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Never underestimate the value of veteran guile

by Phil Coffey
The last few seasons has seen a premium placed on young talent in the NHL. Kids like Steven Stamkos, Drew Doughty and Luke Schenn have joined NHL teams after being drafted last June. Other youngsters, like Kris Versteeg, Derick Brassard, Steve Mason and Blake Wheeler, have become prime-time players.

But you can't beat experience, especially when the Stanley Cup Playoffs are on the horizon. So, it isn't surprising to see the Canucks make a concerted effort to sign Mats Sundin, or the New Jersey Devils nab Brendan Shanahan. There is talk that teams like the Philadelphia Flyers have kicked the tires on Peter Forsberg.

And then we have Claude Lemieux returning to the NHL with the San Jose Sharks after last playing an NHL game in the 2003 playoffs.

Age-wise, Lemieux is 43 and Shanahan just turned 40, so these guys aren't spring chickens, but they remain very smart players.

The San Jose Sharks are a prime example of a team that values experience. General Manager Doug Wilson signed Rob Blake over the summer and traded for Dan Boyle and Brad Lukowich to provide a veteran presence on the blue line. Lemieux brings a mountain of playoff experience -- four Stanley Cups, one Conn Smythe Trophy -- to the mix.

And don't forget, Wilson talked Jeremy Roenick, 39, out of retirement last season.

"We had seven young guys come up before Claude," Wilson said of promoting Lemieux from the AHL. "Guys like Claude and J.R. aren't taking anybody's spot. It's not like we're giving these guys long contracts with big financial commitments that lock them in and block out younger guys."

"Detroit does this all the time," Wilson told reporters. "Who did they bring in last year? Dallas Drake and Darren McCarty. Lou Lamoriello in New Jersey brought in Brendan Shanahan. You look at younger players early in the season to see if they can handle it. Then you look at veterans. This is not unusual."

Tough decisions
-- What to do? What to do? That was the dilemma facing Sidney Crosby regarding All-Star Weekend in Montreal.

Nursing a knee injury, Crosby made the decision to sit out All-Star Weekend, although he did travel to Montreal to take part in off-ice activities.

As the leading vote-getter for the 2009 All-Star Game with a record 1,713,021 votes, Crosby knows the fans wanted to see him in the All-Star Game and the 2009 Honda/NHL All-Star SuperSkills Competition. But he also owes it to the Penguins to be healthy enough to perform at a peak level once the regular season resumes.

Tough call for someone in Crosby's position in the hockey world.

"Every All-Star Game is special to be a part of, but this one had a little more in it, with the (Canadiens celebrating their 100th) anniversary and the game being in Montreal," Crosby told Dave Molinari of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "I appreciate the fact that I was voted into the game, and the support that comes with that."

Crosby could have ignored the advice of the Penguins' team doctor, but he sees the bigger picture, namely the remainder of the season and the playoffs.

"At the end of the day, it obviously comes down to me," Crosby said. "But at the same time, it was highly recommended by him (to not play). I'm in a situation where I want to make sure I take care of my body."

Kids are all right -- Think back to when you were 18 or 19. Now picture being sat down in front of dozens of reporters and assorted other media types with TV cameras and tape recorders. How would you handle it?

I asked myself that question Thursday when the players for the NHL YoungStars Game presented by Upper Deck met with the media. Thinking back, I don't think I could find my posterior with both hands at that age, so I was glad to be asking the questions instead of answering. And the crew came away impressed with the answers we received in a myriad of interviews with the NHL's next generation of stars. A conglomerate of smart thoughtful kids bodes well for the future.

It was humorous to hear many of these poised young players talk about fighting inexperience at the starts of their careers. They appear to be quick learners.

"I've learned a lot from the older defensemen," Los Angeles' Drew Doughty said. "Sean O'Donnell has been my partner and he has been great. He has gone out of his way to help me. He really has helped me out a lot.

"There are so many things to learn, but he has said to stay calm, don't get excited, force the play to the outside and it will be OK.

"I didn't know what to expect, it's definitely faster. But I've adjusted pretty well and I feel I'm doing my job.

Ah, the value of experience. Please refer back to the top item in Ice Age.

"It was tough not knowing the guys or the city," Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos said, "so that was tough for the first couple weeks. Now you can see that age doesn't matter -- we're all like brothers. We go out for meals and movies. Sure, the guys spend time with their families, but we hang out together, too. They have been great to me."

Doughty was ready for prime time right from the get-go in Los Angeles. Coach Terry Murray saw the talent and poise, paired the rookie with the experienced O'Donnell and let Doughty develop.

"I didn't expect to play as many minutes as I am," Doughty said of his team-leading 23:40 of ice time per game. "I thought maybe 15 a game. But they have shown faith in me and given me the playing time."

