This year’s rookie class has not been traditional in any sense, really. This was the first year in a long time when the previous draft’s No. 1 overall player opted not to turn pro immediately. Same for the No. 2 pick. Only a handful of players from last year’s draft have played any games this season.
We thus have an older rookie class with a lot of players that took advantage of a slower, more deliberate development path, and some that just took a while to reach the NHL in general. As a result, a larger number of first-year players are having a significant impact on their teams.
There are 17 rookies with 20 or more points so far this season, 11 averaging half a point per game or better, 33 averaging 15 minutes or more of average ice time and 10 rookie goalies in the double digits in appearances with four at more than 20 appearances so far this season.
First-year players are making sizeable contributions on NHL rosters this season, often in mid-lineup roles, but in terms of impact on his team, it is hard to find a more valuable player among first-years than Detroit Red Wings defenseman Moritz Seider, who has become a top defenseman in the league in Year 1.
1. Moritz Seider, D, Detroit Red Wings: No rookie has been on the ice more for his team than Seider, who averages just over 23 minutes per game. There isn’t a rookie in the league who has meant more to his team than Seider, who is the No. 1 defenseman already for the Red Wings. He plays in all situations, and he’s been a force at both ends of the ice. There’s a chance he’s going to pick up some Norris votes, too.
Offensively, Seider has been ahead of schedule. He’s always been a good puck-mover and a heady offensive player, but he’s been one of the top scoring defensemen in the NHL this season. His 36 assists and 41 points rank 11th among all defensemen. Three of his five goals have been game-winners, making him one of 10 NHL blueliners with that many GWGs.
Possession wise, Seider has performed adequately, and the Red Wings do have the puck a little more with him on the ice even if they’re still being out-possessed by everyone. The Red Wings coaching staff has not had to protect him or shelter him. They just expect him to defend and take on all comers, and he’s been able to do that quite effectively.
Seider and Anaheim’s Trevor Zegras have one commonality that makes me rank them so highly: they are completely underwhelmed by the gravity of being NHL players. There is no reverence or deference to the veterans. They play a style that oozes confidence and I think that’s a big reason they’ve both had success.
The Red Wings slow-played Seider. He probably could have been in the league two years ago. He definitely could have been in the league last year. But it was the Red Wings who weren’t ready for him. He could have gotten caved in over the last two years, but now they have a better team, and he was overripe, ready to not just be an NHLer, but to be a top-level NHLer. His development has been a marvel to watch, and nothing, aside from how easily he put up 40-plus points this year, has been a surprise. This has been his trendline since the season after his draft.
2. Trevor Zegras, C, Anaheim Ducks: Among rookies that have been with their teams all season, Zegras is tied with Michael Bunting for the best points-per-game average at 0.80. Zegras is third in raw points, fourth in goals and second in assists. And as we wrote in our last rookie rankings, Zegras has helped change the dynamic of both his team and the league with his highly skilled play. Beyond the showmanship, he’s scored a lot of big goals, including four game-winners. Being a top-six center as a first-year player is especially impressive. Teams have to key in on him and game plan for him. He’s playing the second most minutes per game among rookie forwards and thriving offensively. The Ducks have come back to earth a bit, but they’re still a better team, it seems, when he is on the ice. Even if the Ducks miss the playoffs this year, as it looks likely they will, they’ve got to be thrilled about the future of their core with Zegras at the heart of it.
3. Anton Lundell, C, Florida Panthers: Lundell has missed some time of late with injury, but since Jan. 1, he’s been third among rookies in scoring. While plus-minus is a super wonky stat, he is plus-24 over the 25 games he’s played in the calendar year 2022 and plus-30 overall. He starts the bulk of his five-on-five shifts in the defensive zone and still has a Corsi-for percentage over 55%. He makes all the little detail plays that you don’t always catch from young forwards. He’s engaged defensively and has subtle skill that makes him difficult to defend. On top of all that, he leads all rookie forwards in shorthanded ice time per game. His 38 points and average 16:07 of ice time don’t jump out at you like some of the other players’ stats do, but there’s no question Lundell has been a strong contributor to one of the league’s very best teams.
