Brock Boeser. Elias Pettersson. Quinn Hughes. Nils Höglander?
The Vancouver Canucks have been blessed with three rookies worthy of a Calder Memorial Trophy nomination in three consecutive seasons: two runners-up and one undisputed winner.
And — with apologies to Zack MacEwen, Olli Juolevi, Marc Michaelis, and Jalen Chatfield — if the Canucks hope to make it four-for-four, it’s all going to come down to Höglander.
So, we’ll repeat the question we asked in the headline:
What more does Nils Höglander have to do to earn a Calder nomination?
Notice that we didn’t ask “what more does Höglander have to do to win rookie-of-the-year?”
There’s a reason for that, and he’s got one of the coolest names in hockey.
Barring a significant injury — and perhaps even then — Kirill Kaprizov is going to go home with those honours.
Kaprizov has nearly achieved point-per-game status with 24 in his first 26 NHL games, and he doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon — in fact, he may be heating up.
As of this writing, he’s got exactly double the points as Höglander’s 12, and Höglander has played six extra games.
Attempting to catch Kaprizov, then, is an exercise in futility. We’ll even go so far as to come right out and say it:
Ladies, gentlemen, and non-binary folks, your 2021 Calder Memorial Trophy winner is Kirill Kaprizov!
But just because he won’t win the darn thing doesn’t mean that Höglander can’t earn himself a nomination and an invite to Las Vegas (or a Zoom link, depending on where we are with the pandemic come the offseason).
So, what’s it going to take?
The Quest to be the Second-Best Rookie Forward
The members of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association are responsible for Calder Trophy voting, and they usually make a concerted effort to not nominate three forwards. Sometimes, it’s impossible: Boeser was nominated alongside Mat Barzal and Clayton Keller, and Nathan MacKinnon won it over Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson way back in 2013/14.
But if the PHWA is given the chance to nominate at least one defender or goaltender for the Calder, they’ll do it, and 2021 is going to afford them that opportunity.
First and foremost on that list has to be Kevin Lankinen, who came into the season as the Chicago Blackhawks’ third-stringer and has since stolen the crease for himself, posting a 2.85 GAA and .916 save-percentage while keeping the Hawks in improbable contention for a playoff spot.
If Lankinen falters in the stretch run, Washington’s Vitek Vanecek might well be worth a look. Like Lankinen, he entered 2021 in a fight for the Capitals’ backup job and wound up as the starter, leading the Caps to the second-best record in their division. Kaapo Kahkonen has also done some fine work for the Wild.
Then there are the defenders.
Ty Smith has 13 points in 25 games for the lowly New Jersey Devils, while putting down some solid work in his own end.
Zach Whitecloud doesn’t possess eye-popping numbers, unless one dips into the fancy stats, where the Vegas right-hander has quietly become one of the NHL’s most effective shutdown defenders.
There’s also Jake Bean, standing out among a crowded Carolina blueline, and Alexander Romanov, he of the highlight-reel hits, to consider.
In short, that means that we can almost certainly count on one non-forward to be nominated for the Calder in 2021. With that individual taking up one of the three nominations, and Kaprizov already locked into the other one, that leaves just one for Höglander.
Or, put differently, Höglander is now officially on a quest to become the NHL’s second-best rookie forward in 2021.
What’s it going to take?
Clearly — and against the timeless advice of Blade the Vampire Hunter — Höglander is going to have to start ice-skating uphill if he’s going to catch some of those ranked ahead of him.
As of this writing, Höglander ranks seventh overall in rookie scoring, behind Kaprizov, Tim Stützle, Josh Norris, Smith, Jason Robertson, and Pius Suter. With his 13 points, Höglander is just five back of Stützle, but it’s important to note that Höglander has three games in hand.
Closing that gap, and fending off all other contenders, is obviously priority one for Operation: Calder.
The situation is a little direr in terms of points-per-game — filtered to those rookies who have played at least 20 games in 2021 — where Höglander tumbles to a tie for 12th with 0.38.
He’ll need to jack that up all the way to 0.60 or greater to keep up with the Stützles and Robertsons, and thus be in the running for the honour of second-best rookie forward.
Which, yes, is almost double the rate at which Höglander is currently producing, and which, yes, sounds pretty close to being an impossibility.
But, consider this: how many times have you witnessed Höglander nearly score this year? Or perfectly set up a teammate, only to have them squander the chance? Or just maintain offensive possession longer than a player his size should reasonably be expected to; an act that, in and of itself, will generate more production over time?
This is a player who has beaten back expectations all season long, and he still looks as though he hasn’t quite broken out yet.
A couple of multipoint efforts in quick succession, and Nils is right back in the Calder race.
And if some of those points come via a highlight-reel play or two — you all know what we’re talking about here — it’s only going to help attract the attention of PHWA voters.
In reality, it’s probably a little too late for Höglander to make up the ground he’ll need to in order to earn a Calder nomination.
But isn’t the fact that we’re even talking about it as being within the realm of possibility reason to celebrate? Especially for a player who most assumed would still be skating with the Utica Comets right now?
And if he doesn’t do it, and Vancouver snaps their streak of three consecutive Calder nominees, who cares? Höglander’s debut campaign will still be an unmitigated success, and he’ll still be just 20 years old well into the 2021/22 season.
Plus, the Canucks can always try to start up a brand-new streak next year with Jack Rathbone, Vasily Podkolzin, Kole Lind, or maybe even their 2021 first-round draft pick.
That each of those players will get to play with none other than former Calder hopeful Nils Höglander will undoubtedly help.