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Hitchcock thinks Sharks have League's best defense

by Larry Wigge

"Blakey is so solid and Boyle skates like the wind. They're explosive. They're going to be a huge difference for our team; two defensemen that can play 25 to 30 minutes a game. Important quality minutes." -- San Jose's Joe Thornton on teammates Rob Blake and Dan Boyle

Quick shifts. Lots of shots on goal. Acrobatic saves. Most important, I love action, on-the-fly flow and transition, good information, great tidbits, insight and wonderful stories about the marvelously talented people that make up the fastest sport around. That's what you'll get from this column each week.

When I hear Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock say the Sharks might be better defensively than Detroit, that tells me former Red Wings assistant Todd McLellan already has control of the San Jose bench. It made me want to watch more and more of the Sharks this season, even before they opened the season with a 4-0 record.

"The attitude is fresh. I think some of the guys needed a new voice behind the bench," Sharks center Joe Thornton said.

Sharks GM Doug Wilson opened the team's wallet to add notable defensemen Dan Boyle (from Tampa Bay in a trade) and Rob Blake (signed as a free agent away from Los Angeles), both of whom have previously won a Stanley Cup. For Thornton, the presence of that pair makes a night-and-day difference in the Sharks' attitude and approach.

"As a left-handed shot, having two righties on the power play is really going to help me," Thornton explained, pointing to a unit that ranked only eighth in the NHL last season despite plenty of firepower. "Blakey is so solid and Boyle skates like the wind. They're explosive. They're going to be a huge difference for our team; two defensemen that can play 25 to 30 minutes a game. Important quality minutes.

"Look at who's won the last two years, Detroit with Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski and Anaheim with Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger. It's nice for us to have two guys like that now that can play in every situation. We haven't had that before."

And Thornton? Well, McLellan wants "Big Joe" to shoot more and drive to the net more often.

Here's the fun tidbit about Thornton: "I spent two weeks in Thailand this summer. And on my way back, we stopped in Egypt and I saw the Pyramids."

Pyramid Power in San Jose this season? It wouldn't be surprising.

Who's got the power? -- Kudos to the League's forward-thinkers who put in the new rule where all power plays start with a faceoff in the offensive zone regardless of where the penalty took place. The Blues, who were 29th and 30th the last two seasons with the man advantage, but are off to a League-leading 7-for-14 (50-percent) start. Yeah, I know it's only one week, but St. Louis, Minnesota (37.5), Edmonton (28.6), Washington and Ottawa (26.7) were all ahead of the League-high total of 24.2 by Montreal last season. Moreover, 14 teams were at 20 percent or better. Only Montreal, Philadelphia, Detroit and Pittsburgh achieved that plateau last season. ... With power plays at a premium in the new NHL, seeing offensively gifted defensemen Sheldon Souray and Lubomir Visnovsky on the points with the man advantage for Edmonton could mean the Oilers won't have to go into overtime or shootouts like they did so often last season (winning 19 times). Visnovsky's power-play goal beat Anaheim 3-2 early in the third period Oct. 15. … What's with this penalty-filled style of play by the Ducks early this season? Four games, no wins. Ridiculous. Once this defensive unit gets the transition game in gear, look out. Right now, losing big-minute defensemen Mathieu Schneider and Sean O'Donnell for salary-cap reasons is hurting Anaheim.

Offensive-minded -- Don't look now, but the NHL scoring race that belonged to Wayne Gretzky (10-time champion), Mario Lemieux (six times) and Jaromir Jagr (five times) for 21 years from 1980-81 through 2000-01, has gone to six players in the last six seasons -- starting with the Flames' Jarome Iginla in 2001-02, followed by the Avs' Peter Forsberg, the Lightning's Martin St. Louis, Thornton, the Penguins' Sidney Crosby and the Capitals' Alexander Ovechkin. I think I'll pick Thornton to put his name on the Art Ross Trophy as scoring leader again this season based on his refreshing outlook, plus weapons Patrick Marleau, Devin Setoguchi, Blake, Boyle, Jonathan Cheechoo, Milan Michalek, Jeremy Roenick, Ryane Clowe and Joe Pavelski. … While in Columbus recently, I asked newcomer Kristian Huselius the difference between former Calgary linemate Jarome Iginla and Jackets captain Rick Nash. "Both are power forwards. Both a presence on the ice," said Huselius, who had 43 and 41 assists playing for the Flames the last two seasons. Then he added, "Jarome shoots right and Rick shoots left. That's it. Oh, yeah, and Iggy shoots a lot more." To which Jackets GM Scott Howson said, "We plan to change that this season." With that info in mind, I'm going to say that Nash enters the 50-goal club.

