NHL: 15 Early Candidates for the Calder Trophy

Ian MathesonContributor IIIDecember 2, 2011

NHL: 15 Early Candidates for the Calder Trophy

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    While it's still early in the year, there have already been several rookie standouts that are making their case for the Calder Trophy.

    With a wide array of talented, first-year players to choose from, there have been few stand-alone candidates to this point. However, the season is still young, and as it progresses you will start to see leaders separating themselves from the pack.

    For now, we're left to examine the players currently making a name for themselves as rookies around the league.

15. Cody Eakin, Washington Capitals

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    Since being called up from the Hershey Bears, Cody Eakin has looked good with the Capitals.

    In 13 games he's put up five points along with a plus-2 rating. 

    Before being called up to the NHL, Eakin played for Swift Current Broncos, and was drafted in the third round of the 2009 entry draft, 85th overall.

    After his draft year, Eakin returned to his WHL team, where he improved his numbers dramatically, posting 91 points in 70 games. He continued to produce at over a point per game, before heading for the AHL.

    Eakin's role and ice time is very limited in Washington, and that will likely remain the case despite a recent coaching change.

    Even though he has the skill needed to make the NHL and be an effective player, he'll first have to earn his ice time and roster spot, which will be a tall order on a bloated Capitals roster.

    Odds of winning: Zero

    He hasn't established himself as a full-time NHL player yet, however, he's looked good in the brief time he's been up.

    He's a good option for the team as a bottom-six player, if he can continue to play sound defensively and provide energy shifts for his team, and it would make sense to keep him around for the year.

    With more experience under his belt, Eakin could begin to attract some attention around the league.

14. Jared Cowen, Ottawa Senators

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    Rookie blueliner Jared Cowen brings so much to the Senators' lineup that it's hard to single out his greatest asset. His huge 6-foot-5, 235-pound frame is probably a good place to start, since it already gives him a considerable advantage as a 20-year-old in his first year in the league.

    His good hockey sense and shut-down abilities would also be an acceptable starting point though, since he's got both attributes in spades.

    The Saskatoon-born player has always been regarded as a talented player by scouts, and his high selection in the 2009 entry draft was therefore expected. It's taken him several years to finally make his NHL debut, but it likely couldn't come at a better time for him. 

    Playing on a Senators team that has openly stated that they're committing to rebuilding their organization means that Cowen will have a chance to develop into a franchise defender along with a good mix of other talented young players.

    There's no doubt that Cowen will be a solid player for the Senators as he starts to develop, but to win the Calder Trophy, he'll have to start that process a bit earlier.

    It won't help his bid for the Calder that it's a strong year for rookie candidates and that several other defenders are currently getting noticed for their contributions.

    Still, anything could happen with just over 60 games still remaining in the 2011-2012 season.

    Odds of winning: Very low

    The talent pool for defensemen is too deep this season, and barring a miracle run to the post season, don't expect to see Cowen start impressing fans across the league just yet.

    However, give this young rookie a few more years; and you'll start to see why he's already drawing high praise and comparisons to Bruins' veteran, Zdeno Chara.

13. Roman Horak, Calgary Flames

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    Roman Horak has been one of the big surprises in Calgary so far this season.

    The 20-year-old Czech forward has posted a modest seven points in 22 games for the Flames; however, he has impressed his teammates with much more than just his offensive ability.

    A product of the 2009 entry draft, Horak played his way onto the team out of training camp and has looked composed and comfortable on the ice in all situations for his new team. His coach, Brent Sutter, divulged to the local press that he considers Horak one of his "top three centre icemen," meaning that his spot in the roster seems secured for the season.

    The biggest problem facing Horak this season will be producing enough points to get any real serious consideration for the Calder.

    While his emergence as an NHL-caliber player has to be a success in itself, Horak will have to start turning heads in a big way to seperate himself from the pack by the season's end. The competition will be fierce; however, the Calder race remains wide open to this point and he can easily play himself into the conversation if he continues to improve.

    If he can develop into a solid two-way player while adding some solid offensive numbers, look to see him generating some buzz towards the end of the season.

