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Chicago trio paces impressive rookie class in West

by Shawn P. Roarke /

Patrick Kane, the first overall pick of the 2007 NHL Entry draft, is one of a handful of rookies in the West who could make a positive impact on their respective teams this season. 
A new wave of rookie talent floods into the NHL every season. For some of the “newbies” success isn’t in doubt. It is expected. Ah, but others take us completely by surprise.

Last season, most fans expected big things from Boston’s Phil Kessel, and they weren’t disappointed. But far fewer expected -- or predicted -- the banner seasons enjoyed by Pittsburgh’s Jordan Staal and Nashville’s Alexander Radulov.

That seemingly inexhaustible pipeline of talent is one of the NHL’s greatest treasures and helps make each season a strong and competitive marathon.

Today, looks at the latest influx of talent, the Western Conference rookie class of 2007-08. In the West, we have identified 12 players who should make a positive impact on their respective teams this season. As always, there will be others joining this group as the season progresses. But for now, here are 12 Western Conference-based players fans should be cognizant of as the curtain rises on the 2007-08 season.

Bobby Ryan, Anaheim -- It just seems like the Ducks have been waiting forever for the arrival of Ryan, a prototypical American power forward, but it has only been three years. The wait hasn’t been helped by the fact Ryan was selected one spot behind Sidney Crosby in the 2005 Entry Draft. Crosby is entering his third NHL season and led the League in points last season. But power forwards tend to take longer to develop and that has been the case with Ryan, who did score a career-high 43 goals last season and finished with 102 points while playing with Owen Sound in the OHL. He now is ready for NHL duty.

Eric Nystrom, Calgary -- This highly touted prospect’s bid to put an injury-ravaged past in the past did not succeed at training camp as he was sent to the American Hockey League. But Nystrom is far too valuable and talented to stay down for long -- if he can stay healthy. A shoulder injury scuttled Nystrom’s 2006-07 season, and it may take him a while to get his game back. But once he does, he is the two-way, defensively responsible player who can excel in coach Mike Keenan’s system.

Pat Kane, Chicago -- In Chicago, all eyes will be on Kane, the first-overall selection in the 2007 Entry Draft. A pure scorer, Kane led the Ontario Hockey League in scoring last season, potting 62 goals and finishing with 145 points in 58 games with London. He has not looked out of place in training camp and could conceivably stick with the big club for the season if he gets off to a hot start. Chicago still has the option of sending Kane back to London, if necessary, but Kane is making that appear less and less likely by the day.

Jonathan Toews, Chicago -- Lost in the hype surrounding Kane, Toews has quietly emerged as Chicago’s likely No. 1 center to start the season. A broken finger suffered in training camp should not affect his status. The former college star has both the skills and confidence to handle first-line duty in his first go-round at the NHL level. His performance in the World Junior Championships -- including his shootout success against the Americans in a tense semifinal -- showed Chicago management that this youngster has the moxie to handle the most stressful of assignments.

Jack Skille, Chicago -- The last, and oldest, of the Chicago troika of highly skilled forwards that have flooded into the organization during the franchise’s rebuilding process, Skille gave up his final two years of college eligibility to turn pro last spring and appeared in several AHL games. This season, the power forward has his eyes set on full-time NHL duty. He has the frame and the shot to make a legitimate case for himself, but the roster space might be lacking if Kane sticks around.

Niklas Grossman, Dallas -- The 22-year-old Grossman has been on the fringes of the Stars’ roster for a few years now. He had a brief cup of coffee with Dallas two years ago and played extensively in the AHL last season for Dallas’ AHL affiliate in Iowa. He is a big-bodied, stay-at-home defender who does much of the dirty work on a blue line that goes unnoticed by all but the most in-tuned observers. Clearly, coach Dave Tippett has been paying attention. He compares Grossman to NHL stalwart Mattias Norstrom, a fellow Swede and potential teammate with the Stars.

Igor Grigorenko, Detroit -- It’s now or never for the star-crossed Russian winger in Detroit. The 24-year-old has seen his career sidetracked by a near fatal car accident back in 2003 that resulted in severe damage to his left leg. Now, however, Grigorenko is healthy again and looking to establish his NHL credentials. Remember, it wasn’t too long ago that Grigorenko was named the Most Outstanding Player at the 2003 World Junior Championships, a team that featured NHL stars Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk.

Robbie Schremp, Edmonton -- The Oilers certainly have plenty of roster spots open after last season’s overhaul. The question remains, though, about whether Schremp will claim one of those open spots. A first-round pick back in 2004, Schremp was not as spectacular as hoped for in his first pro season, managing 17 goals and 53 points with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the American Hockey League. But Schremp is just two years removed from a dominant 145-point campaign with London of the OHL. He possesses jaw-dropping offensive skills that make him a threat to score on virtually any shift. He just needs to find the consistency to be a good pro.

Potential Calder Trophy candidate Jack Johnson should be a major force on the Kings' blue line this season.
Jack Johnson, Los Angeles -- The hype built to a fever pitch last season when Johnson left the University of Michigan at the end of the school year and joined the Kings for the final five games of the season. He didn’t register a point in those five contests, but brought the hard-hitting, gritty style of play that has had Kings management and fans salivating since Johnson was selected in the first round of the 2005 Entry Draft. Johnson should be a major force on the Kings' blue line this season and will likely be a viable candidate for the Calder Trophy this spring.

Josh Harding, Minnesota --The progression of Harding was part of the equation that made established goalie Manny Fernandez expendable in Minnesota. Hence, Fernandez was dealt to Boston this summer. Harding was thrust into the starting lineup late last year and responded by posting a 1.16 GAA and a .960 save percentage in seven appearances. It wasn’t a fluke, either. During his time with Houston of the AHL, Harding was 29-8 with a 2.66 GAA and .922 save percentage.

Peter Mueller, Phoenix -- Quietly, Mueller has announced he is ready for full-time NHL duty. While not enjoying the limelight afforded some of his peers like Kane, Johnson, Phoenix teammate Kyle Turris, Mueller may well be as good as any of them. Last season, in his first year of junior hockey after a successful run with the United States National Team Developmental Program, Mueller scored 26 goals and 32 assists in 56 games with Everett of the Western Hockey League. He added 13 points in the Silvertips’ 15-game playoff run. He has a legitimate chance to feature as a top-two center for Wayne Gretzky’s Coyotes.

Erik Johnson, St. Louis -- Jack Johnson, no relation, got all the hype last spring as he decided to come out early and make a big end-of-season splash with the Kings. But Erik Johnson, the first overall pick in the 2006 Entry Draft could be just as good and he is eager to show it this season. Erik Johnson should see plenty of time with the rapidly rebuilding Blues and that should help kick start a fierce rivalry between the two Johnsons that could last for the next two decades. Erik Johnson had 24 points and 50 penalty minutes as a freshman with the University of Minnesota last year.

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