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Central: Brassard still learning the ropes

by Larry Wigge

Derick Brassard is a player whose creativity could someday put him in the skills competition at the All-Star Game. Watch Derick Brassard in action
I’m having breakfast the morning after the 2006 Entry Draft in Vancouver, and it’s clear that my food is getting cold as I continue to look over reports on a lot of the stars of the future whose names were announced in front of the hockey world that weekend.

I get a tap on the shoulder and hear a familiar voice behind me saying; "Didn’t you get enough of that the last few days?"

My response; "I’m looking for the stories behind the stories of the top picks. Like the year you traded up to get the first pick in the draft and took Rick Nash, Doug."

Then Columbus Blue Jackets GM Doug MacLean said; "I’ve got another one for you, Larry. I’m on the road one night and I get a call from Don Boyd (Columbus’ director of amateur scouting). He says; ‘Doug, I just saw Derick Brassard and I’m telling you this kid is scary. He can skate. He can pass. Most of all, he’s got vision like I haven’t seen since Joe Sakic.’

"I’m not saying this kid’s the next Joe Sakic. But how’s that for a story behind a story, when you consider that Donnie Boyd was the same guy who wouldn’t take no for an answer when I told him I didn’t think I could trade up to get Rick Nash? Donnie had Brassard rated No. 2 in the draft and we got him with the sixth pick."

In recent games, I’ve watched Brassard stop in the offensive zone and survey the ice before attempting to make a play, showing me that he hasn’t quite caught up with the speed in the NHL just yet. But you can see the instincts, the skills, the speed that made MacLean’s scouting staff rave so much about the 20-year-old center from Hull, Quebec.

Larry Wigge Larry Wigge reports on the Central Division every week throughout the 2007-08 regular season.
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"Against players his age and at the minor-league level, Derick was dominant," Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock said in the days leading up to his recall to Columbus in the second week of January. "What really stood out to me in that prospects tournament in Traverse City before the season was how he never slowed down when he was looking to make a play. Everything he did was at top speed."

Brassard had 44 goals and 72 assists in 58 games playing for Drummondville of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in his draft year and followed that with six goals and 19 assists in an injury-plagued 14-game season. The quick and pass-happy center started this season with Syracuse of the American Hockey League and averaged nearly a point per game, with five goals and 15 assists in 21 games.

He had only one goal and one assist in his first 11 NHL games. But he’s got the genes of a hockey player. Pierre, his dad, was a prolific junior scorer who was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens, but never played in the NHL.

So the speed, the vision, the passing and shooting are no fluke. Most of all, the intangibles -- the heart, the passion, the will and desire to be an NHLer -- are for real.

Brassard is definitely a quick study.

While he dazzled at Drummondville, Derick spoke a halting English. But the kid knew the likelihood of him being chosen by Montreal or another team that had a lot of French-speaking players wasn’t likely, so he began to watch ESPN -- SportsCenter to be precise. He watched hockey players handle interviews in English and tried to pick up what he could. By June, he was fluent enough in the language that he could conduct pre-draft interviews with 27 NHL teams in English.

"We wanted him to become an important player at Syracuse, and he did that quickly," Jackets GM Scott Howson said recently. "You want to put a kid in a win-win situation when he’s ready to play at the NHL level."

Where Brassard has not failed is in doing the little things so well.

"It’s not about the points," Derick said recently. "I know I’m playing against grown men who have made their living at this level for years. I know I’ve got to get bigger and stronger, but, for now, I’ve got to win the small battles. It's all about the little details. Things like winning faceoffs, making sure I’m accountable in the defensive zone ... and not getting scored on too often."

Joe Sakic he’s not. He may never be. But that’s OK.


With his speed and skill and hands, Brassard is a player whose creativity could someday put him in the skills competition at the All-Star Game the way he can flip the puck upward and dribble it in the air like Alex Ovechkin did in Atlanta.

"You’d be surprised at how many highlight reel goals they put up on YouTube," Brassard laughed. "One day it might be mine."

We started out this season raving about the skill and energy that would be brought to the Central Division this season by youngsters like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in Chicago, Erik Johnson and David Perron in St. Louis, plus defenseman Ville Koistinen in Nashville. While we’re waiting for Brassard to show us those scary skills that Don Boyd told Doug MacLean about, the Blue Jackets have been getting impact rookie seasons from hard-as-nails winger Jared Boll and mobile-and-skilled No. 5 defenseman Kris Russell.

