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Landeskog, Nugent-Hopkins headline rookie cast

by John Kreiser
The Edmonton Oilers felt Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was the best player available in the NHL Draft last June. The Colorado Avalanche, picking second, were more than happy to take forward Gabriel Landeskog with the second pick.

Nine months later, both teams are more than happy with the players they chose.

Landeskog and Nugent-Hopkins entered the final week of the season running one-two in scoring among rookies, despite playing with teams that are outside the top eight in the playoff race. Other, less-heralded newcomers such as Adam Henrique of New Jersey and Matthew Read of Philadelphia are proving themselves to be valuable contributors up front on playoff teams.

There aren't as many impact players on defense as there are up front. Toronto's Jake Gardiner has emerged as a solid contributor while playing more than 21:30 a night, while Justin Faulk has stepped in as a regular in Carolina and sees nearly 23 minutes per game.

The only position that hasn't seen any kind of impact from first-year players is goal. No rookie has played more than 25 games or won more than eight -- the last time no rookie reached double figures in wins was 2002-03. The 18 rookies who've seen action this season have combined for just six shutouts; in 2010-11, Chicago's Corey Crawford and Michal Neuvirth each had four on their own.

Here's a look at the six best first-year players this season:

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Oilers

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
Center - EDM
GOALS: 18 | ASST: 33 | PTS: 51
SOG: 127 | +/-: -1
There was never a question about Nugent-Hopkins' skill. It was his size that had many wondering if the Oilers would be better off sending the No. 1 pick in the 2011 NHL Draft back to juniors for another year. But Nugent-Hopkins "bulked up" to 175 pounds and was so good in training camp that the Oilers had to keep him, and he's vindicated that decision by breaking the 50-point mark despite missing 20 games with injuries.

Nugent-Hopkins put any doubts about keeping him to rest early. He had a hat trick against Vancouver in his third NHL game and set up five of the Oilers' nine goals in a win against Chicago on Nov. 19. Despite the injuries, he's proved that he was more than ready for the NHL -- even though his team will miss the playoffs for the sixth straight year.

"We're playing for a lot right now," Nugent-Hopkins said. "We want to finish out the season as strong as possible because the way we finish this year will be a good indication of how we're going to start next year."

"The best thing I can do to help myself is help the team any way I can. There's been a couple injuries, setbacks and stuff, but for the most part I think it's been great. It's been a lot of fun. I got lucky coming to a team like this."

Gabriel Landeskog, Avalanche

There were few doubts about Landeskog's readiness to play in the NHL -- the rugged Swedish forward didn't have the same questions about size as Nugent-Hopkins. He's proved to be everything the Avs could have asked for with the No. 2 pick, and then some.

Landeskog piled up 51 points, including a team-high 23 goals, through the Avs' first 80 games. More impressively, he leads all first-year players (and all Colorado players) with a plus-23 rating, showing that he's capable of contributing at both ends of the ice.

"He's a rookie, but he plays like a veteran out there," defenseman Shane O'Brien told "He acts like a veteran. They got a good one in him, for sure."

Landeskog and linemate Ryan O'Reilly have led the way offensively to keep the Avs in the playoff race entering the final week.

"He's such a great guy, coming in and having the success he's had and still working hard and not letting the success get to his head at all," O'Reilly told "It's a huge thing and it's a great thing for the team. Definitely, he's been phenomenal all year."

Adam Henrique, Devils

Adam Henrique
Center - NJD
GOALS: 16 | ASST: 34 | PTS: 50
SOG: 125 | +/-: 8
Unlike Nugent-Hopkins and Landeskog, Henrique was neither a high pick (third round, No. 82 in 2008) nor highly touted (he spent four years in juniors, winning two Memorial Cups with Windsor, and one in the OHL) before making the Devils this season.

But the 22-year-old has fit in perfectly on a veteran New Jersey team that will be back in the playoffs after missing the postseason a year ago. Henrique made the team when the Devils lost No. 1 center Travis Zajac at the start of the season. After being returned to the AHL briefly, he was called up from Albany on Oct. 22 and has centered captain Zach Parise and sniper Ilya Kovalchuk for much of the season.

"Obviously, this is a spot that I didn't expect myself to be in," Henrique said.

He more than held his own while playing between two of the NHL's top offensive players.
"He just plays the game as if he's playing with you or I on the wing and that's not an easy mindset for a young guy to have with [Parise and Kovalchuk] with you," coach Peter DeBoer said. "I think he's had an exceptional year."

Matt Read, Flyers

If Henrique was neither a high pick nor highly touted, Read came out of nowhere -- he was undrafted as an 18-year-old and was signed by Philadelphia a year ago after playing four seasons at Bemidji State in Minnesota.

Read had 13 points in 11 playoff games with the Flyers' AHL affiliate, the Adirondack Phantoms, and kept on turning heads in training camp, earning a spot and becoming one of a host of rookies who've made an impact in Philadelphia.

Read's 23 goals entering the final week of the season are the most of any first-year player.
At 25, he's a lot older than most of his fellow rookies -- and the grind of an NHL season is a lot longer than the 30-to-40 games he played in college. But Read has continued to produce.

"I wish I was still 18 and could be young and everything, but I feel great out there," Read said. "I have the same amount of energy as I did at the beginning of the year. I can't really notice a difference at all. It is a longer season, but the things you do off the ice help out a lot."

Jake Gardiner, Maple Leafs

Jake Gardiner
Defense - TOR
GOALS: 5 | ASST: 22 | PTS: 27
SOG: 75 | +/-: -5
This season has turned into a nightmare in Toronto, where the bright hopes for a playoff berth have turned into planning for a seventh straight early summer. One bright spot has been the play of Gardiner, who enters the final week of the season with 26 points, the most among first-year defensemen, and has earned a top-four spot on Toronto's blue line.

Gardiner, a first-round pick by Anaheim in 2008, joined the Leafs in a trade last February and turned pro after three years at the University of Wisconsin. He's showed good offensive skills, including the ability to quarterback a power play.

Gardiner's season probably won't end when the Leafs pack up the pucks after April 7 -- he's likely to get more experience by playing for the Leafs' AHL affiliate, the Toronto Marlies, in the Calder Cup playoffs.

"If I go down after the (NHL) season is over I think it is a good thing," Gardiner said. "To experience the playoffs in pro hockey is fun. It gives you more experience for when you make it to the NHL playoffs."

Justin Faulk, Hurricanes

Faulk, Carolina's second-round pick (No. 37) in 2010, stepped into the lineup after helping Minnesota-Duluth win the NCAA title last spring and has made himself right at home on the blue line.

The 20-year-old Minnesota native leads all rookie defensemen with 8 goals, including 5 on the power play, while leading all first-year players by playing just under 23 minutes a night. Kirk Muller, who took over as coach when Paul Maurice was let go at the end of November, has continued to increase the rookie's ice time and responsibilities.

A lot of rookies, especially college players, tend to hit the wall late in their first NHL season. Faulk has slammed right through it.

"He hasn't slowed down," Muller said. "Now we're saying, 'He's a guy with young legs and let's keep using him.' He hasn't dropped off at all."
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