MONTREAL - Defencemen were hot at the draft last June and two of the best will play in the NHL YoungStars game during all-star weekend.
Drew Doughty of the Los Angles Kings and Luke Schenn of the Toronto Maple Leafs, drafted second and fifth overall respectively, are already skating regular shifts with their NHL clubs.
They will play for the rookies against the sophomores in the YoungStars game on Saturday at the Bell Centre.
The player picked third overall, Zach Bogosian of the Atlanta Thrashers, might have also been picked for the YoungStars had the former Peterborough Pete not missed two months of his rookie campaign with a broken leg, although he is now back and playing for his NHL club.
There have been 18-year-old defencemen who stepped directly into the NHL before, but it is rare to see three do it from the same draft.
"It's a little surprising, but we all went to teams that I guess were in need of defencemen," said Doughty, a slick puck-moving rearguard who is already a big part of the blue-line corps on the rebuilding Kings. "It was fortunate for us that we could jump into the league so quickly and I think we're all doing big parts to help our teams.
"When I came in, I wasn't expected to play as many minutes as I am now. I'm playing up to about 23 minutes a game. I was expected to play 15, if that, and I was expected not even to play in some games. So L.A.'s helped my success so much. They've given me playing time and older defencemen on the team have shown me a lot."
Two other defencemen drafted in the first round by the Kings - Thomas Hickey who was taken fourth overall in 2007 and Colten Teubert picked 13th overall last June - are doing what most drafted defencemen do: spending extra time in junior hockey.
They and Alex Pietrangelo, the No. 4 pick in the June draft, helped Canada win gold at the world junior championship earlier this month.
Defencemen are said to take longer to develop than forwards, but 2008 looks to have been an exceptional year.
"I just feel very lucky to get the opportunity," said Schenn. "Just to make the Toronto Maple Leafs is pretty exciting for me.
"But also, I've had a chance to play a lot. They're been awesome with me. They put me in some key situations and gave me lots of ice time."
Schenn was not surprised to see the three blue chip prospects move straight into the NHL.
"Look at Doughty and Bogosian, they're really good players," he said. "The talent's there. And luckily for us, we came in at the right time with our teams."
Kris Letang of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who will play for the sophomores, was not a top-five draft pick like Schenn or Doughty and took a more traditional path.
Picked 62nd overall in 2005, Letang spent an extra year in junior, then split a season between junior, the Penguins and the AHL, then stepped up to the big club last season.
"It's been great for me," the Montreal native said. "I had the chance to play twice at the world juniors.
"I won two gold medals, got some experience there. For them, maybe it's good to play now, but for me, I think I gained some confidence playing there. Maybe I wouldn't be the player I am now because I would play maybe 15 minutes a game (in the NHL) instead of playing a lot in junior and going through some long playoffs."
Marc Staal of the New York Rangers was drafted 12th overall in 2005 and spent two extra years in junior hockey before making the jump to the NHL last season, when he played 80 games.
He said Doughty, Schenn and Bogosian are "extraordinarily talented" and that's why they were able to start their NHL careers right away.
"For me, it was just the experience of the pro game and knowing what you can do," he said of breaking into the NHL. "Getting bigger and stronger and being able to play physically with the other guys is key, too."
The YoungStars will play 3-on-3 hockey, with nine skaters and one goaltender per team. They will play three six-minute periods, with stop time only for the final minute of each period and for penalty shots.
The rookies have Pekka RInne of Nashville in goal, while other skaters are Blake Wheeler of Boston, Kris Versteeg of Chicago, James Neal of Dallas, Michael Frolik of Florida, Mikkel Boedker of Phoeneix, Patrick Berlund of St. Louis and last June's No. 1 overall pick, forward Steven Stamkos of Tampa Bay.
The sophomores have Carey Price of Montreal in goal, and also have Bryan Little of Atlanta, Dave Bolland of Chicago, Andrew Cogliano of Edmonton, Brandon Dubinsky of the New York Rangers, David Perron of St. Louis, Devin Setoguchi of San Jose and Mason Raymond of Vancouver.
Price will also be the starting goalie in the main all-star game on Sunday.
The Canadiens did not want him to risk aggravating a recent ankle injury by taking part in the skills competition, which is also on Saturday. Instead, they agreed to have him replace Erik Ersberg of Los Angeles in the YoungStars game.