Last season, San Jose Sharks forward Logan Couture and Jeff Skinner of the Carolina Hurricanes battled until the end of the season for rookie of the year honors in the NHL. Couture fell short because (a) he had seven fewer points than Skinner and (b) he had two fewer goals than Michael Grabner of the New York Islanders. And, let's face it: He wasn't known as "Hockey Bieber" at the All-Star game, either.
Simplistic as it might seem, that's the way of the Calder Trophy: Since 1990, 13 forwards have been named NHL rookie of the year; all but two of them led all rookies in points that season.
In 1999, Chris Drury of the Colorado Avalanche won the Calder with 44 points in 79 games, which was four off the pace of his teammate Milan Hejduk. He was also four goals behind Mark Parrish (24) for the rookie goals race. Yet he took home the Calder as the league's most complete rookie player.
In 1992, Tony Amonte led the NHL in rookie goals (35) and points (69); but he needed 79 games to achieve what Pavel Bure nearly did in 65 games, scoring 34 goals and posting 60 points. Bure won the Calder without leading NHL rookies in either category.
With a handful of games left in the 2011-12 season, the rookie race is shaping up as a four-forward affair. Matt Read of the Philadelphia Flyers has 21 goals and 22 assists, having played a versatile and essential role for his team. Adam Henrique, slumping mightily lately and off the Parise/Kovalchuk line, had 16 goals and 31 assists for the New Jersey Devils.
Then come the big two: Gabriel Landeskog, who has 22 goals and 26 assists in 77 games for a plus-19 with the Colorado Avalanche vs. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of the Edmonton Oilers, who reclaimed the rookie points lead with a two-point night against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
If Nugent-Hopkins finishes the season with the points lead, does he lift the Calder Trophy in Vegas?
As we said last week, Landeskog has had more big moments and has played more significant hockey in the last two months than Nugent-Hopkins. Part of that is obviously due to the Colorado Avalanche being on the playoff bubble while the Edmonton Oilers are counting lottery balls (again), and part of that is due to Nugent-Hopkins' injuries.
Which brings us to the fact that despite those injuries, RNH leads all rookies in points. That's thanks to a 0.85 points-per-game average. Henrique is at 0.70; Landeskog is at 0.62 PPG; Matt Read is at 0.60.
Nugent-Hopkins is the best offensive rookie in the league this season because he's been given the right opportunities and made the most of them. He leads all rookies, including defensemen, in power-play ice time with 3:04 on average, leading to an NHL-rookie-best 22 power-play points. (He's tied for 15th in the NHL overall among forwards.)
Via Behind The Net, we see he's also been utilized as a primary offensive option at even strength: His offensive zone start percentage of 62.1 puts him in the top 20 among all NHL forwards. Landeskog, by comparison, is at 54.2 percent, meaning he starts fewer shifts in the attacking zone.
That speaks to the strong narrative backing Landeskog over Nugent-Hopkins: One is a complete "five-tool player" (as Jim Matheson called him) who competes in every situation (including short-handed) with great results; and the other is a one-dimension offensive dynamo who doesn't play short-handed and can't win a faceoff.
While hardly an impartial observer, Edmonton Oilers Coach Tom Renney believes that's a false narrative. From the Edmonton Journal:
"It's a tough topic because - you don't want to jinx anybody, but he should get every consideration as a Calder Trophy candidate," said Renney, who realizes Nugent-Hopkins gets all the ink for his offence but isn't overwhelmed when he doesn't have the puck.
"No doubt in my mind," Renney continued. "I hope the people voting recognize the same thing. Time and again, he's come back into our end, got the puck and started the play up ice. He really can play both sides of the puck."
Matheson, over the weekend, sees RNH as the Calder pick:
Gabriel Landeskog is one of those five-tool players — scores, scores in traffic, tough, responsible without the puck and big heart — for the Colorado Avalanche, but I'm not sure why Nugent-Hopkins has fallen into the "he's going to need a great finish to win the Calder" category. Going into Saturday's games, Landeskog, Adam Henrique and Nugent-Hopkins all had 47 points. Nugent-Hopkins had played 55 games; Landeskog 76, Henrique 66. It wasn't Nugent-Hopkins' fault he missed 20 with two shoulder problems. Landeskog is 20 years old, Henrique is 22, Nugent-Hopkins turns 19 after the season ends. He's the youngest player in the league. Shouldn't that count for something?
Again, winning the points race would make this an easier case for Nugent-Hopkins and his supporters. Landeskog and Read have more intangibles for playoff-caliber teams; RNH might have the better numbers.
Should he fall short in the points race … well, it wouldn't be the first time a player has been seen as one-dimensional, settles for being the rookie leader in points per game average, and then skates away with the Calder. But that's probably the last time we compare Ryan Nugent-Hopkins with Pavel Bure …