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TRAIKOS: The reason why Moritz Seider is the overwhelming favourite to win the Calder Trophy

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TORONTO — When evaluating the Calder Trophy-worthy season of Michael Bunting, one of the main criticisms working against the Toronto Maple Leafs rookie is that he plays on a line with two of the best forwards in the NHL.

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For Detroit Red Wings defenceman Moritz Seider, the opposite is true.

Seider does not play alongside a player of Auston Matthews’ or Mitch Marner’s calibre. But on most nights, he’s the one matching up against them. Considering his age — the 21-year-old Seider is six years younger than Bunting — that might be even more impressive.

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“It’s actually pretty remarkable the season he’s had given the fact that he’s had to go up against the other teams’ best on a nightly basis,” said Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill. “Two games ago, it was (Sidney) Crosby. It was (Florida’s Aleksander) Barkov before that. (Tampa Bay’s Nikita) Kucherov before that. Tonight, it’s (Torontos’ Auston) Matthews.”

Trying to shut down the league’s best might explain why Seider, who leads rookie defencemen with 49 points in 80 games, is a minus-10 this season. It also might also explain why he looks like he’s aged six years in the past six months.

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“It’s exciting,” said Seider, before adding, “It’s exhausting. But you always like playing against the best guys in the league … Making them uncomfortable gives you a good feeling about your game.”

Drafted sixth overall in 2019, Detroit has been patiently doing everything possible to make sure Seider’s transition to the NHL was as comfortable as possible. The German native spent one full season in the Red Wings’ AHL affiliate, with the team avoiding the temptation to call him up, before loaning him to Rogle BK Angelholm of the Swedish Hockey League last year, where he was named the top defenceman — albeit in a more sheltered role than he’s had in his first season in Detroit.

“I was just coming into the league, just trying how to play professional hockey,” Seider said of his time in Sweden. “It was just seven defencemen playing some minutes.”

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This year, the training wheels finally came off. Seider is logging more than 23 minutes a night, the most among rookies, while playing on the top unit of the power play and penalty kill. And though he ranks in the top-20 among defencemen in scoring, it’s the finer points of his game that have impressed his peers.

“He’s just really solid, all around,” Matthews said of Seider. “He makes a really good first pass, which maybe is not appreciated as much, but I find he just makes really good passes that lead the rushes.”

Seider could probably have even more points if he wanted. But even though he plays on a team that has been out of the playoff picture for quite some time, he’s made a conscious of managing the puck to become a better all-around defenceman. 

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“I think he’s gotten better at knowing when to try to make a play and when to live another day,” said Blashill. “Make a play might be jumping into the rush at the right time. Make a play might be beating a guy when he’s got him on the ropes. When to live another day is coming out of our end, just making a tape to tape pass to the winger that’s open rather than toe-dragging and beat somebody. All those types of things. Knowing when to jump in the rush, I think he’s gotten better in those areas.”

He’s also gotten better at using his size. The 6-foot-4 and 197-pound Seider is will never be confused with Chris Pronger or even Niklas Kronwall. But as many opponents have realized the hard way, he’s also not afraid to throw his body around.

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“I just try to protect myself,” said Seider, who leads the Red Wings with 146 hits. “It’s not like I’m looking to take someone down.”

Tell that to New York’s Chris Kreider, who was famously “Mo’d over” when trying to catch Seider with a hit, only to end up flat on his back.

“He’s a young player and at times young players can be targets, so you’re hoping to potentially intimidate him,” said Blashill. “I would guess that across the league (players have learned) you’re not going to intimidate Mo Seider.”

Add it up and it’s no wonder that Seider is considered the overwhelming favourite for the Calder Trophy. Not that Seider cares about individual achievements.

“It’s definitely an honour, but I don’t even think about that at all,” he said. “You want to win a Stanley Cup.”

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With Lucas Raymond ranking third in rookie scoring, William Wallinder named the Swedish league’s best U-20 player, and last year’s sixth-overall pick Simon Edvinsson in the pipeline, it might be long before Detroit can start to think that way again. They just need to keep drafting and developing, while also hoping that the championship windows of Tampa Bay, Toronto and Florida eventually start closing.

“You’ve got to be realistic and honest. We’re far away from that, but we are adding pieces every single year,” said Seider. “I think we took big strides. I mean, we were competing for a wild card spot for half of the season and then after the All-Star break we just couldn’t find a way to compete. But I think we surprised a lot of people.” 

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