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There is increased scrutiny on the performances of general managers and coaches. Several NHL men are feeling the heat as the NHL schedule moves forward... >>>
Every year, players emerge from relative obscurity. Here's a look at 15 dark horses heading into the season who have emerged as productive and valuable NHLers... >>>
Let's look at players either making their NHL debuts or returning from the European leagues this season, as well as recognizable NHL names currently playing overseas... >>>
In the "new" NHL, teams in general are giving young players greater responsibilities. However, there are several other players still waiting for their big break... >>>
The NHL is new not only because of rule changes, a new attitude, a new logo and a commitment to feature a more exciting brand of hockey going forward... >>>
Top to bottom, from left: Red Wings' Jason Williams, Sabres' Paul Gaustad, Oilers' Jarret Stoll and Blackhawks' Pavel Vorobiev.
Emerging into productive NHLers...

EVERY YEAR, PLAYERS EMERGE from relative obscurity to become valuable players to their franchise. In fact, all three Calder trophy (NHL rookie of the year) finalists from 2003-04--goaltender Andre Raycroft of the Boston Bruins, winger Michael Ryder of the Montreal Canadiens and winger Trent Hunter of the New York Islanders--weren't expected to play a big role with their clubs going into the season.

However, it's not only rookies who come from nowhere. Sometimes, veteran players are placed in different roles because of need and wind up shining brightly. The NHL's new offensive approach has also helped various players post better numbers so far in 2005-06.

Here's a look at 15 dark horses heading into the season who have emerged as productive and valuable NHLers.
1. Jason Williams, RW, Red Wings
With several veterans let go to meet salary-cap requirements, Williams was expected to make the club out of training camp. However, he has far exceeded expectations as a setup man for veterans Robert Lang and Brendan Shanahan. Williams is among the NHL leaders in assists and has also seen regular power-play time on the point. At 25, he has finally arrived but has probably already reached peak performance.

2. Pavel Vorobiev, RW/LW, Blackhawks
It has taken the 2000 first rounder (No. 11 overall) a long time to develop, but injuries to Tuomo Ruutu and Eric Daze have helped Vorobiev so far this season. A solid 2004-05 campaign in the AHL really helped Vorobiev with his confidence in North America. He should continue to see loads of power-play time, and will likely remain in the lineup even when Ruutu and Daze return. His ability to play either wing position adds to his overall value.

3. Kyle Wellwood, C, Maple Leafs
On a roster that features three all-star veteran centers (Mats Sundin, Eric Lindros and Jason Allison), as well as several other options down the middle (Matt Stajan, Alexander Steen, Chad Kilger and Clarke Wilm), Wellwood was considered a major long shot to remain with the club when Sundin returned from injury. However, if he continues to produce, the Leafs won't have a choice put to find a permanent spot in the lineup for him. He owns a huge offensive upside.

4. Jarret Stoll, C, Oilers
An emerging checker and energy-line player going into 2005-06, Stoll has added more offense to his repertoire this season. Stoll has been used extensively on the point of the power play, mainly because of a booming slap shot. With newcomer Michael Peca struggling with both injury and offensive inconsistency, Stoll has even seen time on the second scoring line. While he's not a long-term lock as a top-six forward, Stoll should continue to play a vital role this year.

5. Peter Schaefer, LW, Senators
Not all members of the Ottawa Senators can score the goals, but virtually every Sen is a solid (at least) fantasy player this season. Schaefer is a skilled penalty-killer and quality checking winger, but he'll also benefit from lining up alongside Martin Havlat on the second line. The latter has been a dominant force so far this season, so Schaefer should continue to post big numbers. In the long run, he's better suited for third line duty.

6. Brad Boyes, C, Bruins
Boyes benefited from the absence of Alexei Zhamnov at center in the early going, though the Russian veteran is finally back in action. However, he may not lose his spot in the lineup because of superior offensive skills and the ability to work on the power play. Moreover, there is a chance the Bruins might look to move Boyes in a deal for more help along the blueline. Down the road, Boyes should become a quality second-line center. In Boston, he may need to move to wing.