No trade is a good trade -- Isn't it funny how some things turn out? In 2005-06 when Jaromir Jagr was having trouble getting started, the Rangers called old pal John Davidson in St. Louis and wondered what it would take to get Jagr's old linemate, Martin Rucinsky, back in the Big Apple to get the former MVP productive once again. Davidson told Rangers GM Glen Sather he wouldn't part with Rucinsky unless he got that big center playing junior hockey in Portland. The Rangers thought about it, then inhaled and said thanks, but no thanks to trading youngster Brandon Dubinsky. Now, Jagr is playing in Russia, Dubinsky is leading the NHL in scoring and Rucinsky isn't playing in the NHL.

Goalies doing their own thing -- Devils all-world goalie Marty Brodeur concedes that some of the NHL's best goalies (Roberto Luongo, Henrik Lundqvist) are butterfly goalies. Though he watched and learned from Patrick Roy as a kid growing up in Montreal with a camera in his hand while helping his dad take pictures for the Canadiens, he's never felt the need to go down to his knees. "When you have good mobility and can skate really well, there's no reason to go down on your knees all game long." So there, stand-up goalies aren't dinosaurs like most people think. Not when Brodeur is poised to surpass Roy in all-time wins and Terry Sawchuk in shutouts. By the way, Brodeur, now 36, hired a personal trainer this summer and he looks more streamlined. ... Speaking of goalies, the Sabres' Ryan Miller shocked a lot of experts when he signed a new five-year contract to stay in Buffalo after growing up in East Lansing, Mich., and playing at Michigan State. "I tried to learn from the whole grass-is-greener fable," Miller says. "I looked around and realized I'm a No. 1 goalie here. We've had some success and I think we'll have it again sometime soon." Besides, that tall tale about him being a Red Wings fan growing up is erroneous. Actually, he wore a St. Louis Blues sweater around when he was a kid in honor of his cousin Kevin Miller, who played in St. Louis at the time. Plus, then-Blues goalie Curtis Joseph was his favorite netminder.

We can work it out -- Kings power forward Dustin Brown has a 72-page manual he followed the last two seasons while training with team strength and conditioning coach Chad Smith. Pulling a weight sled, doing sprints on the track and yoga (yes, yoga) helped him go from 17 goals to 33 last season and could take him to the 40-goal mark this time around. ... Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford recently remarked that he wants his coaching and training staff to back off some of their physical drills. Rutherford is convinced that overtraining, specifically certain strenuous drills, is the root of injury problems is having -- most notably Justin Williams, who tore his Achilles' tendon while out on a run prior to training camp. Williams could be out at least six months after the power forward missed most of last season. "They're working out all the time," Rutherford said. "It's like we're training for the Olympics."

Wheeler's dream come true -- For Boston rookie power forward Blake Wheeler, being picked fifth in the 2004 Entry Draft by Phoenix was a shock. "I was completely caught off-guard," he recalled. "I thought I'd be picked in the late first round, early second round. I was trying not to have too many expectations coming in because I didn't want to be too disappointed. Then, I hear Wayne Gretzky announce my name. That's like having Michael Jordan announce your name in basketball. All I know is I have a closet full of Wayne Gretzky cards -- and this ... it was the highest high a kid could ever feel." Obviously everything that happens to Wheeler carries headlines, because last June he became an unrestricted free agent at just 21. And now, the Bruins rightly feel he has a chance to get some Rookie of the Year votes.

Coaches pulling strings -- Sabres coach Lindy Ruff has encouraged former 43-goal scorer Thomas Vanek to become a more responsible defensive player. Ruff figures added defensive responsibilities for Vanek will put him in even better offensive situations. Smart coach. After three games, Vanek, who was benched in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals against Carolina because of his defensive deficiencies, had five goals, including two shorthanders. ... For those second-guessers waiting to pounce on Barry Melrose for using 2008 No. 1 pick Steven Stamkos for just 9 minutes, 47 seconds per game in the Lightning's first three games give Mr. Mullet a break. He wants to win, too. Stammer will get plenty of opportunity when Melrose thinks he can put the kid in a win-win situation.