    Odds of winning: Lo

    Horak will unfortunately have to compete against some stiff offensive competition if he wants to be a in contention for the Calder, and frankly it's a tall order for him.

    For now, Flames fans will just have to settle with being pleasantly surprised by the young Czech, and forego their dreams of winning a trophy until down the road when they're better positioned to take home Lord Stanley's mug.

12. Brett Connolly, Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Brett Connolly has a tremendous amount of upside.

    He was picked sixth overall in the 2010 entry draft, and already he's starting to prove that he belongs on Tampa Bay's roster.  After an additional year spent in the minors, the product of Prince George, British Columbia has shown he has both the size and skill needed to play in the NHL.

    He was voted the CHL Rookie of the Year at 16 years of age, after netting 30 goals and 60 points in just 65 games.

    When Steve Yzerman selected him with his first pick as the GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Connolly couldn't have asked for a better fate.

    He's now 24 games into his NHL career, and already he's had the opportunity to learn from several elite players in Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier. Hanging around with some of the quality talent in the Tampa Bay organization will only help ease him into his new role with the team while providing him with valuable insight into being a pro player.

    While the eight points he's amassed so far isn't spectacular, Connolly will only continue to mature and grow from playing with his new teammates. If he works hard, it won't be long before he starts to pick up his production and develop into an integral part of the team.

    To challenge for the Calder Trophy, though, Connolly will have to significantly increase his production and make a stronger impact out on the ice.

    Odds of winning: Reasonable

    Need I say it? Production.

    Connolly will have to start outscoring his rookie competitors if he wants to start turning heads for the right reasons. He'll also have to start proving that he isn't a perimeter player and begin stringing together some dominating shifts to start things off in the right direction.

    Make no mistake about it, though, he has the skill set needed to start putting up big points.

    His success this year ultimately hinges upon his work ethic and dedication.

11. Jake Gardiner, Toronto Maple Leafs

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    It's hard to ignore what the Toronto Maple Leafs are accomplishing this season. The team appears to have jump-started their entire roster, as they've now reestablished their burning desire to win hockey games. 

    Their approach and efficiency of going about it so far has been very impressive, too. Amidst the eye-catching stories coming out of the Garden this year comes the impressive play of rookie defender Jake Gardiner.

    Another product of the 2008 entry draft currently making his debut, Gardiner has impressed the many legions of Leaf fans with his poise and maturity on the blue line. His accolades are well deserved, too.

    His first pass is great, and his defensive reads and composure with the puck could easily be confused with those of a veteran blue liner. His coaches have certainly noticed his hard work, as he's averaging over 20 minutes of ice time a game at the moment.

    Gardiner has taken big strides towards solidifying his roster spot and increasing his value to the organization as a key part of their future.

    In fact, Gardiner has been so reliable for his team that the coaching staff have been comfortable enough to bench their prized blueliner, Luke Schenn on occasion to send a stern message to the rest of the lineup.

    While the future is looking good for Gardiner, there are still things for him to improve upon.

    In the meantime, if a defenseman is going to challenge for the Calder this year, Gardiner certainly has to be one of the front runners.

    Odds of winning: Nominated? Decent.

    Gardiner could easily generate enough buzz to start pulling in some Calder votes at the end of the year. The fact that he's on a resurgent team, playing in front of the Eastern fans and media will only help his case.

    Some offensive contribution and a bit of fine tuning will go a long ways towards being considered an elite rookie at the end of the year. He'll also have to keep his plus-minus up, and remain consistently sound in his own end.

10. Sean Couturier, Philadelphia Flyers

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    At the start of the 2010-2011 season, top-prospect Sean Couturier was being considered as a shoe-in to place among the top three players chosen at the 2011 NHL entry draft.

    He posted back-to-back 96-point seasons with the Drummondville Voltigeurs, yet after a poor showing at the 2011 World Juniors Tournament, his stock surprisingly fell.

    There was concern about his determination and ability to play through adversity, enough so that seven teams passed on the 6-foot-3, 192-pound centre in favor of other options.

