EDMONTON - In a season of mostly bad news for the Edmonton Oilers, linemates Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins could provide some positive storylines when the NHL hands out its annual awards in June.
In a season that will see the Oilers miss the playoffs for a sixth straight year, Eberle is making a bid for the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy for sportsmanship and gentlemanly play and Nugent-Hopkins is considered a favourite to win the Calder Memorial Trophy as the NHL's top rookie.
While Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins would rather talk about a playoff push or team success than about themselves, it's too late for the former and there's been little of the latter for the 29th-place Oilers.
They don't, however, mind talking about each other.
"This is probably a biased approach, but he deserves it," Eberle says of Nugent-Hopkins and the rookie of the year award.
"He's an honest player and he plays a good, honest game," Nugent-Hopkins says of Eberle.
Still two weeks from his 19th birthday, Nugent-Hopkins has lived up to the hype surrounding him leading into the 2011 Entry Draft, when the Oilers picked him first overall from the Red Deer Rebels.
Despite missing 20 games with a shoulder injury, Nugent-Hopkins has scored 18 goals and 31 assists, good enough for a tie with Gabriel Landeskog of the Colorado Avalanche atop the rookie scoring race.
"A lot of nights, he's been our best player," Eberle said. "He's been, I think, everything that everyone expected him to be from Day 1.
"I think a lot of guys thought he was going to get sent down, but once we saw him play, it was like, 'Holy crap.' The big characteristic is how smart he is. He's our quarterback on the power play. He's a guy I've played with all year and every night you're amazed watching him out there."
Eberle, 21, who led the Oilers in scoring with 43 points as a rookie last season, has scored at a point-per-game clip with 32 goals and 41 assists for 73 points in the 73 games he's played. That puts him 11th among NHL scorers going into Thursday's games.
He's managed that while accumulating just eight minutes in penalties, all minors. Matt Moulsen of the New York Islanders is the only other player among top-30 scorers with single-digits in penalty minutes. Moulsen is 27th in scoring with 64 points and has six penalty minutes.
"He goes to the tough places, too. That's where he scores most of his goals," Nugent-Hopkins said of Eberle. "It's one of those things where he's just smart about it."
Eberle had just 22 penalty minutes with the Oilers in 2010-11 and he never had more than 32 minutes in four seasons with the Regina Pats. It's not surprising his favourite player is Tampa Bay Lightning forward Martin St. Louis, who has won the Lady Byng the past two seasons.
"I've tried to match my game after his," Eberle said. "Actually, I got a stick the other day when we went and played them. You watch the intensity he brings to the game and he's able to play on the edge and win battles without causing his team to go down a man.
Eberle says he tries to play as smart as he can, which includes avoiding penalties.
"A lot of games now have to do with special teams," he said. "If you're taking penalties, a lot of times you don’t give yourself a chance to win."
In terms of points-per-game, Nugent-Hopkins is the runaway leader among rookies. He leads first-year players with 22 power-play points, including 19 assists. A deft passer, he's the big reason Edmonton's power play, near the bottom of the league in recent years, has been at or near the top this season.
Landeskog, selected second overall, will garner plenty of votes, too. A rugged winger. Landeskog brings a physical element Nugent-Hopkins does not and he has played a significant part in Colorado contending for a playoff spot.
"Obviously, there's been lots of talk about it," Nugent-Hopkins said. "It's in the back of my mind, but I'm just focusing on helping the team out.
"We're playing for a lot right now. We want to finish out the season as strong as possible because the way we finish this year will be a good indication of how we're going to start next year."
"The best thing I can do to help myself is help the team any way I can," he added. "There's been a couple injuries, setbacks and stuff, but for the most part I think it's been great. It's been a lot of fun. I got lucky coming to a team like this."