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Better the second time around

by Brian Compton

Pittsburgh Penguins' Evgeni Malkin of Russia sends a slap shot past Washington Capitals goaltender Brent Johnson for a second-period goal in NHL hockey action in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Feb. 18, 2007. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
The sophomore jinx.

So many suffer from it, not many overcome it. Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of bad breaks or bounces. Other times, though, what once seemed easy to the rookies becomes seemingly insurmountable to the sophomore.

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

Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins -- Playing in the shadow of the most talented youngster in the world (Sidney Crosby), the Russian center had an incredible rookie campaign in 2006-07 with 33 goals and 52 assists. Nearly half of his goals were scored on the power play (16), so the 21-year-old must continue to thrive on special teams as the Pens aim for a division title.

Honestly, though, with all of the talent that surrounds him, is it even possible for Malkin to struggle this season? Shouldn’t talent alone get him by? My gosh, this is a guy who scored a goal in each of his first six NHL games. Could be primed for his first 100-point season.

Travis Zajac, New Jersey Devils -- The big center looks to be another solid pickup by Lou Lamoriello, as the Winnipeg native scored 17 goals and 25 assists in his rookie season. It’s a safe bet that more will be expected of him this time around, especially with Scott Gomez now playing on the other side of the Hudson River.

Zajac, 22, could be primed for an even bigger season in Year 2 if he’s skating alongside Zach Parise. A quick skater with tremendous hands, Parise scored 31 goals last season and is easily one of the top young forwards in the game. If Zajac is playing on Parise’s line, he’ll get assists by accident. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Ian White, Toronto Maple Leafs -- A defenseman with offensive upside, White may very well be a mainstay on the Leafs’ blue line for years to come. Three months into his rookie season, White earned a plus-6 rating in a single game in a 10-2 win over the Boston Bruins.

But offense wasn’t a major problem for Toronto in 2006-07, as the Leafs finished the season with 258 goals. The back end, however, was a major problem throughout the season. If the Leafs plan on returning to the postseason for the first time since 2004, they’ll certainly have to trim down from the 269 goals they allowed a season ago. But only Hal Gill (plus-10) had a better plus-minus rating among Leafs defensemen than White, who was a plus-8 for the season.

Drew Stafford, Buffalo Sabres -- The Milwaukee native enjoyed a solid rookie campaign (13-14-27), despite being shuffled back and forth between Buffalo and Rochester in the American Hockey League. With Daniel Briere and Chris Drury gone via free agency, the constant movement will likely stop for Stafford. He’ll have to carry a larger load this time around.

This could be a lot to ask of Stafford, who only turns 22 on Oct. 30 and has just 41 games of NHL experience. But he made the most of his time in Buffalo, and it’s a safe bet that Lindy Ruff and the entire Sabres organization will be handing Stafford more responsibility. The Sabres will need him to be up to the task if they’re going to compete in what should be an even tougher Eastern Conference than last season.

Jaroslav Halak, Montreal Canadiens -- A ninth-round draft choice by the Habs in 2003, the Slovakian netminder came out of nowhere to win 10 games in 16 appearances last season. Fans at the Bell Centre certainly came to appreciate Halak’s services, as the 22-year-old went 7-0-0 on home ice.

But how much playing time will Halak receive in his sophomore season? After all, it’s not as if Cristobal Huet did anything last year (19 wins, 2.81 GAA, .916 save percentage) to hinder his chances of returning as the Habs’ No. 1 goalie. In the end, Halak will get some opportunities, and he’ll need to make the most of them. Not only for the Canadiens, but for himself, too. Let’s not forget that the Habs took Carey Price with their first-round pick in the 2005 Entry Draft. Price helped the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs capture a Calder Cup championship last June. No pressure, though.

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