Will these players suffer sophomore slumps?
But that was then, this is now.
Rookie productivity often can be aided by a wave of adrenaline that overcomes nervousness, the burden of expectation, homesickness and all the other factors that might otherwise make it difficult for a 19- or 20-year-old to excel against players 10 or 15 years his senior.
As for this season's rookie crowd, Ed Olczyk thinks it's all about opportunity and what players do with that opportunity.
Evgeni Malkin, naturally, is expected to be given all kinds of chances to work the power play as the Penguins' second-line center. And even though he started the season on the shelf with a shoulder injury suffered in his first preseason game, Malkin has all the tools to make it back-to-back Russian Calder Trophy winners.
Still, other rookies will make things interesting.
• Wojtek Wolski, who impressed after being called up by Colorado from junior during the playoffs last season, made the Avs' squad out of training camp and has been playing with fellow rookie Paul Stastny (son of Hall of Famer Peter Stastny). Wolski has two goals and 10 shots during the Avs' first two games.
• Matt Carle, the collegian with the booming shot, is considered the best rookie defenseman in the league, and he has jumped right into the fray for San Jose with two goals and an assist in his first three games for the 3-0 Sharks. He also is averaging almost 20 minutes a night in ice time.
• Gilbert Brule is another promising first-year player, although the sixth overall pick in the 2005 draft was a healthy scratch for Monday's 5-1 win over Phoenix as coach Gerard Gallant had to make room on the roster for Nikolai Zherdev.
• The rookie everyone is talking about, however, is Slovenia's first NHLer, Anze Kopitar, who has five points in two games and is a plus-3 for Los Angeles while averaging more than 21 minutes in ice time.
Olczyk said both Wolski and Kopitar already have displayed that rare quality of having great anticipation, "and that's an underrated part of a player's game."
Sometimes, it's not until the second season that the proverbial roosters come home to roost. Sometimes, young stars who enter their sophomore seasons forget the hard work that got them to the NHL in the first place. Sometimes, expectations get the best of young players. Sometimes, opposing teams simply know how to better defend a player after his rookie season.
"There's going to be growing pains for all second-year players," said former Penguins coach Ed Olczyk, the main color analyst for the Chicago Blackhawks who also lends his talents to national broadcasts on Versus and NBC. "Sometimes, you've got to step down in order to get to that seventh step or wherever you're at on the ladder."
That learning curve is especially steep for new defensemen, given the restrictions on how they're able to ply their trade, Olczyk said.
So, a week into the new season, we pose this question: What challenges face last season's celebrated rookie class?
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
A season ago, Kronwall was expected to step into a top-six role as a Red Wings rookie. But a leg injury kept him out of action until the Olympics, when he helped the Swedes win a gold medal. After that, he was one of the Wings' best players in their first-round loss to Edmonton. The former AHL defenseman of the year will be expected to log top-four minutes along a Detroit blue line that looks likely to face a lot of physical pressure from opposing teams. Still, Kronwall, whom assistant GM Jim Nill has likened to former Red Wings hitter Vladimir Konstantinov, appears more than ready for whatever is dished out. He was a plus-1 in the Wings' first two games while averaging more than 22 minutes of ice time a night.
Sophomore star: Ascending.
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.
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
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.
People already are suggesting Ballard will be the next captain of the Phoenix Coyotes and that he's a lock to make the 2010 U.S. Olympic team. Heck, there were some who thought he should have been on the team that went to Torino in February. That's heady praise for a guy who has been traded twice already in his young career. Still, those around the team suggest that Ballard's ability to ride out mistakes and his fearlessness make him one of the hottest defensive properties. He told ESPN.com during training camp that he is aware of the praise but is committed to bringing more consistency to his game. He'll need to if the Coyotes are going to break the playoff barrier this spring. Ballard's season is off to a rocky start as he'll miss at least the next month with a fractured hand after blocking a shot early in Monday's 5-1 loss to Columbus.
Sophomore star: Descending
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 ESPN.com 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
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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