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Penguins The Blur from Belarus: Koltsov on fast track to NHL

Sunday, September 14, 2003

By Dejan Kovacevic, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Mario Lemieux calls Konstantin Koltsov "probably the fastest guy in the National Hockey League." Others are willing to go further, pronouncing him the world's fastest human.

"If he keeps his skates on, yeah," Penguins coach Eddie Olczyk said.

But Koltsov, the team's first-round pick in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft and a top-shelf prospect at either wing, is not among those eager to engage in such a discussion. Only because he does not feel he has earned it.

"Oh, I don't know," he said in a Southpointe locker room, shaking his head when asked if he could outskate any hockey player anywhere. "I don't think so."

 
 
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He then paused and grinned sheepishly before adding, "Maybe someday."

Someday?

"You know, in Russia, we have one player ... "

One player. Vladislav Bryzgalov is the name, and it is scantly recognized by anyone outside Eastern Europe. But Bryzgalov, a veteran forward in the Russian Superleague, made quite the impression on Koltsov during his time there.

"He's unbelievable. So fast," Koltsov said. "He could go a lap with Pavel Bure, and he would be faster. Really. One time around the rink, and Bryzgalov would win every time."

Perhaps someday, then, when Bryzgalov retires or loses a step, Koltsov will have the title?

"I'm not saying that," he said. "I don't want to say I'm the fastest player on my team. Look at Rico Fata. Great skater. Eric Meloche, too."

But there are none who would take issue with the notion that Koltsov leads the pack. In Pittsburgh and possibly everywhere.

Koltsov has a dynamic first step which allows him to hit full stride seemingly with the flip of a switch. He has a smooth glide which allows him to maintain velocity without churning his legs. Most impressive, and perhaps the trait which places him a notch above even the most elite skaters, is the power he displays in fighting through checks.

To see him off the ice, one would not guess at his dominant trait. He is 6 feet, 201 pounds with a fairly thick build, not anything like the slight, slender frames of most of the NHL's speedsters. But to see him on the ice is to believe.

In an intrasquad scrimmage Wednesday, he offered two blazing examples.

On his first shift, he carried the puck from the left corner behind the opponent's goal line, going from a standstill to Mach 1 in a second. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury slid to protect the near-side post and looked over his shoulder to keep an eye on Koltsov. One problem: Koltsov already was gone. He zipped around the goal, came out on the opposite side and easily deposited the puck into the vacated portion. Fleury did not realize what had hit him until well after Koltsov had raised his arms.

Later, on a breakout, he burst through the neutral zone on a harmless-looking two-on-two, then softly banked the puck up the left boards. The defenseman covering him not only was in perfect position but also used his left arm to flagrantly interfere with him. Koltsov took one hand off his stick, swatted back the arm and never allowed his stride to be slowed. He was first to the loose puck by two strides and skated into the clear for a quality scoring chance.

Which is why, of all the prospects vying for NHL roster spots in this training camp, Koltsov has been all the buzz in emerging as a strong candidate to start the season in Pittsburgh.

"I've heard everybody talking about him," left winger Steve McKenna said.

"He's been unbelievable," defenseman Josef Melichar said.

Lemieux simply widens his eyes and raises his eyebrows when Koltsov is mentioned.

Olczyk has been impressed, too, singling out Koltsov as one of the early positives of camp.

"He's another guy who falls in line with what we talk about with our organization getting young, fast and aggressive," Olczyk said. "He creates, and he plays with a nasty edge. You can't teach that."

Koltsov showed that edge yesterday, fighting defenseman Drew Fata in response to an earlier run Fata took at him, further prompting teammates to rave about him afterward.

All that is missing from Koltsov's repertoire is scoring. He seldom found the net while facing older professionals in Russia, managing only 15 goals in four seasons. Last season, his first in North America, he failed to capitalize on the vast majority of chances he created, ending up with nine goals and 21 assists in 65 games for the Penguins' AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre.

But he has shown signs in this camp that his hands might be starting to catch up with his feet. For the most part, he has shot the puck with power and precision, has executed sharp passes in tight quarters and has even displayed a bit of trickery at times.

"I feel better now, more comfortable because I know what is here now and I didn't know last year," he said. "I want to score goals, and I am working very hard to do that. I shoot the puck a lot. I skate with the puck a lot. I just work. That is how I get better."

Koltsov has heard and read the criticism that he is not a natural scorer and never will be, and it rankles him, mostly because of his repeatedly expressed belief that hard work is the answer to any problem.

"My skating is hard work, too," he said. "It was not easy for me. Never. I started skating when I was 7, and I skated only three days a week because we had only one rink."

That was in Minsk, capital of Belarus.

"When I was 14, I started skating every day and had teachers for power-skating," he said. "But it was still work. I worked very hard to skate. I still do."

That work ethic is visible in Koltsov's style, which is reckless when his game is toned down, borderline suicidal when it is not. Representing Belarus in the 2002 Olympics, he had to exit the tournament early after an overzealous forecheck sent him crashing into the boards with the virtual impact of a NASCAR collision.

The Penguins have told him they appreciate that trait, especially when he uses it to finish checks, but they have encouraged him to try lower gears on occasion to be more creative.

"He's using his speed a little better now," said defenseman Brooks Orpik, his best friend on the team. "Last year, it was just full speed everywhere. If you do that, it's easy to cover you. Now, he picks his spots, and no one knows what to expect."

The Penguins also have urged him to assimilate into the North American culture, and he finally seems to be doing so. He spent part of his summer in Minsk learning English from a tutor and is marginally conversant in a language he barely knew a year ago.

"I remember last year how he didn't know where he was going and how he was scared to do everything," Russian right winger Aleksey Morozov said. "But now, it seems like he knows more guys, talks a little more."

"The biggest thing with him on and off the ice is that he's more comfortable," Orpik said. "It probably took until Christmas last season before he opened up, and it was funny when he did. Everybody thought he was really quiet and, just like that, he turned into a clown."

Koltsov is warming up to the extent he jokes with teammates on and off the ice. But he turns plenty serious when discussing the importance of making the final cut this month.

"For me, this is my dream," he said. "All my life, I want to play in the NHL and ... now, look ... I am here in a room with Mario and Martin Straka ..."

He playfully smacked himself in the forehead.

"This is so great. This is where I want to be. If I work hard, I think I will make it."


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

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