As the NHL rookie pool continues to impress throughout the season, it's easy to see why naming a winner for the Calder Trophy won't be easy.
The player appearing to be the favorite three weeks ago may very well be knocked from his perch at a moment's notice, as different first-year players begin familiarizing themselves with game plans and linemates.
At the halfway point in the season, NHL.com believes Florida Panthers forward Jonathan Huberdeau is the frontrunner to win the award. At the quarter pole, St. Louis Blues right wing Vladimir Tarasenko, who has since been placed on injured reserve after suffering a concussion Feb. 20, was considered the favorite.
Huberdeau has excelled for the Panthers on a line with Peter Mueller and fellow rookie Drew Shore. Not only has he been a threat offensively in the absence of injured forwards Stephen Weiss, Scottie Upshall, Kris Versteeg and Sean Bergenheim, but he has become a reliable player in the defensive zone. He's tops among first-year players in goals and ranks among the top five in takeaways.
The Panthers are last in the Eastern Conference, yet Huberdeau was chosen as the NHL's top rookie for February, edging Tampa Bay Lightning center Cory Conacher, Dallas Stars left wing Antoine Roussel and teammate Shore.
"He's headed in the right direction and playing hard," Florida coach Kevin Dineen said of Huberdeau. "A lot of times things happen out there where mistakes are made and I don't even mention it, but I can see it in his body reaction that he knows there's a hiccup. He understands that sometimes it's better to get the puck deep than stickhandling through."
Florida's first-round draft choice (No. 3) in 2011 had six goals and nine points in 13 games in February. He's had four multipoint games this season, including four points in a 5-2 win against the Philadelphia Flyers on Feb. 21. He's also the only player this season to score on two penalty shots.
Huberdeau won the Stafford Smythe Memorial Trophy as the 2011 Memorial Cup MVP, finishing with three goals and six points in four games for the champion Saint John Sea Dogs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He became the sixth forward in 12 years to be named MVP of his league playoffs and the Memorial Cup, joining Brad Richards (2000), Danny Groulx (2002), Derek Roy (2003), Corey Perry (2005) and Taylor Hall (2009).
Cory Conacher, Tampa Bay Lightning -- The undrafted 5-foot-8, 170-pound forward has continued to produce and provide energy while playing on a line with Steven Stamkos and Teddy Purcell, and he has found chemistry on the team's second power-play unit with captain Vincent Lecavalier. The 23-year-old leads all rookies with 13 assists and 20 points.
Justin Schultz, Edmonton Oilers -- Like Conacher, Schultz remains a viable candidate for the Calder as he continues to lead all rookie defensemen in points, power-play goals, and average ice time. The 6-2, 185-pound righty, who signed a free-agent contract with Edmonton in July, also ranks among the top 15 rookie defenders in blocked shots. Schultz, drafted in the second round (No. 43) by the Anaheim Ducks in 2008, had 18 goals, 48 points and a plus-8 rating in 34 games with the Oklahoma City Barons in the American Hockey League during the work stoppage. He has ranked among the top two in shots on goal among rookie defenders all season.
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mikemorrealeNHL
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