LAS VEGAS - Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and the Edmonton Oilers are hoping he becomes the first rookie in franchise history to win the Calder Trophy, but despite a banner freshman season he is in tough against some very solid competition.
In advance of Wednesday's trophy presentation at the Wynn in Las Vegas, we examine all three of this year's Calder Candidates and make a case for each.
New Jersey Devils.
GP 74, G 16, A 35, PTS 51, PIM 7, +/- +2
Drafted: 82nd overall, 2008
If they handed the ballots back after the playoffs, Henrique's numbers would take a big jump based on his performance during the New Jersey Devils' run to the Stanley Cup final. The true sign of a player is how he holds up under playoff pressure and abuse and the 22-year-old was a horse for New Jersey, finishing tied for fourth in team scoring, two points back of Zack Parise, and posting a team leading plus 12.
Too bad it doesn't count. This award is for regular season accomplishments Ñ not that Henrique's numbers from October to April don't make a strong case, too.
He's four years older than the other two candidates, and had a year of seasoning in the AHL, and it shows. Henrique is a smart, effective player at both ends of the ice, who was ready to not only step in, but to step in as New Jersey's first-line centre after injuries to Travis Zajac and Jacob Josefson.
It was a pretty nice landing spot, between Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk, and Henrique made the most of it, leading all rookies in assists with 35 and finishing third in rookie scoring with 51 points. He was a main cog in a team that finished the season with 102 points.
His team made the finals while Landeskog and Nugent-Hopkins had to watch on TV.
He also tied for the NHL lead with four shorthanded goals and was plus-8 on the season.
GP 82, G 22, A 30, PTS 52, PIM 51, +/- +20
Drafted: Second overall, 2011
When they were putting the final touches on the 2011 draft rankings, all of the scouts agreed on one thing — of all the top prospects up for grabs, Gabriel Landeskog was the most physically imposing of the lot.
NHL-ready right out of the box, they predicted.
And right they were. Landeskog is a big, strong, fast, physical, smart hockey player who does everything well. With his size and the way he plays, nobody would ever guess he's only 18 years old.
In his first year in the league, he was pretty much Colorado's best player, leading the team in goals with 22 and plus-minus with a whopping plus-20. Consider that no other Colorado forward with more than 25 games was a plus player, and that the next best full-time forward was Ryan O'reilly at minus 1, and you'll have some idea of his impact.
Who led the Avs in hits? Landeskog, with 219.
Who led all Avs forwards in blocked shots? Landeskog, with 59.
Among NHL rookies, his numbers are equally impressive. He tied Nugent-Hopkins for the scoring lead with 52 points and crushed the other candiates in the plus-minus column.
He also averaged almost 19 minutes of ice time a night and was one of just four rookies to average more than 1:20 per game on both the power play and on the penalty kill, where the Avs ranked 10th and 12th in the NHL respectively.
He is already a leader in the NHL and shows the kind of veteran poise that will make him a captain soon.
GP 62, G 18, A 34, PTS 52, PIM 16, +/- -2
Drafted: First overall, 2011
If Ryan Nugent-Hopkins had played all 82 games, the Calder debate would be an open-and-shut case. He'd have about a 20-point lead on the competition and that would be that Ñ the Edmonton Oilers would have the first rookie of the year in team history.
But the Nuge missed 20 starts, and the fact he's still in contention tells you a lot about the kind of freshman season he delivered.
Amid concerns he was too small to be an impact player in the NHL, scored a goal in his first game, scored a hat-trick in his third game and in his 19th NHL game had a five-assist night (only the fourth 18-year-old in NHL history to do so).
Suffice it to say the feeling out period was pretty quick.
Nugent-Hopkins, playing on one of the worst teams in the NHL, still generated offence at nearly a point per game (tying for the rookie lead with 52 points in 62 games)
The only things that slowed him down were a pair of shoulder injuries. He missed 13 games in January, came back for two and then sat out seven more.
He's a slick, subtle player who makes it look easy. He doesn't undress opponents, or knock them on their butts, or wire a lot of one-timers under the crossbar.
What he does is see the game in slow motion, and make passes that 95 per cent of the players in the NHL A) Don't see. B) Wouldn't try C) Couldn't execute. He makes it look easy, like that no look feed through a defenders leg and a nearly invisible lane was the obvious play.