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Old 'dogs' can learn new tricks in today's NHL

Friday, 10.30.2009 / 5:00 PM / Columns

By Larry Wigge - NHL.com Columnist

One month into the 2009-10 season and we've already seen the phenomenon -- a player who has already achieved a great deal of success kind of scratching his forehead when he's talking about how things are currently going and then admitting there is a lot to learn.

All observers around the NHL would tell you that, at 25, Zach Parise is an emerging star. He already has had seasons of 14, 31, 32 and 45 goals with the New Jersey Devils. But he recently admitted he's learning more and more each day playing for new coach Jacques Lemaire.

This is the same reaction I've gotten from other players like Anze Kopitar in his second season with coach Terry Murray, Marian Gaborik in his first year under New York Rangers coach John Tortorella, Dany Heatly under a new system in San Jose with coach Todd McLellan, Dustin Penner getting a clean slate from new coach Pat Quinn in Edmonton and Shane Doan and new coach Dave Tippett in Phoenix.

These are all integral parts of the puzzle, players who have learned to live on the edge. Now, armed with a new direction, they are giving their teams an edge.

"I guess it's just the way Pat and Tom (Renney) just let me play," Penner told NHL.com's Dan Rosen. "They don't get too critical. They just let me play my game. My one year in Portland (in the American Hockey League), I just played hockey and ended up getting 39 goals and 84 points. The coach there, Kevin Dineen, he just let me go play my game."

Penner didn't want to put the blame on former coach Craig MacTavish for meddling too much in his game, but he clearly feels Quinn, Renney and assistant coaches Kelly Buchberger and Wayne Fleming are handling him the right way.

"They gave me the parameters to go play and I have played pretty long in the League and been a pro for six years so they let me go out on my own to see how I do," Penner said. "They haven't really said anything because I have been playing well. Any time I do make a mistake they don't drill it into my head because they know I already made the mistake. It's a really open line of communication."

In San Jose, Heatley is happy with the up-tempo system coach Todd McLellan runs and is thriving while playing on Joe Thornton's wing.

"For me, his biggest attribute or skill that he maybe does better than a lot of other people is he can shoot the puck in traffic," McLellan told NHL.com. "He sets his body up well so there could be sticks or people draped on him but he still gets his shot off. He's got a quick release and somehow muscles his way through it and knows where the puck is going when he gets it off. That's been a real good asset for us."

With Parise, everything starts with that great work ethic and his passion to go to the net and use those great hands. He may not have thought he needed this new evolution to his game at first, but now the former University of North Dakota star, who led the Devils in scoring last season with 94 points, relishes the opportunity to get better ... no matter how it comes.

"When you get to your fourth and fifth years in this league, you're not as afraid to make a mistake," Parise explained. "With more confidence, I've tried to shoot more. I know, when I get a good chance, I don't like to pass it up. With experience, you try different things, different moves."

But it's that passionate drive that works for the Parises -- Zach and his dad, J.P., who spent 14 seasons in the NHL from 1965-66 through 1978-79 with Boston, Toronto, Minnesota, the New York Islanders and Cleveland Barons.

"He's got a real hunger and drive for the net," Toronto Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson said as he watched Parise in his capacity as head coach of the 2010 U.S. Olympic Team. "Zach doesn't appear to be a really big guy, yet he goes to the net as hard as any forward I know in the game."

Zach could have wondered what was going on at the start of this season when Lemaire came in and broke up the highly successful line of Parise, Travis Zajac and Jamie Langenrunner that former coach Brent Sutter relied on so much. Instead, Zach admits that his game is overall better under Lemaire.

"After 10 minutes with Jacques, you find out how much you don't know about the game," Parise laughed. "It's amazing how much he knows. For instance, I never realized how important positioning is without the puck. It may be just a foot off one way or the other, but it's amazing how quickly you can get the puck back when you are in position when you listen to Jacques."

And a smarter, better-schooled Zach Parise could just be an even better player for the Devils, plus Ron Wilson, when the Olympic Games come up in Vancouver from Feb. 16-28.

No Rockie Horror Show for Craig --  Some might have looked at the Colorado Avalanche signing of journeyman Craig Anderson and naming him their No. 1 goaltender as one of those wait-and-see-when-he-implodes stories.

Instead, Anderson has thrived with the extra work -- going 10-1-2, playing every minute of every game while putting up a 1.97 goals-against average and .940 save percentage.

"He never had a chance to start anywhere," said Calgary Flames left winger Rene Bourque, who started out in Chicago with Anderson. "Last year in Florida he had a good streak for a while, but they ended up going back to Tomas Vokoun."

Winning 10 games in October tied an NHL record, set by Manny Legace with Detroit in 2005 -- and seeing the Avalanche with the best record in the NHL was clearly a tribute to Anderson's body of work.

