With rookie training camp and prospect tournaments kicking off the starting of training camp season in the NHL, the buzz in the hockey world is focused on the youth.
The future of the NHL has been on full display the last few days as young prospects are getting their chance to shine. There are some looking to solidify their spot on the depth chart while others are battling for one of the final spots on the roster.
A rare occurrence, the 2021 draft might not have any participants in the NHL this season with the top players in the draft electing to go back to juniors or college for another year of development. There are a couple that are trying to make the team out of camp, but their respective organizations may decide for them to go back to juniors. That means this rookie class is shaping up to include mostly 2019 or 2020 draftees.
With that, here are the top 10 rookies to watch for in the 2021-22 NHL season.
1. Cole Caufield, Montreal Canadiens
When it comes to the top rookie conversation, Cole Caufield is at the top of the list.
The dynamic winger for the Montreal Canadiens made the transition from NCAA to the NHL look easy this past spring. After finishing his sophomore season at the University of Wisconsin -- where he won the Hobey Baker -- Caufield signed his entry-level contract (ELC) with the Habs and was an integral part of the unlikely run to the Stanley Cup Finals.
The No. 15 pick in the 2019 draft saw more playoff games (20) than regular season games (10) in the NHL. He had four goals and an assist in his short regular season before posting 12 points in the postseason. Despite Montreal adding some depth pieces this offseason, Caufield has a top-six role with the team and will look to build on a very impressive end to the 2020-21 season.
2. Trevor Zegras, Anaheim Ducks
Graced with perhaps the slickest hands out of any rookie, Trevor Zegras is set to make a bigger impact with the Anaheim Ducks. The center was taken as the ninth overall selection in the 2019 draft. He saw just 24 games in the NHL last season where he registered 13 points.
The Ducks’ handling of Zegras has raised some eyebrows. In his limited time with Anaheim, he played wing over his natural position of center. The Ducks sent him back down to the AHL mid-season last year so he could continue to develop. It would have made sense if Zegras was struggling, but he was holding his own, playing an unnatural position. He also dominated the AHL (21 points in 17 games).
Not only should Zegras be a top-six forward for a weak Ducks’ offense, but there’s a chance he could beat out Adam Henrique for the top center spot. If the Ducks allow him, the Boston University product could thrive and be the Ducks’ top scorer this season.
3. Spencer Knight, Florida Panthers
Like Caufield, after finishing his sophomore season with Boston College, Spencer Knight signed with the Florida Panthers in the spring and saw some action in the NHL. He got four starts in the regular season, going a perfect 4-0 with a 2.32 goals against average.
Knight even saw action in the playoffs, as he was tasked with keeping the Panthers alive after falling in the series 3-1 with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Neither Sergei Bobrovsky or Chris Driedger looked impressive enough for coach Joel Quenneville to trust them, so Knight became the first goalie ever to play in the NCAA Tournament and the Stanley Cup playoffs in the same year. He made 36 saves in a 4-1, Game 5 win before the Lightning eliminated the Panthers in Game 6.
With Driedger now in Seattle, it opens the lane for Knight to compete for the No. 1 spot. Bobrovsky has not lived up to his $70 million contract and very well could lose the job to the No. 15 pick in 2019. With a strong team in front of him, Knight has the opportunity to be the top rookie goaltender this season.
4. Moritz Seider, Detroit Red Wings
The No. 6 pick in the 2019 draft, Moritz Seider is coming over to North America to rejoin the Detroit Red Wing organization. Seider signed his ELC in 2019 and had a full AHL season in 2019-20 with the Grand Rapid Griffins, posting 22 points in 49 games, but found his way back overseas in Europe last season.
Once COVID hit before the 2020-21 season, Seider planned to return to Adler Mannheim of the Deutsch Eishockey Liga (DEL). But with COVID causing uncertainty for the DEL to play a season, he was loaned to Rögle BK of the Swedish Hockey League (SHL). Seider notched 28 points in 41 games and was named the SHL’s Defenseman of the Year.
What’s crazy is that the German defenseman's strength is not necessarily his offense. He plays a strong defensive game and his high hockey IQ allows him to find passing and shooting lanes. Detroit is extremely weak on the blue line and Seider could be thrown right on the top line.
5. Quinton Byfield, Los Angeles Kings
The Los Angeles Kings have a number of intriguing prospects, but at the top of the list is Quinton Byfield.
Selected with the No. 2 pick in 2020, Byfield played most of last season with the AHL’s Ontario Reign, securing 20 points in 32 games. Byfield got a taste of the NHL, skating in six games with a single assist.
