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Ten to watch in the Eastern Conference

by Adam Schwartz
Most NHL players that achieve full-time big-league status try dearly to hold onto it. Players find their way into the League because of injuries, poor play or the franchise deciding to go in a different direction. The same reasons account for players taking their careers to the next level.

Younger players looking for a bigger role are afforded that opportunity more often while playing for less successful teams, but sometimes a certain club's weakness at a particular position helps a player get that opportunity.

The following are 10 Eastern Conference players who could have career seasons in 2008-09:

David Booth, Florida Panthers -- Booth had a semi-breakout season last season when he finished third on the team with 22 goals and fourth with 40 points. Despite these lofty numbers in just his second season in the League, more can be expected this season because he is another year older and more experienced.

Booth, now 23, likely will play with one of the Panthers' top two lines. With the trade of captain Olli Jokinen, the Florida offense is going to be looking for new scoring sources and Booth is going to be front and center.

Erik Christensen, Atlanta Thrashers -- The center was an integral part of last season's trade that saw Marian Hossa go to Pittsburgh.

With a Thrashers team that struggled last season -- they finished with the third-fewest points in the League -- Christensen is going to get every opportunity to prove that he belongs in Atlanta.

Christensen could get an opportunity that would have most NHL centers salivating if he winds up on a line with two-time 50-goal scorer Ilya Kovalchuk.  

Braydon Coburn, Philadelphia Flyers -- The Flyers acquired Coburn from the Atlanta Thrashers on trade-deadline day in 2007 when they acquired him for defenseman Alexei Zhitnik.

Coburn, drafted eighth in 2003, is a tough, 6-foot-5, 220-pound defenseman, but one of his strengths is his skating. Coburn played a large part in Philadelphia getting to the 2008 Eastern Conference Finals, and his role could increase more with the departures of veteran blueliners Jaroslav Modry and Jason Smith.

Joe Corvo, Carolina Hurricanes -- The defenseman 48 points last season was a career-high, and after being traded from Ottawa to the Hurricanes with Patrick Eaves his game really took off.

Last season in Ottawa, Corvo was battling Chris Phillips, Anton Volchenkov, Andrej Meszaros and Wade Redden for playing time. Starting his first full season with Carolina, Corvo is all but guaranteed a top-four spot.  

Nigel Dawes, New York Rangers -- Dawes started the season in New York, was sent to the American Hockey League in mid-November, but returned for good in mid-December. In all, the left wing played 61 NHL games and totaled 14 goals, 29 points and a plus-11 rating. Had he played more than 12:59 per game, his numbers might have put him on a level with more-heralded rookies from last season like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

With the departures of Jaromir Jagr, Sean Avery, Martin Straka and likely Brendan Shanahan, expect Dawes to play a full season and see more minutes.    

Mikhail Grabovski, Toronto Maple Leafs -- The Maple Leafs traded a prospect and a draft pick to Montreal for Grabovski in early July.

Even though Grabovski played just 24 games last season for the Canadiens while being stuck behind a bevy of talented forwards, the center could see big minutes in significant situations for the Maple Leafs. Grabovski should stick with the big club this season and could wind up being an important factor in hockey-mad Toronto.

Phil Kessel, Boston Bruins -- Kessel, who won the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy in 2007 for perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey after overcoming testicular cancer, was relegated to limited ice time in his rookie season. Last season, however, the forward had more responsibility and responded favorably, with 19 goals and 18 assists.

Kessel played center last season after the season-ending injury to Patrice Bergeron, but with Bergeron's return this season and the Bruins' depth at center, he is being used more at right wing. With the addition of right wing Michael Ryder, Kessel is going to have to work to be one of coach Claude Julien's top six forwards.

Sergei Kostitsyn, Montreal Canadiens -- Kostitsyn played 52 NHL games last season and was able to break in with one of the fastest and most talented forward corps in the League in Montreal.

Kostitsyn's versatility helped him crack Montreal's lineup, and this season it should help him play more. Kostitsyn played on the League's top-ranked power play last season as a rookie and should get even more of an opportunity this season.

Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins -- Letang played 63 games and was fourth among rookie defensemen with 6 goals and tied for sixth with 17 points.

With Ryan Whitney to miss the first part of the season following foot surgery, that could lead to more ice time and more opportunities for Letang.

Mike Smith, Tampa Bay Lightning -- Smith appeared destined to remain the backup to Marty Turco in Dallas until he was traded to the Lightning as part of the deal that sent Brad Richards to the Stars.

The Lightning, who haven't had a consistent goalie since Nikolai Khabibulin won the Stanley Cup with them in 2004, are putting their faith in Smith. Smith went 3-10 in 13 games with the Lightning, but by then Tampa already was looking toward the 2008-09 season. This season offers Smith and the Lightning a fresh start.

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