could be some growing pains for him as his size and strength may make some games tougher than others, but he’s shown early on that he can play at this level.
Vasily Podkolzin, RW, Vancouver Canucks: Expect Podkolzin’s minutes to be managed pretty cautiously by Travis Green, but also expect Podkolzin to elbow his way into bigger opportunities as the season progresses. He already has a goal and has shown that his strength and physicality are NHL-ready. He has a great work ethic and enough skill to keep defenders honest. To make a bigger impact, we’re going to need to see more minutes for him, but he’s a positive influence on the Canucks lineup.
Victor Soderstrom, D, Arizona Coyotes: The Coyotes are going to have a very tough year and it’s going to be hard for Soderstrom to stand out, but he is going to be a very important part of their team going forward. Averaging over 18 minutes per game in the early goings of the season, Soderstrom is being given a big opportunity. He’s going to be sheltered a bit more so that his development can take precedence over results, but he has a chance to grow into a top-four defenseman over the course of this season.
Alex Nedeljkovic, G, Detroit Red Wings: Yep, he’s still technically a rookie despite playing a starring role for the Carolina Hurricanes at the end of last season. Nedeljkovic is splitting time with Thomas Greiss, and even though the Red Wings are off to a good start, it’s hard to see them sustaining that success. For Nedeljkovic, the Red Wings are giving him a chance to be the guy. It’s up to him to seize the job. That first start against Tampa Bay was rough, but he did make 41 saves in that stunning game. Aside from that, he has experience as a starter.
William Eklund, LW, San Jose Sharks: I did not anticipate Eklund adjusting this quickly to the North American game. I saw him at the Rookie Faceoff in September and thought he still had a ways to go to be NHL ready. The Sharks threw him into the deep end anyway and he’s looked really good so far. He already has two assists and is showing that incredibly smart player he grew into last season in the Swedish Hockey League. With his speed and his vision, he has a chance to make a more sizable impact.
Evan Bouchard, D, Edmonton Oilers: He might be down the depth chart a little, but that hasn’t prevented Bouchard from making a pretty nice impact on the Oilers so far. He’s averaging top-four minutes, getting pucks to the net and already has a goal this season (an awfully fluky one, but they all count). I think Bouchard is going to elbow his way up the lineup throughout the season and become one of Edmonton’s go-to defensemen yet.
Michael Bunting, LW, Toronto Maple Leafs: He’s off to a great start with the Leafs, playing in a middle-six role. At 26 years old now, he just made the cutoff for rookie status. Bunting has a good amount of skill and has been battling for this opportunity for years now. He’s making the most of his chance of playing with higher-end skill players and putting a lot of pucks to the net so far.
Jonathan Dahlen, LW, San Jose Sharks: After absolutely dominating Sweden’s second division, I was beginning to wonder if we’d ever see Dahlen come to North America. But he’s here and he’s doing well already. Dahlen is skilled, smart and reads plays really well. He’s also getting middle-six ice time and should see time on the San Jose power play down the road. I still have concerns about his skating helping him translate to a top-six producer, but he’s already got a couple of goals and is starting to settle into the NHL.
Tier 3 – Young Rookies To Watch
These are players that are top-tier prospects that are still learning on the job more. They might have a little more to learn and need a little more development time, but are worth watching because of their incredible promise.
Yegor Chinakhov, RW, Columbus Blue Jackets: The Blue Jackets are being cautious with the Russian sniper, starting him in the AHL before calling him up. I’m really looking forward to seeing how he can impact games as a scorer. He was the KHL’s rookie of the year and looks like he’ll be a quick study in the North American game.
Cole Perfetti, C, Winnipeg Jets: The Jets are being especially cautious with their top prospect and with their rocky start to the season, it may be harder for him to get the ice time he needs to make an impact. Perfetti is a dynamic talent with elite-level vision and hockey sense. This might be more of a season of learning on the job than making an impact.