    After acquiring the Blue Jackets' first overall pick in the trade that saw Jeff Carter leave town, Paul Holmgren stepped up to the plate and brought on board the hulking forward as his first selection in the draft. The concern appears to have been for nothing, since Couturier is now one of four players drafted this past year that managed to stick with their clubs after the initial 10-game trial period.

    He's been a physical force on the ice, and he's shown that he can pay the price and go to the tough areas to look for scoring opportunities. In fact, with his emergence as an NHL ready player, the Flyers organization has to feel good about the future of their franchise, as Couturier will be a key piece for their team going forward.

    He has the skill needed, evident in his 96-point campaigns, and once he finds his touch in the league he could start stringing points together at an impressive pace.

    For now, he's only managed eight, in 23 games.

    All is not lost though, if he can start to pull up his socks and chip in.

    Odds of winning: Nominated? Decent.

    Couturier had a good start to the year, amassing most of his eight points early on. He's since gone cold and hurt his chances as establishing himself as a top rookie in the league.

    A nice run of points to finish the year with would certainly help raise his profile around the league, but that's it. For now, Flyers fans will just have to settle with the satisfaction of knowing that they'll have a good team for a long time, so long as they hang on to their current assets.

    Note: Look to see top prospect, Brayden Schenn in next year's Calder conversations.

9. Ryan Johansen, Columbus Blue Jackets

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    The Columbus Blue Jackets have had a terrible time at the draft board. Since entering the NHL, the Blue Jackets have selected a top-10 draft pick at the end of every season with two exceptions. In the two years that they haven't pick up a top prospect, they have a first-round playoff appearance and Jeff Carter to show for their efforts.

    If any other team was selecting the volume of highly rated rookies the Jackets have been, surely they would have one of the most dominant teams in the NHL by now, right?

    So, just how many of these players can you remember making large contributions in Columbus, Ohio?

    The Blue Jackets have spent their first-round selections on the following players: Rostislav Klesla, Pascal Leclaire, Rick Nash, Nikolai Zherdev, Alexandre Picard, Gilbert Brule, Derick Brassard, Jakub Voracek, Nikita Filatov, John Moore and Ryan Johansen.

    With the exception of Nash, you'll be hard pressed to find anyone in that group of players that has helped Columbus to any form of significant success over the past decade. With their most recent selection of Ryan Johansen, though, it appears that the Blue Jackets have finally got it right.

    Johansen has fantastic vision, and his passing skills and nose for the net have already been evident this year. Upon being drafted, Johansen returned to the Portland Winterhawks, where he posted an astounding 92 points in 63 games. He made the strugging Blue Jacket's roster this season, and has managed 10 points with a plus-2 rating so far.

    Even though it's looking like another top-10 pick is coming to Ohio, they'll sleep better knowing that they've got a huge piece of their future locked up with the addition or Johansen.

    Odds of winning: Nominated? Good. Winning? Low.

    When a team is struggling heavily, there are usually opportunities for players to step up and pick up big ice time and Johansen will be one of those beneficiaries. However, with the Blue Jackets going nowhere fast this year, it will be extroardinarily hard for him to impress or produce at the same pace as some of his rookie counterparts.

8. Gabriel Landeskog, Colorado Avalanche

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    Gabriel Landeskog was regarded as the most NHL ready prospect heading into the draft this year, and after being selected second overall, he immediately set his sights on a roster spot to start the season.

    As it turns out, the Avalanche organization were prepared to let him practically walk onto the team, showing their confidence in his skill set and compete level right from the start.

    Landeskog started the season off with a bang, putting up some quick points and establishing his physical presence early into the year. His production has since declined, however, as he's on pace for approximately 40 points.

    He could easily surpass that, though, if he can begin to establish himself and find his pro game as he starts to gain more experience.

    One of Gabriel's many strengths is his play along the boards, where battles and fights for pucks and uses his big frame to make plays. He's not afraid to earn his space on the ice, and his leadership skills and maturity will surely make him a future candidate as an Avs captain one day.

    For now, he's a candidate for the Calder, and a realistic consideration as well. His physical play, and desire to win are two noticeable qualities he brings with him that are already getting him attention.

    His finish has lacked and his confidence with the puck isn't where it should be, but the season is young and he's positioned himself well for a breakout performance.

