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Looks like a four-way Calder race between Backstrom, Kane, Toews and Mueller @NHLdotcom

When Jonathan Toews went down with a knee injury Jan. 1 at Los Angeles, he threw the Calder Trophy race wide open.

Unlike last season when Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin was the consensus favourite from October to April and took the award with 120 of 143 first-place votes, there's a heck of a battle for NHL rookie honours this season.

And Toews is still in the thick of it despite missing 16 games with the injury, joining Chicago Blackhawks linemate Patrick Kane among the favourites along with forwards Nicklas Backstrom of the Washington Capitals and Peter Mueller of the Phoenix Coyotes.

All four deserving candidates chatted with The Canadian Press over the past few days - two Americans (Kane and Mueller), one Swede (Backstrom) and one Canuck (Toews).

"I think it's good for the league," Kane said Tuesday. "Backstrom is doing well in Washington and Mueller's scoring pretty well in Phoenix, too. In our case, if all went well for us, maybe there would be a tie (for the Calder) between me and Jonathan and that would be great for the Blackhawks. But I don't think that's ever been done before."

Honourable mention among other rookies goes to Tobias Enstrom, 23, who has been terrific patrolling the blue-line for the Atlanta Thrashers this season, 18-year-old forward Sam Gagner of the Edmonton Oilers - the NHL rookie of the month for February - as well as Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price, 20, who probably took over the No.1 job too late in the season to get into the top three.

Also notable for their rookie seasons are St. Louis Blues defenceman Erik Johnson, rugged Boston Bruins forward Milan Lucic, Vancouver Canucks blue-liner Alexander Edler, Los Angeles Kings defenceman Jack Johnson, Dallas Stars blue-liner Matt Niskanen, Oilers forward Andrew Cogliano and Edmonton defenceman Tom Gilbert.

But when members of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association sit down near the end of the regular season to cast their votes, the Fab Four of Toews, Kane, Backstrom and Mueller will probably dominate the ballots.

"One way or another, if I don't win I hope it stays within our team and goes to a guy like Patrick," Toews said of his roommate on the road. "It would mean a lot to me since we've played together so much this year and we've been through a lot on and off the ice. If one of us came through with that award it I'd be quite happy."

Kane is the youngest of the four, having just turned 19 in November after being drafted first overall last June. The other three are 2006 first-rounders, Toews going third overall, Backstrom next at No. 4 and Mueller at No. 8.

Toews and Mueller turn 20 in April while Backstrom already did so in November.

"He's been outstanding," Caps GM George McPhee said of Backstrom. "He's our No. 1 centre, which says a heck of a lot about a kid who was 19 in September. He's been productive but his best attribute is his reliability.

"He just doesn't let you down - ever. He doesn't turn the puck over, he's very conscientious defensively, he makes smart plays all the time and you can put him on the ice in any situation because he's smart enough to do it - PK, or power play, or four-on-four. We're really happy with him. Obviously there's some terrific rookies and he's one of them."

Backstrom, who has come on strong after a slow start, took over the rookie scoring lead Monday night with a four-point effort against Boston that gave him 56 points (10-46) on the season, one more than the 55 points (16-39) Kane carried into Tuesday night's game at Minnesota. Mueller (19-24) and Toews (18-25) were next at 43 points.

"I think I've played better as the season has gone on, I feel more comfortable," said Backstrom, whose father played pro hockey in Sweden.

He began the year playing on the wing instead of his natural centre as the Caps tried to ease him in with fewer defensive responsibilities. But once he moved back to centre in early November his game took off.

When new coach Bruce Boudreau lined him up alongside superstar winger Alex Ovechkin in mid-December, that was even better.

"I really appreciate playing with him, I'm just enjoying it," said Backstrom, who has 37 points (6-31) in his last 36 games dating back to Dec. 14. "We try to find each other out there. He's a great goal scorer.

"I'm more of a playmaker, I'm not a huge goal scorer. I prefer to pass the puck to the guys who can score goals better than me. That's my game."

That makes him a natural fit with Ovechkin, the NHL's goals leader with 52. He'd also match up well with Mueller, who leads all rookies with 19 goals.

"He's got a deadly shot," Toews said of Mueller. "He's one of those players you like to play with because if you can get him the puck he's going to finish. He's a heck of skilled player."

Like Backstrom, Mueller got off to a slow start - two points in his first 11 games - before his first career NHL hat trick Nov. 7 changed everything.

"Definitely," said Mueller. "Since that hat trick in Anaheim, it boosted my confidence and made me feel like I could play up at this level. I don't have to be nervous. I made the jump and they want me here for a reason. I just kept telling myself that and took it from there."

Mueller added another hat trick Feb. 5 at Calgary.

"Sometimes when you watch Peter you lose sight of the fact that he's only 19 years old," said Wayne Gretzky, his head coach. "Playing in the NHL, the greatest league in the world, is hard enough. But to do it at 19 years old is really something."

Playing for No. 99 hasn't hurt, either.

"I heard a little bit about him," Mueller jokes. "It's definitely surreal at times having the greatest guy ever to play the game as your coach. But off the ice he's a really nice guy, he cares for the team and he wants to win just as anybody else in the room.

"On the ice, he's very committed to helping players improve their game and teaching them ... He's a really good coach."

Meanwhile, it says a lot about Toews that he remains in the race despite his injury. He's come back from the sprained knee and put up 11 points (3-8) in 11 games before Tuesday's encounter with the Wild.

"Toews is an unbelievable player," Mueller said of his counterpart. "He's a natural leader as you can see, he already has the 'A' on his jersey. He has great playmaking abilities and he has an unbelievable shot."

Toews has history on his side in attempting to win the Calder despite missing time through injury. The Russian Rocket, Pavel Bure, edged out Nicklas Lidstrom for the rookie award in 1992 despite being limited to 65 games. Lidstrom played 80 games and both tied with 60 points. Should Toews appear in every game for the rest of the season, that would give him 64 in total.

And by then, perhaps he will have made up some of the gap on Backstrom and Kane.

"I'm still trying to work my way back and playing like I was before I got hurt," said Toews.

All four rookies say they've grown by leaps and bounds from the nervous teenager that first hit the NHL ice last fall.

"It was tougher than I thought, actually. It was a lot different," Backstrom said of his first few NHL games.

Toews says the adjustment in the beginning isn't just on the ice.

"It's a lot to get used to off the ice, the lifestyle - the first couple of paycheques are definitely an eye-opener," he said. "Just little things like that ... But now it's just about hockey - all the hype has died down and it's just about the game now."

Kane says the learning curve is steep.

"At such a young age, you seem to learn new things every day," said Kane. "I think the biggest thing as the season went on was to really take care of my body and take care of myself to the point where I'm not getting worn down.

"(I need to make sure) I'm ready to play every game with the same energy level."

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