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Looking at the Eastern Conference's top rookies

by Shawn P. Roarke

Can rookie Carey Price capture the Montreal Canadiens' starting job during training camp?
Though an impressive group of rookie players will call the NHL’s Western Conference home, the Eastern Conference isn’t lacking in fresh-faced talent.

From impressive netminders like Montreal’s Carey Price to defenseman like Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang and forwards like Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom, rookies from the Eastern Conference will have plenty to say about who challenges for the Calder Trophy in 2007-08.

Here’s a look at 13 Eastern Conference rookies who caught our attention.

Bryan Little, Atlanta — A lingering injury to veteran Steve Rucchin leaves a hole at center in Atlanta, and first-year pro Little might just be the one to fill it. The 19-year-old had 153 goals in four years with Barrie of the Ontario Hockey League and looked strong in training camp.

Clarke MacArthur, Buffalo -- The latest in a long line of two-way players produced by the Buffalo system, MacArthur could win an NHL job due to the departure of Chris Drury and Daniel Briere. The 22-year-old had 63 points in 51 games with Rochester of the American Hockey League last season and added seven points during a 19-game run with the parent club.

Carey Price, Montreal — At 20, Price will make the Canadiens only if he steals the No. 1 job in training camp. That is not out of the realm of possibility, however, as Price has excelled at every level. Even if he doesn’t make the NHL right out of camp, Price has the talent to force Montreal’s hand during the season. The 2007 Canadian Major Junior goalie of the year signed a pro contract after his junior team was eliminated and went 15-6 with a 2.05 goals-against last spring in leading Hamilton to the Calder Cup championship.

Noah Welch, Florida — The prized jewel in Florida’s trade of Gary Roberts to Pittsburgh at last season’s trading deadline, Welch is a late-blooming 25-year-old defender with an intriguing offensive upside. He had 27 points in 38 American Hockey League games last season, but struggled with just three points in 24 NHL games. He should be more consistent this season.

Kyle Chipchura, Montreal — Another Canadiens prospect who came of age in the Calder Cup Playoffs, the 21-year-old is an agitating, two-way center who can provide some offense while playing a high-tempo, physically grating style of game. After scoring 12 goals and 39 points in 80 regular-season games for Hamilton last season, Chipchura had six goals and 13 points in 22 Calder Cup playoff games.

Andy Greene, New Jersey — The 24-year-old defensemen was likely ready for full-time NHL duty last season, but New Jersey’s salary-cap woes kept him in the minors for much of the season. He had two goals and an assist and was plus-6 in 11 playoff games after getting into 24 regular-season games at the end of the season. With Brian Rafalski gone to Detroit, Greene, who has some offensive upside, should see serious minutes this season in the Devils’ revamped defensive rotation.

Ryan Callahan, New York RangersA member of last season’s American Hockey League All-Star Team, Callahan was a late-season addition to the Rangers and he delivered in a major way. He scored four goals in 14 regular-season games and added two more in New York’s two-round run through the playoffs. Callahan, a tenacious forechecker, will likely play on the Rangers’ third line this season.

Marc Staal, New York RangersMarc is trying to become the third member of the Staal family in the NHL; he can only hope to have as successful a debut as his younger brother, Jordan, had as a rookie with Pittsburgh last season. Marc Staal, a defenseman, certainly has the tools to duplicate Jordan’s run for the Calder Trophy, a race in which Jordan was among the three finalists. Marc had 20 points in 21 OHL playoff games last spring — perhaps enough to suggest his time has arrived.

Defenseman Marc Staal is on track to follow his brothers Eric and Jordan into the NHL.
Nick Foligno, Ottawa — The 19-year-old right wing has turned in a strong training camp to further show that he is ready to contribute on a regular basis in the NHL — perhaps right now. The son of longtime NHLer Mike Foligno was dominant in the Ontario Hockey League last season and was the main reason Sudbury went on an unexpected run to the OHL championship. Foligno had 12 goals and 29 points to go along with a plus-14 rating in 21 postseason games.

Claude Giroux, Philadelphia — With a year of junior eligibility remaining, Giroux is a long shot to stick with the Flyers; but not because he lacks the talent. Rather, it is because the already-young Flyers have the opportunity to allow Giroux to mature for another season before turning pro. But the 19-year-old is not making things easy with a strong camp. Giroux had 112 points in just 64 games last season with Gatineau of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

Kris Letang, Pittsburgh
This smooth-skating defenseman almost made the Penguins last season as an 18-year-old. A dominant training camp earned Letang a seven-game run in Pittsburgh before he was finally returned to his junior team in the QMJHL. With Val d’Or, he had 52 points in 40 games and was a plus-19, not missing a beat after his demotion. This season, he looks even stronger than he did last fall as the biggest surprise in a training camp full of revelations for the Pens.

Anton Stralman, Toronto — A seventh-round pick of the Leafs in 2005, Stralman appeared on scouts’ radar after a dominant performance in the World Championships last spring for his native Sweden. He’s now in the running to steal a job in Leafs camp. A bout with bronchitis that cost the big Swede six days at the start of camp didn’t help in his bid, but he has played strong since returning and is full of confidence. If he doesn’t make the parent club out of camp, an in-season call-up is not out of the question.

Nicklas Backstrom, Washington — The latest infusion of youth in a quickly rebuilding Washington team, the Caps hope Backstrom is the kind of center who can take Alexander Ovechkin to the next level. The young Swede, who has often been compared to Peter Forsberg, has the hands and vision to make Ovechkin smile as he converts set-up after set-up. That likely won’t happen this season, though. Most likely, the Caps will let the 19-year-old center get his feet wet on the team’s second or third line. Backstrom had 12 goals and 28 assists in 45 games last season for Byrnas in Sweden — impressive numbers for a teenager playing in the Swedish Elite League.

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