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Some top picks in for trying first season

by Larry Wigge /
Call it the next step.

It's the difference between playing against boys in junior hockey or in college and playing against men in the National Hockey League. It's a daunting task. It's a physical drain of growing into your body more quickly than ever before. It's wanting it more than anything else you've ever done.

And with the most recent draft being considered in quality and depth right up there with the 1979 and 2003 drafts, it shouldn't be surprising to hear Tampa Bay talking about where Steven Stamkos will fit in the Lightning lineup.

Another handful of players from the first round -- including defensemen Drew Doughty (No. 2 by Los Angeles), Zach Bogosian (No. 3 by Atlanta) Alex Pietrangelo (No. 4 by St. Louis) and Luke Schenn (No. 5 by Toronto), plus forwards like left winger Nikita Filatov (No. 6 by Columbus), right winger Mikkel Boedker and left winger Viktor Tikhonov (Nos. 8 and 28 by Phoenix) and left winger Kyle Beach (No. 11 by Chicago) -- are in the same situation as Stamkos.

"I can't speak for the other teams, but this group of draft choices was widely viewed as having more NHL-ready players than any in recent years," Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky said after the first day of the draft. "We don't often speak in those terms with such young players."

History shows that No. 1 picks such as Joe Thornton, Vinny Lecavalier and Rick Nash didn't immediately step onto the slippery slope in the NHL and star like some fans thought they might.

This next step still includes being physically and mentally tougher than playing in college or at the junior level. On the other hand, no one will argue the quick success that more recent No. 1 picks Ilya Kovalchuk, Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane showed for us in a different hockey era, post-lockout, where much of the obstruction and restraining fouls were eliminated. That allowed for talent and a lack of size to take flight sooner than the days where Thornton and Lecavalier and Nash -- big guys to begin with -- needed to grow into men to overcome the way the NHL game was played then.

Last season, we saw Kane, the ultimate boy-to-man prospect at just 5-foot-10, 163 pounds, step directly from London of the Ontario Hockey League to the Chicago Blackhawks and lead all rookies in scoring with 21 goals and 51 assists in 82 games. We saw Sam Gagner, another London-to-the-NHL forward, take a more methodical route to the NHL from sixth pick to a 13-goal, 36-assist performance in 79 games in Edmonton. St. Louis' David Perron, the 26th pick in the first round, stayed with the Blues all season -- but mainly because he wowed team president John Davidson with his offensive skills and couldn't pack on the muscle and do the proper nutrition program with no weight training facility if he had returned to Lewiston of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Perron wound up with 13 goals and 14 assists in 62 games.

"It's the size of his heart that's more important," Blackhawks GM Dale Tallon said of Kane after the draft in June. "Guys his size that play the perimeter, you have concerns about moving up to the next level; but Pat gets his nose dirty, gets into the traffic areas and he doesn't get knocked down. He has a solid, wide base for his size, and when he gets stronger it's going to be even more difficult to knock him down."

Philadelphia Flyers GM Paul Holmgren agreed, saying; "I'm not sure his size is a factor, because of the way the game has changed in the NHL and small players with speed are excelling. In my opinion, he's a special player and is going to do just fine."

"The bottom line here is that part of having a young player grow is you take two or three steps forward, you're going to take a step back. It's part of growth, maturing at the NHL level.”

-- St. Louis Blues GM, John Davidson

Special players may be aplenty coming out of this June's draft. But there is still the concern that younger players -- in order to grow properly -- must be put into a win-win situation.

The Blues were criticized last season for easing 19-year-olds Erik Johnson, the No. 1 pick in the 2006 draft, and Perron into the lineup on a team that struggled mightily in the second half of the season.

"These guys have never been through a schedule like this," Davidson said often. "A year and a half ago, Erik Johnson's playing high school hockey. Now he's playing against men 35 years of age. He and David Perron have both hit the wall at certain times, and that's totally expected. You have to read these young players. If they're not playing well or have hit the wall, they need to be recharged. They need to get the batteries full again so they can go continue playing. The bottom line here is that part of having a young player grow is you take two or three steps forward, you're going to take a step back. It's part of growth, maturing at the NHL level. Our opinion is we want this team, when we get there, to be a long-term good team. And you have to go through growing pains to get there."

"We're not in the business to not put the best players we have on the ice, regardless of age," Tallon said. "We've kept an open mind in training camp each year and kept youngsters like Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews and the same may also happen with Kyle Beach this year ... if he's ready to make the jump to the next level."

The other part of this year's draft and the number of potential NHL-ready players is a commitment by teams and the prospects to start getting stronger sooner rather than later.

The Kings traded veteran defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky in part to make room for the offensive skills that Doughty can bring to Los Angeles immediately ... and the young defenseman was ready for all of the attention he received by the strength and conditioning coaches teams brought with them to the NHL Combine in Toronto in late May.

"I began two-a-day workouts to prepare for the combine the day after my season was over in Guelph," Doughty said. "I do weights in the morning with my personal trainer, followed by a cardio session, then another cardio session after dinner. I heard the whispers from scouts who thought my body-type was a little chunky, so I decided to lose some weight and improve on my body fat to show myself and the NHL teams how committed I am to be playing at the next level next season."

Bogosian told a similar story during a reception of the top prospects at the Stanley Cup Final, talking about a routine that took him on a 90-minute drive from Massena, N.Y., to Ottawa early every morning to work with a trainer.

"I figured if I pay the price now, it's going to pay off in the long run," Bogosian said. "I get up at 6:30 a.m. and I'm usually out the door by 6:45 a.m. and in the gym by 8:30 a.m. It's a long drive, but I feel like it's worth it. For the summer, it's good for me and it's part of the commitment that I wanted to make to show that I can get to the next level. The schedule pretty much makes you behave all summer. It keeps me out of trouble. There's no going out at night. It keeps me focused on my goal. I know what I want."

The stories about a commitment to conditioning and getting a chance at making the huge jump to the NHL is also a part of the trend that this league and sport is getting younger all the time.

We're about a month away from teams beginning pre-training camp rookie camp and the enthusiasm and conversation about where young players might fit into an NHL team's plans is getting more and more prevalent.

Stamkos. Doughty. Bogosian. Pietrangelo. Schenn. Filatov. Boedker. Beach. Tikhonov.

Those are just a few of the players we will be hearing more and more about -- even if names such as Kane and Gagner and Perron from the 2007 draft and Jordan Staal and Phil Kessel from the 2006 draft were only a handful of youngsters who made that NEXT step right from draft day to the NHL.

It's safe to say that the quality of this year's draft is about to be underscored by the number of youngsters that so how special they really are in the NHL right now.

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