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'08 draftees breaking through early

by Adam Kimelman /
Most players selected in the draft go through a similar process. They skate with the team at a prospect or rookie camp after being drafted, work through the early part of training camp with the NHL players and then pack up and head back to their junior or college team.

This season, though, has been a bit different.

Eleven of the 30 players selected in the first round of the 2008 Entry Draft -- and eight of the first 10 selections -- have played in the NHL this season.

Of that group, a remarkable 10 made opening-night rosters, including seven of the first 10 picks.

Forward Steven Stamkos, 2008's top pick, was the first when he made his NHL debut when the Tampa Bay Lightning opened their season Oct. 4 as part of the Bridgestone NHL Premiere Prague series.

Others who joined him were defensemen Drew Doughty (No. 2 pick, Kings), Zach Bogosian (No. 3, Thrashers), Alex Pietrangelo (No. 4, Blues), Luke Schenn (No. 5, Maple Leafs) and Luca Sbisa (No. 19, Flyers), and forwards Mikkel Boedker (No. 8, Coyotes), Joshua Bailey (No. 9, Islanders), Zach Boychuk (No. 14, Hurricanes) and Viktor Tikhonov (No. 28, Coyotes).

Forward Nikita Filatov (No. 6, Blue Jackets) started the season with Syracuse, the club's American Hockey League affiliate, but earned four-game call-up earlier in the season.

That five 18-year-old defensemen started the season in the NHL is the most remarkable note when you consider that in the last 15 years, only nine 18-year-old blueliners have played in the NHL.

"It's harder for a young defenseman to come into the League," Phoenix Coyotes General Manager Don Maloney said. "If a defenseman makes a mistake it ends up in your net, and the coach might not be as quick to put him back on the ice. As a forward you don't have that defensive responsibility."

Having that many youngsters from any position step from the draft stage to the NHL center stage is nearly unheard of. Only five players in the last three seasons made an opening-night roster in their draft year -- Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh) and Gilbert Brule (Columbus) in 2005-06, Jordan Staal (Pittsburgh) in 2006-07 and Patrick Kane (Chicago) and Sam Gagner (Edmonton) last season.

And it marked the first time the top five picks debuted on opening night since the first five choices of the 1990 draft -- Owen Nolan (Quebec), Petr Nedved (Vancouver), Keith Primeau (Detroit), Mike Ricci (Philadelphia) and Jaromir Jagr (Pittsburgh) -- started the 1990-91 season with their teams.

The 10 players making it onto opening-night rosters tied the record set by the 1983 draft class, when 10 18-year-olds were on their club's opening-night roster for the 1983-84 season, including five of the top six selections -- No. 1 Brian Lawton of Minnesota, No. 2 Sylvain Turgeon of Hartford, No. 4 Steve Yzerman of Detroit, No. 5 Tom Barrasso of Buffalo and No. 6 John MacLean of New Jersey. Also making it were Winnipeg's Andrew McBain (No. 8) and Bobby Dollas (No. 14), Vancouver's Cam Neely (No. 9), Boston Nevin Markwart (No. 21) and Detroit's Lane Lambert (No. 25).

While Lawton, now the vice president of hockey operations for the Tampa Bay Lightning, called his draft class' early rise to the NHL an anomaly, he believes the members of the 2008 draft class making the jump to the pro ranks so quickly is a growing trend.

"I think with the salary-cap era, it puts pressure to get younger players in the lineup more than anything," Lawton told "… I think now there's more openness among management and it's more of an open League. Part of it is a combination of the kids are more prepared, better trained, there's more awareness of what it takes, but its clubs being more willing."

Quite simply, said Flyers General Manager Paul Holmgren, "If you come in and earn a spot and impress enough, we'll find a place for you. Obviously Luca, along with some other people, have taken it to heart."

To make the jump, teenagers have to prove physically and mentally strong enough to play full-time with men.

"You have to have the confidence of playing with the best players in the world," said Jarmo Kekalainen, assistant general manager and director of amateur scouting for the St. Louis Blues. "Even when you're physically ready, you might not have that. … The hockey sense allows you to move on easier to the next level. If you have the hockey sense and the instincts, that allows you to play on the highest stage. The thinking and the timing gets so much quicker there. Unless the hockey sense is good, you're going to have a tough time adapting to that pace."