Nils Lundkvist, D, New York Rangers: Lundkvist is getting decent minutes and is definitely getting quite an education. Early indications are that there is more of an adjustment for him to be playing at an NHL level. As an exceptional player in the Swedish Hockey League, we know he can compete with pros. It’s just a matter of getting his timing down now. You can see it starting to click more for him.
Mason McTavish, C, Anaheim Ducks: After getting hurt in his third NHL game, we’ll see where McTavish is after a very strong start. The reason he can play in the NHL right now is that he is fearless. He knows how to use his body to protect and pursue pucks, he engages physically and he’s got the tools and instincts of a pro.
Cole Sillinger, C, Columbus Blue Jackets: I have been so impressed with Sillinger’s ability to transition from USHL to the NHL. He is a high-end scorer, but he’s findning success thanks to his physical strength and work ethic down low. Having that combination of skill and strength, especially as a player that’s not especially tall, is going to serve him well.
Dawson Mercer, C/W, New Jersey Devils: I’ve been a big Mercer fan since his draft year. He can do whatever you need him to do. He already has a few points and is looking very formidable in a depth role for the Devils. His speed and tenacity are going to endear him to Devils fans quickly.
Alex Newhook, C, Colorado Avalanche: It could be an up-and-down year for Newhook as the Avs juggle a salary cap and his development. I think he’s ready to play for them, but there’s got to be the right role and opportunity. Newhook is going to be a top-six star for Colorado down the road, but he’s going to have to be patient and wait his turn.
Hendrix Lapierre, C, Washington Capitals: Scoring a goal in his first NHL game was quite a feat, and Lapierre has a good chance to stick around with the Caps as a result. His game still has room to grow, but he has really taken off after dealing with a lot of injuries at younger ages.
Connor McMichael, C, Washington Capitals: A big reason Lapierre might have to sit out games at times is so the Caps can still work with McMichael who is arguably the organization’s best prospect. McMichael has speed and put up big points in the AHL last season.
Arthur Kaliyev, RW, Los Angeles Kings: There will be many Arty Parties over the course of this year, but it’s also going to require some patience. He maybe should still be in the AHL, but the Kings have a need for bodies and he’s the closest to being ready to contribute offensively. I think he’s got a chance to have a peak as a consistent 30-goal scorer in this league.
Peyton Krebs, C/W, Vegas Golden Knights: The Knights have watched Krebs mature into a well-rounded center who never really showed any long-lasting signs from that Achilles injury that caused him to drop in his draft year. He’s looked like he belongs and the Golden Knights even sent him to the AHL to get some extra reps and he responded with five assists over two games. He might not be going back to the A very much this year.
Jake Neighbours, C/W, St. Louis Blues: Neighbours is a versatile player who brings size and physicality. I think his footwork has improved and that has allowed him to carve out a role with the Blues. I don’t think he’s ready to be an everyday NHLer, but he’s going to give the team good shifts when he’s in the lineup and possibly could provide scoring depth as the season progresses.
Tier 4 – Rookie Role Players
These are players who are typically on the older side and are trying to carve out a role for themselves. They don’t always end up as the stars, but they can be everyday NHLers and important depth pieces as rookies with a chance to grow into something more for their respective teams.
Alex Barre-Boulet, LW, Seattle Kraken
Martin Fehervary, D, Washington Capitals
Jack Rathbone, D, Vancouver Canucks
Vladimir Tkachev, LW, Los Angeles Kings
Alexandre Carrier, D, Nashville Predators
Jasper Weatherby, C, San Jose Sharks
Klim Kostin, C, St. Louis Blues
Drew O’Connor, LW, Pittsburgh Penguins
Jake Walman, D, St. Louis Blues
Timothy Liljegren, D, Toronto Maple Leafs
MacKenzie Entwistle, RW, Chicago Blackhawks
Matt Kiersted, D, Florida Panthers
Brandon Duhaime, LW, Minnesota Wild
Benoit-Olivier Groulx, C, Anaheim Ducks
Joey Daccord, G, Seattle Kraken