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Original Issue

Inside The NHL

European Plan
Older first-year defenders from across the pond are making a big

Of all the candidates to emerge as the Bruins' most dependable
defenseman, few on Boston's preseason roster would have seemed a
longer shot than 27-year-old Jarno Kultanen, a Finn who was the
team's sixth-round draft pick early last summer. Yet through
Sunday, Kultanen had seven assists, second on the Boston defense,
and was averaging 22:41 of ice time, developments that made him
not only a first-year surprise but also the bellwether of a
leaguewide trend.

Never have so many European defensemen in their mid-20s and older
made their NHL debuts at one time, and they have done so with
unexpected success. The Blues have gotten nearly 20 minutes per
game from Alexander Khavanov, a 28-year-old Russian. The Wild's
highest-scoring defender is 32-year-old Lubomir Sekeras (13
points), a Slovak, and the Kings' quick-strike offense has been
goosed time and again by 24-year-old Slovakian backliner Lubomir
Visnovsky (18 points). None of the aforementioned, save for
Visnovsky, are eligible for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the
year because they're older than 26.

Expansion has depleted the ranks of experienced defensemen in
recent years, and because nothing whitens general managers' hair
faster than watching mistake-prone young blueliners, NHL clubs
have turned to Europe for help. The defensemen coming from there
have been seasoned by years of topflight competition in pro
leagues and have been playing on larger surfaces than their North
American counterparts, thus developing excellent puck-moving
ability. "These guys have the skills and experience to play right
away," says St. Louis general manager Larry Pleau.

Despite their potential for immediate impact, it's no accident
that Visnovsky, who was selected 118th last June, Kultanen
(174th), Sekeras (232nd) and Khavanov (232nd in 1999) weren't
taken until relatively late in the draft. "The first few rounds
you try to get a young guy who might develop into an All-Star,"
says Kings G.M. Dave Taylor. "The older Europeans are perfect for
later in the draft, because at that stage, if you can get a
player who makes your team, it's a good pick."

In addition to solidifying NHL defenses, the Euro-picks have
inspired new hope across the pond. "The guys over there see who
has been getting drafted and that we're doing well," says the
Thrashers' 27-year-old Czech defenseman, Frantisek Kaberle, who
broke in with L.A. "With two more teams in the NHL, even the
older guys know they have a chance."

Lightning Skills Coach
A Seer and His Believers

"When you grew up in the 1950s and '60s with a learning
disability, as I did, people thought you were stupid," says Paul
Vincent, a Lightning assistant. "I couldn't translate things
from my head to the page, but I taught myself to be a keen
observer. I watched what my teachers did, how they approached
the learning process, and I remembered the details."

Vincent, 54, has been using his sharpened powers of observation
to help hockey players since he began coaching a team of
10-year-olds that played near his home outside Boston 30 years
ago. Those kids improved so dramatically that Vincent, a Boston
cop by profession, became a local legend and began moonlighting
as a consultant for the Boston College hockey program. He also
started a summer hockey school that many future NHL
All-Stars--including center Adam Oates of the Capitals and wing
Bill Guerin of the Bruins--attended.

Now he's in his second season as the full-time special skills
coach for Tampa Bay, the only NHL team that has such a position.
"We have guys on our team who wouldn't be here if not for him,"
says general manager Rick Dudley. "Think about what that's worth
to a franchise."

Vincent's teaching techniques include everything from having
players skate backward slowly on one leg to hooking them up to a
bungee cord, all to help a player's balance. Vincent teaches the
way he learns--by using models. For example, in helping center
Brian Holzinger work on stickhandling last week, Vincent watched
tapes of Mario Lemieux, noticed subtleties in Lemieux's grip and
arm positioning, and had Holzinger emulate those nuances.

Vincent chooses models to correspond to particular students and
aspects of the game. He also draws from athletes outside hockey.
He will study Tiger Woods's stance or Mark McGwire's crouch and
the power that emanates from those postures and devise what he
calls "on-ice scenarios" to impart what he has observed. "A lot
of drills seem odd," says wing Kyle Freadrich, who spent time at
Vincent's school last summer. "Then the little things he's been
focusing on come together. My game improved like night and day."

Then there's Tampa Bay's Paul Mara, who grew up near Vincent and,
at 21, is one of the league's most promising offensive
defensemen. "I've gone to him since I was seven," Mara says.
"He's made me into the player I am. The guy's just brilliant."

Referees' Penalty Calls
Talking Zebras Will Be Common

Fans who rail at referees are getting a clearer sense of whom
they're yelling at. Last January, on national TV broadcasts, refs
began announcing penalties directly into the camera near the
official scorers' bench. Fans and teams have reacted so favorably
to the practice that refs will soon start doing it on local
telecasts as well. The league is also discussing having refs wear
microphones so they can use arena public-address systems to
announce penalties to the fans in the stands, as NFL officials
do. Referees did that at an AHL game in Kentucky last week, and
advocates say it's a more intimate method than the current
practice of having penalties announced by the arena P.A. voice.
While there's no target date for the NHL in-arena announcements,
the league's director of officiating, Andy Van Hellemond, says,
"We're moving in that direction."

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO The Blues struck gold with Khavanov, a 28-year-old Russian.




The best player in the world when he retired after the 1996-97
season, the 35-year-old six-time scoring champion is making a
comeback later this month.


The best player in the world today, the 28-year-old four-time
scoring champion doesn't yet rank with Lemieux as an NHL
immortal, but he's his equal in carrying Pittsburgh.

The Verdict: While Lemieux may quickly shake off the rust, Jagr
is dominant now and could still be brilliant in 10 years. He's
our choice.