The league’s professional hockey writers have a difficult choice as they try to sort through which first-year player is deserving of this year’s Calder Trophy for rookie of the year. Although there are a handful of rookies whose names have come up in discussion throughout the year, it appears as though it’s going to come down to a two-person race between a couple of teenagers -- last year’s first-overall pick, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of the Edmonton Oilers, and fellow Northwest Division rookie Gabriel Landeskog of the Colorado Avalanche, who was taken one pick later in that draft.
Gabriel Landeskog, Colorado Avalanche
We’re not punishing Nugent-Hopkins for missing time with injury (has played in 56 games to Landeskog’s 78 games), but there is something to be said for durability, especially given the more physical style of game Landeskog plays. Yes, Nugent-Hopkins has produced points at a significantly higher rate than Landeskog, as the two entered action Wednesday tied for the rookie scoring lead with 49 points apiece, but there is also Landeskog’s overall game to consider. The 19-year-old Landeskog leads all rookie forwards in average ice time per game. He is just the second rookie ever and the first rookie forward to hit the 20-goal and 200-hit plateau (Toronto defenseman Dion Phaneuf is the other rookie to reach those numbers). Landeskog leads the Avs in goals, plus/minus, shots, hits and game-winning goals. He is the only rookie to lead his team in goals, which is a significant achievement given that his team is still in the hunt for a postseason berth. Landeskog’s five game winners are tied with Matt Read of Philadelphia for the rookie lead.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton Oilers
Had Nugent-Hopkins not missed time with two separate injuries this season, this Calder Trophy race might be a walk-off for last June’s first overall pick. But he did miss that time and it might cost him the hardware, fair or not. Still, a fine season for a player about whom there was much discussion last fall regarding his ability to adjust to the physical grind of life in the NHL at age 18 (he won’t turn 19 until next month). No need to worry, as he is tied for the rookie scoring lead and his points per game (.88) are significantly better than any other first-year player (Landeskog is at .62, while Adam Henrique of New Jersey, who ranks third in rookie scoring, is at .69). There is also the fact that Nugent-Hopkins is putting up impressive numbers for a perpetually rebuilding Edmonton Oilers club.
Adam Henrique, New Jersey Devils
Henrique has been a terrific story for the Devils since being called up from the American Hockey League after a so-so training camp. His 48 points are one off the rookie scoring pace, and he leads all first-year players with 32 assists. With the Devils thin down the middle, thanks to injuries to players such as Travis Zajac, Henrique, the 82nd overall pick in 2008, has responded to the challenge and leads all rookies in faceoffs won. Only Landeskog is logging more ice time on average among first-year forwards. Although he has often centered Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise, Henrique has shown his versatility moving to the wing with Zajac’s return to the lineup in recent days.
Matt Read, Philadelphia Flyers
As the season has worn on and the Flyers have incurred more injuries to key personnel, more has been asked of Read, and he’s answered very nicely. Read is tied with Landeskog for the rookie lead in goals with 22 and tied for the rookie lead with five game-winning goals. He is among the league-leading rookies in power play time per game and penalty-killing time per game, an indication of the trust that coach Peter Laviolette has shown in the undrafted native of Ilderton, Ontario. His average ice time ranks fourth overall among rookie forwards.
Although it’s always a little bit harder to judge the impact of first-year defensemen, Faulk has made a case not just to be mentioned as a Calder Trophy candidate but to be on the final ballot. The Canes have made a significant turnaround after a disastrous start that cost coach Paul Maurice his job, and Faulk’s role in that improved play cannot be understated. He leads all first-year defensemen in goals and power-play goals and is second in points to Toronto rookie Jake Gardiner. The 37th overall pick in 2010 also leads all first-year players in average ice time per game, and those minutes are logged for the most part against the opposing team’s top lines. As for his importance to the Canes, Faulk leads all Carolina defensemen in average ice time, even-strength ice time and power-play ice time, and he has played in only 61 games, having played in the AHL at the beginning of the season.