7. Dominic Moore, C, Rangers
The speedy Moore began the season as the Rangers' fourth-line center. Expectations for both Moore individually and the Blueshirts as a whole were very low going in, but both have now soared in a big way. Moore is seeing plenty of time on special teams and coming up with big goals for his team. At the very least, he should eventually move up to third-line status at some point. Moore owns plenty of untapped offensive potential.

8. P.J. Axelsson, LW, Bruins
Axelsson is in his eighth season with the Bruins, and he's largely been a checker and quality penalty-killer over the years. However, the team is lacking in natural left-wingers so Axelsson may see more ice time in 2005-06. He stands a good chance to supplant the likes of Shawn McEachern and Brad Isbister on the second line this season, but he'll always be a checking-line player at heart. Axelsson is definitely a short-term proposition.

9. Ian Laperriere, C/RW, Avalanche
Obviously, Avalanche GM Pierre Lacroix knew something about 'Lappy' few others did. A high-scoring junior center, Laperriere was more of an energy winger than anything else throughout his L.A. Kings career. However, Colorado's need for a checking-line center was the impetus for Laperriere's current NHL emergence. He has fit in like a glove and also benefited from playing more minutes. Wingers Antti Laaksonen and Andrew Brunette have also helped Laperriere.

10. Ryan Whitney, D, Penguins
Whitney played so well in training camp that he was a surprise roster cut last month. However, an injury to Dick Tarnstrom opened the door for his recall. Since most defensemen don't fully develop their offensive game right away, his numbers so far suggest Whitney may become a special talent from the back end. The Pens boast Tarnstrom, Sergei Gonchar and Richard Jackman as offensive defensemen, but Whitney will continue to see ample ice time.

11. Paul Gaustad, C, Sabres
Gaustad was viewed as a fourth-line center entering 2005-06, but he is seeing important minutes for Sabres coach Lindy Ruff. What he lacks in natural talent he more than makes up for in size, savvy and determination. Down the road, Gaustad will probably develop into Buffalo's shutdown center but he could see enough ice time to make an impact. Think Keith Primeau-light.

12. Jay McClement, C, Blues
Defensive centers on struggling teams aren't usually on many dark-horse lists, but McClement is an improving player with every NHL shift. A second-round draft pick in 2001 (No. 57 overall), McClement broke through offensively in 2004-05 in the AHL, and has carried over his newfound confidence to the big league. He isn't expected to challenge for top-six forward status down the road, but should play an integral part in the Blues' inevitable rebuilding plan.

13. Matt Ellison, C/W, Blackhawks
Like teammate Pavel Vorobiev, Ellison is taking advantage of injuries to Tuomo Ruutu and Eric Daze in Chicago. A feisty, versatile forward, Ellison can be used in virtually any game situation. In fact, rookie coach Trent Yawney has utilized him often on the point with the man advantage. He reminds some in Chicago of a bigger, less talented version of former ÎHawk Steve Sullivan.

14. Patrick Sharp, C/RW, Flyers
A very slow start led Sharp to the press box on a couple of occasions in the early going, but he's starting to come on. A natural center, he'll have to accept a role on right wing in order to remain with the Flyers--due to their tremendous depth down the middle. Sharp must continue to perform because of the expected return of Sami Kapanen next month. However, Sharp's chemistry with rookie center Jeff Carter is undeniable.

15. Andrej Meszaros, D, Senators
In the 'old' NHL, No. 5 or 6 defensemen were never dark horses in the fantasy hockey world. Times have changed, however, so players such as Meszaros are now important finds. Eventually, Meszaros will replace the likes of Wade Redden and/or Zdeno Chara on the first unit of Ottawa's power play, but for now he will continue to play limited minutes on special teams. With the Sens scoring goals at record clips, even players like Meszaros have popped up on the radar.