In a season where rookies excelled, culling the field for the Calder Trophy to three finalists was tough business. But when the votes from the Professional Hockey Writers' Association were counted Columbus Blue Jackets
goalie Steve Mason
, Anaheim Ducks
forward Bobby Ryan
and Chicago Blackhawks
forward Kris Versteeg
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In addition to being Calder finalists, another common bond among the trio is they want to make a difference for their clubs.
Based on their play during the regular season, they did just that. All three played important roles in helping their teams make the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It's doubtful that the Ducks or Blue Jackets would have made the playoffs without their rookie stars, while Versteeg was the key to the Blackhawks' sharp start this season.
Versteeg and Ryan have another thing in common, they both believe their team is better off with the puck on their stick. Both are excellent skaters and puckhandlers who like to carry the puck into shooting situations and fire away. Both have had to learn to rely more on their teammates and that has been part of their growth this season.
Mason, Ryan and Versteeg each overcame earlier disappointments to prove their merits in the NHL. Ryan and Mason started the season in the minors. Mason was buried four years ago by a Junior B coach, but switched teams and continued his progression. An impatient Ryan returned two more seasons to juniors after being drafted second overall in 2005, while Versteeg was traded from his drafting club for -- the ultimate putdown -- a career minor leaguer.
Steve Mason, Columbus Blue Jackets
-- To put it in historical context, Mason's rookie season rivaled or exceeded those of Calder winners Martin Brodeur
, Patrick Roy
, Tony Esposito
, Roger Crozier
, Glenn Hall
, Terry Sawchuk
and Frankie Brimsek. His 10 shutouts led the NHL, the first rookie leader since Esposito had 15 in 1970.
Mason ranked second with a 2.29 save percentage, eighth with 3,664 minutes, ninth with 33 wins, 10th with 61 games and 11th with a .916 save percentage. He led all rookie goalies in every category except save percentage, finishing second to the .917 posted by Nashville's Pekka Rinne
, whose fine season included seven shutouts.
"It's a huge honor," Mason said. "You look at some of the players who have won it in previous seasons, like Patrick Kane
last year. It was nice to see him have that success in his rookie season and it has translated into more success this year. So, past winners have gone on to some pretty special careers.
"Being nominated is very nice and it will be a great honor to go to Las Vegas and be around that scenery for a couple of days. Obviously, it would be nice to bring home some hardware."
Mason started the season with the AHL Syracuse Crunch after knee surgery last April. He was called up after six games and won his first three starts. Mason was 9-5-1 after stopping 48 shots, his season high, in a Dec. 17 win over the San Jose Sharks
. His season best four-game winning streak from Dec. 27-Jan. 2 included three shutouts.
Mason got better as the season went along. He had a 2.72 GAA after five games, but had it down to a season-low 1.66 on Jan. 2. While it rose to 2.29 at season's end, his save percentage remained the same since Feb. 21, suggesting he was consistent and playing a little better than his teammates.
Mason won three games against the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings
after the NHL All-Star Game, including a 46-save effort March 7 in an 8-2 victory at Joe Louis Arena that his coach considers the most important in franchise history.
Bobby Ryan, Anaheim Ducks
-- For three years, the Ducks and Ryan endured the tease: Who was drafted second behind Sidney Crosby
in the 2005 Entry Draft and where is he now? Ryan followed the normal progression of two more junior seasons and a year in the AHL.
Now, he's the first West Coast player to lead the NHL rookie scoring race since Luc Robitaille
in 1986-87. Ryan led all NHL rookies with 31 goals and 57 points, and he spotted the field 18 games. Ryan had to start the season in the AHL because the Ducks couldn't fit him into their salary cap.
After producing 5 goals and 10 points in 23 games with the Ducks a year ago, Ryan underwent an intensive summer conditioning program, dropping his body fat from 19 to 7 percent and shedding 20 pounds to 207. He also eliminated the high-risk elements of his game to become a reliable two-way player.
Ryan is a powerful 6-foot-2 winger and he plays a skilled game. He had an impressive 17.8 shooting percentage from 174 shots. Ryan led the Ducks with a plus-13 rating and 12 power-play goals, 17th in the NHL. He was 27th in goals and second on the Ducks behind Corey Perry
's 32 goals.
Coach Randy Carlyle
moved Ryan around the lineup, mostly second- and third-line shifts in the beginning, as well as left and right wing, before giving him increased responsibilities. Ryan wound up playing left wing on the first line with Perry and Ryan Getzlaf
The Ducks were 12th in the Western Conference with 10 games to go but got strong performances from the top line down the stretch. Getzlaf had 14 points, Perry 13, and Ryan had 11, including seven goals.
Kris Versteeg, Chicago Blackhawks
-- For a rising team trying to market a new identity, Versteeg was a Godsend. Of course, his 22 goals and 31 assists, fourth in team scoring was Important, but Versteeg brought an alternately witty and off-the-wall sense of humor into the dressing room. Check the Web for some of his teammate-teasing videos, the teammates' responses, and his dressing-room rap session.
There's no question there was tension in Chicago at the start of the season – the Hawks fired coach Denis Savard
after only four games -- but Versteeg's early timely scoring and wit helped alleviate the pressure. He had 7 goals and 20 points in the first 20 games. His scoring slowed during the second half, but he finished with three points in the final four games.
Versteeg is on the smallish side at 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds. He's had success playing the wing with center Dave Bolland
and Patrick Sharp
Versteeg uses short, choppy strides and unpredictable changes of direction to make room for his outstanding puckhandling ability. He can carry the puck through traffic and resembles a basketball point guard in his ability to penetrate from the perimeter to the net. He learned to use his teammates to greater benefit during the course of the season.
Versteeg led NHL rookies with 31 assists and was eighth on the Blackhawks. His 22 goals and plus-15 rating ranked fourth among NHL rookies. Versteeg led the Blackhawks and tied for fourth in the NHL with four shorthanded goals. Ryan and Versteeg tied for second among NHL rookies with three game-winning goals.