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No shortage of young talent in Eastern Conference

by Dan Rosen /

The hype that follows 2008 top draft pick Steven Stamkos as he prepares for his first professional season equals the hype that anyone, including Evgeni Malkin and Patrick Kane, has received since Sidney Crosby came into the League in 2005.

Stamkos is not looked at as “The Franchise” in Tampa Bay because Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis already have set up shop and won a Stanley Cup, but he headlines a healthy crop of rookies entering the 2008-09 season.

To further preview the upcoming season, takes a closer look at 15 rookies from the Eastern Conference who could vie for the Calder Memorial Trophy this season:

Karl Alzner, Washington Capitals – Alzner has been hyped in Washington since he was taken with the fifth pick of the 2007 Entry Draft. He may be the team’s future captain; Alzner captained Team Canada to the gold medal at the 2008 World Junior Championship and led the Calgary Hitmen last season, as well.

It isn’t official yet, but unless something unforeseen happens in training camp, you can pencil the highly-touted defenseman onto the Capitals roster for their season-opener at Atlanta on Oct. 10.

Zach Bogosian, Atlanta Thrashers – Every indication out of Atlanta is Bogosian, the third pick of the 2008 Draft, will make the team as one of its top six defensemen. He was second among Ontario Hockey League defensemen last season with 50 assists, and he can play a physical game, as well.

Atlanta General Manager Don Waddell and coach John Anderson have said they will give Bogosian every chance to succeed. Odds are he does and he finds his way onto the Thrashers’ blue line to start the season.

Matthew Corrente, New Jersey Devils – The last pick of the first round of the 2006 Draft has to fight his way through a great deal of blue-line traffic in order to start the season in New Jersey. Paul Martin, Johnny Oduya, Colin White, Bryce Salvador, Mike Mottau, Andy Greene and Sheldon Brookbank all are returning from last season’s unit.

While Corrente may start the season with Lowell, the Devils’ American Hockey League affiliate, chief scout David Conte believes he can log 15 years as a top-two defenseman in the League once he makes it. The clock could start ticking this season.

Angelo Esposito, Atlanta Thrashers – His professional career hasn’t even started yet, but this is a make-or-break year for Esposito, the 2007 first-round pick by the Pittsburgh Penguins who came to the Thrashers in the Marian Hossa trade last season.

Atlanta GM Don Waddell expects a consistent season from Esposito, whose production in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League declined each of the past three seasons as he went from 98 points in 2005-06 to 69 last season. If his attitude is right, Esposito can be a major player in Atlanta.

Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers – Giroux has been turning heads ever since every OHL team passed him in the 2005 draft. That he’s on pace to make a team already built for a playoff drive is quite impressive and gives a lot of insight in to how highly the Flyers think of him.

Giroux, who played two NHL games as an emergency call-up last season, isn’t as physical as R.J. Umberger, but he’s more skilled and he could slot right into the forward position vacated by Umberger, who was traded to Columbus at the draft.

Alex Goligoski, Pittsburgh Penguins – The Penguins would rather have a healthy Ryan Whitney, but Goligoski may benefit the most from Whitney’s absence, which could last 3-5 months due to foot surgery.

As an AHL rookie last season, Goligoski set a record for points in a playoff season by a defenseman with 28. He can take Whitney’s place on the Penguins’ power play because he’s poised as well as being an excellent passer and skater.

Nikolai Kulemin, Toronto Maple Leafs
– Kulemin will be given a significant role in the Leafs’ offense and time to adapt as they continue their rebuilding phase.

Kulemin comes to Toronto from Russia, where he scored 21 goals for Metallurg Magnitogorsk last season. He’s a left wing who can play on one of Toronto’s scoring lines this season. He’s 22 years old, so physically he’s mature enough to play a big role.

Shawn Matthias, Florida Panthers – The 2006 second-round pick by the Detroit Red Wings could earn big-time minutes with the Panthers, who are starving for his offense after trading Olli Jokinen to Phoenix in June.

Matthias had two goals in four games with the Panthers last season. He did the bulk of his damage with the OHL’s Belleville Bulls as he piled up 32 goals and 79 points in 53 games. He is a goal scorer, and Florida needs him now.

Kyle Okposo, New York Islanders – He’s played all of nine NHL games and has five points, but he’s the star of the Islanders’ youth movement for good reason. Okposo’s upside is tremendous and Isles fans can’t wait to see what he can do over the course of a full season.

While team brass is taking the slow approach with the 20-year-old forward, Okposo showed what he is capable of when he debuted last season. He could be in the top six, and maybe the top three, early this season.

Ryan Parent, Philadelphia Flyers – With Jason Smith out of the picture, there is an opening on the blue line for Parent, who, despite playing in 22 games last season still is considered a rookie.

Parent is a defensive specialist. He acquitted himself quite nicely in four playoff appearances last season, but he won’t dazzle you. He’ll give the Flyers stability on the back end, which is exactly what they need from him.

Luke Schenn, Toronto Maple Leafs – Schenn, the fifth pick of the 2008 Draft, stood out among all the defensemen in the Maple Leafs’ development camp by playing with a presence suited for someone well beyond his years.

Schenn has the potential to make the Leafs’ roster, but he could be shipped back to Kelowna of the Western Hockey League, where he would be that league’s top blueliner.

However, it’s not far-fetched to think Schenn will make the Leafs, especially if he’s given a nine-game tryout to start the season. The Leafs would have the option to send him back to Kelowna after that, but they may find it difficult to do so.

Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning
– He was the No. 1 draft pick in June and he enters the season as arguably the most intriguing player to watch in the League. People can’t wait to find out if Stamkos is the real deal, which adds pressure to his 18-year-old shoulders.

Stamkos likely will start the season as the Lightning’s second-line center, which means he’ll likely have Ryan Malone on his left side and Radim Vrbata on his right. Malone scored 27 goals playing with Evgeni Malkin last season.

Brandon Sutter, Carolina Hurricanes
– He’s bigger. He’s faster. He’s more mature. And the Carolina Hurricanes believe he may be ready to play a significant role in the NHL this season.

Sutter, the son of Devils coach Brent Sutter, has excelled at every level of hockey so far, including in various international events with Hockey Canada. He’s a gritty center who excels at both ends of the ice, making him that much more valuable.

Sutter played with the AHL’s Albany River Rats at the end of last season and fit in nicely, totaling a goal and an assist in seven regular-season games. He managed two assists in seven playoff games.

Mike Weber, Buffalo Sabres – There appears to be an opening on Buffalo’s blue line and Weber is in line to fill it, but he’ll have a training camp battle on his hands with Andrej Sekera, who split last season between Buffalo and Rochester of the AHL.

Weber likely is the more physical of the two, which could suit the Sabres this season considering coach Lindy Ruff may be looking for someone to play with the offensive-minded Jaroslav Spacek.

Weber played 16 games with the Sabres last season as well as 59 in Rochester. In the 75 games he combined for 17 points and 192 penalty minutes, but 14 of his points and 178 of the PIM came in the AHL.

Blake Wheeler, Boston Bruins – Drafted by the Phoenix Coyotes with the fifth pick of the 2004 Draft, Wheeler went to the University of Minnesota and never signed a professional contract. He became a free agent July 1 and signed with the Bruins, who may integrate him into their lineup this season.

Wheeler, a 6-foot-4 right wing, had 15 goals and 35 points in 44 games with the Gophers last season. He may start the season in the AHL with Providence, but expect him to make an impact in Boston at some point.

Contact Dan Rosen at

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