What is certain right now is the Columbus Blue Jackets are going to need the youthful enthusiasm and energy from Brassard, Boll and Russell if they are going to make it to the playoffs for the first time in the club’s eight-year history.

These kids are clearly young and hungry to make an impact.

Dan Cleary feels he owes it to the Wings to stay in Detroit after they gave him a new life in the NHL. Watch Dan Cleary highlights

Around the Central Division -- When Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Osgood and Tomas Holmstrom signed for less money than they would have gotten on the open market, it was supposed to be good faith that the Detroit Red Wings would use that money to keep the team together. Well, it’s time to step up and get Dan Cleary’s name off the potential unrestricted free-agent chart. Cleary has earned a new deal -- and he feels he owes it to the Wings to stay in Detroit after they gave him a new life in the NHL when he got a tryout in the Motor City after seeing his career hit rock bottom in Phoenix in 2005. Cleary scored a career-high 20 goals last season and he reached that total with 17 games to play this season when he scored with 1:20 left in a 3-2 overtime victory against Minnesota Feb. 5. ... To show how important the concept of TEAM is in Detroit, look no further than defenseman Brett Lebda. Given an opportunity to play more important minutes with Niklas Kronwall sidelined with a knee injury, Lebda stepped up in overtime against Minnesota to score the game-winner for his first goal since Nov. 18. That’s making the most of the bench. ... As often as the Red Wings score, seeing Pavel Datsyuk assist on six consecutive goals and seven of eight is really an achievement. After assisting on the first goal in a 3-1 win at Boston on Feb. 2, Datsyuk had 47 assists and was on pace to eclipse his career-high of 60 assists set last season. .... Defenseman Brian Rafalski has already set career-highs for goals (10) and power-play goals (8). ... Back-to-back shutouts against Colorado on Jan. 8 and Feb. 1 boosted Dominik Hasek’s career total to 80 shutouts. ... When the Red Wings reached 40 wins in just 54 games, there were some interesting numbers inside the numbers. For instance, Detroit was 25-4-2 in its last 31 games and 12-2-0 the last 14 road games. ... It isn’t often that the Red Wings squander a 3-1 lead after two periods (they were 28-3-1 when leading going into the third before Thursday night), but that’s exactly what happened when Los Angeles scored four unanswered goals in the final period of a 5-3 win at Detroit. Ironically, Detroit had won the first three meetings between the two teams this season by a 13-3 margin and came into the game attempting to match a team- and season-high nine-game winning streak. ... Success obviously isn’t going to spoil J.P. Dumont. After signing a new four-year, $16 million contract on Feb. 1, the nine-year veteran continued what could be a career-year season when he scored the winning goal in a 1-0 victory over Carolina on Feb. 5. During Dumont’s recent 16-game point streak, he had a hand in 22 of Nashville’s 51 goals in that span. It was his 19th goal of the season, just four short of his career-high of 23 set in 2000-01 and matched a season later. ... Attendance has picked up since the ownership change in early December, but the 12,638 average needs to get over 13,100 for the Predators to qualify for a small-market perk from the NHL assistance program. That’s key following the recent signings of Dumont and Jordin Tootoo, because GM David Poile also wants to re-sign restricted free agent Shea Weber. Poile would also like to get Alexander Radulov locked up in a long-term deal. ... Chris Mason’s shutout over Carolina gave him a 6-2-2 mark in his last 10 games. ... When Alexander Radulov scored in a 2-1 overtime loss to Tampa Bay on Feb. 7, the tally gave the second-year winger eight goals in eight games and extended his points streak to 10 games. It also gave the line of Radulov, Jason Arnott and Dumont seven of Nashville’s last 13 goals. ....

