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Top Breakout Players In The Eastern Conference

by Staff Writer / Florida Panthers

Forward Junior Lessard opened the eyes of Atlanta Thrashers' GM Don Waddell enough that

he was offered a contract over the summer.
Junior Lessard video highlights 
Every team has a player or two that are up and down between the American Hockey League and the NHL during their first season or two.

While these players may not make the biggest impact that way, it provides a way to get acclimated to the League. These players learn from veterans how to conduct themselves on and off the ice.

Even though they aren't the best players at the time, they can develop into future stars, plus a season spent battling for a spot builds character.

The following are 15 Eastern Conference players -- one from each team -- who played between 15 and 60 games in the NHL last season and are ready to make the jump.

Junior Lessard, Atlanta Thrashers -- Lessard had a goal and 2 points in 19 games for the Lightning last season after being traded by Dallas. Lessard didn't have much of a chance to play with the Stars because their lineup was deep enough to go to the Western Conference Finals.

Lessard played regularly with the Lightning and impressed Atlanta General Manager Don Waddell enough that the Thrashers signed him this summer.

Lessard, 28, has history of being a potent offensive weapon in other leagues and could be a late bloomer in the NHL. In 2003-04 he won the Hobey Baker Award as the top collegiate player. And in 2006-07, he had 27 goals and 52 points in 65 games in the American Hockey League with the Iowa Stars.

Matt Lashoff, Boston Bruins --
Lashoff won't be considered a rookie this season because he has played more than six games in back-to-back seasons -- 12 in 2006-07 and 18 last season. Rookie status aside, the 21-year-old two-way defenseman still is an NHL novice.

Lashoff had 27 assists and 36 points in 60 games with the Providence Bruins of the AHL last season and four assists and five points in 18 games with Boston.

The Bruins retained all of their defensemen from last season, but if one of them gets injured Lashoff, drafted No. 22 in 2005, is going to be the first player they call upon. Lashoff may start the season in Providence because the Bruins may want to see him further his development there rather than sit in an NHL press box.

Andrej Sekera, Buffalo Sabres --
It took three promotions to the NHL for Sekera to stick, but he did and played his final 16 games with the Sabres. Of those 16 games, Sekera played at least 20 minutes in all but one and played more than 24 minutes nine times.

Sekera, who played 37 games with the Sabres last season, ranked seventh among the League's rookies with an average of 19:37 of ice time per game.

With the departure of defenseman Dmitri Kalinin to the New York Rangers this summer, Sekera, who plays a similar style as Kalinin, is going to have a chance to stay with Buffalo the entire season.

Ryan Bayda, Carolina Hurricanes -- Bayda saw his ice time increase at the end of last season for the injury-plagued Hurricanes.

Bayda, who played less than 8 minutes in five of his 31 games with the Hurricanes last season, played at least 13 minutes in each of his last nine games. A 27-year-old left wing, Bayda will compete with Ray Whitney and Sergei Samsonov for expanded ice time.

Cory Murphy, Florida Panthers --
If it wasn't for a shoulder injury that caused him to miss 30 games, Murphy would have made a bigger impact in his first NHL season.

Murphy, one of the few players on this list not to have played in the AHL last season, started the season strong, with 5 assists and 6 points in his first six NHL games, but then just 3 assists in his next eight games.

Murphy, a 30-year-old offensive defenseman, had 37 assists and 50 points in 45 games for HIFK Helsinki of the Finnish Elite League in 2006-07. Aside from Jay Bouwmeester, Murphy remains Florida's best offensive threat from the back end and should see significant power-play time this season. 

Ryan O'Byrne, Montreal Canadiens -- The Canadiens already have one of the NHL's best stay-at-home defensemen in 6-foot-4, 240-pound Mike Komisarek, but having two massive stalwarts on the blue line never hurts, which is where the 6-6, 228-pound O'Byrne comes in.

Habs' defenseman Ryan O'Byrne figures to fill the void left by Patrice Brisebois and Mark Streit.
Ryan O'Byrne video highlights 
O'Byrne had six assists and seven points in 33 games with Montreal last season, but more impressively he had a plus-7 rating.

The Canadiens lost defensemen Patrice Brisebois and Mark Streit this summer, so there is a job to be won on the Habs' blue line, and O'Byrne is a prime candidate. If he can bulk up and continue his steady play, the job should be his.

Sheldon Brookbank, New Jersey Devils -- Brookbank, who was claimed off waivers prior to the season, often was a healthy scratch because the Devils had eight or nine NHL-caliber defensemen, appearing in 44 games. Both Vitaly Vishnevski and Karel Rachunek are not returning this season, leaving Brookbank to battle prospect Matthew Corrente and Andy Greene for the final blue-line spot.

