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Avs Rookie Duo Making A Name For Themselves

by Staff Writer / Colorado Avalanche
Story by Michael Kelly

Milan Hejduk has led the NHL in goals, he has his name on the Stanley Cup and he is one of the most electric players in the league.

Before he became a bona fide NHL star, however, Hejduk had doubts. Not in his ability, but in his chances of being a Colorado Avalanche for the entire 1998-99 season.

Like most rookies, Hejduk was unsure what his future held. Sure, he was scoring - he had 14 goals and 34 assists that season - but it took him almost half the year to realize he was going to stay in Colorado.

"Bob Hartley told me after seven games I could find a place to live," says Hejduk, referring to the former Avalanche head coach. "About halfway through the season I felt I had a chance to stay here the whole year."

Hejduk is now in his eighth year in the league, but it wouldn't be a surprise if he was reliving his rookie season. The dynamic forward has spent the early part of this season playing on the same line with Wojtek Wolski and Paul Stastny, two rookies who are making an impact on this Avalanche team.

In the age of the salary cap, the Avalanche has found a pair of 20-year-old gems that are not only building blocks of the future, but important cogs in its success this year.

"I didn't have any expectations other than trying to make the team," says Stastny, who joined the Avs after a successful college career at the University of Denver. "Playing with two really good players makes it easier."

Stastny's rise was based on a little misfortune and a lot of talent. He was impressive in training camp, and when forward Steve Konowalchuk was forced into a premature retirement, the coaching staff starting looking at Stastny as someone who could grab the vacated ice time.

"Coming into camp, we weren't sure how Paul was going to fare, if he was going to make our team or not," Avalanche head coach Joel Quenneville says. "His play was going to dictate that. He looks like he belongs. He has great vision and patience with the puck like his dad has. Almost very similar in a lot of aspects on how he sees the game."

Ah, Stastny's dad. The young forward is not only talented; he is the son of a former hockey great, Peter Stastny. Rather than run from comparisons to his father, who is second on the franchise list in scoring with 1,048 points, Paul Stastny embraces his legacy. In October, thanks to the altruistic action of defenseman John-Michael Liles, Stastny donned No. 26, a number his father wore in his 10 years with the Quebec Nordiques.

"I'm just fortunate to have him as my dad," Stastny says.

Having a famous father isn't getting Stastny ice time - his play is doing that for him. In the NHL, results mean more than a name, and so far Stastny and Wolski have earned their stripes.

"Offensively, the two of them read off of each other well, and they seem to have a little bit of chemistry right from the outset in the scrimmages," Quenneville says. "Our younger guys have absorbed more responsibility early on in the season."

Stastny recorded 10 points in October, third most among NHL rookies, while Wolski finished fifth among rookies with eight points.

Wolski and Stastny are not the only rookies to make a contribution to this franchise's success. The Nordiques/Avalanche organization has had three Calder Memorial Trophy winners - Peter Stastny, Peter Forsberg and Chris Drury - which is given to the top rookie in the NHL. The team has also had five rookies named to the NHL All-Rookie Team, and another, Marek Svatos, who might have made it last year had his season not been cut short by injury.

One franchise player who didn't garner any honors as a rookie but has built a Hall of Fame career sees great potential for his rookie teammates.

"They're always willing and wanting to learn, staying on after practice and working," says Avalanche captain Joe Sakic, who recently became the 11th player in NHL history to surpass 1,500 points. "You have to have the work ethic. It makes or breaks you. A lot of kids have

talent; it's the work ethic and desire that separates them."

The difference for some rookies is having an empathetic ear, and Wolski and Stastny have that in each other.

"It's fun to have another guy around the same age to talk about stuff like that," Stastny said.

Wolski agrees.

"We are in the same position, we're on the same line and we're going to be roommates pretty soon," says Wolski, who played nine regular-season games and eight postseason games with Colorado last year. "We spend a lot of time together."

If there's one bit of advice Hejduk would give, it is to have fun. It's the way he approached things as a rookie, and still does to this day.

"I had the mentality as a rookie that you didn't have anything to lose," says Hejduk, who came into the season sixth on the franchise scoring list. "Just go out and try to have fun, and if things are working, great. I don't think there's much pressure. The sophomore year, the expectations are higher. In the first year, there's nothing you can lose."

That doesn't mean the young guys can relax. Despite a strong start to the season, which has included significant time on special teams, Wolski and Stastny know they have to keep contributing if they want to stay with the Avalanche.

"In you're first contract I don't think you get comfortable because it's a two-way contract as a rookie," Wolski says. "If you're not contributing, if you're not producing, they'll ship you out. I don't think any rookie feels too secure. The big thing I try to do is contribute with my line, and making sure we're creating as much offense without giving up too much defense. If we're doing good things in our own zone we're going to create opportunities."

And it helps that the rookie duo can always rely on a veteran like Hejduk.

"We talk to (Hejduk) a lot," Wolski says. "If things aren't going well or certain things aren't going our way, he'll step in and say don't worry about it. It's reassuring. Things aren't always going to go your way, and if guys are helping you out, pushing you along, it definitely makes a difference."

Svatos knows exactly what Wolski is going through. Like Wolski, Svatos came into training camp last year having had some success the previous season. During the 2004 postseason, Svatos scored an overtime game-winner and showed great scoring touch, but last September he wasn't sure he was going to make the team. Once he did, he spent the rest of the year proving himself.

"Mentally, it's pretty hard. They go into every game and try to show they belong here, and they're doing it right now," said Svatos, who last year became only the third rookie in franchise history to score 30 or more goals. "The first year is the hardest, and they have to do it on their own. A lot of things are different. They've adjusted really well and don't seem to have many problems."

Sakic can also relate. He was 19 years old when he made his NHL debut, and he never spent another day out of the NHL. Sakic said once he got used to the game at this level, he relaxed.

"Once you get into the 10, 15-game mark you get adjusted to the pace," he says. "Early on, it's a little different. You're so excited to start. You're going on adrenaline and you're a little nervous, but you go with it."

For now, that's what Wolski and Stastny are doing - going with it. They don't get ahead of themselves, and they know they are on a team that expects to not only make the playoffs, but contend for the Stanley Cup every year. They also know that the Avalanche needs them to contribute for the team to be successful, and so far, that has been the case.

"This year we're counting on our young guys to be a big part of our team," Quenneville says. "We're comfortable with those guys and it's nice that they've gotten off to strong starts in their careers."

The trick is to keep up that strong start. Sakic, who has played with every Calder Trophy winner the franchise has had, says that won't be an issue.

"You can tell a smart hockey player, and you can tell they're going to be successful."

Michael Kelly covers the Avalanche for the Longmont Times-Call and is a regular contributor to the Avalanche Game Magazine.

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