- Nancy Marrapese-burrell
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Boston Bruins goaltender Andrew Raycroft and center Patrice Bergeron are both considered rookies by National Hockey League standards, but there is a vast difference between their levels of experience.
Bergeron, at 18 the league's youngest player, came into training camp fully expecting to be sent back to his junior team while Raycroft, now 23, was expecting to win an NHL job in his fourth season as a pro. After all, he'd spent the last three seasons working toward the opportunity.
The Bruins' goaltending situation, which has been a revolving door for the last decade, had taken another turn three years ago when John Grahame broke his ankle on the last day of training camp and Byron Dafoe was injured during the second game of the season. Compounding matters was coach Pat Burns' place on the hot seat (he eventually was fired a month into the season) and the club's struggles on the ice. But the Bruins needed a goaltender, and whether he was ready or not, Raycroft was it.
It was an uncomfortable situation for everyone involved, but Raycroft, the first goalie in 50 years to earn MVP of the Ontario Hockey League in 1999-2000, doesn't lack maturity or poise. He made it through just fine, knowing it was a temporary arrangement.
There were some highlights, however. He posted his first NHL victory on Oct. 9, 2000, against Florida. At age 20, he was the youngest goalie in a Bruins uniform to win a game since Bill Ranford on March 29, 1986. He was 4-6-0 with a 2.96 goals-against average in 15 games, but he took only the positives with him back to Providence, where he spent the entire 2002-03 season save for a one-game appearance in February.
The auditioning process is over, at least for this season.
"Obviously, it doesn't matter where you're playing, if you're in the East Coast league or the AHL, someone's always watching and you've got to go out and play hard," Raycroft said. "But it's not the same as it has been the last couple of years, audition-wise."
Raycroft knows he has a home in the NHL -- which was made clear by general manager Mike O'Connell when Boston didn't protect Steve Shields in the waiver draft, then traded him to Florida -- and it has made a difference in how he approaches his game.
"It takes the worry about 'If I let a goal in, I'm going to get sent down,' " he said. "It makes me a little more comfortable. Obviously, you're still nervous and you're still getting fired up for the games because you have to go out and do your job, but hopefully I have a little more grace period this year than what I've had in the past."
Grace period or not, Raycroft isn't one to grow complacent.
"I could be gone tomorrow," he said. "There's no certainty at all. But in my head and in everyone else's head -- all the guys in here, which is the most important thing -- they know I've earned it and they know I've played well, and that's a big difference than when you come up from Providence and guys may be thinking, 'We've got this rookie going in.' Now I feel comfortable with the guys and I think they feel comfortable with me back there."
Raycroft has spent a lot of time with goalie consultant Bob Essensa and has bulked up to about 185 pounds, up from 160 his first year. His confidence has grown, and he makes stopping pucks look effortless by staying square to the shooter and not wasting any energy. His teammates have noticed his development.
"He's the kind of guy who's real good on his angles," veteran defenseman Hal Gill said. "He's always been that way, but now he's closing all the holes and he's on his spot. I trust him with everything. If you can put a guy off to a bad angle, you know [Raycroft] has got that save. At the beginning, maybe he was letting in one every other game that was a marginal goal, but he hasn't done that lately and that's the biggest difference."
In addition to Raycroft's increased body size, the other difference this year is the size of his pads. While many goalies had to cut back on the height of their pads, Raycroft added an inch and a half to his, increasing them to 37½ -- a half inch shy of the NHL limit.
"If you can't beat 'em, join 'em," he said with a smile.
"No," Essensa interjected. "You mean, 'If they beat you, join them.' ''
"Exactly," Raycroft replied.
Raycroft also has benefited by having veteran Felix Potvin by his side. Potvin said he has been impressed with Raycroft both on and off the ice.
"He's a pretty down-to-earth kid," Potvin said. "He's pretty calm out there so he's got everything going for him. He's got a few more years under his belt, and you can tell the way he plays. He's got a great mentality to be a good goalie in this league."