    Gabriel Landeskog is the Calder wild-card candidate.

    Odds of winning: Nominated? Good. Winning? Decent.

    Landeskog is up against some steep competition this year, and he'll have to start putting up some Calder-worthy numbers if he wants to legitimize his threat on the trophy.

    He's a big, strong, physical leader for his team, though, and he's doing everything except posting the offense he needs to win.

    If Landeskog can start finding the twine, then it's going to be a photo finish at the end of the season.

7. Adam Larsson, New Jersey Devils

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    Heading into the 2011 NHL entry draft, there was still alot of discussion going on around the league, as experts tried to predict where some of the year's top prospects would be going.

    While the eventual first overall pick was somewhat of a foredrawn conclusion going into the draft, there were many who believed that the Oilers could have drafted Adam Larsson and been no worse for wear given their young nucleus of forwards.

    We all know how history unfolded; however, New Jersey certainly wasn't complaining when the young Swede remained available when they went up with the fourth overall pick.

    Larsson has passed with flying colors so far in New Jersey, filling in admirably and replenishing some of the youth on the Devil's blue line.

    At 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, Larsson has all the physical attributes needed to be a quality shutdown defender in the league. However, his mental contributions have been solid as well. Larsson has a good, active stick and he can not only break up plays, but then make a play to start the transition back to offense.

    He's already scored eight points with the Devils this season.

    He makes smart, heads-up decisions with the puck that are impressive, especially considering he's just 19 years old.

    Larsson's future in the league is assured, but how are his Calder chances?

    Odds of winning: Nominated? Great. Winning? Low.

    So far, Larsson and Gardiner have to be regarded as the top defensive candidates for the trophy.

    Both players are solid in their own ends, and show patience and maturity well beyond their years.

    Larsson would be given the edge between the two players at the moment, since he's come into New Jersey straight out of the draft and never looked out of place. 

    At only 19 years of age, Larsson is already turning into a great defensive player.

    If there's one thing that Larsson could do to help his chances, it would be to improve his plus-minus and continue chipping in with points as the season progresses.

6. Cody Hodgson, Vancouver Canucks

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    At the end of the 2007-2008 season, the Vancouver Canucks were beginning a transition period.

    With players like Markus Naslund and Todd Bertuzzi already on their way out, and the emergence of the Sedin twins still a work in progress, it was apparent that things were going to be different on the West Coast.

    Ryan Kesler was still designated to penalty killing and energy shifts, while Alex Burrows was around mainly for his agitating abilities.

    The Canuck' management quickly addressed a need down the middle of their roster by drafting a talented, play-making center from the Brampton Battalion tenth overall, hoping to use him as a building block for the future.

    With the future of the team still undefined, it was all looking up for the Ontario native before things suddenly began to change.

    The Sedins refined their game, Ryan Kesler rounded himself into a Selke winner, Burrows figured out how to read off the twins, and all of a sudden top-six roster spots began disappearing right in front of Cody Hodgson's eyes.

    But Hodgson remained positive and worked his way through several training camps of media scrutiny, several fluke injuries and a full roster to finally earn himself a spot with the big club to start this season.

    While he was initially just filling in for Ryan Kesler while he recovered from injury, Hodgson slowly began showing what made him a highly touted prospect to begin with.

    He began displaying a strong work ethic, slick passing, solid play along the boards, and a mental anticipation on the ice that could develop into something quite special down the line.

    His road travelled to the league wasn't supposed to be this tough, but the adversity he overcame to arrive proves that he can work his way towards success by sticking with it, and being a team player.

    He's picked up 12 points so far, and has been able to shift up and down the line up, picking up power play time on the second unit as well.

    Like Brett Connolly, Hodgson has an opportunity here with a good team to refine his skills and begin to take the reigns of his own career.

    But first, he's got some catch up to do.

    Odds of winning: Nominated? Great. Winning? Low.

    Like many of the forwards in this year's rookie class, Hodgson has the skill to eventually put up big numbers in the league. The problem is putting them up straight away, and so far his numbers haven't been quite enough to put him as a Calder front-runner.