Blake Comeau, New York Islanders --
The youth movement is in full force on Long Island, and along with future star Kyle Okposo, Comeau is going to be asked to shoulder a full load this season.

The Islanders have veterans Bill Guerin and Doug Weight, but Comeau likely will play on the second line, if not the first.

The right wing had 4 goals and 19 points in 31 games with Bridgeport of the American Hockey League, and 8 goals and 15 points in 51 games with the Islanders. He'll get every chance in training camp to show he can play a full season as a top-six forward.

Ryan Callahan, New York Rangers -- In 2006-07 Callahan played 14 NHL games and 60 games with the Hartford Wolf Pack of the AHL, while last season Callahan played 52 games with the Rangers and just 11 with the Wolf Pack.

Callahan had a strong postseason with the Rangers, totaling 2 goals and 4 points in 10 games. After playing an average of 12:22 during the regular season, Callahan saw an average 15:55 of ice time per game in the playoffs, illustrating the trust Rangers management has in him.

Cody Bass, Ottawa Senators --
Amid the turnover in Ottawa, Bass earned his way onto the Senators last season.

The center played more than 10 minutes in just one of his 25 combined regular-season and playoff games with the Senators. Ottawa, however, lost forwards Cory Stillman, Brian McGrattan and Randy Robitaille this summer, which leaves several jobs to be won at training camp. Bass, who can play center or wing, could benefit from his versatility in competition for a fourth-line slot.

Ryan Parent, Philadelphia Flyers -- Parent, drafted No. 18 by Nashville in 2005, was part of the package the Predators sent to Philadelphia for Peter Forsberg in February 2007.

Flyers defenseman Ryan Parent was called up
twice from the AHL last season, and played
well enough that he was kept on the roster.
Ryan Parent video highlights
At 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds Parent is a rugged defenseman, which fits nicely into the Flyers' style of play.

Parent was called up to the Flyers twice from their AHL affiliate, the Philadelphia Phantoms, and the second time -- at the end of February -- he stayed for good. He even found his way into four playoff games as the Flyers went to the Eastern Conference Finals for the second time in four seasons. With defensemen Jaroslav Modry and Jason Smith finding new homes, there appears to be a job to lose for Parent on the Flyers' roster.

Tyler Kennedy, Pittsburgh Penguins --
On a team loaded with young talent, Kennedy gets lost in the shuffle, but he still managed to total 10 goals and 9 assists in 55 games during the regular season while averaging just 12:13 of ice time per game.

After overcoming a bout with mononucleosis in February, Kennedy secured a spot on Pittsburgh's roster. He had 5 goals and 9 points in 10 games with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the AHL, proving that he deserved a shot in Pittsburgh.

With the loss of free-agent forwards Adam Hall, Marian Hossa, Georges Laraque, Ryan Malone, Gary Roberts and Jarkko Ruutu, Kennedy should play a more prominent role this season.

David Koci, Tampa Bay Lightning --
At 6-foot-6 and 238 pounds there is no missing Koci, who had 68 penalty minutes in 18 games with the Chicago Blackhawks last season.

Koci played most of last season in the AHL with the Rockford IceHogs and Norfolk Admirals. He had 82 penalty minutes in 28 AHL games, and Tampa Bay -- which signed Koci as a free agent this summer -- could use him as a rugged depth player to protect their high-skill forwards.

Anton Stralman, Toronto Maple Leafs --
Stralman is a speedy Swedish defenseman who joined the Maple Leafs in the middle of last season when Bryan McCabe had wrist and hand injuries that sidelined him for 22 games.

When McCabe returned, Stralman stayed with the Maple Leafs instead of being sent to the Toronto Marlies, the Maple Leafs' AHL affiliate.

Stralman, drafted in the seventh round (No. 216) by the Leafs in 2005, had six assists and nine points but a minus-10 rating in 50 games with the Leafs last season, but should in the running to stick in the NHL this season.

Quintin Laing, Washington Capitals --
At 29, Laing was too old to qualify for rookie status last season, but he performed well in his first significant NHL action of his eight-year professional career.

Laing had attended Washington's training camp on a tryout contract, but earned a full-time deal and was assigned to the Hershey Bears of the AHL, and he reached the big club in November. Aside from a five-day demotion back to Hershey in early December, he remained with the Capitals for the rest of the season.

In 20 games in Hershey, the left wing had 2 goals and a plus-9 rating; in limited duty in 39 games with Washington he had 6 points and a plus-4 rating, and he was a key penalty killer, playing 2:50 per game shorthanded. While Laing didn't play in Washington's memorable seven-game playoff series against the Philadelphia Flyers, he is on coach Bruce Boudreau's radar and figures to see penalty killing duty this season.

Author: Adam Schwartz | Staff Writer

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