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Kane tops impressive Southeast rookie class

by Mike G. Morreale
Now that we've reached the midway point in the season, it's a good time to evaluate the top rookies from each club within the Southeast Division.

Let's begin in Atlanta, where forward Evander Kane is proving to be every bit as good as the Thrashers hoped he'd be when they made him the No. 4 pick in the 2009 Entry Draft.

The Vancouver native is tops among all Southeast Division rookies in goals (9), points (15), shooting percentage (13 percent), hits (57), takeaways (16) and plus/minus-rating (plus-6). Not too shabby.

But how has the fiery 18-year-old been able to do it despite being under such close scrutiny in his first season?

"I think there's always high pressure as a high pick, but it's something I was used to," Kane told "Playing in Vancouver in a high-profile junior city, there was always that pressure to win and score. I'm hoping that if we continue to win and have success, the city of Atlanta will put that pressure on the Thrashers to be a winning team not just once every 10 years, but every year."

Kane spent three seasons with the Vancouver Giants of the Western Hockey League prior to joining the Thrashers. In Vancouver, he posted 73 goals and 138 points in 134 games. He also totaled 166 penalty minutes.

"Coming in as a high pick, you're usually not coming to one of the best teams and, entering training camp, we had a lot of highly skilled players," Kane recalled. "I just wanted to come in and work hard and I think that hard work paid off. Hopefully, it can continue to pay off as the second half of the season approaches."

Atlanta captain Ilya Kovalchuk has certainly liked what he's seen in Kane this season.

"He plays the game the right way -- he finishes his checks and works hard," Kovalchuk said. "He's getting better and better as the season goes on. He skates like the wind. With the new rules, he's fitting right in for us."

Despite Atlanta's recent struggles, coach John Anderson continues to be impressed by Kane's maturity and game sense.

"I think Evander's been one of our best players the past 4-5 games," Anderson said. "He keeps the play simple. He's strong along the wall in the other zone and he's not afraid to go to the net. We've been very happy with him and he'll continue to play a lot if he continues to play like that."

Now that we've established Kane as the first-year wonder in Atlanta, let's take a look at the rookie performers staring for the other four clubs in the division.

Carolina Hurricanes -- Inquiring minds want to know who will be the next great rookie performer for general manager Jim Rutherford. Defenseman Bryan Rodney was probably the closest thing the team had to a bona-fide first-year performer this season, but even he was limited to 10 games before being reassigned to Carolina's American Hockey League affiliate in Albany. Rodney, who had five assists with Carolina, was recently named to the Canadian team for the AHL All-Star Game.

If the Hurricanes find themselves out of the playoff race earlier than anticipated, perhaps coach Paul Maurice would consider open tryouts for next season. Forwards Zach Boychuk and Drayson Bowman, defenseman Jamie McBain and goalies Mike Murphy and Justin Peters are just a few of the organization's top prospects itching to get a chance.
Florida Panthers -- Dmitry Kulikov, the No. 14 selection in the Entry Draft last summer, ranks second among Southeast Division defensemen with 45 blocked shots and has been a pleasant surprise for coach Peter DeBoer. He's getting more time on the power-play and has proven to be relatively consistent from game to game.

Kulikov is the undeniable leader among the rookie crop in Florida, collecting 3 goals and 12 points in 36 games while averaging 16 minutes and 20 shifts. Kulikov is currently recovering from a knee injury and is expected to return sometime this month.

Another first-year performer opening some eyes in Florida has been Victor Oreskovich, a second-round choice by the Colorado Avalanche in 2004 who actually retired from hockey following an overage season in the Ontario Hockey League in 2007. He was invited to Florida's camp in the fall and eventually made his NHL debut Oct. 31. Oreskovich is primarily a fiery third-line player capable of bringing energy and enthusiasm throughout the lineup. Oreskovich, who was coached by DeBoer in juniors, has 2 goals and 4 points in 29 games, averaging more than nine minutes and 14 shifts a game.

Tampa Bay Lightning -- After nailing down their future at forward in the form of No. 1 pick Steven Stamkos at the 2008 Entry Draft, the Lightning were able to solidify their foundation on the back end last June with the selection of defenseman Victor Hedman with the No. 2 choice.

Hedman is living up to all expectations. He's second on the team in scoring among defensemen with 11 points and ranks second in average ice time at 22:14.

"In Victor's case, he's come out of the gate playing a tremendous amount of minutes for us, which is eye-opening," general manager Brian Lawton said. "But he can handle it. He's done a good job, he hasn't rushed the puck as much as people might think. In our eyes, he's right on schedule. As a matter of fact, he's ahead of schedule from what our expectations were of him."

Hedman, 19, scored his first career goal on Dec. 5 in a 4-0 victory over the New York Islanders. It was rather fitting as Hedman did it against the team that drafted forward John Tavares with the No. 1 pick last June. For the season, Hedman has 3 goals, 12 points and a plus-2 rating in 38 games.

Washington Capitals -- Goalie Semyon Varlamov, currently sidelined with a lower-body injury, last saw action for the Capitals on Dec. 7 and made 26 saves in a 3-0 victory at Tampa Bay to earn his second shutout of the season.

In 16 games, Varlamov has posted a 12-1-2 record with a team-leading 2.21 goals-against average and .924 save percentage. In his last nine games, he's posted a 7-0-2 mark with a 1.53 GAA, .945 save percentage and two shutouts.

Last week, Varlamov was named to the Russian Olympic team for the first time, joining goaltenders Evgeni Nabokov of San Jose and Ilya Bryzgalov of Phoenix. He is the youngest player on the team by two years. The Capitals' first-round choice (No. 23) in 2006 made his NHL debut on Dec. 13, 2008, recording a win in his first start -- a 2-1 victory at Montreal. In 22 career games, he's 16-1-3 with a 2.25 GAA and .923 save percentage.

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