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Cheap Skates of the NHL

Rule changes help shine light on less-heralded and inexpensive rookies, including three in Anaheim.

October 20, 2002|Paul Grant | Sporting News

Show me a team that did poorly last season, and I'll show you a team that is giving a lot of ice time to unproven rookies this season.

The young season has been noteworthy for the play of young players. Big-name rookies Jay Bouwmeester and Rick Nash have been stealing the spotlight with Florida and Columbus, living up to expectations on teams that did not last season. But the play of other, less-heralded rookies has drawn the bright light elsewhere.

Take the Mighty Ducks' trio of wingers Stanislav Chistov and Alexei Smirnov and defenseman Kurt Sauer. Chistov, 19, is 5-foot-10 and 195 pounds, one of the early benefactors of the obstruction crackdown. Fearless in driving to the net, Chistov, the fifth overall pick in the 2001 draft by the Ducks, has good speed and was touted as the most skilled player in his draft. He had four points in his first NHL game.

Smirnov, 20, is 6-4, 218, and just like his alcohol namesake, is big and bold and could make a lasting impression if you're not careful. The Ducks' 2000 first-round pick, 12th overall, Smirnov also goes hard to the net.

Duck Coach Mike Babcock, a rookie himself, at times put the two Russians on the same line, throwing his young Ducks to the wolves alongside sophomore center Andy McDonald, 25. Although they didn't play together for the entire game, they had 10 of the Ducks' 12 points in a season-opening, 4-3 victory over the Blues.

Chistov played a significant amount on the power play -- which was dreadful last season -- in the first few games of the season. It's unrealistic to say this young unit will hold it together all year, but the possibility of having a third line that can play like a second one certainly takes pressure off Duck duos Paul Kariya and Adam Oates, and Petr Sykora and Steve Rucchin.

"I don't think there's any question that the people who are front and center in Canadian junior hockey get more attention because they're better known," Duck General Manager Bryan Murray says, "but both (Chistov and Smirnov) are real talented kids."

Murray likens Chistov to a young Oates.

"(He's) intelligent, quick, spins off checks ... he makes plays, sees the ice extremely well, has real good hands," Murray says. Murray predicts Chistov will produce more points than Smirnov but added the latter will be good for at least 20 goals at his peak.

"We're all anxious to see what they can do," Oates says. "We'll see how they respond. They obviously have a lot of skill. You see that in practice every day. How long it takes them to adjust to the NHL game will be the test."

And we can't forget about Sauer, 21. He's 6-3, 219, has played a lot -- in his first NHL game, Sauer had the most ice time of any Duck -- and looks like a solid addition to their blue line.

Why the influx of youth in the league? The obstruction crackdown has forced teams to look for cheap thrills. If the crackdown holds, the young players will stick, and there are a few other rookies you'll be hearing from:

* Pierre-Marc Bouchard, C, Wild. Small and skilled, Bouchard led the team in preseason points with eight in seven games.

* Fedor Fedorov, LW, Canucks. The cocky and talented younger brother of Sergei led his team in preseason goal scoring.

* Alexander Frolov, LW, Kings. He scored a highlight-reel goal against Patrick Roy in the preseason and could be a thriller.

* Ron Hainsey, D, Canadiens. The Habs finally have the puck-moving, rugged defense they've always wanted.

* Ales Hemsky, RW, Oilers. General Manager Kevin Lowe told reporters Hemsky might have the most talent of any player the team has drafted in 10 years.

* Scottie Upshall, RW, Predators. This gritty all-around forward will be given loads of opportunity on a team that desperately needs his scoring.

* Stephen Weiss, C, Panthers. A two-way prospect, he will get plenty of ice time on a young team and has a chance to flourish under Coach Mike Keenan.

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