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NHL's current stars have picked up the torch

by Larry Wigge

Johan Franzen scored a hat trick against the Avalanche in Game 4 to help the Red Wings move on to round 3. Franzen's hat trick
The passion. The conviction. The excitement. The “wow” factor. All of those elements came out in the words, similarly powerful, even if they were uttered hundreds of miles apart.

"In the NBA, they wondered what would happen after Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson left,” San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson told me prior to Game 3 against the Dallas Stars. “We were no different in the NHL after the Bobby Orrs, Guy Lafleurs, Wayne Gretzkys and Mario Lemieuxs. We wondered where the next great young stars would come from. To me, the NHL has never been better. The excitement in the game has never been better!

"Every night it’s someone else. Sidney Crosby. Alex Ovechkin. Pavel Datsyuk. Jarome Iginla. Brenden Morrow. There's another great name. Another great play we're talking about."

A couple nights later, Detroit Red Wings winger Dan Cleary was asked about teammate Johan Franzen's hat trick, his second of the series against Colorado. All told, Franzen had nine goals in the Red Wings' four-game sweep of the Avalanche. His 11 goals in 10 playoff games and Henrik Zetterberg's unreal goal in which his back was facing the net as he was falling to the ice and still was able to get his stick on the puck for a goal, were series highlights.

"The skills I see at practice and in the games here are scary good ... it makes you say, 'Wow!" Cleary said.

The names among this season's scoring leaders is a testament to the new breed of great, young skilled players from Ovechkin to Evgeni Malkin to Iginla, Datsyuk, Joe Thornton, Zetterberg, Vinny Lecavalier, Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson, Ilya Kovalachuk, Alex Kovalev, Marian Gaborik, Mike Ribeiro, Marty St. Louis, Dany Heatley and Eric Staal. Power forwards with size, speed and skill. The danglers. The playmakers. All blessed with great skills, and a flair for excitement. With the flow of the game, the NHL has never been more exciting.

"I played against the Lafleurs, Bossys, Trottiers, Gretzkys, Lemieuxs and I've scouted the Crosbys, Malkins, Ovechkins, Thorntons, Zetterbergs and Datsyuks and I get excited just thinking about the skill all of those players have brought and continue to bring to our game," Wilson added.

Scary skills. Former NHL goalie Daryl Reaugh was talking about what Brad Richards has done for the Stars in just 22 games since he was traded from Tampa Bay to Dallas at the deadline on Feb. 28.

"Two League records in 22 games, that's all," Reaugh gushed. "It makes you shake your head when you see the plays he makes every night and that sneaky quick wrist shot he'll fire at you."

And there's more, much more.

"You see a guy as big and strong as Franzen scoring goals with the skills of a much smaller guy and you also see him crowd the net and play like a power forward," Joe Sakic said, shaking his head. "They are deep throughout their lineup and they really played well as a team. It seemed like every player was going, and they exposed us out there. They were great."

Franzen and Zetterberg worked their playmaking magic to help set up Johan for his first two 2-on-1 goals against Colorado in Game 4 on May 1. Franzen's second hat trick in the series resulted in him crowding the net and tipping a shot by Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom, through his own legs no less.

“We've been able to find players, maybe players that didn't fit into other teams,” Lidstrom said. “But once they get here, they fit into our system. It starts with the skills our scouts are looking for. Then it comes back to the system and how we're asked to be disciplined and allowed to be creative. I mean, look at some of these guys. Zetterberg was a late pick, same with Datsyuk, and being able to find those impact players has made the difference. I think a lot of people thought that with the new salary-cap system, we were going to take a step back. But we've continued to find players who fit into our system."

Disciplined, yet skilled? And humble?

"I think I need to pinch myself," Franzen said. "I mean, reading where what I've done has allowed me to break some of Gordie Howe's records. It's just incredible. It just seems like everything I touch goes into the net. I can't explain it."

The names. The exploits. The excitement. The passion and conviction and wow factor in the voices of some of the game's big-name players and big-name talent scouts.

"The game," said Doug Wilson. "It has simply never been more exciting."

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