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Inside the NHL: Who will follow Fleury's footsteps in Calder race?

Sunday, November 02, 2003

By Dejan Kovacevic, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Since the Penguins were born in 1967, only one of their own has won the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year: Mario Lemieux. In that span, only five goaltenders have won it: Tony Esposito, Ken Dryden, Tom Barrasso, Ed Belfour and Martin Brodeur.

There are five months and 1,070 games left in this season, so it is recklessly premature to assume Marc-Andre Fleury will add to both of those figures. But, with October out of the way, it is not too soon to begin shaping the field of participants in the Calder race. Nor is it difficult to discern that Fleury is well ahead of the pack.

 
 

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Ice Level: Steve Stirling

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He yesterday moved atop the NHL with a .942 save percentage, the most important statistic of his position, despite facing a league-high 33.9 shots per game. He also has a 1.95 goals-against average and a 3-2-2 record behind a team that offered him little support before its past two games.

It helps, too, that his work apparently is catching the attention of the newspaper writers who vote for the Calder. In the past week alone, writers from Long Island and Chicago spoke of eagerly watching Fleury on television at every opportunity. One was able to cite in detail the Fleury saves he felt were most memorable.

It does not hurt, either, that his potential competition has started slowly offensively.

The Calder traditionally has been decided by a scoring race. In the past 25 years, it has gone to a forward 17 times, a defenseman five times, a goaltender three times. Almost always, when a skater won, he had the most points, a rare exception coming last year when it went to Barret Jackman, a defensive stalwart in St. Louis.

Whether there is a Jackman in the field this season likely will not be clear until later, as conservative players generally take longer to be appreciated. But it is known already that the rookie scorers -- like all scorers in the NHL -- are off producing little. The only first-year player averaging a point a game is Nashville Predators defenseman Marek Zidlicky, but he is 26 and a few months too old to meet Calder criteria.

The top offensive performer among those eligible, Boston center Patrice Bergeron, was a major surprise when he cracked the Bruins' roster only months removed from being a second-round pick in the June NHL Entry Draft. His dynamic skating and soft touch have helped him lead all rookies in scoring with three goals and five assists in 12 games.

Two factors could work against Bergeron, though: One is that he is a slight 6 feet, 183 pounds -- witness the way he was flattened by Aleksey Morozov yesterday -- and that will not help him adjust to the NHL grind. The other is that he is playing behind a strong corps of forwards which could limit his ice time and power-play duty.

Four others to watch:

Peter Sejna, Blues left winger, was the top scorer in the NCAA at Colorado College last season and had been projected by many as the Calder favorite. He is skating alongside playmaker Doug Weight on the top line, which should spell plenty of opportunities to break out. Like Bergeron, he is not big, at 5-11, 180, but being 24 gives him an experience edge over most.

Joni Pitkanen, Philadelphia Flyers defenseman, was the No. 4 overall pick in 2002 and already has emerged as a steady, sometimes dominant force. He is 6-3, 202, and graceful on his skates and with the puck. He will not have the green light often in Ken Hitchcock's system, but he already has two goals and four assists.

Eric Staal, Carolina Hurricanes center, was chosen right after Fleury in June, and he led all NHL goal-scorers in the preseason with seven. That did not carry over into the real games, but he started to emerge with a good showing in Pittsburgh two weeks ago. There is no offensive tool he lacks, and he is sure to get a chance to shine, as Carolina's management has vowed to keep him in the NHL all season.

Jason King, Vancouver Canucks left winger, was a fifth-round pick in 2001 and had an ordinary 20 goals in the AHL last season. But he has found a home on the second line next to the suddenly surging Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel, and is part of a terrific offense. King does most of his scoring from point-blank range while the twins do the twirling.

The Penguins also have two candidates in the rookie scoring race, but the chances of Konstantin Koltsov or Ryan Malone -- both in the top 10 at the moment -- outshining Fleury on their own team are minuscule.

Icy chips

Wayne Gretzky and Lemieux will lead the way for Canada again, in the World Cup of Hockey next summer. Gretzky will announce next week his return to the post of executive director, putting him in charge of selecting personnel, as he was for the gold-medal entry into the 2002 Olympics. Lemieux committed last month to playing.

Ville Nieminen is working to forget Pittsburgh at least as quickly as it seemed to forget him. He made clear Thursday morning at the United Center that he was delighted the Penguins cut him after last season and gave him the chance to sign with Chicago. "It's not an easy place to play for a grinder type of player," Nieminen said of Pittsburgh. "They really appreciate the skilled and talented player there." Nieminen, who had nine goals in 75 games, described himself as a changed player this year. "I don't know the guy who played there last year. We just had the same name. It wasn't me."

The Tampa Bay Lightning's dubious decision to sign injury-plagued Janne Laukkanen this past summer to a one-year deal worth $600,000 in base pay, as much as $1.2 million with incentives, backfired with the team buying out his contract Friday. Laukkanen had an arthritic hip that kept him out of the Penguins' lineup last season before he was included in the Alexei Kovalev trade for the purpose of dumping his salary. Shortly before the deal, he said he was more concerned about being able to walk at age 40 than playing. Laukkanen, 33, is a free agent.

The JD Power Major Market Sports Report released this week a survey showing that those who attend NHL games are the most affluent of the four major sports leagues. The average household income was $73,858 compared to $73,015 for the No. 2 NFL. The NHL also had the youngest fan base at 38.8 years old.

Fighting is up 18 percent from last season, an increase of 14 fights in the first 160 games. The individual leader is the Buffalo Sabres' 6-4, 237-pound rookie, Andrew Peters, with seven. Kelly Buchberger leads the Penguins with two.

Remember when the San Jose Sharks were so deep in goal that they virtually gave away Johan Hedberg as the No. 4 man on their depth chart? That depth is much shallower these days, as evidenced by the team's drop to the bottom of the Western Conference standings. Most dramatic is the plight of starter and one-time budding star Evgeni Nabokov, who ended a 15-game winless streak last night. In a 2-2 tie Thursday in Tampa, he allowed the Lightning's Pavel Kubina to beat him with a slap shot from beyond the red line.

The woeful Washington Capitals placed Kip Miller on waivers this week, and he cleared, no team willing to take his $900,000 salary. Miller, acquired at the request of Jaromir Jagr because of their work together with the Penguins, has one assist in seven games.

No road city offers a warmer welcome to Lemieux than Chicago. Not even his native Montreal. At a stoppage in play Thursday at the United Center, a video of Lemieux's career produced by the Blackhawks was shown on the scoreboard to the tune of REM's "Superman," and the crowd responded with an appreciative roar. Most impressive, perhaps, was that one of the video's scenes was of Lemieux lifting the Stanley Cup in Chicago in 1992.

Conversely, no team has shown less respect for Lemieux than the New York Islanders, as was evident in the two meetings in the past week when Eric Cairns and Roman Hamrlik engaged in rancorous confrontations with him, physically and verbally. This is no egregious violation of the hockey code, but the treatment does stand out when compared to how other opponents generally avoid nastiness with Lemieux. Cairns was asked about this Wednesday at Mellon Arena and responded with a shrug. "He's just another player on the other team," he said. "No one's untouchable in this league."


Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1938.

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