Edmonton, AB - On Oct. 9, 2011 vs. Pittsburgh at Rexall Place, the Oilers' season-opening win was spurred by the heroics of an 18-year-old rookie. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins scored with 4:55 on the clock, drawing the home side even en route to a 2-1 shootout victory over the Penguins.
That was only the beginning of a memorable season in which points, crowd chants and opposition panic became the norm.
17 goals, 51 points, 62 games and 194 days later, No. 93's work has been noticed. Along with Colorado's Gabriel Landeskog and New Jersey's Adam Henrique, Nugent-Hopkins has been named as a candidate for the Calder Trophy, which is awarded annually to the NHL's top rookie.
"It's a big honour," said the now-19-year-old, who's back home in BC. "I didn't know what to expect coming in (to the season), but I got lucky coming to the Oilers. I've been given a great opportunity here and have been able to play with some great players, so it's been a lot of fun.
"I didn't think about it (winning) too much during the year," he added, voicing team success as his top priority. "When I got hurt, I wasn't thinking about it, but it's one of those things where I started to a little bit at the end of the season because of all the questions that came up about it.
"It's exciting and a big honour for me to be named as one of the top guys."
Blessed with such Hall of Fame greats as Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri, Grant Fuhr and others, it may come as a surprise that the Oilers have never had a player win the prestigious prize.
"It's hard to believe with all the great players that have come through here," chuckled Oilers President of Hockey Operations Kevin Lowe, who was one of them. "He obviously had a phenomenal year, and it's unfortunate he didn't play all 82 games because I think that would have given everybody who's voting a chance to have seen him play. It's evident how good he was by leading the rookies in scoring, even though he played in 25 percent less games."
Nugent-Hopkins was at or near a point-per-game pace all season, ultimately completing the 2011-12 campaign in a tie with Landeskog with 52 points. By virtue of having more goals (22 to RNH's 18), the Avalanche winger was awarded the rookie scoring title.
Still, it was accomplished over a full season -- a luxury Nugent-Hopkins didn't have. On Jan. 2 in Chicago, a stumble into the side-boards resulted in 20 games missed due to a dinged-up shoulder, but he never lost touch with the pack.
Not even close.
"It wasn't even a race, he was running away with it," Lowe said, noting RNH's surge as the league's leading point-getter among rookies at the time. "It's unfortunate that if he wasn't to win, it would be because he missed those 20 games -- and yet he still tied them in scoring. It certainly speaks to the season he had."
Ryan Jones, who served as Nugent-Hopkins' (and Jeff Petry's) roommate all season, agreed with Lowe as he saw the youngster grow -- on and off the ice -- quickly before his own eyes.
"He's proven that he's an elite player in the league; not only as a rookie, but as a player in general," No. 28 said. "He's always in control of the puck and it seems like every time he's on the ice, the other team is hemmed in their own end. It's hard to argue against a kid that missed 20-something games and is still right there in points.
"If he plays those games and then leads the other players in scoring by 10-15 points, I don't think we're talking about anybody else."
Pre-determined by some, RNH's greatest challenge coming in was adapting to the NHL's hotly-advertised physical edge. At 6'1" and 175 pounds, it wasn't even close to an issue. As slippery as a puck on the cleanest of sheets, Nugent-Hopkins handled it admirably and was nearly impossible to contain.
"It goes to show how smart and how good of a hockey player he is," Jones said, valuing his teammate's irreplaceable skill-set. "He's great on his edges and really didn't leave himself vulnerable. To see him grow throughout the year and be one of the top guys on our team -- a guy that we went to in situations that we needed a goal or to keep one out of our net, that speaks volumes to a kid that's 18 years old.
"I've never really seen a kid at that age be so confident in his ability to make plays and change the game when he's on the ice. That's something elite players in the league have, and it's something that he's shown early on in his career. It can only get better for him as the future goes on.
"He's the kind of character you want. He's a team player who doesn't really care about individual success."
At this point, Landeskog is still getting much of the attention. Concluding the season with a +20 rating and a second-best 219 hits among rookies, certain intangibles (and statistics) aren't in Nugent-Hopkins' court. But being put in the NHL's most difficult position, centre, and handling it well beyond any reasonable expectations, there's something to be said for RNH's success beyond the scoresheet.
"He did it so superbly," Lowe said. "I'd put Ryan Nugent-Hopkins ahead of Landeskog and Henrique in terms of his overall game. That's the part that a lot of people don't recognize and is underappreciated."
Biased or not, it's a common thought by upper management and by teammates such as Ryan Jones, who sits only seven stalls away in the club's locker room at Rexall Place.
"In my eyes, he's shown that he was the best rookie in the league."
Who do you think should win?
edmontonoilers.com will be there every step of the way, chronicling Nugent-Hopkins' experience at the NHL Awards on Jun. 20, 2012 at the Wynn Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.