- Scott Burnside, NHL
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Just how good was the crop of NHL rookies this season? Well, New York Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist was named Thursday as a finalist for the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's top goalie, but he couldn't crack even the final three in the voting for rookie of the year.
And then there's Alexander Ovechkin, the odds-on favorite to win the Calder Trophy. So spectacular was the young Russian that he was also named a finalist for the Lester B. Pearson Award, given annually to the NHL's top player as voted on by the players themselves.
Although the award doesn't have the profile of the traditional NHL awards, like the Hart (MVP), Norris (best defenseman) or Vezina (top goalie), players will tell you that to be nominated for, let alone win, the Pearson, is perhaps the highest honor a player can receive. The other awards are decided upon by NHL writers (including this one), broadcasters and GMs, depending on the award, but the Pearson is a true players' award.
If Ovechkin, 20, wins the Pearson over NHL scoring leader Joe Thornton of San Jose and the Rangers' slick superstar Jaromir Jagr, who finished second in league scoring, the exuberant Russian sniper would become the youngest player and first rookie to be so honored since the award was established in 1970-71.
It's unlikely, given the seasons both Thornton and Jagr enjoyed, that Ovechkin will win, but to be named a finalist illustrates just how dominant he was in his first NHL season.
Ovechkin finished third in the league in goals (52) and points (106) and became only the second rookie to score 50 goals and reach 100 points after Teemu Selanne became the first in 1992-93. It will be a major surprise if he does not carry off the Calder. Still, it will be no mark of shame for the other finalists, Sidney Crosby and Dion Phaneuf, if that's the way the voting falls.
Crosby, of course, was the focal point of the NHL's return to action after the lockout year, and the 18-year-old didn't disappoint, becoming the youngest player to reach the 100-point plateau, finishing with 102. Phaneuf moved seamlessly from dominant junior player to dominant NHLer as he led all rookie blue-liners with 49 points, becoming just the third freshman defenseman to score 20 goals and the first since Brian Leetch in 1988-89.
Although he did not end up as a finalist for the Norris Trophy, Phaneuf was bar none the best defenseman in the league in the eyes of many scouts and observers.
In other seasons, Phaneuf and Crosby would have been clear-cut Calder winners. But in this "year of the rookie," being a finalist is a mark of honor in itself given the performances of other first-year players Jussi Jokinen, Ryan Miller, Ray Emery, Petr Prucha and Brad Boyes.
In a time that saw the end of the line for Scott Stevens, Mark Messier, Luc Robitaille, Brett Hull, Dave Andreychuk and, in all likelihood, Steve Yzerman, there is something to marvel at what might lie ahead for the next generation that appears more than capable of filling that void.
Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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