    However, if he can get in a rhythm and start producing like he has in the past, he could begin to reel in the stats leader board and start replacing player's names with his own.

    What makes him an intriguing option is the incredible mental aspect he brings for a rookie.

    If his hands can follow his head, he could start adding to his totals in a big way over the remainder of the season and close in on a top-three spot.

5. Adam Henrique, New Jersey Devils

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    Adam Henrique is a classic example of why professional scouts can have such a hard time analyzing and ranking young talent for the entry draft.

    Henrique was selected in the third round of the 2008 draft by the New Jersey Devils, following back-to-back 44-point seasons with the Windsor Spitfires.

    He returned to the OHL after being drafted, and immediately began to round out his game and increase his production. In his next two years with the Spitfires, Henrique posted a combined 68 goals and 140 points, while keeping his plus-minus just shy of plus-40 in both seasons.

    He moved up to the AHL for the 2010-2011 season, where he continued to improve, posting 50 points in 73 games with the Albany Devils.

    Needless to say, he caught the attention of the big club.

    Henrique has now played 20 games with the New Jersey Devils, and has posted 15 points in that span. He's being used in important situations like on the penalty kill, and he's now averaging almost 17 minutes of ice time a game for his efforts.

    Playing on a Devils team that expects offensive contributions from everyone on its roster will work well for the 21-year-old rookie and his style of play.

    If he continues to work hard, and improve his game as he has throughout his hockey career, Adam Henrique has a very realistic chance of earning himself a Calder nomination at the end of the season.

    Odds of winning: Nominated? Great. Winning? Solid.

    Forwards are generally noticed for their offensive output when being considered for an award like the Calder, and Henrique has put himself in a position to produce.

    A nomination for him will likely depend upon his level of consistency and his production at the end of the year, however, the opportunity is there for him to utilize.

    He's well on his way to separating himself from the pack with the other nominees.

4. Matt Read, Philadelphia Flyers

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    A handful of games into the new year, and already the Philadelphia Flyers look to have an embarrassment of riches in their system.

    With the initial shock of their two major off-season trades now subsided, Flyers fans have finally had a chance to take a look at what their team has acquired.

    They received two high profile prospects in Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn from the trades, however they've had several other freshmen players that are turning heads as well.

    Among them is 25-year-old centre, Matt Read.

    After playing several years of college hockey in Minnesota, Read signed a three-year contract with the Flyers as a free agent before playing his way onto their opening night roster.

    Since then, he's done nothing but impress his team, posting nine goals and five assists in 20 games.

    He's being used both in an offensive role and defensively on the penalty kill as well, displaying good hockey sense which has resulted in a plus-9 rating.

    Read's also shown his ability to provide clutch goal scoring, along with a willingness to drive to the gritty areas around the net looking for chances.

    Oh, and he has a great shot, too.

    He can find the inside of the post with ease if you give him a good enough look at the cage.

    If Matt Read can continue to work hard and consistently produce for his team, then he'll continue to garner attention around the league.

    Odds of winning: Nominated? Good. Winning? Good.

    Matt Read plays on a stacked team, and that isn't always a good thing for a rookie.

    With a host of talented, reliable players for his coach to turn to, Read won't get the ice time he needs to play himself out of a slump or get grade-A scoring chances every game.

    He'll have to continue to rely on his dogged determination, and solid skill set to create chances and produce.

    He's shown that he can be successful in the role he's been given to date, though, and that'll go a long way towards helping him find the kind of success needed to reel in the hardware.

3. Luke Adam, Buffalo Sabres

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    Luke Adam has the potential to become a dynamic player for the Buffalo Sabres.

    At 6-foot-2, 203 pounds, he has the size to bring a physical presence to the lineup every night, however his offensive potential is big as well.

    Adam enjoyed a breakout year with the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles in the QMJHL following his draft year in 2008.

    After posting 90 points, he was then invited to play for Canada at the 2009-2010 World Junior's tournament where put up another eight points in a half-dozen games.

    He continued to produce the following year after making the jump to the AHL coupled with a brief appearance with the Sabres, and it soon became evident that Adam was destined to get a good look at a roster spot coming into training camp.

