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Hockey provides all the gifts you'll ever need

by Larry Wigge
New toys. Gifts under the tree. For an old grump like me, the best present is doing what I do every day: Watch and enjoy hockey.

I love new toys in the form of so many energetic youngsters showing their skills and making a great game even better with their hunger to show us all how great they can be.

"We haven't seen such a great group of young players come into the NHL each year for a long time," Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky told me. "It's exciting to see all the skill, the speed, the energy they bring.

"As a coach now, it keeps me young to see how excited they are to be in the NHL."

At that point in the conversation with the Coyotes head coach, I asked hockey's all-time leading scorer if his group of youngsters in Phoenix -- Mikkel Boedker, Kyle Turris, Viktor Tikhonov and Kevin Porter are rookies this season, following last season's first-year grouping that included Peter Mueller, Martin Hanzal, Keith Yandle, Daniel Winnik, Daniel Carcillo and Enver Lisin -- remind him of his early days with the Edmonton Oilers.

"The comparison is very real to me," Gretzky said. "Mess (Mark Messier), Jari (Kurri), Glenn (Anderson), Tik (Esa Tikkanen), Paul (Coffey), Kevin (Lowe), Grant (Fuhr) and all the rest of us had the same kind of dreams of playing in the NHL that these kids do. Today's game is a lot like it was back then."

Speed and skill are back on center stage and there's room on the ice again. And teams with young talent like Pittsburgh, Washington, Chicago and Boston are leading the way.

"What pleases me more is seeing how much more ready to play these youngsters are to play at the NHL level," Gretzky said. "When I look at the way a Drew Doughty, Luke Schenn, Mikkel Boedker, Luca Sbisa can come right out of the draft and have been able to make an impact. It's clear that the coaching, the training methods being used in college and in juniors has never been better -- and that's never been more evident than in how quickly these kids have been able to make that big jump from college or juniors.

"These kids come into the NHL ready and hungry and with the confidence that they can make it right now."


In addition to Doughty, Schenn, Sbisa and Boedker, Steven Stamkos, Zach Bogosian, Alex Pietrangelo, Nikita Filatov, Josh Bailey, Zach Boychuk and Tikhonov came right from the first round of the 2008 Entry Draft and have played in the NHL this season.

Doughty and Boedker are Calder Trophy candidates this season, a list that also includes Columbus goalie Steve Mason, Chicago forward Kris Versteeg, Boston's Blake Wheeler, St. Louis' Patrick Berglund and T.J. Oshie, Toronto's Mikhail Grabovski and Pittsburgh defenseman Alex Goligoski.

You can blame -- or credit -- the NHL going younger to the salary cap and how teams are force-feeding some of these youngsters to fill out their roster. The fact that young athletes have been taught to train harder and eat better at a younger age and are more prepared to play against men than players were 5-10 years ago is a gift for every hockey fan today.

"We're not in the business to not put the best players we have on the ice, regardless of age," Blackhawks GM Dale Tallon said.

Another important part of this phenomenon is that junior and college players are watching more and more players they've grown up playing against now contributing in the NHL.

It's only natural for a youngster like Oshie, who starred on a line with Jonathan Toews at the University of North Dakota, to say, "If he can make an impact, then I can, too."

Veteran Blues defenseman Jay McKee said: "When you're a young player trying to make a team, you want to make big plays and be a big part of the club. I see the same skill and confidence and the want to prove night-in and night-out that they belong in our young guys here, too.

"When I was growing up there was a sense of hesitancy among the young players -- awe, if you will, at being in the NHL. This group of young players we have here have brought us a skill and a determination that you try to build on. They're extremely smart players. And instead of being hesitant, they show a passion you love and not as much a sense of nervousness or caution to their game. There seems to be a push to keep proving that they belong."

Welcome Mats -- Vancouver's signing of free-agent center Mats Sundin makes the Western Conference more competitive, but really adds to the keen competition in the Northwest Division.

"It's a huge signing for Vancouver," Minnesota veteran Andrew Brunette said. "I think it puts pressure on a lot of other teams to do something to keep up."

Even more daunting is the fact that the Canucks still have salary-cap room to make a deal or two before the March 4 trade deadline.

The kid gets it --
Boston's Phil Kessel proved last spring he'll never back down from a challenge. While playing for Team USA in the World Championships last spring, he took part in a team deep-sea fishing outing, even though he gets seasick easily.

