THE WIDE-OPEN Calder Trophy race underscores the league's deep pool of young talent. First-year forwards such as the Ducks' Bobby Ryan (rookie-best 15 goals), the Blues' Patrik Berglund and the Blackhawks' Kris Versteeg are starring on their respective team's first or second lines; Kings defenseman Drew Doughty and Blue Jackets goalie Steve Mason anchor their clubs. Then there's the biggest steal of the rookie class: 22-year-old Bruins winger Blake Wheeler.
Drafted at No. 5 by the Coyotes in 2004, Wheeler had a solid college career at Minnesota, then couldn't come to terms with Phoenix. He became a free agent, Boston signed him last July, and the Bruins are using him in all situations. At 6'5", 208 pounds Wheeler's a great athlete with excellent speed and quickness. He scored 21 points in his last 25 games before All-Star Weekend, racked up four goals in the YoungStars game last Saturday and enters the second half of the season +27.
The Lightning's Martin St. Louis was in such a hurry to get to the All-Star festivities after being named as the replacement center for injured Penguin Sidney Crosby last Thursday that he left Tampa Bay without his equipment. Not to worry. Lightning owner Oren Koules picked up St. Louis's bag at the arena and hopped on a commercial flight to Montreal. A minor league forward in the early 1980s, Koules, who bought the team last June, said that going through customs with the bag made him feel "like I was going back to my youth, playing in hockey tournaments." St. Louis had two goals and an assist as the East beat the West 12--11 after a shootout on Sunday night at Bell Centre.
The 30-second standing ovation that St. Louis's teammate, center Vincent Lecavalier, got at the skills competition illustrates the pressure on Montreal owner George Gillett Jr. to pry Lecavalier from Tampa Bay this season. The contending Canadiens have not had a Francophone superstar since Guy Lafleur left in 1984, the fans are starved for one, and with the Lightning out of contention, Lecavalier may be available.
In the Crease.... The NHL may add a second outdoor game to each season as early as 2010--11. One game would be played in the U.S. on Jan. 1, the other in Canada in February.... Don't expect any more coaching changes this season. Few teams have enough disposable cash to eat a coach's contract. That works in favor of Pittsburgh's under-the-gun Michel Therrien, who has two years left on his deal after this season.... Pat LaFontaine, who retired in 1998 because of post-concussion syndrome, is working behind the scenes to get a rule adopted that forbids hits to the head, similar to the current prohibition against blows to the knees. LaFontaine has no official role in the league, but he's deeply respected and may get this rule implemented—as it should be.... All-Star Weekend may have engendered a thawing of the frosty relationship between Washington's Alex Ovechkin and Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin. In addition to teaming up on Ovechkin's win in the breakaway challenge (he used Malkin's stick), the Russians spent time together away from the rink. Their being on good terms is crucial to Russia's hopes in next year's Olympics.
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Stretch-Drive Pickups SUNDIN VS. SHANAHAN
Mats Sundin, 37, signed by the Canucks on Dec. 18. Prorated salary: $5 million.
Résumé 557 goals, 1,324 points; team-high 32 goals for the Maple Leafs last season; zero appearances in a Stanley Cup final.
Last Report The 6'5" 231-pounder is still an authentic first- or second-liner and gives the Canucks size and scoring punch; had two goals and an assist in seven games but was in the penalty box for three game-winning goals against.
Brendan Shanahan, 40, signed by the Devils on Jan. 15. Prorated salary: $383,000.
Résumé 651 goals, 1,341 points; scored 23 goals for the Rangers last season; three-time Cup winner with the Red Wings.
Last Report The 6'3" 220-pounder provides offensive depth and is effective on the power play and the penalty kill; adds experience to an already experienced team; had one goal in two games, both New Jersey wins.
Given Shanahan's lower price tag and his versatility, he was the wiser signing.
LOU CAPOZZOLA (WHEELER)
STAR REPORT Wheeler was a Young MVP; St. Louis (inset) got a special delivery.
BILL WIPPERT/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (ST. LOUIS)
[See caption above]
JEFF VINNICK/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (SUNDIN)
ANDY MARLIN/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (SHANAHAN)