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Circle of Life continues for NHL younglings

by Brad Holland
Less than a year ago, Milan Lucic, Brandon Dubinsky, Nicklas Backstrom, Marc Staal, and Kris Letang were the rookies, the wide-eyed, first-year skaters heading to the NHL All-Star Game simply to savor a taste of the experience.

Only a year later, and my things certainly have changed. The peach fuzz may still remain, but the wide-eyed stare has been replaced with the seen-it-all glare of an NHL veteran.

Five of the boys are back in town for their second All-Star Game (six, along with Patrick Kane, named to the Western Conference starting line), in the hockey-mad city of Montreal.

The five veterans of last year's YoungStars Game returning for the 2009 incarnation will be joined by five more of their contemporaries -- Atlanta's Bryan Little, San Jose's Devin Setoguchi, Edmonton's Andrew Cogliano, Vancouver's Mason Raymond and the Kings' Erik Ersberg -- and the 10 players will take on the "younglings," the rookies from the 2008-09 season, in a battle of the brightest of the League's future.

Common sense would seem to dictate that with an added year of development, especially in the world's best hockey League, would translate into domination on the part of the Sophomore team, that they have an unfair advantage heading into the game.

Little's 19 goals are good for a tie for eighth in the League. Setoguchi is tied for 12th in goals and his 37 points tied him with Buffalo's Thomas Vanek and Ottawa's Dany Heatley, among others; Backstrom currently sits at 11th in League, with 45 points through 41 games, only a few points out of the Top-10.

The list goes on. Lucic leads the League in hits with 154 in only 40 games, while Letang and Staal are each top-5 on their respective teams in time on ice per game. Goaltender Ersberg was a backup to begin the season, but is now fully entrenched in the Kings' net, with 19 starts this season, and 8 wins and a 2.36 GAA.

It would appear, at first glance, that the older, more experienced sophomores will run roughshod over their - in most cases - younger competition.

But these aren't your parent's rookies. Not by a long shot.

Yes, four of them -- Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos, the Los Angeles' Drew Doughty, Toronto's Luke Schenn and Phoenix's Mikkel Boedker -- were playing in the Canadian Hockey League last season and were drafted in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, but don't let their relative inexperience fool you.

These young players are men, professional ice hockey players in every sense of the term. And the rest of the group, comprised of Dallas' James Neal, Chicago's Kris Versteeg, St. Louis' Patrik Berglund, Boston's Blake Wheeler, Florida's Michael Frolik and Columbus' Steve Mason, are all just as talented, with just a little more experience and seasoning.

The group as a whole has already enjoyed success not normal for a group of rookie hopefuls. One of them may well take home the League's Calder Trophy as NHL Rookie of the Year, and one of them may well go on to even more success, and possible another piece of hardware, before the seasons is over.

Versteeg's 33 points are good for the top slot for NHL rookies, but it also spots him nicely at 46th overall in League scoring, ahead even of such established scorers as Ottawa's Jason Spezza, Chicago's Martin Havlat, and Carolina's Eric Staal.

Despite missing a number of games to injury, Toronto's Luke Schenn has already established himself as an integral part of the Maple Leafs' defensive corps, with 43 blocked shots (fourth among rookies), 87 hits (second among rookies), and 20:56 per game on the ice (second only to Doughty's 23:53 per game).

In fact, Doughty himself has logged so many minutes this season that his 23:53 per game is good for 33rd in the league, more than such accomplished skaters as Nashville's Shea Weber, San Jose's Dan Boyle, and even the Washington Capitals' Alexander Ovechkin (all 2009 All-Stars).

It is further proof that by the time players reach the NHL now, whether they are 18, as in the case of young Doughty, or 22, as in the case of Versteeg, they are fully prepared for the rigors of an 82-game professional schedule.

They are integral pieces of their team, and not simply on the roster because of their youth. They are contributing members, evidenced by the amount of success they've each individually accomplished already this season.

The most obvious example of the success simple of these young players is Blue Jackets goaltender Steve Mason. Mason has transcended his 'rookie' status, and is competing instead with the rest of the goaltenders in the League on their own footing.

He currently leads all goaltenders in save percentage with a .934 percentage in 23 games played and in goals-against average with a 1.82, while currently sitting tied with Minnesota netminder Niklas Backstrom and Vancouver captain Roberto Luongo (each a 2009 NHL All-Star) for the League-lead in shutouts with five.

Leading in three of four major goaltending categories (he sits tied for 14th in wins with 13, but in only 23 starts) at the All-Star break, while almost single-handedly pushing his team up the Western Conference standings? Not bad for the 20-year-old Oakville, Ontario native. Not bad for any goalie, from anywhere, at any age, for that matter.

Were his name Luongo, Martin Brodeur or Evgeni Nabokov, the "Vezina" calls would already have started. But even with his success, there will always be those who hold their breath, waiting for his rookie status to catch up with him, for the "kid" to falter along the way.

After a full half-year of NHL hockey under his belt though, it might be time for those doubters to exhale. Because for a kid only two seasons removed from Major Junior hockey, this kid is, as one NHL general manager recently put it, "the real deal."

They grow up so fast.

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