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By Scott Burnside
Oct. 13, 2006, 12:35 PM ET

Last season's rookie crop is generally accepted as the deepest, most talented, most prolific of all time, starting with Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, and running on from there.

But that was then, this is now.


So, a week into the new season, we pose this question: What challenges face last season's celebrated rookie class?

Alexander Ovechkin
The Washington Capitals' dynamic winger was a nearly unanimous choice for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, garnering 124 of 129 first-place votes. The question for Ovechkin in his second season will be how he stands up mentally to what promises to be another difficult year in Washington. The Caps made few improvements to a roster that finished 14th in the Eastern Conference, aside from restoring Alexander Semin to the fold and installing Brian Pothier as their blue-line anchor. Still, coach Glen Hanlon has a hardworking crew, and there's no reason to think Ovechkin will see any decline in his production. He started the season with two goals in his first two games and already has pumped 18 shots at opposing goalies.
Sophomore star: Ascending.

Sidney Crosby
Let's be realistic, Crosby will always play with a certain amount of pressure regardless of where he is or what he has accomplished. It was so with Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, and it will be so with Crosby for the rest of his career. That said, the teenage scoring star should have a little more wiggle room in his second season, given that expectations are significantly lower for his Penguins. Crosby more than met expectations by becoming the youngest player to hit the 100-point plateau in his first NHL season (he finished with 102 points, sixth in league scoring). Physically, Crosby has filled out, which should make him even more dangerous. As with Ovechkin, Olczyk wonders about the mental toll of being one of the major faces of the new NHL. Still, Crosby's former coach believes the team's media staff is savvy enough to keep Crosby from getting overextended.
Sophomore star: Ascending.

Cam Ward
Of all the sensational rookie goalies from a season ago, Ward figures to have the greatest challenge in his second season. As defending playoff MVP and part of a defending championship squad in Carolina, Ward will face expectations different from those facing fellow sophomore goalies Henrik Lundqvist in New York and Ryan Miller in Buffalo. Ward is quiet, calm and unbelievably mature for a 22-year-old, and all those qualities are likely to be put to the test this season, especially early on as the 0-2-1 Hurricanes struggle get used to life as defending champs. In his past two starts, Ward has given up nine goals on 65 shots.
Sophomore star: Descending (slightly)

Henrik Lundqvist, Ryan Miller
We lump these netminders together because they followed similar arcs through their rookie seasons. Expectations were modest for both goalies at the start of 2005-06, as were the expectations for their respective teams, the New York Rangers and Buffalo Sabres. With both teams enjoying significant success, thanks in large part to the play of their rookie goaltenders, expectations are dramatically different in both cities this season. Many experts like both teams to enjoy long playoff runs in the spring. Neither netminder seems prone to letting pressure affect his play. Lundqvist, a finalist for the Vezina Trophy a year ago, stopped 13 straight shooters in a shootout in the Rangers' second game of the season, and Miller also started the season with a dramatic shootout win in Carolina.
Sophomore stars: Ascending

Dion Phaneuf
There was a little wobble in Phaneuf's game during the Calgary Flames' first-round playoff loss to Anaheim in the spring, leaving some to wonder whether he had hit the wall after an exceptional rookie season. If there was concern within the Calgary brain trust, it was well-hidden as Phaneuf began this season playing on the Flames' top defensive pairing with Canadian Olympian Robyn Regehr. In Phaneuf's first three games, he has logged between 26 and 30 minutes and chipped in a power-play assist. Can he score 20 goals, as he did a season ago? Maybe not. And in goal-starved Calgary, that might be a concern. But as for overall defensive play, don't expect Phaneuf to spring any leaks.
Sophomore star: Ascending