Said Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke: "Jeff Halpern was our captain and Phil told him, 'Look, I get seasick in a bathtub.' He went and was seasick all day. But he went. That's the kind of stuff that shows you a guy gets it."

Kessel's impressive 18-game point streak, which ended Dec. 23 in Boston's 2-0 victory at New Jersey, tied Ed Olczyk for the longest point streak by a U.S.-born player.

The time machine -- Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin was first player to reach 50 points this season, needing just 31 games. Over the last 12 seasons, only three players reached 50 points in as few as 31 games, and all three did it for Pittsburgh -- Mario Lemieux in 2002-03 (27 games), Jaromir Jagr in 1999-2000 (29 games), and Sidney Crosby in 2006-07 (31 games). ... The Flyers routed the Capitals, 7-1, Dec. 20, even though they were outshot by Washington, 48-28. It was the second time in the last six seasons that an NHL team won a game by a six or more goals despite being outshot by at least 20 shots. The other instance was Nashville's 6-0 win against Chicago on Feb. 4, 2006, in which the Predators were outshot 40-19. ... Nashville rookie goalie Pekka Rinne beat the Islanders 1-0 on Dec. 20 for his third shutout in a month -- making him the first rookie netminder with three shutouts in one month since Marty Biron had three for Buffalo in January 2000. ... Minnesota rookie Colton Gillies, playing in his 15th NHL game, scored the first goal of his career in the Wild's 4-1 win against the Islanders on Dec.19. His uncle, Hall of Famer Clark Gillies, scored his first NHL goal for the Islanders against Minnesota in October 1974, though the opposing team was the North Stars, not the Wild. ... Edmonton outshot Anaheim 53-36, but lost to the Ducks, 3-2 in a shootout Dec. 19. It was the eighth time this season a team had at least 50 shots in a game, and the seventh time the team doing so failed to win. The only victory by a team with 50 or more shots Calgary against Colorado on Nov. 18. The seven other instances have resulted in three regulation losses, one overtime loss and three shootout losses. ... Buffalo's Ryan Miller made 40 saves in a 5-0 shutout against the Kings; it was only the second time in Sabres history they allowed 40 or more shots on goal in a regular-season game in which they shut out their opponent. Dominik Hasek made 42 saves in a 1-0 Buffalo shutout of the Canadiens exactly 11 years earlier -- Dec. 19, 1997. ... There were five shutouts in the NHL on Dec.23. There has now been one day with five shutouts in each of the last four seasons. The last day with six shutouts was March 21, 2001.

A Hulking performance -- Capitals star Alex Ovechkin gets stronger the more he plays. After posting only 2 goals and 6 assists in his first 11 games this season, he went into the holiday break with 20 goals and 18 assists in his last 22 games. On Dec. 23, Washington rallied from a 4-0 second-period deficit, paced by Ovechkin's 2 goals and an assist, for a 5-4 overtime win.

Said coach Bruce Boudreau, "The more he plays, he's like The Hulk, the stronger he gets."

