Sidney Crosby isn't the only new face in the NHL.

jam

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Sidney Crosby isn't the only new face in the NHL.


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Alexander Ovechkin, 19, the Washington Capitals' 2004 number one draft pick. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)</SMALL> </TD></TR></TBODY></TABLE>
The race to be the NHL's top rookie at the end of the 2005-06 season is shaping up to be the most intriguing in years. There are talented players who would have been freshmen last season, only to have their entry postponed by the lockout, such as Atlanta goaltender Kari Lehtonen, Nashville defenceman Ryan Suter, Washington forward Alexander Ovechkin and Buffalo forward Thomas Vanek.
There is also that freakishly strong and deep class of Canadians born in 1985 who have arrived, including Calgary defenceman Dion Phaneuf, Philadelphia forwards Jeff Carter and Mike Richards and Anaheim forwards Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf.

One significant effect of the lockout on this year's rookie class is that players have had another year of development in the minor leagues, the junior leagues or in Europe before their arrival.

"All of those kids have matured another year, they're a year stronger and a year older physically and mentally and that's a bonus," said Barry Trapp, the Toronto Maple Leafs' director of amateur scouting.

"That's a bonus for the teams that drafted them and for the kids personally."

Rookies who signed with their clubs under the new collective bargaining agreement will have lower salaries than their predecessors, but can look forward to unrestricted free agency sooner.

It was previously age 31, but now it's after seven full years of service in the pro leagues, which means 27 or 28 for some of these newcomers. For Crosby, it's 25.

An early candidate for the Calder Cup Trophy is Washington's Ovechkin.

The 20-year-old from Moscow has been playing with men in the Russian elite league for the last four years and has been ready for the NHL for the past two.

The first selection in the 2004 entry draft brings size, speed and skills to the table, but he'll be expected to carry the Capitals a lot more than Crosby will in Pittsburgh, however, as the Pens have surrounded Crosby with a deeper lineup.

Competition for the Calder should also include Vanek, an Austrian who has played both junior and college hockey in North America and was a 40-goal scorer for Rochester in the AHL last season. The 21-year-old makes the most of his six-foot-two, 207-pound frame and long reach.

Sabres coach Lindy Ruff declared to the Buffalo News this week: "He's probably the most all-around gifted player I've been around."

Suter, whose father Bob won an Olympic gold medal in 1980, is everything you want in a defenceman: good skater, big strides, tough, smart passer and reads the play well. The six-foot-one, 188-pound former college star was a solid performer in the AHL for Milwaukee last season and is ready to step into the bigs.

The Thrashers have been carefully developing Lehtonen, the big Finnish goaltender they drafted second overall in 2002, but want him to assume the mantle of starter now. Atlanta signed veteran Mike Dunham earlier this month as insurance and it turned out to be a wise move as Lehtonen suffered a groin pull early in camp.

While Lehtonen's conditioning has come into question, his talent is undisputed. He put up excellent numbers in the AHL for Chicago last season, including a .929 save percentage.

Ottawa Senators forward Brandon Bochenski is creating a buzz on a line with Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley. The 23-year-old former college star had great chemistry with Spezza in the AHL last season and Bochenski has been outstanding in the pre-season.

"We're going to be a run-gun offensive line," Bochenski said.

Among the younger players in the rookie class, keep an eye on Philadelphia's Carter. The towering, smooth-skating forward stepped out of junior hockey last spring into the AHL playoffs with the Phantoms and led all scorers in the post-season en route to a league championship.

And like Crosby, the 20-year-old is surrounded by a talented and well-rounded lineup. He can develop into an NHLer behind Peter Forsberg, Keith Primeau and Simon Gagne.

Phaneuf was considered the top NHL prospect in the major junior leagues that past two seasons while playing for the Red Deer Rebels.

Phaneuf, 20, has skills, poise and agility, plus a granite shoulder and a mean streak that he uses liberally on opposing players.

"Obviously he's got everything that a defenceman needs to play in the National Hockey League," teammate Roman Hamrlik said.

Here are some other rookies to watch this season:

Cam Ward, Carolina Hurricanes, 21 - The Canadian Hockey League's top goaltender in 2004 has the opportunity to be the 'Canes starter if Martin Gerber falters.

Rostislav Olesz, Florida Panthers, 19 - Forward turns 20 on Oct. 10. Great on faceoffs, excellent playmaker and finisher.

Rene Bourque, Chicago Blackhawks, 23 - Former college forward was passed over in the draft and signed by Chicago as a free agent last year. Albertan was the AHL's rookie of the year last season.

Tomas Plekanec, Montreal Canadiens, 22 - Forward led the Hamilton Bulldogs in scoring and was named MVP of the AHL all-star game last season.

Alex Steen, Toronto Maple Leafs, 21 - Leafs now have to develop talent instead of buy it and the son of long-time Winnipeg Jet Thomas Steen combines offensive flash with defensive responsibility.

Michael Richards, Philadelphia Flyers, 20 - Like Carter, was a standout for the Phantoms in their AHL championship run after his junior season ended. Captain of Canada's gold-medal junior team a fierce competitor.

Ryan Getzlaf, Anaheim Mighty Ducks, 20 - Another towering forward in the mould of Carter. Effective in traffic and boasts a great shot.

Corey Perry, Anaheim Mighty Ducks, 20 - Is a wizard with the puck around the net and has put in a strong pre-season performance with the Ducks.

Maxime Ouellette, Washington Capitals, 24, - Twice a starting goaltender for Canada's junior team. He'll serve as backup to Olaf Kolzig.

Chris Higgins, Montreal Canadiens, 22, - A solid two-way player fits at both centre and wing. Has a turn of speed that's hard to contain.

"I'd say the worst scenario is that he would become a third or fourth line player," Habs head coach Claude Julien said. "I think he's capable of being a top two line player."

Jim Howard, Detroit Red Wings, 21 - Fresh-out-of-college goalie will be thrust into NHL immediately as backup to Manny Legace as long as Chris Osgood is out with a groin injury.

Zach Parise, New Jersey Devils, 21 - Former North Dakota star and son of former NHLer J.P. Parise boasts excellent playmaking and scoring abilities.

Others young players making a case to stay with the respective NHL clubs include defencemen Braydon Coburn (Atlanta), Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith and Cam Barker (Chicago), Andy Rogers (Tampa Bay Lightning) and forwards Wojtek Wolski (Colorado), Colton Orr (Boston), Gilbert Brule (Columbus), Benoit Pouliot (Minnesota) and Guillaume Latendresse (Montreal).

Minnesota's Brent Burns, 20, isn't a new to the NHL, but he'll be a new face on the blue-line as the Wild spent last season turning him into a defenceman while he played for the AHL's Houston Aeros.

The pre-season is a time of hope and positive projection, so coaches and GMs are quick to say their prospects are future stars as the youngsters tear it up in exhibition games.

But there's a reality check coming when the lights go up on the regular season.

"The big guys don't play until the puck drops on Oct. 5 and then it becomes a tougher game," said Trapp.


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