VANCOUVER - Edmonton's Ryan Nugent-Hopkins looked like a shoo-in for the NHL's rookie of the year award early in the season.
Now, with Nugent-Hopkins injured, Vancouver Canucks centre Cody Hodgson is taking a run for the honours.
Hodgson's name has come up repeatedly in rookie-of-the-year debate on sports radio talk shows and elsewhere, and he is not doing anything on the ice to hurt his chances.
Heading into Thursday's game against the Western Conference-leading Detroit Red Wings, he has four goals in his past five games and a total of five points in that span. The Toronto native sits fourth in rookie scoring with 30 points, just five points back of Nugent-Hopkins. New Jersey's Adam Henrique (34) and Philadelphia's Matt Read (31) hold precarious leads on the Canuck.
"Obviously, there's a lot of great rookies in the league and just to be mentioned and to go to all-star game as one of the top 12 is pretty cool," said Hodgson after practice Wednesday. "Just to be mentioned as a candidate, it's obviously an honour. But it's something I don't really take too much stock in right now. It's still early."
But Hodgson's rise to prominence has come later than expected. The 21-year-old is taking advantage of delayed development to shine with limited ice time.
After injuring his back during a team-supervised off-ice training session in the summer of 2009, Hodgson missed most of his final junior season with the OHL's Brampton Batallion in 2009-10 and missed an opportunity to play a second time for Canada's world junior entry.
Hodgson, Vancouver's first-round draft choice (10th overall) in 2008, spent most of his first pro season in the AHL with Vancouver's former Manitoba farm team before joining the Canucks permanently for the latter part of the regular season and playoffs as they went to the Stanley Cup finals.
"Not too many people would have thought that I would be here right now," he said. "But I had a lot of support. I owe a lot of people thanks for getting me back to this point ??? and getting me healthy again and back in shape and in a positive frame of mind."
When Hodgson returned to the ice, he did an off-ice warmup for 30 to 45 minutes before games and practices. Now, he limits the regimen to about five minutes before a practice and 10 prior to a game.
"Having a good summer training this year, trying to work out all those kinks, really helped," he said. "Just having your body work properly is a huge bonus."
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.
But Hodgson still managed to produce six goals in January in big games. He scored the tying goal on a breakaway in Tuesday's 3-2 victory over Chicago, and he counted two in Boston's unfriendly confines and one against San Jose.
He has helped the Canucks go 7-2-2 in their last 11 games.
Canucks captain Henrik Sedin said Hodgson has gotten better as the season progresses, and predicted he will be a great NHL player. Sedin has also been impressed with Hodgson's consistent play, and believes he is a strong candidate for top rookie honours.
"Nugent-Hopkins is hurt now," said Sedin. "So I think it's up for grabs. (Hodgson) is one of the guys that should be talked about."
Hodgson has not set the rookie award as a goal. He prefers to focus on "qualitative" goals by just playing to the best of his own abilities.
Praising Hodgson's line for its strong contributions, Vigneault does not expect the attention surrounding Hodgson to go to his head.
"Nobody is out there for individual awards right now," said Vigneault.
Hodgson predicted Nugent-Hopkins will still be a top contender when he returns. As a result, Hodgson is just happy to be with the Canucks after his future with the franchise was in question during the recovery from his back injury, which was initially diagnosed as a bulging disc but was eventually deemed a torn muscle.
"It's been a good month," said Hodgson. "I feel more and more comfortable as we get going here. It's a good group of guys here. They're fun to be around. They make me feel like part of the team, so I'm enjoying it right now. Hopefully, it continues the next months."