Contracts and lack thereof -- Rumors persist that Minnesota's Marian Gaborik will be this year's top rental player before the March 3 trading deadline and that he'll wind up in Montreal, where Wild GM Doug Risebrough has always had a great friendship with former teammate and current Canadiens GM Bob Gainey. You can bet the Wild won't let the swift Slovak go without trying all avenues of negotiation after Gaborik topped out at 42 goals last season. ... Signing 21-year-old center Anze Kopitar to  a seven-year contract was a smart move by Kings GM Dean Lombardi has some wondering when the Avalanche are going to lock up 22-year-old center Paul Stastny long-term. Stastny has averaged a point per game during a three-year NHL career (150 points in 149 games). That puts him in the same class as Washington's Alex Ovechkin and Pittsburgh's Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. No need for poachers to come in and sign the potential restricted free agent after this season to an offer sheet, eh?  … "I've crunched the numbers until I'm blue in the face. I'm convinced we are going to lose at least one player we'd like to keep," Red Wings GM Ken Holland said of facing contract decisions on potential unrestricted free agents Henrik Zetterberg, Marian Hossa and Johan Franzen. Zetterberg and Franzen are home-grown products. They're going nowhere. And if Hossa likes the idea of playing for a Stanley Cup contender each year, he'll take less than the $7.8 million he stands to earn to stay in Detroit. I'd bet on Holland making things work out for the Wings again this season.

Fresh starts -- The $5.375 million he made in Calgary last season along with the falling off of his production to just 18 goals and 40 assists got Alex Tanguay traded to Montreal for first-, second- and sixth-round draft choices on draft day in June. But being a French Canadian, Alex knows very well what the expectations will be for him with the Canadiens. "I'm not coming here to be the savior," he said. "I'm just hoping to add a little to the firepower they already have and help them improve on what caused them to fall a little short in the playoffs last year." Tanguay's one-goal, three-assist performance against Toronto on Oct. 11 and his shootout game-winner against Boston on Oct. 15 is just what Montreal wants.  ... Amid all the hoopla over youngsters Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, don't overlook what a healthy Martin Havlat could mean in Chicago. "The only thing holding him back is health," former Blackhawks coach Denis Savard said after the team's first victory of the season, 4-1, against Phoenix on Oct. 15 in a game in which Havlat contributed his second goal and third assist of the season. "I see that competitive focus in Marty's eyes that he had at the start of season a couple of years ago (in 2006-07, Havlat led the Hawks with 25 goals and 32 assists in just 56 games)."

It can be a painful game -- The sudden and tragic death of Rangers' former first-round pick Alexei Cherepanov brings home the need for even further precautions at each NHL rink. Thank goodness for the quick-thinking and training of medical staff on hand in the cases of Clint Malarchuk, Richard Zednik and Jiri Fischer. ... Detroit defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom is still sporting blood in his eye from a preseason injury. He's also wearing a visor, which he says he will keep for the entire season. A few glimpses of the six-time Norris Trophy winner shows he is playing even better than ever with the safety shield. ... Can someone explain to Toronto's Ryan Hollweg what hitting from behind means? Four game-misconduct penalties in 41 games? That's living life too much on the edge.

Stepping up -- Predators coach Barry Trotz says he's hoping that Patric Hornqvist can replace Radulov's production, Joel Ward can be the power forward that Scott Hartnell was for Nashville a couple of years ago and that Ville Koistinen can be as creative on defense. Producing from within has replaced free-agent shopping in GM David Poile's blueprint. ... The nice development of youngsters Alex Burrows, Ryan Kesler, Rick Rypien and Mason Raymond are giving Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault an up-tempo offense he wasn't expecting in the early going this season. With new captain Roberto Luongo expected for play like he did two years ago when he won a team record 47 games and finished second to Marty Brodeur as the NHL's top goaltender, a couple goals usually gives Vancouver a chance to win.

Fast starters --
Detroit native David Booth is the best little-known player in the NHL. The former Michigan State wing had 22 goals last season with the Panthers and this Energizer bunny had three in his first two games this season. ... With offensive defensemen Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney out of the Pittsburgh lineup, Brooks Orpik, who starred for the Penguins in the playoffs last spring with his many hits and blocked shots, is beginning to show another more offensive side to his game. ... In case you haven't noticed, Boston's slick, play-making center Marc Savard, who needed 21 games to score his first five goals last season, lit the red lamp five times in his first three games this season. ... Antti Miettinen, he of 15-goal production for Dallas last season before signing as a free agent with Minnesota this summer, may help replace some of those key goals the Wild lost when Brian Rolston and Pavel Demitra exited via free agency. Miettinen scored one goal in the Wild's season-opening win against the Bruins and he added two goals in their second game in Atlanta -- becoming the first player in Minnesota's eight-season franchise history to score goals in each of his first two games with the club. ... Andy McDonald led the NHL with 11 points in four preseason games and added six assists in his first three games in the regular season for the Blues. ... Toronto rookie wing Nikolai Kulemin is a name to remember. The 22-year-old Magnitogorsk, Russia, native has a creative mind, quick burst and great hands as well as two goals in his first three games for the Maple Leafs.
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