With 3 goals and 12 assists and only a minus-2 in 45 games, Doughty has the potential to add some scoring punch, but realizes that may not be the plan this season.

"I'm an offensive defenseman and he (Murray) has a defensive mindset for the whole team," Doughty said. "Still, he wants me jumping into the play. We want the team to be strong defensively so we can jump in quickly."

As far as his adjustment to NHL life, Doughty said being on his own initially was a challenge.

"I guess the biggest thing was being on my own and having to do everything by myself," he said. "But I love L.A. They say you can wear a T-shirt and shorts to practice and there's nothing wrong with that."

As the top selection in 2008, Stamkos was greeted with enormous hype and struggled to find his NHL legs on a Lightning team that had a tumultuous start. But he has begun the adjustment process and is feeling better about his game.

"Can't say one thing, it has been a combination," Stamkos said of getting acclimated. "It boils down to good decision making. I think as new guys, we sometimes respect the game too much and don't realize we have as much time as we do to make plays. For me, that was the hardest thing at the beginning. But now, around 40 games, I'm starting to figure that out and make plays."

Doughty agrees.

"Some things are easy, some are hard," he said. "It's easier because the players are always in position and can make stick-to-stick passes. Plus, they talk more on the ice. The defensive side is tough. The players are bigger, stronger and faster, so you have to know how to react."

Best wishes to Burns -- Sincerest best wishes go out to Pat Burns, who is fighting cancer for the third time in less than five years. Burns told Montreal's La Presse that he was informed he had lung cancer after returning from the World Hockey Championship last spring.

Burns, 56, who has undergone chemotherapy twice in battles with colon and liver cancer, will try other forms of treatment this time around.

"It's something we can't control," New Jersey Devils President and General Manager Lou Lamoriello said of Burns, who coached the Devils to the 2003 Stanley Cup and continues to scout for the team. "His spirits, his attitude, his demeanor, I don't know of anyone who could have a better one or be stronger."
"Detroit does this all the time. Who did they bring in last year? Dallas Drake and Darren McCarty. Lou Lamoriello in New Jersey brought in Brendan Shanahan. You look at younger players early in the season to see if they can handle it. Then you look at veterans. This is not unusual." -- Sharks GM Doug Wilson
"I know what you people are like in Montreal," the always combative Burns told La Presse. "You're capable of dramatizing everything, if it suits you. The truth is simple -- the cancer has returned. But never fear, I'm still alive. I'm not in great shape, but I wake up every morning, I play golf, I ride my motorcycle and I work, despite the illness.

"I haven't given up. I fight, as I've always done -- but in a different way. Obviously, I hope a cure is found eventually."

Burns coached in the NHL for 14 seasons, including stints with the Canadiens, Maple Leafs, Bruins, and Devils. In addition to the '03 Cup, Burns won the Jack Adams Award as NHL coach of the year three times (Canadiens 1988-89, Maple Leafs 1992-93, and Bruins 1997-98).

Curse the break -- The Chicago Blackhawks struggled heading into the All-Star break, losing three of their last four. So the players were more interested in getting back on a winning track rather than heading for parts unknown for a few days.

"I'd like to keep playing because I want to get out of this funk," defenseman Brian Campbell told Chris Kuc of the Chicago Tribune. "The breaks come when they come; you can't do anything about it. When you do get those breaks, you take advantage of them because we all know we have a tough road in February."

"The way we've played the last three games is a setback," Hawks captain Jonathan Toews said. "Right now we're pretty sour. We have a lot of time to let this feeling sink in. We have a lot of motivation, and hopefully we're still eager to play better and come back and play stronger after the break."

Coming off the break, the Hawks hit the road for five straight games, and play just three of 12 February games at the United Center.

"There are going to be tough times during the year," Toews said. "We need to figure out that those little excuses don't matter and we all need to step up ... and learn how to play through adversity."

Comeback trail -- Bad news for opponents of the New Jersey Devils -- Martin Brodeur is back on the ice.

Recovering from surgery to repair a torn left biceps tendon, Brodeur likely won't be back until early March, but the news that his return is progressing can't create good feelings for foes of the Devils, who have seen the team excel in his absence.

Devils General Manager Lou Lamoriello said during Wednesday night's game against Montreal that Brodeur received medical clearance earlier in the day to begin on-ice workouts, and he skated for the first time since getting hurt Nov. 1 against Atlanta. He has been working out off the ice for the last three weeks.

"He did skate today, but I would not rush that,” Lamoriello told Tom Gulitti of The (Bergen) Record. "And by saying he's skating, it's part of the physical therapy he's going through. It will be a day-to-day situation as far as skating goes with the exercise he does."

The plan is to have Brodeur on ice for practice March 1.

"Could it be sooner? Possibly," Lamoriello said. "Could it be later? We certainly hope not because of where he is as far as his schedule. But that's the target. Chances are it's sooner than later."

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