Shark attack -- Dan Boyle's goal in San Jose's win against the New York Rangers was the 21st by a Sharks defenseman this season. The Sharks had just 21 goals by their defensemen all of last season. ... More defense turned to offense in Carolina, where Joe Corvo scored at 4:16 of overtime to give the Hurricanes a 2-1 win against the Panthers on Dec. 18, two nights after he scored the winning goal in Carolina's victory against the Canadiens. Corvo became the first defenseman in Whalers/Hurricanes history to be credited with the game-winning goal in two consecutive games. ... Shooting more -- and enjoying it. That would be the theme to Pavel Datsyuk's recent spurt in which he had three consecutive multi-point games and 5 goals and 8 assists in five games to vault past Marian Hossa for Detroit's scoring lead. ... The Penguins are thrilled to have Marc-Andre Fleury back in goal. In the 13 games he missed, Pittsburgh went 5-6-2. ... Colorado goalie coach Jeff Hackett did a marvelous job last season reviving Jose Theodore's career. This season, a similar story is unfolding with backup Andrew Raycroft, who went 2-9-5 with a 3.92 goals-against average in Toronto last season. Raycroft's 4-3 overtime win Dec. 23 against Phoenix raised his record this season to 6-1-0 with a 2.99 GAA. ... Florida's Tomas Vokoun beat his former team, the Nashville Predators, 3-0, on Dec. 23, for the Panthers' League-leading sixth shutout this season. It was Vokoun's second straight shutout (he blanked Colorado by the same score two days earlier), making him the fifth NHL goaltender to post consecutive shutouts this season -- the others are Vancouver's Roberto Luongo (who had three in a row), San Jose's Brian Boucher, Boston's Tim Thomas and Buffalo's Ryan Miller. It's the third time Vokoun has recorded back-to-back shutouts -- he did it twice for Nashville (February 2003 and March 2006). ... Chicago's Buffalo-born Patrick Kane has been beating up on Canadian-based teams. In six of his last seven games against Canadian teams, he has 6 goals and 6 assists. ... The return of injured veterans Brian Rolston and Bobby Holik has enabled New Jersey coach Brent Sutter to add even more depth to his forward lines. The Devils already had the trios of Dainius Zubrus-Patrick Elias-Brian Gionta and Travis Zajac-Zach Parise-Jamie Langenbrunner producing mightily offensively. Now, a combination of Holik, Rolston and David Clarkson is providing muscle and points. ... Marian Gaborik's return from a long injury absence prompted the Minnesota Wild to shift Brent Burns back to defense for the first time since Oct. 30. Burns has flip-flopped between forward and defense throughout his career. He seems to play best, though, when he plays defense. ... Count Brett Sutter (son of Flames GM Darryl Sutter) as the eighth member of the Sutter family to play in the NHL -- following Darryl, uncles Brian, Duane, Brent, Rich and Ron, and cousin Brandon (Brent's son, who is a Carolina rookie this season). Brett became only the second member of the Sutter clan to score a goal in his first NHL game when he scored in the third period in a 4-3 win against Anaheim on Dec. 23 (Duane scored 2 goals for the Islanders in his debut, Nov. 30, 1979). ... The Montreal Canadiens are hoping Alexei Kovalev's 900th NHL point gets him off the schneid. He is the third player born in the former Soviet Union to reach the 900-point plateau, joining Sergei Fedorov (1,158) and Alexander Mogilny (1,032). ... Phoenix rookie Kyle Turris, selected third in the 2007 Draft, is beginning to get his legs under him. After scoring once in his first 20 games, he has 4 goals in his last 13 and is playing better since being put with forwards Enver Lisin and Joakim Lindstrom. ... New York Rangers forward Ryan Callahan is one of those players you love to watch because of the energy and passion he plays with each night. The Rochester, N.Y., native, had 2 goals Dec.23 to give him 11 this season. That's already three more than he had all of last season. ... Paul Szczechura is an interesting prospect for the Tampa Bay Lightning. The undrafted forward has speed to burn and is starting to flash his skills, including a goal and an assist in a 3-0 victory against Pittsburgh on Dec. 23. Szczechura had 45 points in 37 games as a senior at Western Michigan University and 31 points in 53 games in the American Hockey League last season before signing with Tampa as a free agent in April. ... Defenseman Kyle Quincey always seemed to show promise when he got a chance to play in Detroit. Since being claimed on waivers by Los Angeles, Quincey has thrived, with 2 goals and 16 assists in 31 games, and he's shown a great knack for getting the puck through to the net from the blue line. "We get the benefit of a guy who is only 23 years old, but has experienced what it's like to be around a lot of winners," said Kings GM Dean Lombardi. "Being bred in that organization is another bonus."

Hats off -- Forget that crazy throwing-his-glove-to-stop-a-breakaway moment by Philadelphia's Scott Hartnell. The Flyers forward has been thriving on a line with Jeff Carter and Joffrey Lupul. Recently, Hartnell contributed two hat tricks in 10 days -- giving him four hat tricks in the calendar year and tying him with Buffalo's Thomas Vanek for the 2008 lead. It's the most calendar-year hat tricks for the Flyers since Kevin Dineen had five in 1993. ... James Neal was the second Dallas rookie to record a hat trick this season, when he scored three times in an 8-2 triumph against Toronto on Dec. 23. Fabian Brunnstrom had three goals in his NHL debut Oct.15. It's only the second time in franchise history the Stars have had two rookies with hat tricks in the same season. In 1980-81, Steve Christoff had a pair of three-goal games for the North Stars and Dino Ciccarelli had a four-goal game. Since 1993-94, the only other NHL team with two rookies posting hat tricks in the same season was Daniel Carcillo and Peter Mueller for the 2007-08 Phoenix Coyotes.

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