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Fast Friends

by Staff Writer / Winnipeg Jets

Evander Kane and Tim Stapleton never would have guessed that they'd be perfect linemates.

Kane is 6-2, 195, from Vancouver, British Columbia. Stapleton is a mere 5-9, 180, from Forest Park, Ill.

Kane arrived in Atlanta via the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, having been selected by the Thrashers with the fourth overall pick by the Thrashers.

Evander Kane

Stapleton arrived in Blueland — the second time that is — via the San Antonio Rampage of the American Hockey League, after Atlanta signed him to a two-year deal last Nov. 30. He'd played two games with the Thrashers during the 2009-10 season before opting for free agency. He'd originally been drafted by Toronto and was acquired by Atlanta as part of the July 1, 2009 deal for Pavel Kubina in exchange for defenseman Garnet Exelby and left wing Colin Stuart.

But Kane and Stapleton did share two things, tremendous speed and the ability to score.

It would make for an ideal storyline to say that fate brought Kane and Stapleton together, but it was actually the juggling act of Thrashers Head Coach Craig Ramsay, in looking for the right line combination. Ramsay put the two together, added rookie Alex Burmistrov on their right and a line was born.

A fast line.

The line quickly — of course — made enough of an impression that both Kane and Stapleton headed toward the off-season still talking about their time together.

"I found some success with Tim Stapleton," said Kane. "We seemed to work well. He's a smaller guy but he comes out of the corners with the puck quite surprisingly more often than you'd think. A guy like [Burmistrov], who has all the skill in the world, he can skate and he sees the ice real well. I seemed to find some success with those guys."

"He's a great kid," said Stapleton. "I think during the stretch where I was able to start scoring he was involved in every goal I scored. I was very fortunate to play with him. He's a world-class player. He's got so much future in this league. It's going to be exciting to see years from now. He's such a fast skater so I think we just jelled together with our speed. Hopefully we can play more together. I know we've talked about wanting to keep playing together and they had us there for a little bit and we had some success. I'm looking forward to maybe getting an opportunity with him again next year, too."

Kane actually only assisted on two of Stapleton's five goals on the season (he also had two assists), but they came in consecutive games (March 15 at New Jersey and the 17th at Philadelphia) as part of a stretch of three goals in five games, but that's the kind of success that leaves an indelible mark.

It's the kind of success that both expect on a larger scale from themselves come next season.

"I think that has to happen. I planned to do that this year," said Kane, who saw his goal production go up to 19 in 2010-11 from 14 his rookie season, while his point total jumped to 43 from 26. "I improved but I expected more. Next year the expectations are going to be even higher and that's what I plan to do. It's my third year and the last year of my contract. So it's a big year and I'm going to be ready to go."

Stapleton, who admitted he struggled — especially over the first 25 games while searching for his first point — has similar plans to raise the bar.

Tim Stapleton

"I feel like I can do more, too. I've been a scorer my whole career and I think five goals in 45 games, that's not the outcome I wanted for me, personally," he said. "But I started off playing maybe five minutes a game and it got increased. I learned that it's more of a defensive game, too, and that's something that's been lacking in my career. I think I've been better defensively. Offensively I can do more, too. Overall, I'm just more excited. I wish we could keep playing right now. 

Actually, Stapleton got his wish as he is playing in Slovakia in the 2011 IIHF World Championships. He'll likely even get the opportunity to take the ice with Kane. at some point this week in the Qualification Round. However the two won't be sharing the puck or likely any pleasantries, as Stapleton will be playing for Team USA, Kane with Team Canada.

Through games of Tuesday May 3, Stapleton had an assist and a plus-one rating in three games, while Kane had two assists and was plus-3 in three games. They're two of seven Thrashers playing in the Worlds — left wing Andrew Ladd is teaming with Kane, RW Blake Wheeler and defenseman Mark Stuart are teammates of  Stapleton, while goalie Ondrej Pavelec is on the roster for the Czech Republic and defenseman Arturs Kulda is on the blue line for Latvia.

But there is August, which will usher in training camp and the opportunity to possibly share the puck on the same line again.

"The group of guys we have is incredible," said Stapleton. "Everyone gets along. [His first season in Atlanta] went by fast. That's how fun it was and the coaching staff are teachers of the game. I feel part of the team and I have another year left on the contract and I hope to take advantage of it."

Kane, who planned to work on his shooting accuracy during the off-season, believes next season will be a big one if the team has the right attitude mentally.

"We need to not let our foot off the gas," he said. "We got off to a real good start. I think maybe we got a little too comfortable in the middle of the season and we got into a little bit of a slide. You can't have those kinds of slides.

"I think there was definitely improvement," he added. "Just in the simple fact that everybody got a year. I think we've got a lot of good, young talent. For everybody to get that NHL experience and all have that headed into next year, I think that was a big positive for our group."

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