So far, the players from the top of the 2008 draft seem to be doing just fine.

Doughty (22:31), Schenn (21:28) and Sbisa (18:58) rank first, second and fourth, respectively, among rookies in ice time. Sbisa is tied for fourth among all rookies with 6 assists, and Doughty is second among rookie defensemen with 2 goals and 6 points. Schenn leads all rookies with 43 hits and 27 blocked shots.

Boedker is tied for fifth among first-year players with 5 goals. After a slow start, Stamkos has 2 goals and 4 points, and is tied for third among rookies with 32 shots. Tikhonov has 1 goal and 3 points in 15 games, and has been a main penalty killer for the Coyotes.

Injuries have effected the playing time for a few picks. Bogosian played just eight games before suffering a broken leg Oct. 28 against the Flyers. Pietrangelo missed two weeks with an upper-body injury and recently was returned to his junior team after eight games with St. Louis. Boychuk missed the Hurricanes' first three games with a wrist injury, went scoreless in two games and was returned to his junior team. Bailey missed the first month of the season with a lower-body injury and made his season debut Nov. 11.

"He's got a great head on his shoulders," Kings coach Terry Murray said of Doughty on the club's Web site. "He plays the physical side of the game. He didn’t hesitate in his 1-on-1 confrontations. And again, he really tried to show some authority with the puck and tried to make something happen.

"When you have an 18-year-old taking control like that, you've got to watch him very closely. That's one of the things that you have to evaluate properly and try to figure out how that would fit in to your main club. I really liked what I saw in his play."

"Zach was just a machine," Jeff Pyle, who served as an assistant coach for the Thrashers at the Traverse City Prospects Tournament said of Bogosian. "He's a great kid who wants to be out there for 60 minutes. You can't really measure heart and commitment and I just think he's going to keep getting better."

The benchmark for the 2008 Draft class in the NHL was the 10-game mark. Once the players from the 2008 Draft class dressed for their 10th game, their rookie contracts began counting against their team's salary cap.

All passed the test with the exception of Pietrangelo and Boychuk. The Islanders have time to make their evaluation on Bailey; Filatov, because he was drafted from Russia, was eligible to go to the AHL.

Maloney committed to having Boedker and Tikhonov, a pair of big forwards, on the Coyotes' roster all season.
"I think with the salary-cap era, it puts pressure to get younger players in the lineup more than anything."Brian Lawton

"We have a coach (Wayne Gretzky) that loves young players and is willing to play young players," Maloney said. "We can make that commitment. We look at our guys and see the only way we're going to win here in Phoenix is to win with top-end young players. I look at, are they hockey players, are they strong enough to compete, and if they're strong enough to compete, we'll play them."

It's not just minutes, Maloney said, it's the quality of those minutes.

"Young players have to play, and more so situational playing time," Maloney said. "Mikkel Boedker has to be on the power play. If you're Viktor Tikhonov, you need to kill penalties. It's not getting your six or seven minutes and sit there the rest of the night."

Gretzky has made Maloney look good on his promise. Boedker is fifth among the team's forwards in power-play ice time, while Tikhonov is fifth among the team's forwards in penalty kill ice time.

Getting young players appropriate ice time isn't the only factor in their development. It's keeping them pointed in the right direction in everything else they do.

"We don't leave these guys alone very often," Maloney said. "We're always like mother hens around here."

Veterans also have the responsibility of watching over their younger teammates.

"Steve's roommate through the opening (Europe) trip and through the season is Gary Roberts, and that's not by accident," Lawton said.

Lawton said the Lightning's veteran core will be counted on to help Stamkos; he cautioned, however, that the message needs to be consistent.

"When you have a strong group of characters, you don't want to be too over these kids," Lawton said. "Everyone wants to help and give advice. It's important we have a consistent message. I've spent a lot of time with our leadership group on the team, Vinny Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis and Gary Roberts and Mark Recchi, and it's important there's a consistent message there. We don't want 10 different guys trying to inflict their views. You don't want to over-complicate it."

For the players making the big jump from the draft to the NHL, keeping it simple applies on and off the ice.

"We've got to do everything we can to help them," Lawton said. "They've got to do their end of the bargain, but we have to do everything we can to help them."

Contact Adam Kimelman at

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