Ryan Craig
A native of Abbotsford, British Columbia, the 255th pick in the 2002 draft came out of nowhere to score 15 goals in 48 goals in the last half of 2005-06 for the Tampa Bay Lightning. He scored twice on opening night last week and added another in the Lightning's second game as the 6-foot-2, 220-pound winger is proving he isn't afraid to take punishment in front of opposing goals. Brad Richards quipped that he doesn't need to worry about netminders stopping his shots, it's Craig he has to worry about. Coach John Tortorella is counting on Craig to take some of the offensive pressure off the team's big-name stars, Richards, Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier. It's a job that starts now as the Bolts have managed just five goals in their first three games.
Sophomore star: Plateauing

Chris Kunitz
Generally speaking, it's Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf who come to mind when talking about the Ducks' fine rookie crop of last season, but Kunitz was the most surprising and most productive of the three. The undrafted Regina, Saskatchewan, native was signed by Anaheim last summer, snatched up by Atlanta on waivers at the end of training camp, then resnatched by the Ducks when Atlanta tried to send him to the minors. By the end of the season, Kunitz was on the left side of the Ducks' most productive line and finished with 41 points in 67 games. He added eight more points in the playoffs. Like the rest of the Ducks, Kunitz will have to live with the pressure that comes with being a Stanley Cup favorite from the outset of this season. Apparently, the pressure hasn't seemed to bother him as Kunitz returned to the top line and has three goals and an assist for the 3-0 Ducks.
Sophomore star: Ascending

Petr Prucha
The slightly built Czech arrived out of nowhere last season to score 30 times in 68 games, symbolizing in many ways the surprising successes of the entire Rangers team. Prucha also illustrated the team's second-half problems as he battled an injury and a cold streak down the stretch, scoring just five times after Jan. 28. Skeptics have wondered whether it's possible for Prucha to repeat his 30-goal rookie performance because his power-play opportunities and overall ice time might be limited by the acquisitions of Brendan Shanahan and Matt Cullen. Still, Prucha has been playing alongside Shanahan since early in training camp and added a pair of assists in the Rangers' season-opening victory over Washington. He's the type of player who can be creative and flourish in the new NHL, Olczyk said. "The kind of guy that may just put up a point a game and end up in the second row of the team picture," he said.
Sophomore star: Plateauing.

Marek Svatos
The talented Slovak missed the final 20 games with a fractured shoulder, and there are worries in Avalanche land that such a serious injury might hamper Svatos' game. Early on, those fears don't appear to be warranted as he has netted two goals -- including a goal (the winner) and an assist in the Avs' first win of the season -- reproducing the kind of effort that saw him score 32 times in 61 games a season ago. Colorado's success depends on its young players stepping forward, and Svatos is shouldering a heavier-than-normal burden for a sophomore.
Sophomore star: Plateauing

Kyle Wellwood
In Toronto, the roles, potentials, flaws and strengths of every player are wildly exaggerated by virtue of playing in the biggest media center in the hockey universe. But if the Leafs are to return to the playoffs after falling short by two points last season, Wellwood figures to play a key role, as he has been anointed Mats Sundin's "winger du season." Wellwood has the skills to stick with the Leafs captain, perhaps delivering the kind of chemistry that has been sorely missing for Sundin's entire stay in Toronto. Wellwood notched four assists in the second game of the season and has six points through the Leafs' first four games (2-1-1).
Sophomore star: Ascending.

Kari Lehtonen
Well, the good news is that the sophomore goaltending phenom lasted more than the first 20 minutes of this season (he went down with a serious groin injury in last season's opener). The better news for the playoff-starved Thrashers is that Lehtonen has been not just healthy but heroic. In the team's first three games, he has stopped 80 of 82 shots and recorded back-to-back shutouts for the 2-0-1 Thrashers. If Lehtonen remains healthy, the sky is the limit for Atlanta. Being a sophomore "is a big thing. I don't worry so much anymore," Lehtonen told this week. "I know if I play my own game, I can be very successful in this league, and that's one thing I didn't know last year."
Sophomore star: Ascending

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I agree with the list for the most part. I do think C. Ward might have the biggest let down. There are a lot of expectations on him and even in his rookie season he went through some slumps that made Gerber the starter heading into the playoffs.
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