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THN.com Blog: Six players worth watching in '08-09

Duncan Keith follows through on a shot attempt against the Edmonton Oilers. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

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Duncan Keith follows through on a shot attempt against the Edmonton Oilers. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

I awoke Monday morning to the truly awful news that legendary Sports Illustrated hockey writer and journalism professor Jack Falla passed away as a result of a heart attack he suffered Sunday while on vacation in Maine.

Although I never got the chance to meet Jack face-to-face, I was fortunate enough to be on the receiving end of a number of tremendously kind and supportive emails from him regarding my work.

In a business where some of the most successful people also are the most backwards social animals you’ll ever encounter, Jack was everything a hockey writer ought to be: generous, hilarious, and, most of all, inclusive. It didn’t matter to him whether he agreed with any or all of your reasoning; as long as you were writing about the game from the heart, you were good with him.

I hope Jack’s family and friends know how much he meant to us in the wordsmithing industry. My colleague Ken Campbell did a damn fine job of chronicling his talents in a blog last week.

To hell with the official diagnosis of what ended his life after just 62 years; Jack’s writings – as well as the countless number of minds he sharpened while working as a teacher at Boston University – will serve as a testament to how very strong that heart of his really was.

• In the spirit of Jack’s love for the game, here’s a list of six NHLers, one from each of the league’s six divisions, I’m looking forward to watching this season:

Atlantic: Zach Parise, New Jersey. Still think this young man’s best days are ahead of him. And if he can improve his scoring numbers for the third straight year and flirt with 40 goals – playing for the Devils, to boot – this season, he should be gracing the cover of EA Sports’ next NHL game.

Central: Duncan Keith, Chicago. A lot of attention will be paid to the now filthy-rich Brian Campbell in the Windy City, but if the Hawks are going to seize a playoff spot, they’ll need Keith to be even better than he was last season. (By the way, did you know the 25-year-old Winnipeg native was a plus-30 for Chicago in ’07-08? That might just be one of the best achievements that got little-to-no play in the press last year.)

Northeast:
Blake Wheeler, Boston. The Bruins shelled out a crapload of cash to secure the services of the college star (and former Coyotes draft pick) this summer, now we get to see if he’s worth the gamble. If the 6-foot-5 Minnesotan winds up having success on the same line as 6-foot-4 Milan Lucic, the B’s may have a prime marketing opportunity on their hands as well.

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Northwest: Kyle Wellwood, Vancouver. The NHL’s version of Droopy Dog bottomed out in his final season under the glare of life with the Maple Leafs, but in the more laid-back confines of British Columbia, he may rediscover – or just plain discover – the will to pay the price around the net and become something more than a tease of a talent. I’m not guaranteeing that’ll happen, but it’ll be fun watching him try. Or watching him not try.

Pacific: Peter Mueller, Phoenix. From the moment I interviewed him at the 2006 NHL draft in Vancouver, I suspected this kid would be something special. And after his 22-goal, 54-point rookie campaign with the Coyotes last year, I congratulated myself for suspecting correctly. Whether he’s playing pivot or the wing this year, Mueller is going to factor into Phoenix’s playoff hopes in a major way.

Southeast:
Evgeny Artyukhin, Tampa Bay. The Bolts brought the massive Russian back into the organization this summer after two years of playing in his homeland. He won’t be at the top of any scoring race this season, but under the rock-‘em-sock-‘em system coach Barry Melrose has planned for the team, the 6-foot-5 Artyukhin should be seen delivering crushing checks on many a highlight reel in ’08-09.

Adam Proteau is The Hockey News' online columnist and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and Wednesdays, his Ask Adam feature appears Tuesdays in the summer, and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.

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