Earlier today, the three finalists for the 2021 Calder Trophy were named.
If we’re being real though, only two men on this list have a chance at taking home the hardware: Minnesota’s Kirill Kaprizov and Carolina’s Alex Nedeljkovic. Jason Robertson was great this season for the Stars, but he was outpaced by Kaprizov in both goals and points in 2021 (Robertson does have the edge in assists with 28, though). Kaprizov played a major role in Minnesota recording the franchise’s best-ever points percentage. Meanwhile, Nedeljkovic led the entirety of the NHL in both save percentage (.932) and goals-against average (1.90), all while leading the Canes to their first division title since they won the Stanley Cup in 2006.
Just from that last paragraph, you’d probably think the award would go to Nedeljkovic in a landslide. It might, but that’s not how the voting should go down. It should be even more lopsided than a landslide. It should be a landslide, avalanche, and tsunami all wrapped into one. Nedeljkovic has been absolutely lights-out for a franchise that was in desperate need of consistent goaltending, and he deserves all the praise he’s been getting.
The Carolina Hurricanes have been analytics darlings for several years now. They’re pioneers in the NHL in terms of their use of advanced stats like the Corsi differential and expected goal differential per 60 minutes. When the Canes added Eric Tulsky to their front office in 2015, the team’s fate was changed drastically. Several moves were made that many other teams would scoff at, such as the additions of Dougie Hamilton and Jake Gardiner. The increased usage of analytics has undoubtedly played a role in the franchise’s turnaround over the last six years. However, the team was always held back by poor goaltending.
Pete Mrazek had his moments, but was never an elite goaltender outside of the 2019 postseason. James Reimer struggled with consistency in 2020. But now, in 2021, the Canes finally have the exact piece they’ve needed all along. Despite 2021 being the fourth year of Nedeljkovic’s career with Carolina, he finally got to shine this season, and all it took was Mrazek breaking his thumb. It also comes at a fantastic time for the Hurricanes. Both Mrazek and Reimer are set to become free agents following this season, and the team can afford to let both of them go and extend Nedeljkovic to as big a contract as they’d like.
The Canes have had one of the deepest rosters in the NHL for years. Sebastian Aho, Nino Neiderreiter, Hamilton, and Andrei Svechinkov are perennially some of the most underrated players in the league, but despite all the talent, they’ve never been an elite team. Nedeljkovic changes that. I’ve watched both games of the current Lightning-Hurricanes series, and — even though the Lightning lead the series 2-0 — the games have been incredibly close. Tampa is not only the reigning Cup champs, they are a veteran squad with a great netminder backing them up. They are tough for anybody to beat. Yet, despite what the scores say, the Hurricanes have been arguably outplaying Tampa through two games. They’ve seemed so much more electric on the ice. They’re playing faster and much more aggressively than their opponents.
As the series heads to Tampa, the Lightning have been outshot 70 to 45, but the Canes have just been unlucky thus far and have been stoned out by a very hot Andrei Vasilevskiy — a trend that is unlikely to keep up at its current pace. While this stretch of bad luck and being unable to make the most of their chances would’ve doomed Carolina in years past, the team finally has the netminder to keep them in these sorts of games. They are the most dangerous team in the Eastern Conference, and the only team that could defeat Colorado at the moment (that’s my opinion...obviously). Nedeljkovic has lifted this team from a middle-of-the-road playoff contender to a legitimate Cup contender. That’s something that Kaprizov can’t come anywhere close to claiming.