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Malkin the man in NHL's rookie class of 2006-07

The Russian considered the best player outside the NHL last season is on the shelf with a dislocated left shoulder suffered in his first and only NHL pre-season game with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The 20-year-old centre is expected to miss the first seven-to-10 games of the regular season, but Malkin is the player many expect will win the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie.

"Besides the little setback with his shoulder injury, you've got to think he's the early favourite," San Jose rookie defenceman Matt Carle said. "What he proved in the Olympics last year, he's such a strong player and he'll be surrounded in Pittsburgh by good players."

While Malkin is sidelined, others in the NHL's freshman class of 2006-'07 have time to make their mark.

Count centres Phil Kessel (Boston), Gilbert Brule (Columbus), Patrick O'Sullivan (Los Angeles), Alexei Kaigorodov (Ottawa) and Jiri Hudler (Detroit), wingers Dustin Penner (Anaheim), Wojtek Wolski (Colorado) and Guillaume Latendresse (Montreal) and defencemen Carle, Luc Bourdon (Vancouver), Ladislav Smid (Edmonton) and Marc Staal (New York Rangers) in that group.

Alexander Radulov was the Canadian Hockey League's MVP last season while leading the Quebec Remparts to a Memorial Cup title.

But the Nashville Predators don't want such a skilled forward playing on their fourth line and are so deep up front that there isn't much for the talented Russian.

Chicago defenceman Cam Barker is another promising rookie starting out on the injured list. He has a fractured ankle and is expected in the lineup later this month.

Few from this year's entry draft in June will play in the NHL this season, but 19-year-old Kessel, the No. 5 pick, appears ready to be a Bruin in Boston.

Defenceman Erik Johnson, the No. 1 pick by St. Louis, will play for the University of Minnesota this fall and forward Jonathan Toews, the No. 3 selection by Chicago, has returned to North Dakota.

Jordan Staal, the No. 2 pick, will get a long look from the Penguins, but will likely be returned to the major junior ranks.

Washington Capitals forward Alexander Ovechkin led the most competitive rookie class the NHL has had in years to win the Calder last season, beating out Penguins centre Sidney Crosby and Calgary Flames defenceman Dion Phaneuf.

Thirteen rookies had over 40 or more points, compared to four from the previous freshman class.

This season's edition doesn't have the overall talent and depth of last season's for a couple reasons.

"You had that exceptional draft year of players born in 1985 and two groups of rookies coming in at the same time after the lockout," explained Blair Mackasey, director of professional scouting for the Minnesota Wild. "I don't know if you'll see that again any time soon."

Ovechkin and Crosby, the No. 1 picks in the NHL drafts of '04 and '05 respectively, came into the league together. They were joined by Phaneuf, Carolina goaltender Cam Ward, who ended up winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, Buffalo forward Tomas Vanek, Philadelphia forwards Jeff Carter and Michael Richards and Anaheim forward Ryan Getzlaf.

"I think it's going to be hard pressed to have two guys walk into the league like Ovechkin and Crosby," Canucks assistant general manager Steve Tambellini said. "But you look at Malkin and Brule.

"The young players that are coming in are so good and so skilled. The way the game is played now, I think you are going to see more impact rookies. We're allowing the skill to be seen."

Ovechkin was drafted ahead of Malkin at No. 2 in 2004 and has said the Calder Trophy is Malkin's for the taking.

But Malkin, six foot three and 192 pounds, could face a tougher transition to the NHL than his friend and Russian teammate did, and not just because of his injury.

Ovechkin arrived in Washington with a full command of English and a load of confidence. He was also given a long leash on a weak Capitals club.

Malkin speaks no English and lacks Ovechkin's swagger. The Penguins were already building a team of veterans around Crosby last season and Malkin will have to find his way in that structure.

And hanging over his head is the soap-opera that accompanied his arrival in Pittsburgh.

Metallurg Magnitogorsk screamed foul when Malkin fled the team for the United States.

He signed a three-contract with Pittsburgh after signing a one-year contract with the Russian club. Lawyers aren't done filing legal papers on both sides of the Atlantic over this one.

Here are some rookies to watch this season:

-Forward Gilbert Brule, Columbus, 19 - Competitive and skilled, could start the season as the top-line centre with injuries to Sergei Fedorov and Alex Svitov.

-Forward Phil Kessel, Boston, 19 - Outstanding skills and speed, he's made an impression in Boston.

-Forward Dustin Penner, Anaheim, 24 - Big forward got into 19 NHL games last season.

-Forward Jiri Hudler, Detroit, 22 - A scoring threat whenever he's on the ice. Third in points in AHL last season.

-Forward Patrick O'Sullivan, Los Angeles, 21 - Leading rookie scorer in AHL last season.

-Forward Wojtek Wolski, Colorado, 20 - The OHL's MVP last season also played 17 games for the Avs, including eight playoff games.

-Defenceman Matt Carle, San Jose, 22 - Excellent skating and offensive skills in University of Denver product.

-Forward Guillaume Latendresse, Montreal, 19 - Impressed at Habs' camp at 18 and earned a full-time job this year.

-Forward Alexei Kaigorodov, Ottawa, 23, - Excellent playmaker who was with Malkin's Metallurg Magnitogorsk club.

-Defenceman Ladislav Smid, Edmonton, 20 - Former Anaheim first-round pick went to Oilers in Chris Pronger trade.

-Forward Alexander Radulov, Nashville, 20 - The Canadian Hockey League's leading scorer and MVP last season.

-Defenceman Luc Bourdon, Vancouver, 19 - Departure of Ed Jovanovski opens up spot for hard-hitting and skilled Bourdon.

-Defenceman Cam Barker, Chicago, 20 - Terrific passer who can lead the power play.

-Defenceman Marc Staal, New York Rangers - Negated Malkin in gold medal game at world junior hockey championship.



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