4. Lucas Raymond, RW, Detroit Red Wings: Raymond’s scoring pace has dipped a bit in the past few months, but he remains one of the most exciting rookies to watch this season. His skill has challenged NHL defenders and he remains second among rookies in goals and points with 18 and 45, respectively. He’s been a top-six stalwart all season and has thrived in the role. The Red Wings coaches have put Raymond in a position to succeed without really sheltering him. As a result, he’s been a positive influence on their possession and offensive production and looks like he’ll be a top-line winger for a very long time in this league.
5. Michael Bunting, LW, Toronto Maple Leafs: The leading scorer among all rookies with 47 points, Bunting has been a bright spot for Toronto throughout this season. He’s been especially effective at even strength, leading all first-year players by 11 points at evens. His age will cost him some Calder votes. I do think you grade rookies on a bit of a curve in regards to age, but there’s no question Bunting is making a sizeable impact on Toronto’s roster and he still fits the Calder criteria, so he absolutely should be considered. He’s fifth on the team in scoring, just after their big four forwards. Bunting probably has the cushiest assignment among first-years, playing alongside Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, but there’s a lot to be said for being able to play with and contribute alongside the elite of the elite. Regardless of what you think about Bunting’s age or his role, he is having a tremendous rookie campaign and will deservingly get consideration from voters even if it will be very difficult for him to win.
6. Tanner Jeannot, LW, Nashville Predators: Another one of those old rookies, Jeannot has been an especially important presence on one of the league’s most surprising teams this season. He is tied for second among rookies with 18 goals and has been one of the top penalty-killing forwards of this freshman class. His physicality and toughness have also been a huge part of the Nashville’s identity as a team. His ability to get in on the forecheck, disrupt the other team in its own zone and find the back of the net has given the Preds way better depth than anyone expected them to have this season.
7. Dawson Mercer, C/W, New Jersey Devils: Mercer has brought versatility, tenacity and secondary scoring to the Devils this season. He’s sixth among all rookies with 34 points and fifth with 14 goals. He’s currently riding shotgun with Jack Hughes on New Jersey’s top line and playing on the Devils’ second power-play unit. He’s progressed faster than I expected and has shown that he can do just about anything you ask him to – and he’ll do it with tremendous effort and energy.
8. Matt Boldy, LW, Minnesota Wild: Among rookies with at least 15 games played, Boldy is tops in points-per-game average. Since debuting with the Wild, Boldy has appeared in 27 games. Over that span he has 12 goals and 12 assists – on the cusp of cracking the top 10 in rookie scoring for the entire season despite playing less than half as many games as the top performers. The Wild have struggled a bit lately, but Boldy has continued to provide a consistent offensive presence as the fourth leading scorer on the team since he arrived and the second leading scorer among all rookies since his debut in January. It’s not completely out of the question that he gets more than a few Calder votes despite his late arrival to the season.
9. Jamie Drysdale, D, Anaheim Ducks: We’re seeing glimpses of Drysdale’s potential on a regular basis. His skill, skating and puck-moving capabilities are going to give him a long, successful career. Already averaging close to 20 minutes a game, he’s a power-play weapon. He hasn’t scored a ton of goals and probably won’t in his career, but he can deliver pucks about as well as any rookie at forward or defense. His 22 assists rank sixth among all first-years.
10. Jeremy Swayman, G, Boston Bruins: If he had a larger share of the Bruins games played, he’d surely be higher on the list, but the way his season is trending he may end up much higher anyway. Swayman has been spectacular this season in 28 appearances. He has a .926 save percentage and three shutouts while collecting 17 wins. He’s slowly starting to command the crease in Boston more and has won each of his last eight starts. Watch him as he continues to rise.
HM. Karel Vejmelka, G, Arizona Coyotes: He doesn’t have a great record and his save percentage doesn’t look amazing against the rest of the field, but Vejmelka has been holding the Coyotes in a lot of games they otherwise shouldn’t have been in. He’s performed really well under duress this season and I just thought he deserved to be recognized for having one of the toughest jobs in hockey this year.
HM. Cole Caufield, RW, Montreal Canadiens: The arrival of Martin St. Louis has reinvigorated the offensive game of the pre-season Calder frontrunner Caufield. Watching him of late, he looks like his old self – certainly more like the guy who won the Hobey Baker Award in college hockey last year and was a top performer in the playoffs. In the 14 games since St. Louis took over, Caufield is second among all rookies with 17 points. The season is too far gone for him to win the Calder, but it’s not too late for him to salvage his own season and his own confidence. He’s thriving now and that’s worth a mention.