"After 10 minutes with Jacques, you find out how much you don't know about the game. It's amazing how much he knows."
-- Zach Parise on Jacques Lemaire

Strangely, there are those stats wizards who believe the more shots that Anderson faces the better he plays. After Anderson stopped 48 of the 49 shots in a 3-1 win against Detroit Oct. 24, it gave him a 2-0-0 record in game's he's faced 40 or more shots this season -- and ran his career record to 14-2-5 in those high-shot games. His career record when facing fewer than 40 shots was just 32-42-10.

Surfing the net --  We heard the complaining early and often from New York Rangers coach John Tortorella about how opponents were running goaltender Henrik Lundqvist nearly every night. Same in Vancouver with Roberto Luongo and in Detroit with Chris Osgood. And now we hear from Buffalo. Same gripe: Too many wingers running into or bumping their goalies.

Sabres netminder Ryan Miller had the best observation.

"They can stop on a dime when they have a chance to score," Miller explained, "But when they know they're getting cut off all of a sudden they can't stop or turn. Explain that to me."

Don't mess with Chris --  All the talk leading up to Pittsburgh's Oct. 28 game against Montreal was how long Penguins coach Dan Bylsma would stick with his Chris Kunitz playing on his team's No. 1 line with Sidney Crosby and Bill Guerin. Oops!

Bylsma changed all of his other lines, but kept Crosby, Kunitz and Guerin together and Crosby accounted for his third career hat trick and Kunitz roared out of a season-long slump to contribute 1 goal and 3 assists for his first career four-point night in a 6-1 victory against the Canadiens.

It was Kunitz's first goal of the season and just his second in 41 games with the Pens, including playoffs, since being acquired from Anaheim last February. Guerin's three assists lifted him past John LeClair into seventh place on the all-time scoring list for U.S.-born players.

"Monkey off my back," laughed Kunitz. "It was more like a gorilla."

Oh, by the way, Crosby's hat trick came three years to the day after his first hat trick in Philadelphia on Oct. 28, 2006.

Message received loud and clear --  After Kings coach Terry Murray scratched 32-goal scorer Alexander Frolov from a recent game, he said the door was open for the quick winger to return.

"It was a coach asking for more intensity, with smart work, hard work and a passion for the game," Murray said.

In the next four games, Frolov returned with 2 goals and 4 assists and the Kings won all four games.

Bryzing along, but ... --  After posting six wins in his first seven decisions and allowing just nine goals in those seven games, Phoenix Coyotes goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov urged media folks to wait a little while before praising him. Yes, this is the same Bryzgalov who went to Phoenix from Anaheim on waivers two short years ago.

Said Bryzgalov, "I don't like to run in front of the train ... because the train at some point can run over you."

Early vote for Comeback Player of Year --  Ray Emery bombed out in Ottawa in the 2007-08 season after leading the Senators to the Stanley Cup Final one year earlier. He was so persona non grata that no NHL team would take a chance on him and he had to go to Russia to play.

With Atlant Moscow Oblast, he posted a 22-8 record and 2.12 goals-against average. And he got a chance to come back to the NHL in Philadelphia, where he won the No. 1 job in training camp from Brian Boucher. A year in the Kontinental Hockey League allowed him to get his game back and realize something important.

"The food was different. The surroundings were strange. The people all spoke another language. I felt like a loner ... a lot," said Emery. "It made me realize how much I appreciate being back here."

