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An 'Avalanche' of talent ready for an encore

by Brian Compton
Paul Stastny set a rookie record by scoring at least one point in 20 consecutive games.
The Western Conference has been loaded with talent for decades and looks to be developing another group of gifted, young stars. While Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin reigned supreme and ultimately won the Calder Trophy for 2006-07, the amazing crop of rookies out west did not go unnoticed.

Sometimes, though, players can struggle in their second professional season. Coaches can experience difficulty trying to find a reason why such a talented player suffers from what is known as the “sophomore jinx.”

With that in mind, lists the top five, second-year players in the Western Conference who must continue to make a positive impact on their respective clubs:

Paul Stastny, Colorado Avalanche -- At the age of 21, Stastny was an offensive force for the Avs in his rookie season, scoring 28 goals (11 via the power play, along with six game-winners) and finishing second among all first-year players with 78 points (Malkin, 85).

The son of Hall of Famer Peter Stastny accomplished several impressive feats in his rookie season. He set a new league record for first-year players by notching at least one point in 20 consecutive games. His point total set a new franchise record for rookies, shattering Alex Tanguay’s mark of 51 back in 1999-2000.

Stastny should feel even more relaxed in Year 2, especially with the addition of power forward Ryan Smyth in the off-season. Not too many young players have the opportunity to learn the ropes from the likes of Smyth and Joe Sakic, but Stastny does. Another big season for Stastny could (and likely should) translate into his first postseason experience.

Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings -- One of several up-and-coming stars in Southern California, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound center -- who was selected 11th overall by L.A. in 2005 -- put up 20 goals and 61 points as a 19-year-old.

Can the former first-round pick from Slovenia -- and the first player from that country to ever play in the NHL -- do it again? Nothing suggests that he can’t. A healthy Michal Handzus should certainly ease the load for Kopitar, who will look to improve his defensive game this year after posting a minus-12 in Year 1.

What Kopitar should ultimately do is continue to build the excitement that is buzzing in Los Angeles thanks to the seasons that he, along with Mike Cammalleri and Alexander Frolov, enjoyed in 2006-07. The trio combined for 212 points last season, and they’re all 25 or younger. That’s certainly a reason for Kings fans to believe.

Wojtek Wolski, Colorado Avalanche -- Just another reason for fans in the Rocky Mountains to be excited. Wolski and Paul Stastny became the first pair of teammates to finish among the top five rookies in points since Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk accomplished the feat for the Atlanta Thrashers during the 2001-02 season.

The 21-year-old Polish native, however, is a step ahead of his counterpart Stastny in one department. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound left wing, already has played in a postseason, when he went 1-3-4 in eight playoff games for the Avs in 2006. Wolski, who had 22 goals and 28 assists last season, was taken in the first round (21st overall) by Colorado in 2004.

Not only does Wolski bring a deadly offensive game, but he brings character, too. On Nov. 22 of last year against the Anaheim Ducks, Wolski was scratched. Three nights later, the rookie recorded his first four-point game in a 4-1 win over the Vancouver Canucks. Certainly, he’ll be out to prove that last year was not an aberration.

Alexander Radulov, Nashville Predators -- The Russian right wing was impressive in his rookie campaign with 37 points (18 goals, 19 assists) in 64 regular-season games and another three tallies in four postseason contests.

Perhaps the most impressive part of his aspect of his game, though, was his two-way capabilities. Not only did Radulov light the lamp on a consistent basis for the Predators last season, but he also posted an impressive plus-19 rating at 20 years of age.

With Paul Kariya and Peter Forsberg in the rear-view mirror, Nashville will have to rely more on grit this time around if it hopes to contend in the Western Conference. It will be interesting to see Radulov respond, but it’s worth noting that he did record 101 penalty minutes in his final junior season.

Matthew Carle, San Jose Sharks -- The Alaska native showed why he could be a top offensive defenseman in this League for years to come with 42 points (11 goals, 3 assists) in 77 games last season.

Less than two years removed from collegiate hockey (All-American at the University of Denver), the 23-year-old also was a plus-9 for the Sharks last season, which was good for third place among San Jose defensemen.

Despite his youth, Carle already has an impressive resume. In 2006, he became the first junior defenseman to win the Hobey Baker Award, which is given annually to college hockey’s top player.

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