Byfield is in a great situation in L.A. ahead of this season. Anze Kopitar and newly-signed Philip Danault have the top-two center spots locked up. That means the third-line center role is up for grabs and could be Byfield’s for the taking. Gabe Vilardi and Blake Lizotte will also compete for the role, but Byfield will slowly get to ease his way into the lineup and take on a bigger role as the season progresses.
6. Jamie Drysdale, Anaheim Ducks
Another Ducks prospect on the brink of becoming a full-time NHLer is Jamie Drysdale, who is primed for a spot on the Anaheim blue line.
The offensive defenseman split his time last season between the AHL and the NHL. He registered 10 points in 14 games with the San Diego Gulls before getting called up and skating in 24 games with the Ducks, securing eight points.
The right-side for the Ducks’ defense already consists of Josh Manson and Kevin Shattenkirk, so Drysdale might find himself battling for the third-line spot. However, the No. 6 pick in 2020 should see time on the top power play unit and that could help solidify, and increase, his playing time.
7. Alex Newhook, Colorado Avalanche
It’s pretty unfair for a team as stacked as the Colorado Avalanche to have a top-end prospect like Alex Newhook (as well as defenseman Bowen Byram, who very well could be on this list) emerging into the lineup.
The No. 16 pick in 2019 signed with the Avalanche this past spring after finishing his sophomore season with Boston College. After registering nine points in eight games with the AHL’s Colorado Eagles, he was called up to the Avs, where he played in six games and had three assists.
The Avs are going to need to make up the offense that was lost with Brandon Saad and Joonas Donskoi who signed elsewhere this offseason. Newhook will likely see a bottom-six role as either the third or fourth-line center, but could potentially bump into a second-line center role if coach Jared Bednar likes what he sees enough out of the young center and is willing to slide Nazem Kadri to the wing.
8. Vasily Podkolzin, Vancouver Canucks
The Vancouver Canucks top prospect will be sporting the blue and green this season. After seeing three seasons with SKA Saint Petersburg of Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League, Vasily Podkolzin signed his ELC this summer.
The physical forward’s number don’t jump out at you. He had 11 points in 35 games with SKA and over his KHL career, registered just 19 points in 68 games played. However, he was playing on arguably the top team in Russia as a teenager with a limited role.
A feisty two-way player, Podkolzin will likely start on the third line for the Canucks, but don’t be surprised to see the No. 10 pick in the 2019 draft work his way into a top-six role.
9. Jeremy Swayman, Boston Bruins
You’ll notice that every one of these rookies on this list so far has been a first-round selection from 2019 or 2020. That trend stops here with a name not many hockey fans were familiar with until this past season.
Jeremy Swayman is a fourth-round pick for the Boston Bruins from 2017. Playing college hockey at the University of Maine, Swayman had a quiet first two collegiate seasons before making headlines his junior season in 2019-20, winning the Mike Richter Award for top college hockey goalie and was a finalist for the Hobey Baker. He then signed with the Bruins that summer, starting in the AHL. Swayman was sensational with the Providence Bruins, going 8-1-0 with a 1.89 GAA before injuries to the Bruins forced Boston to call him up. He made the most of the opportunity with a 7-3 record, 1.50 GAA and .945 save percentage, even earning the backup spot in the playoffs ahead of Jaroslav Halak.
This season, Swayman is in line to be the backup to new Bruin Linus Ullmark. But if an injury occurs or Ullmark slips, Swayman could repeat last season and take advantage of the opportunity.
10. Marco Rossi, Minnesota Wild
If you’re searching for a player to root for this season, look no further than Marco Rossi.
The No. 9 pick in 2020 by the Minnesota Wild contracted COVID last season while he was on loan with the ZSC Lions of Switzerland’s National League. He ended up suffering long-term complications from the virus, and eventually was diagnosed with myocarditis -- inflammation of the heart muscle. He was shut down from skating for months, unable to do much training from doctor’s orders.
But he’s back and healthy now, and is looking to make an impact on the Wild’s roster. While he skated in just one game with ZSC Lions, the Austrian forward previously netted 185 points in 109 games over a span of two seasons in the OHL with the Ottawa 67s, including leading all Canadian junior hockey in points in 2019-20 and winning the OHL MVP. There could be some hesitation to throw Rossi right into a full NHL schedule given how the last year has gone, but expect him to make an impact when he’s given the chance.
Honorable mentions: Matt Boldy (Minnesota Wild), Bowen Byram (Colorado Avalanche), Anton Lundell (Florida Panthers), Connor McMichael (Washington Capitals), Lucas Raymond (Detroit Red Wings)