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Rookies came a long way to earn trip to Raleigh

by Adam Kimelman
A year ago, Jeff Skinner was a little-known center for the Ontario Hockey League's Kitchener Rangers, rated No. 47 among North American skaters in NHL Central Scouting's mid-term rankings.

Today, he leads all NHL rookies in scoring and will be part of the welcoming committee as one of the 12 rookies picked to take part in All-Star Weekend.

Skinner rode an outstanding second half to his season and an amazing run through the OHL playoffs -- 20 goals in 20 games -- to become the seventh pick of the 2010 Entry Draft by the Carolina Hurricanes. He earned a surprise spot on the Hurricanes' opening-night roster and hasn't looked back. In 41 games, he has 32 points, and his 14 goals are second among all rookies.

"I was just trying to make the team in the first eight or nine games, not knowing if I was going to stay here or go back to Kitchener," Skinner told the Hurricanes' website. "It's pretty cool the way it all worked out, and I think you just try to take it and run with it."

The group of rookies -- nine forwards, three defensemen -- will be split into two groups of six. During the NHL All-Star Player Fantasy Draft powered by Cisco on Jan. 28, a coin flip will allow one of the groups to pick the captain they get to skate for during the Honda NHL SuperSkills the next night.

Among those joining Skinner is the San Jose Sharks' Logan Couture. In his first full season with the Sharks after playing 25 regular-season games and another 15 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season, Couture has put that experience to good use. His 19 goals lead the Sharks, are 10th in the League and tops among all rookies, and his 28 points are second.

Sharks GM Doug Wilson isn't at all surprised Couture, the ninth pick of the 2007 Entry Draft, is having this level of success.

"He's a kid who can play with high-end players," Wilson said. "He plays the game fast because he thinks the game so well."

A year ago, Derek Stepan was a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin. Now, he's already become just the fourth rookie since 1927 to have a hat trick in his first NHL game -- he did it opening night in Buffalo -- and his 12 goals and 24 points in 43 games earned him a ticket to Raleigh.

Like Stepan, Kevin Shattenkirk was hanging in the dorms this time last year, at Boston University. Today, he's a regular on the Colorado Avalanche blue line who now will be hanging out with the All-Stars.

"Obviously I never thought, being called up a little into the season, that this would even be a possibility," Shattenkirk said. "It's an honor to be selected among these other great rookies and to participate in the All-Star Weekend."

Despite starting the season with AHL Lake Erie, Shattenkirk leads all rookie defensemen with 5 goals and is second with 20 points.

Shattenkirk is one point behind Anaheim's Cam Fowler. Many remember Fowler from his tough night at the 2010 Entry Draft, when he "slipped" all the way to 12th to the Ducks. He's spent most of the first half of the season making the teams that passed on him regret it, scoring 21 points in 38 games, and he's averaging 22:17 per game in ice time, third on the team.

A year ago, Fowler and Taylor Hall were teammates with the OHL's Windsor Spitfires. Since last January, the pair won league and Memorial Cup titles, and Hall was taken with the first pick of the 2010 Entry Draft. After a slow start, Hall is tied for the team lead with 12 goals.

Hall has played so well, coach Tom Renney is considering moving him from left wing to center and has compared him to Hall of Famer Mark Messier.

"I never thought, being called up a little into the season, that this would even be a possibility." -- Kevin Shattenkirk

"Messier and Taylor are kind of the same ilk … at the end of the day, I think Taylor's a kid who could play all three (forward) positions," Renney told the Edmonton Journal. "He's a bona fide adult in this game. I have no doubt he could do it."

Hall's foil during last year's draft run, Tyler Seguin, has gone from centering the top line for the OHL Plymouth Whalers to centering one of the Boston Bruins' top lines. The second pick of the 2010 Draft has 6 goals and 14 points in 39 games.

Hall also won't be going to Carolina alone, as teammate Jordan Eberle was picked to attend All-Star Weekend. He's out now following an emergency appendectomy, but prior to that he had 23 points in 37 games, and scored what could be the goal of the year on opening night against the Calgary Flames.

Three forwards -- Tyler Ennis, Evgeny Dadonov and Michael Grabner -- were biding their time in the American Hockey League this time last year. Today, they're all heading to the All-Star Game.

Ennis, a Sabres left wing, has 19 points in 41 games. Dadonov, a Panthers right wing who debuted Dec. 7 after starting the season in Rochester, has 3 goals and 7 assists in 14 games. Grabner, a forward claimed on waivers by the Islanders at the beginning of the season, has 9 goals and 12 points in 36 games.

The player who has come the most in the last year -- literally speaking -- is Coyotes defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson. A year ago, he was playing for Leksand in Sweden's Allsvenskan, one level down from the Elite League. This season, however, he made the long, intercontinental journey to Phoenix, where in 27 games, he has 7 assists.

He'll join the other rookies in Raleigh for the start of what could become another interesting year in their lives.

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