Friday October 24th, 2008

So, this is how bad things have gotten for Steven Stamkos: His play is reminding everyone of Joe Thornton.

Most times, that would be a real pat on the back. But when the point of comparison is Jumbo Joe's rookie season, well, let's just call that faint praise indeed. Thornton may be one of the game's most explosive forces today, but as a freshman he got less ice time than the national anthem singer and scored nearly as often.

Instead of unleashing the first overall pick, the Bruins forced Thornton to learn the NHL game slowly by osmosis. You can't argue with the results now, but at the time there was an argument to be made that he would be better served by a return to junior hockey than a season spent polishing big league benches with his behind.

Like Thornton, Stamkos is struggling to recreate the success that made him the top choice last summer. Through his first six games, he was averaging barely 10 minutes of action and had yet to register his first point. With the Lightning stumbling out of the gate, coach Barry Melrose obviously feels safer going with his veterans. And that's prompted some to wonder if Stamkos would develop faster playing significant minutes in Sarnia than sitting in Tampa.

But as was the case with Thornton, that option is not really in play.

The Bruins, coming off a league-worst 61-point campaign in 1996-97, built their summer marketing campaign around Thornton and Sergei Samsonov, who was taken seventh overall with a pick acquired in a trade with Carolina. To send Thornton back to the Soo would have been a public relations disaster, just as it would be now for the Lightning, who spent a fortune on their "Seen Stamkos?" campaign.

Stamkos is in the NHL for good. And for better or worse, the mollycoddling that's marked the first few weeks of his career looks to be over. With Brian Lawton officially installed as general manager this week, the first order of business will be to get Stamkos 16-18 minutes a night. Surrounded by veteran forwards capable of lightening his burden -- that was the point of the team's summer shopping spree, after all -- Stamkos will be allowed to learn by doing rather than watching. He'll make his share of mistakes but he'll also get the chance, finally, to prove he belongs in the NHL.

While Stamkos' job is safe, the fates of several other junior-eligible players will be determined over the next week as teams steam toward the 10-game mark.

The only rookie who has been subjected to the same scrutiny as Stamkos is Schenn of the Maple Leafs. The fifth overall pick has been victimized by more than his share of bad bounces -- Blake Wheeler's shot caroming in off his leg on Thursday night was just the latest example -- but there's no denying that Schenn has been Toronto's most reliable defender in the early going. Just ask Ron Wilson, who said as much prior to the Boston game. The coach praised Schenn's defensive zone work and ability to rev up the offense with sharp, long-range passing, calling him the ideal example of the modern transition game.

Working against Schenn is Toronto's blueline depth. When Jeff Finger returns, the Leafs will have four established vets with secure jobs, and five others capable of holding down the final three spots. Although Schenn clearly has the ability to contribute, the logical decision is to send him back and avoid wasting a contract year on a squad that's going nowhere. The Leafs say they won't make the call until after game nine, but barring a trade of Ian White or Carlo Colaiacovo, Schenn probably doesn't need to look for an apartment in Hogtown.

Doughty, on the other hand, might want to ask his teammates for the name of a good realtor. He's gracefully assumed a significant role on an L.A. blueline that desperately needed him to step up in the wake of Jack Johnson's injury. The lottery's consolation prize -- not a bad one, eh? -- is averaging 21 minutes a game, second only to Schenn among rookies, and is a fixture on the Kings' power play thanks to a skill set that is eerily reminiscent of a young Ray Bourque.

Winger Moller is making a strong case to share a pad with Doughty, overcoming questions about his size with some creative playmaking and solid positional play. Moller is carrying a decent load -- about 15 minutes a night -- and has looked more comfortable with each successive game. But the Kings have other options at forward, notably Teddy Purcell, who's been paying his dues at Manchester, and that makes burning a contract year more of a luxury than a necessity. Look for Moller to be returned to Chilliwack of the WHL.

Injuries may force the hand of the Flyers when it comes to defender Sbisa. With Ryan Parent and Randy Jones sidelined until December, the 19th pick has been pressed into service on the second pairing, where he's averaging nearly 18 minutes per night. Although he's been guilty of rushing some passes and has been caught out of position on occasion, Sbisa has impressed with his physical play and ability to skate with the puck. His confidence level has encouraged coach John Stevens to use him in late-game situations, and his heavy shot has earned him time on the second power play. At this point, Sbisa may be the team's best option behind Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn. Although his ice time will decrease when the vets return, he's likely in Philly for the year.

The Blues face a tough call with the fourth-overall choice. The defender showed off his offensive potential -- and defensive shortcomings -- in the team's first three games, but has yet to return to action after being hit from behind by Toronto's Ryan Hollweg. While Pietrangelo has been laid up, Steve Wagner and Roman Polak have stepped up. His fellow walking-wounded Jeff Woywitka, Mike Weaver and Jonas Junland are rehabbing in the AHL with hopes of grabbing the final spot. Pietrangelo's fate could come down to how quickly he returns, and how badly the Blues feel they need his transitional tools.

The decision seems a little clearer in Atlanta, where Bogosian was scratched for Tuesday night's loss to the Lightning. Prior to that, he was being used sparingly by coach John Anderson, averaging the fewest minutes of any Thrashers defender and earning just two minutes of total special teams time over five games. Although he's shown flashes of the skill and toughness -- including an unfortunately lopsided bout against Donald Brashear -- that got him drafted third overall, Bogosian's clearly not ready for prime time.

Boedker can't earn a more ringing endorsement than a promotion to the Coyotes' first line. And he can't prove his value in the role more effectively than by scoring the goal that ignites a third-period rally, as he did Thursday night against the Caps. With three goals in six games, Boedker's been an efficient sniper, but the two-way ability that has him playing on both special teams will ensure he'll be around after game 10.

Canada's best junior team, the Windsor Spitfires, is about to get a whole lot more dangerous with the impending return of Bailey. The 19-year-old center has been nursing a hip injury suffered during training camp and has yet to dress for the Islanders. While there's a chance he'll get a taste of NHL action when he recovers, don't bet on it. There's no real upside to throwing a teenager who's not in game shape up against NHLers who've been at it for a month.

The bell's already tolled for Hurricanes forward Boychuk. The 14th overall pick last June, he was returned to Lethbridge (WHL) on Monday even though his departure left the Canes with just 11 healthy forwards. The undersized center missed the entire exhibition slate while recovering from off-season wrist surgery, and the rust was evident as he went pointless in two games. The development of the crafty center is better served by another season of junior, but his early return was sealed by the need to create roster space for Tuomo Ruutu, who is expected to return to the lineup on Saturday.

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