To give you an idea of how difficult it is to forecast a rookie class any given year, one of the three finalists for the Calder Trophy a season ago (goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic, then of the Hurricanes, now of the Red Wings) was on waivers early last year. The names listed below are from all over the globe. Some have played briefly in the NHL already; others will begin this coming year in college. One thing is for sure; you'll be hearing a lot about these kids in the not too distant future.
The Americans are coming
Cole Caufield (RW, MTL): Caufield began last season at the University of Wisconsin, where he led all collegiate players in both goals (30) and points (52) in just 31 games. He won the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey's best player and signed with the Canadiens in late March. Caufield got a few games in the AHL before being recalled to the Habs. Between the regular season and playoffs, Caufield played 30 games for Montreal, registering eight goals and 17 points. The 20-year-old is an undersized winger with limited speed, but you can count on one hand the number of NHL players who can shoot the puck as well as Caufield. He's an elite sniper who should threaten for 30 goals annually, beginning this season.
Trevor Zegras (W/C, ANA): While Caufield is known for his goal-scoring ability, Zegras is known as an all-world playmaker. He has eyes in the back of his head and can make the most difficult passes seem routine. Zegras made a mockery of the World Juniors, leading the tournament in both assists (11) and points (18 in 7 games), helping Team USA win the gold medal. He played 24 games for Anaheim (meaning he's barely eligible for this list) late in the year and finished with three goals and 13 points. Zegras can play both center and wing, but I like him in the latter spot, as it will allow him to use his vision off the half-wall a bit more.
Spencer Knight (G, FLA): The Florida goaltending situation a season ago (Sergei Bobrovksy/Chris Driedger), while not great, was better than plenty of other teams. That didn't stop the Panthers from inking Knight to an entry-level contract when his sophomore season at Boston College came to an end and subsequently burning a year on the deal by bringing him directly to the NHL. Knight played in four regular-season games (4-0-0, 2.32 GAA, .919 save percentage) for Florida in addition to earning two postseason starts. Driedger was lost to Seattle in the expansion draft, leaving Knight and Bobrovsky to battle for playing time in 2021-22. I am 1,000 percent certain Knight is the better goaltender of the two, but Bobrovsky has five years left on a contract that pays him $10 million per season, and that's going to have an impact in some form or fashion.
Quinton Byfield (C, LAK): Byfield, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2020 draft, was eligible to play in the AHL a year ago because of the cancellation of the OHL's season. He responded with eight goals and 20 points in 32 games for Ontario as an 18-year-old. Byfield is a big, two-way horse who can absolutely fly. I expect an adjustment period when he finally does arrive in the NHL on a full-time basis, but Byfield's ceiling is higher than any other prospect in the game.
Alex Newhook (C, COL): Newhook could have turned pro following his freshman season at Boston College but instead decided to return to Chestnut Hill for another year where he proceeded to average well over a point-per-game (7 goals, 16 points in 12 games) before signing with the Avalanche in late March. He started in the AHL and was a regular in the Colorado lineup by the time the playoffs ended. Newhook is extremely speedy with a boatload of talent, but he may struggle to produce immediately due to the wealth of talent ahead of him on the Avs' depth chart.
Grigori Denisenko (W, FLA): Denisenko's first season in North America was a success, as he split time between the Panthers (4 assists in 7 games) and their AHL club in Syracuse (5 goals, 9 points in 15 games). Denisenko works hard to retrieve pucks and has long had an underrated offensive skill set. He's no lock to begin the upcoming season in the NHL due to the depth on Florida's roster, but I think he could fill a top-nine role for the Panthers immediately.
Vasili Podkolzin (RW, VAN): Podkolzin will be making his North American debut following two-plus seasons in the KHL. The No. 10 overall pick in 2019, Podkolzin is a big body (6-foot-4) with a solid compete level and a reasonable amount of skill. I think he best projects as a two-way player and a secondary scoring option. I imagine the Canucks will do whatever it takes to ensure Podkolzin begins the year in the NHL.
New York state of mind
Nils Lundkvist (D, NYR): Lundkvist's stock has gone through the roof since being drafted No. 28 overall in 2018. Lundkvist's hockey sense is exceptional and his straight-line speed and offensive skill set are underrated. He's one of the best players not currently playing in the NHL, although that will change this coming fall. The Rangers signed fellow Swede Patrik Nemeth as an unrestricted free agent to pair with Lundkvist and help ease his transition to a new country.
Vitali Kravtsov (RW, NYR): A high-end offensive winger, Kravtsov was loaned to the KHL a year ago before arriving in New York late in the campaign and playing in the Rangers' final 20 regular-season games. The numbers (two goals, four points) were underwhelming, but Kravtsov was used almost exclusively on the fourth line and saw zero power-play time. He showed significant jump despite his limited role. That role will expand this coming season.
Zachary Jones (D, NYR): Jones helped lead UMass-Amherst to the NCAA championship and ultimately signed with the Rangers despite initially leaning towards heading back to school. He got into 10 games with New York at the end of the year, posting four assists. Jones is ready to play in the NHL, but there doesn't appear to be an opening in the Rangers' top six and there's no way they will send Jones to the press box on a nightly basis. Expect him to begin the year with AHL Hartford.
Moritz Seider (D, DET): Red Wings President Steve Yzerman shocked the hockey world (including Seider himself, seriously, look it up on YouTube) by selecting Seider No. 6 overall in 2019. Two-plus years later, Stevie Y looks like the smartest guy in the room. The German has everything you look for in a high-end defender. He's big (6-foot-4, 210 pounds), can skate, and has far more offensive ability than anyone would have first predicted. Expect him to log a ton of ice time for a rebuilding Detroit team.
Peyton Krebs (C, VGK): Krebs is essentially in the same boat as Newhook in the sense his role is likely to be capped by how stacked his team is. In Krebs' case, I wouldn't be shocked if he begins the season in the AHL. He has all of nine professional games under his belt, so it wouldn't be the worst idea in the world. I still think he makes an impact in Vegas before the year is up.
The Michigan boys
Power and Beniers were the top-two overall selections in this year's draft. It is widely expected both will return to the University of Michigan for their sophomore seasons. I don't have an issue with either decision, although Power can certainly play in the NHL right now and I imagine Beniers also could in a pinch. I still think it's highly likely both kids (Power, in particular) are in NHL lineups shortly after the Wolverines' season ends.