Things that make you go hmmmm --  With Simon Gagne sidelined indefinitely with a pair of hernia tears and facing surgery, the Flyers will be missing three players who combined for 86 goals last year: Gagne (34), Mike Knuble (27) and Joffrey Lupul (25). Knuble signed with Washington as a free agent, and Lupul was dealt to Anaheim in the trade that brought defenseman Chris Pronger. GM Paul Holmgren dismissed rumors that the Flyers might sign Brendan Shanahan. They were instead planning to give Gagne's important minutes to youngsters Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk. ... Patrick Marleau continues to flourish in San Jose without the "C." Scoring his 10th goal in a 2-1 victory over Los Angeles Oct. 28, Marleau hit double-figure goals in just 13 games. The fastest that feat had been accomplished previously by a Sharks player was in 1999, when Owen Nolan did it in 16 games. ... Brad Richards has always been a point man, first with Tampa Bay and now with Dallas. But now, he's legitimately playing and contributing big-time on the point of the Stars' power play. His 2 goals in a 4-3 overtime victory against Toronto on Oct. 28 gave Richards 15 points in just 10 games this season. Richards' second goal of the game and fifth of the season came on Dallas' redesigned and potent power play. ... Talk about time machine material. Matt Moulson, the other rookie next to John Tavares on the New York Islanders, scored his team-high sixth goal to ignite a 3-1 win against the Rangers Oct. 28. The last time the Isles scored in the first minute and beat the Rangers was on Oct.  19, 1985, when Mike Bossy scored 28 seconds into a 5-4 triumph. ...  It's always easy to go back to the 2006 Entry Draft and rewind the names and accomplishments -- Erik Johnson, Jordan Staal, Jonathan Toews, Niklas Backstrom and Phil Kessel. Not a bad top five. Some would argue the order today, like in Washington, where Backstrom had a 1-goal, 3-assist night in a 4-2 victory over Philadelphia Oct. 27. It was Backstrom's 11th game with three or more assists in his three seasons in the NHL, tying him with Evgeni Malkin for the NHL high over that span. ... Marion Gaborik's 10 goals in 12 games is a personal best as far as the fastest he's reached double figures in goals in nine NHL seasons. But isn't the fastest for a New York Rangers player to 10 goals over the last 20 years -- Mike Gartner reached 10 goals in just nine games in 1990, Pavel Bure did it in 10 games in 2002 and it took Brendan Shanahan 11 games in 2006. ... While Gaborik is streaking for the Rangers, the Minnesota Wild are scratching their heads about his replacement Martin Havlat, who was signed to a six-year, $30 million free-agent contract in July. After being blanked again in a 3-1 loss at Chicago Oct. 25 and going minus-2 against his former team, Havlat had just 1 goal in nine games and was a minus-10.

Hmmm, Take 2 --  Smart and competitive and a magician at working the power play, Mathieu Schneider's return to the lineup this week could be the steadying influence on defense the Vancouver Canucks were looking for. Following offseason shoulder surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff, the veteran defenseman had to be held out until Vancouver's 2-0 shutout vs. Edmonton on Oct. 25 because he was on long-term IR. He added his first goal of the season two nights later against Detroit. ... There are some hard-working players who don't have to get a point to make a point. Manny Malhotra has been that kind of player the last five seasons for Columbus -- and now the San Jose Sharks see the same thing. Manny scored his first two goals for the Sharks in their 4-1 win at Philadelphia on Oct. 25. It was the 321st regular-season road game of Malhotra's NHL career but the first in which he scored more than one goal. Malhotra has scored two goals in a game six times on home ice: once for the Rangers and five times for the Blue Jackets. ... Martin Hanzal was strictly a defensive center in Phoenix in his first two NHL seasons. But when you see him on a line with goal scorers Peter Prucha and Radim Vrbata, it's clear that new coach Dave Tippett thinks it's time that Hanzal lets his offensive skills take over as well. ... Though he's just 5-foot-9, we saw the skill and leadership of a big-game player in center Tim Kennedy when he played at Michigan State University. After one season in the minors, Kennedy is showing the same passion for the game for Buffalo. On a line with veterans Michael Grier and Jochen Hecht, he's already contributed three assists and has created at least a dozen scoring chances. But his grit is just as impressive. But there's more to this story. Kennedy netted his first NHL goal Oct. 28 and it turned out to be the game-winner in a 4-1 victory against New Jersey. More interesting, it came against future Hall of Famer Marty Brodeur. It's the seventh time a player got a game-winner against Brodeur for his first NHL goal and second time that's happened this season -- Rangers defenseman Matt Gilroy did it on Oct. 5. ... Do you like to watch young power forwards learning how to grow into impact players? Tune in to Chicago and watch Dustin Byfuglien, defenseman turned into right winger a couple of seasons ago. He recently netted his fifth goal in 10 games this season. He didn't get goal No. 5 last season until the 24th game. ...  Bet you didn't know that injured New Jersey forward Patrik Elias had the most overtime points in the NHL since the start of the 2007-08 season with 4 goals and 4 assists. Now, Washington defenseman Mike Green has joined Elias with that distinction with his three goals and five assists. ... Filip Kuba is one of those big and talented defensemen you can take for
granted because he doesn't always look like he's giving 100 percent. But that's not fair -- and Kuba showed the Ottawa Senators how much his offensive push means to the team when he returned to the lineup Oct. 28 and quickly contributed two assists to spark a 4-3 victory at Florida after he missed the previous eight games with a groin injury. ... Marco Sturm may still be adapting to a brace to protect his surgically repaired left knee, but his point-producing instincts aren't rusty at a time when the Boston Bruins are looking long and hard for scoring. Sturm's 2 goals and 6 assists in his first 10 games are, in fact, a sight for sore eyes. So is his patented speed up the wing.


Quote of the Day

I'm hoping Bob [Murray] didn't go out and get Dany Heatley just to get someone. I'm sure he's excited and motivated.

— Anaheim Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau on general manager Bob Murray's decision to sign Dany Heatley