ATLANTA -- Patrik Stefan was admittedly nervous the first time he stepped on the ice for the Atlanta Thrashers.
"Of course, there's pressure when everybody is looking at you," the 19-year-old center said.
Since then, the strapping native of the Czech Republic has grown more comfortable in the spotlight, providing a tantalizing glimpse of the skills that made him the No. 1 pick in the NHL draft.
"The top four or five guys in this year's draft are going to be outstanding players," said general manager Don Waddell, who engineered a draft-day deal to land Stefan. "But I couldn't get that feeling about anybody else that I got with Patrik."
Still, the Thrashers have gone to great lengths to ensure that Stefan's development is unimpeded by the growing pains of an expansion franchise. Waddell said he's not concerned about this season or next -- when the losses figure to be frequent -- but looks forward to seeing Stefan at the ripe old age of 22 or 23.
"He's got to earn his playing time," Waddell said. "If he's ready now, we'll bring him on quicker. If not, we'll bring him along slower and be prepared to stand back and take all the questions."
To ease the transition, coach Curt Fraser put Stefan on a line with 32-year-old Kelly Buchberger, who played on three Stanley Cup-winning teams in Edmonton with players like Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Grant Fuhr.
"In the back of his mind, Patrik has got to know every person in the building is watching him," Fraser said. "He's got to forget that. Just go out, play the game and have fun."
Buchberger has noticed in Stefan some of the same traits that were prevalent in those great Edmonton teams.
"A lot of young guys are not open to suggestions," Buchberger said. "But Patrik is very polite and he wants to learn. He wants to be the best he can be. He's an easy guy to take to."
The only question is whether the Thrashers have the next Eric Lindros (superstar) or the next Brett Lindros (a career cut shot by concussions). Stefan suffered two concussions last season with the Long Beach Ice Dogs, playing his final game in March.
"I feel fine," insisted Stefan, who turned 19 Thursday. "That's all behind me. I don't even think about it."
Still, doubts persist because of the way Stefan's agent handled the situation prior to the draft. Rich Winter refused to release his client's medical records, prompting Tampa Bay to give up its chance to land Stefan with the No. 1 pick. The Thrashers relied on their own medical research to reach a different conclusion.
"There's no more risk of injury with Patrik than there is with any other player," Waddell said.
Two years ago, Stefan jumped at the chance to leave the Czech Republic when an offer came from the International Hockey League, a step below the NHL.
"I wanted to play in the NHL, and the IHL helped me," he said. "It's a good league. I got to play against men and I learned a lot."
Speaking little English, Stefan moved in with a family in Southern California. His mother and father took turns visiting him to make the adjustment easier.
"It was hard the first couple of weeks and months," he recalled. "I learned a lot -- not only about hockey, but about life."
Last season, Stefan was one of the better players in the IHL until the concussions took their toll. In 33 games, he scored 11 goals and added 24 assists, earning a spot in the league's All-Star game.
Stefan's skating is deceptively quick and elusive. Like many Europeans, he has soft hands and extraordinary passing skills, but he's also big enough (6-foot-2, 205 pounds) to take an NHL-style beating. He does his best work behind the net and in the corners, drawing comparisons to Ron Francis.
"He's very mature for his age," Buchberger said. "Hopefully, that will make his adjustment to the NHL a lot easier. A lot of junior players have problems the first couple of years. But you can already tell he's one of the best players on the ice."
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