    He's notched 16 points in 24 games so far in his rookie season, and he's looked good doing it.

    He's had several multi-point games, despite averaging just over 13 minutes of ice time per game.

    The Sabres have a good mix of talented forwards in their lineup, however, which could eventually begin to work against Adam.

    He's currently tied for third in scoring on his team, and that will have to continue to be the story he writes for the rest of the season if he wants to solidify a Calder nomination and gun for a win.

    Odds of winning: Nominated? Count on it. Winning? Good.

    Adam is presently one of the Calder favorites, however, the competition gets steeper from here on out. 

    The eight goals he currently has are good enough for third among rookies, but he'll have to lead that category at the end of the year to get a serious look at a Calder win.

    If he can establish himself as a reliable, goal scoring threat he has a good chance at finishing No. 1.

2. Craig Smith, Nashville Predators

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    Craig Smith has been in the highlight reels a lot lately, and for all the wrong reasons.

    The rookie sensation in Nashville that currently leads his team in scoring has garnered more attention for astonishingly missing an open net on a breakaway against Toronto than he has for his solid play.

    Even though it was just a careless mistake that didn't cost his team in any significant way, that play will define the rest of Smith's season in Tennessee.

    A Calder win would go a long ways towards living down his recent gaffe, however, and Smith is well on his way to contention for the coveted rookie trophy.

    The player that is first in team scoring is currently second in rookie scoring, and he's doing it with just over 15 minutes of ice time per game.

    Before being drafted by Nashville, Craig Smith played his way through juniors in the USHL.

    After being drafted 98th overall in the fourth round of the 2009 entry draft, Smith played his way onto the Predators out of camp after two years of college hockey with the University of Wisconsin.

    He joins a long list of Predator players that have been drafted late, only to turn around and prove that they belong in the NHL.

    Smith brings a hard nosed, fast-paced game to the ice for his team that has helped him find success early.

    His passing and vision on the ice are both strong aspects of his game.

    If Smith can continue to click at his current scoring pace, while helping to lead his team to a playoff berth, look for him to be one of the three final candidates for the Calder at the end of the season. 

    Odds of winning: Nominated? Great. Winning? Good.

    The Predators are a team that needs players to step up and fill in each night to have success, and so far Smith is proving he can do that on a regular basis.

    He's currently second in rookie scoring, with an impressive 20 points in 25 games.

    His ice time will continue to increase if he can continue to show he is responsible with it, and that will likely translate into even more offense for him.

    It's still early in the season, though, and there's still plenty of time for Smith to cool off or encounter adversity. So don't consider this a sure things just yet.

1. Ryan Nugent Hopkins, Edmonton Oilers

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    Ryan Nugent Hopkins is this season's runaway rookie sensation.

    The first overall pick of last year's draft has done nothing to undermine the hype surrounding him heading into the new season. In fact, he's exceeded it on so many levels that it's probably fair to say he's locked up the Calder Trophy already, barring any major collapse in his productivity.

    His vision on the ice could only be described as elite.

    His ability to make tape to tape passes in the offensive zone, regardless of the traffic or congestion of sticks and bodies is remarkable.

    His current point total of 27 not only leads all rookies, but has him sixth overall in the entire league as well.

    He's done everything he could have hoped to accomplish as a rookie, and he still has just under three quarters of his first year remaining. The only knock on Ryan Nugent Hopkins coming into the start of the season was his size, believed by many to be dangerously small for an NHL forward.

    His puck protection and game sense has him two steps in front of the freight train hits that opposing players try to place on him though, silencing the debate once and for all.

    There is little doubt that Hopkins will be the key to the Oilers' future for many years to come, but the focus is still on this year and what he can accomplish as a rookie.

    Odds of winning: Nominated? Bet your house on it. Winning? .... Bet your other house on it.

    Ryan Nugent Hopkins is a tremendously skilled player.

    He's elusive, and mesmerizing. He makes the players around him better and he creates chances with his passing ability.

    He's already had a five-point performance after just 25 games in the league, something most players go their entire careers without accomplishing.

    He has to be considered the heavy favorite for the Calder.