The NHL’s 2020-21 Dark-Horse Rookie of the Year Candidates

Ville Heinola #14 of the Winnipeg Jets (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Ville Heinola #14 of the Winnipeg Jets (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /
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winnipeg jets
Ville Heinola #14 of the Winnipeg Jets (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

Regardless of what the upcoming NHL season looks like, we will have rookies who burst onto the scene and make a large impact in 2020-21.

The one rookie who best wins over the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association will be awarded the Calder Memorial Trophy as the player who is “the most proficient in his first year of competition in the National Hockey League”. That is how the NHL describes the trophy.

We all know that the NHL, much like the characters in ‘Letterkenny’, doesn’t mess with tradition. To the average fan, it is the Rookie of the Year Trophy and, in my opinion, if the NHL were to freshen up some of their jargon and welcome some changes to tradition, then they would probably be welcoming new fans as well.

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That discussion, however, is very lengthy and very complicated. Instead, let us first remember that last year was a phenomenal season for rookie campaigns. Two of the seven fifty-point campaigns by NHL defensemen came from last year’s Calder Memorial winner, Cale Makar (50 points) of the Colorado Avalanche, and the runner-up, Quinn Hughes (53 points) of the Vancouver Canucks.

That is not all, though, as another defenseman in Adam Fox also tore it up last year with 42 points, good enough for 15th among all NHL defensemen.  I emphasize, only seven defensemen scored 50 or more points last year. With that in consideration, all three of those campaigns are phenomenal for any blueliner, let alone rookies.

While no forwards ended up receiving any of last year’s first-place votes, they did put on a good show as well. Denis Gurianov, of the Western Conference champion Dallas Stars, was the only Stars’ forward to score 20 regular-season goals. Victor Olofsson was dubbed Victor Goalofsson with his fast start for the Buffalo Sabres and finished with 20 goals as well. The standout among forwards, however, was Dominik Kubalik of the Chicago Blackhawks, who was the only rookie to score 30 goals last season. He did so on a bad Chicago team.

Now that we are up to speed on last year’s rookies, what can we expect this upcoming season? Of the 217 draft selections in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, only five of those players have made their NHL debut. It is a safe assumption that the immediate results of the 2020 NHL Draft will be similar. It just takes time for the vast majority of teenagers to become ready to play in the NHL.

That being said, it is safe to say that next year’s top rookie performer will not be from the 2020 Draft. That includes the number one overall draft pick, Alexis Lafreniere. Lafreniere, no matter how much hype and potential he may arrive in the league with, still has to find a spot to play for the New York Rangers. The Rangers have a strong top-six forward group with or without him, and he will be forced to earn his ice time.

Knowing that we have to look back at the past four to five draft years can murky the waters of who will make the biggest splash in their debut year. It also leads to some very unsuspecting trophy candidates. I am going to clear those waters up just a bit with which potential dark horse rookies to look out for next season.

Liam Foudy, Center, Columbus Blue Jackets

Foudy played in two regular-season games for Columbus last year as well as ten Playoff games. He totaled only three points in that sample size. However, Foudy is only 20 years-old and made a visual, hard-working impact when Columbus took on the Tampa Bay Lightning in last year’s postseason.

Yes, Tampa won in five games and we know how their story went. The series with Columbus however was closer than it looked. All but one of those five games was decided by a one-goal differential, two games went into overtime, and one of those became an instant classic by needing a fifth overtime period to be decided.

Foudy, the 18th overall pick in 2018, probably will not even begin the season on the starting roster and might not even be their first call-up. If there is anything we can learn from Columbus and Head Coach John Tortorella, however, it is that Columbus will face more adversity than most and they will also defy all logic in overcoming that adversity.

The only way Foudy does not get a good deal of playing time is if Columbus’s aging forward core stays healthy and whatever shortened mash-up of a season we get cuts games drastically.