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Exceptional rookies look to avoid sophomore slump

by Tal Pinchevsky

In a 2012-13 NHL season that started in January and was limited to 48 games, a number of first-year players managed to secure a roster spot and established themselves as regular contributors under unique circumstances. Their place among the League's fraternity may be secure for the moment, but with the upcoming season featuring divisional realignment and a full slate of 82 games, there is one thing these second-year players are looking to avoid: the dreaded sophomore slump.

"It's in the back of your mind when you're training. You know it can happen to you," said Montreal Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher, who finished second in Calder Trophy voting after scoring 15 goals and 28 points in 44 games. "At the same time, I believe if I put in the work, if I do everything I need to do to get better, I go into camp, I play the same way and play my game, nothing needs to change. And I don't expect it to."

Gallagher has every reason to be motivated heading into his sophomore season. Sure, many of the game's greats starred in their first NHL season, including Mario Lemieux, Pavel Bure, Teemu Selanne, Martin Brodeur and Alex Ovechkin, all of whom won the Calder as the League's top rookie. But NHL history is littered with cautionary tales of players who made an impact in their rookie season before flaming out shortly thereafter.

"[Former Ottawa Senators captain Daniel] Alfredsson, at our exit meeting, was the first person to say it. We had a lot of young guys in Ottawa and he just said, 'People say you'll get the sophomore slump,'" said forward Cory Conacher, who finished third last season in rookie scoring with 29 points with the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Senators. "Alfredsson won the Calder Trophy as a rookie. He just threw it out there and said that has nothing to do with the way you should be thinking. Play the same way. As long as you train hard in the summer, you'll find a way to get better. Work hard and you won't have to worry about that."

At the end of the 2012-13 season, teams made sure to be proactive in helping their young players enter an offseason that could be the most important of their careers. It's particularly important in today's NHL, considering the pivotal role a number of rookies played on their respective teams last season.

Calder Trophy winner Jonathan Huberdeau finished the season as the Florida Panthers' top forward, and Nail Yakupov of the Edmonton Oilers, the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, ended it on an absolute tear, scoring six goals in his final three games. Minnesota Wild defenseman Jonas Brodin was a standout on a unit that had been lacking depth heading into the season.

So with teams providing guidance in their end-of-season exit interviews, and players engaging in intense summer fitness regimens, the hope is that Year Two can be the next important step in their development. If fear of the sophomore slump provides a little extra motivation, then so be it.

"The one thing I'm conscious of is I played 48 games last year. It's going to be 82 this year. You make sure your body is going to withstand that," Gallagher told at the annual NHLPA Rookie Showcase. "A big part of my game is bringing energy to my teammates and bringing energy to how they play and what they can do. It's just something to focus on every game. I try to be the hardest-working player. I try to focus on the things I can control and not worry about the things that you can't."

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