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Formerly the sure-thing, can Ryan Nugent-Hopkins hold off competition for Calder?

Greg Wyshynski
Puck Daddy

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Do you remember which player was the odds-on favorite to win the Calder Trophy before the 2011-12 NHL season?

It was Brayden Schenn of the Philadelphia Flyers according to the wagering odds, who is only currently 27 points off the scoring lead established by Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of the Edmonton Oilers.

Not that the Nuge didn't have his own buzz prior to the season, which continued to build when he won the first two rookie of the month honors this season and became the best thing to happen to hyphens since the 10-digit telephone number. The Calder, it seemed, was destined to finally come to Edmonton for the first time in franchise history. (Nutty, isn't that?)

But the pack began to catch up in the middle of December. Adam Henrique settled in between Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise for the New Jersey Devils, rocketing up the rookie scoring standings. Matt Read of the Philadelphia Flyers continued to slowly earn points, ice time and responsibility from his coach.

Then came the injury to Nugent-Hopkins' left shoulder; and while there's every reason to place him at or near the top of the Calder ballot at this point, rookie of the year honors are anything but assumed.

Nugent-Hopkins played on Jan. 2 and then didn't play again until returning on Feb. 4. He's maintained his points lead in the NHL for rookies with 35 points in 39 games, but enters play on Monday with a one-point advantage over Henrique and three points up on Read.

The top 10 rookie scorers as of Monday:

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In its midseason evaluation, the majority of Arctic Ice Hockey's writers gave the Calder to Henrique. Among the justifications:

The New Jersey Devils weren't expected to do much this season, but Adam Henrique stepped into their top-6 and has turned the Devils into a surprising contender. While "The Nuge" has been equally impressive, I think the fact that the Devils have a chance to overachieve puts Henrique up top.

Read, whom TSN's Bob McKenzie said would win the Calder before the season, is fourth in rookie plus/minus and is third behind Henrique (18:20) and Gabriel Landeskog (18:15) in average ice time for rookie forwards (17:26). He's also fourth among rookies in shorthanded ice time. Henrique averages 2:00 shorthanded; Nugent-Hopkins has played 1:16 shorthanded total.

Another rookie that doesn't play shorthanded: Cody Hodgson. In fact, he doesn't play much at all: 12:45 in average ice time, putting him 58th among rookies.Yet his 30 points ranks him fifth overall, five off the Nuge's pace.

Of all the rookies, he might have the most buzz at the moment. From the Globe & Mail:

He is still classified as a rookie because he did not play the required 25 regular-season games in 2010-11. This season, he has established himself as a fixture as the third-line centre ahead of veterans Manny Malhotra (since moved to the wing on the fourth line) and Max Lapierre.

Nugent-Hopkins, when healthy, Henrique and Read are averaging five to six minutes more per game than Hodgson's 12:42. With former scoring leader Henrik Sedin the centre on the first line and former Selke Award winner Ryan Kesler pivoting the second unit, Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault is, understandably, not inclined to give Hodgson a big slice of ice time.

This sets up an interesting contrast with Henrique and Nugent-Hopkins, as Hodgson is "doing more with less."

Again, that's if you're weighing the intangibles. Which most voters in the Professional Hockey Writers Association do not. Since Chris Drury's win in 1999, six forwards have captured rookie of the year. All of them have led rookie scorers in points.

There's more emphasis on that number than on goals; in fact, Patrick Kane and Jeff Skinner won the rookie of the year without leading rookies in goals. Not great news for Matt Read, leading rookies with 16 goals.

If Nugent-Hopkins wins the rookie scoring race by a slim margin, then it comes down to how the voters interpret those numbers. His points-per-game average is currently 0.90 — that's top 30 in the NHL overall. His shooting percentage is 16.0, tops among rookies with at least 20 games played.

But of his 35 points, a paltry 10 have come on the road and 18 have come via the Oilers' power play; compare that latter number to Henrique (5) and Read (8).

Which is to say that, if the margins hold, there will be a case to be made against Nugent-Hopkins. But the margins won't hold. He could run away with this thing again, or someone in the field — we're looking at you, Gabriel Landeskog — could make an impressive second-half push for the Calder. Then there's a player like Craig Smith of the Predators, stalking the scoring leaders like he's Rick Santorum waiting for a slip-up from Romney.

Sure-things are rarely that in the Calder race. Ask Brayden Schenn.

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