Other rookies to watch
Patrice Bergeron, C, Boston Bruins: Also known as Martin Lapointe's adopted younger brother, Bergeron, who is the youngest player in the NHL, is so low key off the ice, you'd never know he was there. On the ice, he has made his presence felt since training camp. In a huge matchup between Boston and Atlanta on Wednesday night, Bergeron set up Lapointe for the game winner in the third period. It was Bergeron's fourth point in his last six games. His teammates and coaches are marveling at his consistency.
"I don't think anybody expected Patrice to come in and have the impact that he's had,'' coach Mike Sullivan said. "He came in from Day One of rookie camp and made an impact and raised eyebrows. It was one of those scenarios where we became more and more impressed with his play and kept putting him in more and more situations to see if he was ready. He has shown no signs of fatigue, quite the contrary. He seems to get better and more comfortable every day that he's here, and he's certainly been a major contributor so far."
Jason King, RW, Vancouver Canucks: One of the most clever nicknames in the NHL this season belongs to King and his two linemates Daniel and Henrik Sedin. They're known as the Mattress Line -- two twins and a King -- and King has flourished with them. He is coming off a November run that earned him NHL rookie of the month honors with 11 points, 8 of them goals, and points in 10 of 14 games. If some other first-year players have snuck up on people, King isn't one of them. The highly touted youngster was tied with Markus Naslund and Brendan Morrison for the team lead in goals with 11 despite logging an average of just 13:27 minutes -- significantly less time than Naslund (19:20) and Morrison (20:25).
Joni Pitkanen, D, Philadelphia Flyers: Pitkanen has been a revelation, leading Flyers and rookie defensemen in scoring with 12 points -- three of them goals -- while averaging 17:21 of ice time, the lowest among blueliners playing a regular role. In that span, he also had two goals on the power play and one game winner. The 20-year-old has adapted to coach Ken Hitchcock's rigid system well and has welcomed the responsibility. He has more than lived up to the hype that followed him after being taken with the No. 4 pick overall in the June draft. As new as he is to the league, he's not shy about using his booming shot. Through his first 23 games, Pitkanen racked up 46 shots. He is also second on the team in plus-minus at plus-8, behind only veteran defenseman Eric Desjardins (plus-10).
Eric Staal, C, Carolina Hurricanes: Though Staal no longer holds his early-season designation as the Hurricanes' No. 1 center, there seems to be no doubt that the No. 2 pick overall in the June draft will be a long-lasting impact player in the NHL. With the input of future Hall of Famer Ron Francis, his production can only be accelerated. He's undaunted by high-pressure situations, such as having the presence of mind to shoot during overtime of Carolina's game against Nashville, which resulted in it rattling off the post. Staal also has been a bright light during the Hurricanes' dismal time on the road. Through their first 12 contests away from home, the club had only two wins (2-7-3-0) but Staal had more than half of his 13 points in that span (two goals and five assists).
Matthew Stajan, C, Toronto Maple Leafs: The same wonder that surrounds Bergeron applies to this 19-year-old. How can he be so poised and make such good decisions with so little experience? "He just gets it. He's not a normal 19-year-old,'' veteran forward Tom Fitzgerald told the Toronto Star. That was especially evident in the Maple Leafs' back-to-back win against the New York Rangers. Through 22 games, he averaged 9:42 of ice time. Against the Rangers, he logged 16:36 on Sunday and 15:29 on Tuesday. In Tuesday's game, he scored the first goal and deftly set a pick on a Ranger player which led to Owen Nolan's game winner. Some have speculated, Stajan included, that his time with Belleville of the Ontario Hockey League -- the only team with an Olympic-size rink -- helped prepare him to compete against skilled players who have more time than on a small rink and forced him to be more positionally sound.
Nancy Marrapese-Burrell of the Boston Globe is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
Bruins goalie Andrew Raycroft is growing comfortable -- but not complacent -- in the NHL.