<
>

ESPN The Magazine: The Whiz Kids

Baby-faced snipers Jonathan Toews, 19, and Patrick Kane, 18, are giving Hawks fans hope. The rookies, who went third (Toews) and first (Kane) overall in the past two drafts, could challenge for rookie of the year honors (impressive!) and get Chicago out of the Central's basement (amazing!), where it's languished the past three seasons.

Then again, the Class of 2007-08 is stocked with newbies who are ready to impress and amaze. Here are five more:

Jonathan Bernier, G, Los Angeles Kings
In their 40-year history, the Kings have never had a homegrown franchise stopper. That should change this season. The 19-year-old Laval, Quebec, native, drafted 11th in 2006, earned a roster spot with a flashy camp -- he's especially strong post to post -- then beat the defending champ Ducks 4-1 (26 saves) in the season opener. Fellow rookie hotshot Jack Johnson, 20 (No. 3 overall in 2005), is part of the defensive corps charged with protecting him.

Nicklas Backstrom, RW, Washington Capitals
Coach Glen Hanlon plans to start Backstrom on the wing rather than at center, his natural position. Since pivots have more two-way responsibilities, Hanlon believes the switch will ease the Swede's transition to the NHL. Smart. Backstrom, 19, 2006's fourth pick, looked good in camp skating with playmaking center Michael Nylander and slick-finishing left winger Alex Semin. If that trio clicks, it'll take scoring pressure off meta-wing Alexander Ovechkin.

Marc Staal, D, New York Rangers
Mark joins big-bro centers Eric (Canes) and Jordan (Pens) in the Eastern Conference. But the OHL's postseason MVP will make his mark on the blue line. The 6-foot-4, 204-pounder was a shutdown defenseman for Canada's back-to-back (2006, 2007) World Junior champs. Tom Renney likes Staal's length, savvy and poise, but the coach will closely monitor the blue-liner's minutes early on. Staal, 20, was a steal as the 12th pick in the 2005 draft, and his arrival boosts an average D.

Erik Johnson, D, St. Louis Blues
The first pick overall in 2006, Johnson, 19, opted to leave Minnesota after his freshman year to join the Blues. The 6-foot-4, 219-pounder has strong puck skills and a nasty physical style (50 PIMs in 41 NCAA games) and should anchor the Blues' improving blue line for years. Early in the season, he might see more minutes than the club would like, courtesy of vet Jay McKee's broken right foot. But the Blues and their fans shouldn't worry; he can handle it.

Carey Price, G, Montreal Canadiens
Price grabbed a lot of attention with his lights-out (.936 save percentage) performance during the AHL playoffs. Showcasing his agility and ability to steer rebounds into the corners, the butterfly-style netminder led Hamilton to the title and earned MVP honors. Price, 20, will start the season backing up Cristobal Huet, but the Vancouver native is clearly the Canadiens' goalie of the future. If Huet stumbles during the season, that future could be now.

E.J. Hradek covers hockey for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at ej.hradek@espnmag.com. Also, click here to send E.J. a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.