Rick Nash

How rare is it to score shorthanded while your team is down two players? Well, for the Columbus Blue Jackets, it took them 548 games to find out. On Feb. 5, Rick Nash finallyscored a goal when the Jackets were shorthanded 5-on-3 in a 4-3 overtime loss to Washington. Nash scored his 27th and 28th goals in this game to give him six two-goal games this season and 23 in his five-year NHL career. ... For the second time in recent weeks, No. 1 goalie Pascal Leclaire showed the precarious nature of trying to get to the playoffs for the first time ever for the Blue Jackets. When Leclaire, who leads the NHL in shutouts with eight and is third in goals-against average with 2.10, was bowled over in his crease 15 minutes into the second period Feb. 5, he had a 2-1 lead. Columbus lost in overtime. But Fredrik Norrena stepped in for Leclaire and stopped 26 of 27 shots in a 2-1 win at Phoenix on Feb. 7. Norrena had been 1-6-1 in his past eight decisions. ... Jason Chimera celebrated his new four-year, $7.5 million contract with the first goal in that win at Phoenix. It was Chimera’s 10th goal of the season and third in his last five games. ... The Blue Jackets were still waiting to see how much the addition of defenseman Daniel Tjarnqvist might add to their power play since the former Edmonton blue liner, acquired from the Oilers for left winger Curtis Glencross, was stuck in Canada awaiting a visa clearance to the United States ... The St. Louis Blues play 18 of their last 31 games on the road. A tough road to make the playoffs? You bet. But the Blues haven’t made their road any easier of late at home, going 1-3-1 since Jan. 13. ... More bad numbers: The Blues have given up four or more goals in their last 11 games, after surrendering four goals once in their first 26 games -- at a point in the season when they yielded two goals or fewer 12 times. ... Even center Ryan Johnson, the-heart-and-soul defender in these hard times, was finally dented defensively in a 5-4 loss to Tampa Bay on Feb. 5. It was the first time in 13 games that Johnson wasn’t a plus or even. ... Positive numbers: Keith Tkachuk had four goals in four games, Andy McDonald two goals and six assists, plus the game-winning shootout goal against his former Anaheim teammates, in eight games. David Backes, a player who had only three points in his previous 18 games through Dec. 31, turned things around with 12 points in his next 14 games. ... Maybe all goalie Nikolai Khabibulin needed to end his slump was that flaming red Calgary uniform, the colors he faced at his brightest NHL moment when he led Tampa Bay to the 2004 Stanley Cup title over the Flames. Khabibulin came into this season with a 17-4-2-0 career record against the Flames and was spectacular in flawlessly stopping 12 shots in the third period -- at least six from point-blank range – Feb. 7 for a 2-1 Chicago victory to end a personal 10-game winless skid (0-8-2) that stretched back to December 26. ...

Dustin Byfuglien

Amazing but true. Dustin Byfuglien’s 11 shots on goal Feb. 6 at Edmonton came within one shot of tying a club record currently shared by Doug Wilson and Grant Mulvey. ... Patrick Sharp scored the only goal in that 4-1 setback in Edmonton. It was the first power-play goal for the Hawks since they beat Phoenix in a shootout 2-1 Jan. 19. ... Pressure? Not when rookie Patrick Kane is put into a shootout situation. The Buffalo native is 5-for-6 in shootouts this season. ... How important has injured rookie center Jonathan Toews been to the Blackhawks this season? The Hawks were 19-13-4 and in solid playoff contention before the injury. Since then, they've gone 5-12-1 after their win at Calgary.

The week ahead -- Division matchups will become more and more important down the stretch. Detroit, Chicago, Columbus and Nashville will each have two Central Division meetings this week -- and the outcome is especially vital to the Blackhawks’, Blue Jackets’ and Predators’ playoff hopes. Nashville opens the divisional matchups this week by hosting the Red Wings on Feb. 12. Surprising its only the fourth meeting between these two teams this season, which means that the Preds will have to face the Wings five times down the stretch. Detroit holds a 2-1 lead in the series after Valterri Filppula’s first-period penalty shot was the difference Dec. 10. Nashville’s other divisional matchup takes place at home against Chicago on Feb. 14 in Round 6 of this series. The Blackhawks took a 3-2 lead in the series Jan. 13, when Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp scored in a shootout to offset a shootout goal by Radek Bonk. ... Chicago’s divisional matchups at Columbus and Nashville Feb. 13-14 finish off its seven-game trip. The Columbus game is the fifth between the Jackets and Hawks. Columbus leads the series 3-1, winning 4-2 Nov. 14 and 1-0 on Jan. 24. ... Like Nashville, Columbus has five games left against Detroit. The Wings hold a 2-1 lead in the series, but the last two meetings have been shootout thrillers -- Detroit winning with 3-of-5 in a shootout (goals by Pavel Datsyuk, Jiri Hudler and Johan Franzen) Nov. 18 and Columbus going 3-for-3 in a shootout (goals by Michael Peca, Rick Nash and Nikolai Zherdev) Nov. 24.


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