As more and more talented young players arrive in the NHL every season, picking the Calder Memorial Trophy, awarded to "the player selected as the most proficient in his first year of competition in the National Hockey League" becomes increasingly difficult.
The 2011-12 season is no exception, but voting by the Professional Hockey Writers Association showed three rookies emerging above the rest.
New Jersey Devils center Adam Henrique, Colorado Avalanche left wing Gabriel Landeskog and Edmonton Oilers center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins have been named this year's finalists for the Calder Trophy.
NHL Awards Finalists / Schedule
Friday, April 20
Calder Trophy (top rookie)
Henrique, Landeskog, Nugent-Hopkins
Monday, April 23
Selke Trophy (top defensive forward)
Lady Byng Trophy (skill/sportsmanship)
Tuesday, April 24
Masterton Trophy (perseverance, dedication)
General Manager of the Year
Wednesday, April 25
Vezina Trophy (top goaltender)
Thursday, April 26
Norris Trophy (top defenseman)
Friday, April 27
Hart Trophy (most valuable player to his team)
Monday, April 30
Jack Adams Award (top head coach)
NHL Foundation Award (community service)
In his second professional season, Henrique became one of the season's bigger surprises. Injuries to Travis Zajac and Jacob Josefson opened the door for Henrique to make the team, and he made the most of his opportunity. Henrique spent most of the season as the team's top-line center, skating between star forwards Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk. He excelled in that role, and in 74 games he finished first among all rookies with 35 assists and third with 51 points. He also tied for the League lead with four shorthanded goals.
A 2008 third-round pick by the Devils, Henrique won a pair of Memorial Cup titles with the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League, where teammates included Taylor Hall, Cam Fowler and Ryan Ellis. Having those kind of big-time players as teammates made his adjustment to playing with NHL stars a bit easier.
"He's a good player," Parise said earlier this season. "You can tell he's patient with the puck, he makes good plays. Most importantly, [Kovalchuk] and I tell him to relax and make the good play. Don't feel obligated to pass to either one of us, just make the smart play and he's done that."
Henrique is the first Devils player to finish in the top three in the voting since Scott Gomez, who won the award in 2000.
While Henrique's play might have surprised many, Landeskog excelling as an 18-year-old was no surprise. Touted as the most NHL-ready player in the 2011 NHL Draft, the Avalanche took him with the second pick and watched him excel almost from the time he arrived in Denver.
He tied for the lead among all rookies with 52 points and was second with 22 goals. He led the Avalanche with a plus-20 rating while averaging 18:36 of ice time per game, tops among first-year forwards, and he was one of just four rookies to average more than 1:20 per game on both the power play and on the penalty kill.
"He's a rookie, but he plays like a veteran out there," Avs defenseman Shane O'Brien told NHL.com. "He acts like a veteran."
"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," linemate Ryan O'Reilly added. "It's a huge thing and it's a great thing for the team. Definitely, he's been phenomenal all year."
Landeskog is the second Avalanche player in three years to finish as a finalist. Teammate Matt Duchene was third in 2010. The last Avalanche player to win the Calder was Chris Drury in 1999.
While Landeskog's spot in the NHL on opening night was expected, some weren't as sure about Nugent-Hopkins, despite his status as the first player taken in the 2011 draft, because of his 6-foot-1, 175-pound frame. However, he had a goal in his first game and a hat trick in his third, silencing all doubters.
He finished with 52 points despite playing only 62 games -- 20 fewer than Landeskog -- because of a shoulder injury. The youngest regular in the NHL this season -- he didn't turn 19 until April 12 -- he had 18 goals, three multi-goal games, and five assists in a game, Nov. 19 against Chicago. He was the fourth-ever 18-year-old to have a five-assist game, and the first since Kovalchuk on Jan. 19, 2002.
Nugent-Hopkins is the first Oilers player to finish in the top three in Calder voting since Grant Fuhr finished third in 1982.
"He makes it looks so easy, but it's hard," Oilers captain Shawn Horcoff said of Nugent-Hopkins' passing skills.
All three Calder Trophy nominees made playing in the NHL look easy.
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK