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Thursday, February 14, 2008
Want to build an NHL team? Start with one of these players

By David Amber
Special to ESPN.com

In basketball, the old saying is, "You can't teach height." Well, in hockey, with one look around the NHL, it's youth that is coveted.

Young stars are popping up everywhere, bringing hope to NHL cities across North America longing for a championship.

In this week's 10 Degrees, we count down the top franchise builders -- under-25 players you would want to build your franchise around today. This list is so good, Cam Ward, Zach Parise, Patrick Kane, Eric Staal, Mike Richards, Rick Nash and Jason Spezza didn't make the cut.

10. Ryan Getzlaf, C, Born: May 10, 1985
On a team with a world-class goaltender and two future Hall of Fame defensemen, it's easy to get lost in the shuffle; but Ryan Getzlaf is a franchise player in his own right. At 22, Getzlaf was a key component in the Anaheim Ducks' championship run last spring. The physical center had seven goals and 17 points during the postseason and provided the necessary presence along the boards and in front of the net that all winning teams need. Offensively, Getzlaf is improving each season and is on pace to be in the league's top 10 in both assists and plus/minus. In conjunction with his gritty style and strong two-way play, he is a cornerstone any coach would love to have.

9. Carey Price, G, Born: Aug. 16, 1987
If you want to start your team from the net out, Carey Price is your guy. The 20-year-old has already shown why he is expected to be the next great goalie for the Montreal Canadiens. In 22 games this season, he has a 10-8-3 record and 2.83 goals-against average. Selected fifth overall in the 2005 draft, Price's maturity and size are what strike you most. Much like Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy, Price eats up so much of the net with his 6-foot-3 frame. Throw in his quick reflexes and ability to play angles, and this is one can't-miss prospect that promises to be a franchise goalie for years to come.

8. Paul Stastny, C, Born: Dec. 27, 1985
Probably the most underrated player on this list, Paul Stastny will be the perfect player to take over in Colorado once Joe Sakic calls it quits. Stastny has already proven to be a point-per-game player with excellent defensive skills. Not nearly as flashy as others on the list, Stastny is just as effective at playing special teams and moving the puck. Like his Hall of Fame father, Peter, he is tough to knock off the puck and has the grit to be a star in this league. Don't be surprised if Paul is able to do something his father couldn't, and that's win a championship.

7. Jonathan Toews, C, Born: April 29, 1988
The youngest player on our list who could turn out to be one of the best. Jonathan Toews was on pace for a 33-goal rookie season before suffering a knee injury in January. Toews and teammate Patrick Kane should provide the Blackhawks with two franchise-type players. Unlike Kane, Toews is already a two-way player with the necessary size to thrive in this physical league. As impressive as Toews is offensively, his play away from the puck, especially in his own end, is what sets him apart from his peers. He is a complete player with more offensive upside than Getzlaf or Parise, better defensive skills than Nash and as many leadership qualities as Richards. Oh, and by the way, he is at least three years younger than all of those players.

6. Ilya Kovalchuk, LW, Born: April 15, 1983
Barely eligible for this list is the elder statesman, Ilya Kovalchuk. Yes, he is much older than, say, Kane, but the winger has the potential to be a superstar for at least another decade. In five NHL seasons, Kovalchuk has averaged 40 goals for the Atlanta Thrashers. He is on pace for 56 this season. His scoring instincts rival Alexander Ovechkin's. His touch around the net, speed and grit make Kovalchuk the total package. And for a franchise player, you also want durability, and Kovalchuk's bullish 225-pound frame has missed only six games in the past four seasons.

5. Erik Johnson, D, Born: March 21, 1988
If you like Scott Stevens, you'll love Erik Johnson as a cornerstone for your team. The first overall pick of the 2006 draft is a physical force with a bullet of a shot from the point. It's rare when a defenseman can make an NHL team as a teenager, but Johnson has poise and puck-moving ability beyond his years. Measuring in at 6-foot-4, 222 pounds, he is a 19-year-old boy trapped in a man's body. Even as a rookie, Johnson is already a plus player for the St. Louis Blues. And like Stevens, Johnson saves his best for when it matters most: His three goals this season are all game winners.

4. Evgeni Malkin, F, Born: July 31, 1986
Evgeni Malkin is the franchise player anywhere else but Pittsburgh, where he lives in Sidney Crosby's shadow. Malkin has carried the Penguins since Crosby's injury last month, proving he can be the "star" when called on. Malkin has incredible size, strength, vision and puck-handling skills and would be perfect for a team trying to build up the middle. He also has the versatility to play all three forward positions, which can be a nightmare for opposing coaches. Malkin is an underrated defensive player who is still learning the nuances of the game. Expect him to be Crosby's sidekick in Pittsburgh for some time, somewhat reminiscent of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr.

3. Dion Phaneuf, D, Born: April 10, 1985
It's hard to believe a rookie could lead all defensemen in hits, but it's true. During the 2005-06 season, Dion Phaneuf left his mark, literally, at age 20, piling up highlight-reel hits and striking fear across the league. Now the Flames defenseman is a battle-tested veteran who will be vying for Norris trophies, as well as MVP honors. In last year's ESPN.com NHL players' survey, 43 percent of players who responded chose Phaneuf as the league's hardest hitter. To complement his body checks, Phaneuf has a booming shot from the point. Two seasons ago, he became only the third NHL rookie defenseman to score 20 goals, joining Barry Beck and Brian Leetch. With Phaneuf, you get a physical defenseman with scoring ability and leadership qualities. Not a bad way to start a franchise.

2. Alexander Ovechkin, LW, Born: Sept. 17, 1985
If anyone can give Wayne Gretzky's record of 92 goals in a season a run, it's Alexander Ovechkin. Since entering the league in 2005-06, no one has scored more goals than the Washington Capitals forward. On pace for a career high in goals and points, this scoring machine will only get better as the Caps surround him with more talent. Few players seem to enjoy the game and show as much desire as Ovechkin. No wonder the Capitals opened their wallets and made the Russian star the NHL's first $100 million player. With his unique blend of speed, size and scoring, Ovechkin is the rare franchise player that can attract new fans to the game.

1. Sidney Crosby, C, Born: Aug. 7, 1987
Sidney Crosby has been hyped as one of the all-time greats since he was 13. So far, he has lived up to the billing. Last summer, a month before turning 20, he was honored as the league's MVP and scoring champ. To the casual fan, Crosby has become the face of the NHL. Some players would find that a burden, but he has embraced the responsibility with class and dignity, following in the shadows of Gretzky and Lemieux.

Picking Crosby over Ovechkin as the ultimate franchise builder really was a toss-up. But considering Sid is two years younger, why not go with the youngest superstar in the league?

The bottom line is we can expect both players to help grow the game, win championships and evolve into two of the biggest stars and "franchise" players the game has ever seen.

ESPN reporter David Amber is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.