The NHL’s rookie of the year race is always quite heated, and this year is no different.
With so many first-year players making a significant impact for their clubs, even whittling it down to three finalists was a task in and of itself. The finalists have been announced with Detroit Red Wings’ blueliner Moritz Seider, Anaheim Ducks’ center Trevor Zegras, and Toronto Maple Leafs’ winger Michael Bunting getting the nods.
Here’s a look at why each of the three candidates have a case to win the Calder Trophy:
Michael Bunting, Toronto Maple Leafs
The rookie scoring leader earned a role with the Maple Leafs’ power duo on the first line. Yes, the argument that his play was boosted by playing alongside Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews is valid, but he had to earn that role. Bunting worked his way from an inconsistent bottom-six role to start the year to a key cog on the first line of one of the NHL’s best squads. Of his 63 points, 58 of them came at even-strength.
Bunting’s blend of unwavering effort and getting under his opponent’s skin were a perfect compliment to the Leafs’ top dawgs. Bunting filled the role vacated in the offseason by Zach Hyman and arguably did it at a higher level. His offensive touch was more than enough to keep up with Matthews and Marner and his willingness to go into every battle with the mentality that he was going to come out with the puck was exactly what Toronto needed.
Bunting barely squeaked by on virtually every rookie qualification, playing just under the limits of the games played and turning 26 with two days to spare. For reference, Bunting scored his first NHL goal in December of 2018, before either of the other finalists were even drafted.
But he meets all of the criteria, played a massive role on one of the league’s best teams, and led all rookies in scoring. It takes a special talent to play with players of Matthews and Marner’s level. Not everyone can just jump on a superstar’s line and find success. Bunting very much deserves to be on the ballot here as one of the finalists for the league’s most impressive rookie.
Trevor Zegras, Anaheim Ducks
Zegras became one of the NHL’s most marketable players almost instantly. He finished second in rookie scoring behind Bunting and generated more highlights than just about any player along the way. From scoring lacrosse goals to creating the “Michigan Assist”, Zegras has been entertaining beyond belief.
The dynamism that Zegras injected into the Ducks lineup was impressive. He has creativity rarely seen in the NHL and the skill to actually pull it off. Zegras had an NHL rookie high in multi-point games, powerplay goals, and game-winning goals. He finished top-five in almost every other offensive category as well.
The Ducks’ center was able to captivate audiences with his displays of skill, upsetting the old-school hockey man everywhere. All-Star games are kind of goofy as a whole but Zegras earned himself an invite to the shootout competition and put on a show, scoring a blindfolded goal after picking the puck up off the ice and being pelted with dodgeballs.
This kid exemplifies fun. And he is just getting started.
Moritz Seider, Detroit Red Wings
Give this man the Calder for being forced to play on Detroit’s blueline. From day one of training camp, it was apparent that Moritz Seider was their best defenseman. That also meant playing with Nick Leddy, Danny DeKeyser, Jordan Oesterle and Marc Staal, among others, forcing him to do a lot more than most rookies would have to do.
Seider was able to come in and show his defensive prowess, stepping up on attackers in transition and laying some of the best hits of the year. He also displayed impressive play reading ability, understanding when to close space using his stick to break up an attack or disrupt a cycle. Seider effectively used his 6-foot-4 frame to close off players along the wall and has the skating and skill level to evade pressure and get himself into open ice to make a positive play with the puck.
The offensive side of the game was the biggest concern coming out of his draft year and although his DEL coaches were on record saying that they asked him to focus solely on defense to improve that part of his game, the offense was always there bubbling under the surface. Seider excelled on the power play, growing into the Red Wings’ top power-play quarterback fairly quickly, and was dangerous doing so.
Seider did so much with so little in Detroit that he is viewed as the odds on favorite to win the award. His defensive acumen and offensive talent were impressive this season. Stepping into being a number one defender in the NHL is no easy task. Ask Rasmus Dahlin.