LOS ANGELES -- About this time last year, Washington Capitals winger Alex Ovechkin predicted that fellow Russian Evgeni Malkin would win the Calder Trophy as the NHL rookie of the year if he joined the Penguins this season.
That's looking like a pretty good call early this season, with Malkin getting a goal in each of his first five games and nine points going into the late game against the Los Angeles Kings last night at Staples Center. He missed the Penguins' first four games because of a shoulder injury.
But just as Ovechkin had to hold off the Penguins' Sidney Crosby, Calgary defenseman Dion Phaneuf and New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist to win the Calder last season, Malkin appears to have some strong competition in 2006-07.
One push could come from teammate Jordan Staal, the 18-year-old who beat the odds to stick with the Penguins.
Three others who appear to be contenders are on teams the Penguins will face on their current West Coast trip.
Last night, they faced Kings center Anze Kopitar, who led all rookies with 13 points. Saturday night, they play at San Jose, where Sharks defenseman Matt Carle has 12 points in 13 games. Monday, they go against Anaheim and winger Dustin Penner, who had eight points through 12 games.
Kopitar, 19, is a 6-foot-4, 220-pounder who stands out because he is the first NHL player from Slovenia.
That means that, although Kopitar was the 11th overall pick in the 2005 draft, he did not have the fanfare that Crosby, Malkin and others have had before arriving in the NHL.
"We had heard about him, but no one got a chance to see him play," Penguins coach Michel Therrien said yesterday. "Now he's opening up a lot of eyes.
"He's a good player. He's one of those players that has a lot of skill and shoots the puck. He's always around the net. You have to pay attention to him."
Other rookies to watch include two in Colorado, Paul Stastny (10 points through 11 games) and Wojtek Wolski (eight points through 11 games).
Therrien believes that the NHL could continue to see strong crops of rookies because rule changes and the crackdowns that took effect last season opened the door to younger players with good hands and strong skating skills while weeding out some of the more experienced players who rely more on guile or toughness.
"It's a faster game," Therrien said. "You need speed and skill. Before the new rules, there were guys who were able to stick in the NHL and compete and make a career out of it. Right now, with the new rules, if you're having a hard time skating, it's getting tougher and tougher."
Shelly Anderson can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1721.