- Terry Frei, Special to ESPN.com
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"Just think," University of Denver coach George Gwozdecky mused the other day at the school's Magness Arena, "Paul Stastny would be just starting his senior year if he still was with us."
That sort of "what if" is commonplace in NCAA hockey, of course, which routinely bids farewell to elite players long before they complete their four seasons of eligibility.
But it does underscore the fact that Stastny, the Colorado Avalanche center who is only 21, remains precocious, and even a bit of a surprise. He played with the River City Lancers in the United States Hockey League before coming to DU for two seasons, but unlike many USHL vets, he was only 18 when he entered college.
After finishing second to the Pittsburgh Penguins' Evgeni Malkin in the Calder Trophy voting last season, Stastny is off to a terrific start with the Avalanche in his senior -- oops -- sophomore NHL season.
With Joel Quenneville (who like most NHL coaches never stops tinkering) still adjusting his lines, Stastny is temporarily centering the newly arrived Ryan Smyth and longtime Colorado winger Milan Hejduk, the former Rocket Richard Trophy winner seeking a revival of that scoring touch. Smyth started out playing with his longtime buddy, Joe Sakic, but it now looks as if the juggled combinations will be more effective, with Stastny serving as the generator, even for Smyth, whose finishes are more the result of gritty opportunism than the slick conversion of setups.
Stastny has four goals and four assists in three games heading into the Avalanche's Friday night game at St. Louis (which Paul considers his hometown), and he had five of those points in a Sunday rout of San Jose. Against the Sharks, one of the assists came after Stastny stole the puck from Joe Thornton, went the other way, fed Smyth, whose shot turned into a rebound that Hejduk knocked past Evgeni Nabokov.
What sophomore jinx?
"I think it's something people create in their head -- in college, in juniors, here," Stastny said after the Avalanche's Wednesday practice. "You just have to keep working hard and you can't be comfortable out there. You have to look at it like every day someone's going to be gunning at you, and prepare yourself more and more."
One of the ironies here is most of us who saw Stastny play in college weren't projecting anything close to this sort of startling early pro success. That would have taken focusing on him and projecting his game to the NHL, where he would have more talented players around him to take advantage of his savvy. He had good numbers at DU (36 goals and 98 points in 81 games), but nothing breathtaking for the NCAA level.
Even the Avalanche, Stastny and his family projected him to at least start last season in the minors. But Steve Konowalchuk's career-ending heart irregularity, among other things, opened up a roster spot. And Stastny quickly took advantage of it.
"I try to consider myself a playmaker," Stastny said. "Those are genes that come from your dad and your family, and I have some of those genes for things that can't be taught. Playing with better players makes it that much easier for me. If this were only an individual game, I'd be in big trouble, I think. When you're playing with smart players like this, they're reading what you're reading and you know what they're thinking. It makes it that much more of a simple game."
I mean they use the same skates, the same stick. He's still got the same ol' wood stick! Poor kid, he's got to adapt.
--Avs captain Joe Sakic on Paul Stastny's similarities to his father
Ah, the genes.
The Stastny name is magic, especially in Slovakia, and also in Quebec, where Paul's father, Peter, spent the bulk of his Hall of Fame career after defecting from what then was Czechoslovakia in 1980, with his brother, Anton. (A third brother, Marian, also joined them with the Nordiques.)
Now, Paul has two teammates, Sakic and Ian Laperriere, who played with his father, at Quebec and St. Louis, respectively.
Ask Sakic if he sees some of the father in the son, and the 37-year-old veteran laughs.
"Oh, yeah," he said, nodding at the nearby Stastny, who was unlacing his beat-up, old-style skates. "Look at that. I mean they use the same skates, the same stick. He's still got the same ol' wood stick! Poor kid, he's got to adapt."
Sakic turns serious. "But I think you see it other ways, too," he said. "They're built the same -- very powerful skaters, very strong on the puck, see the game. You see a lot of similarities."
The stick in question is of the same style used by his father.
"The classics always work, so I just stick with what works," Paul said.
As Paul makes a name for himself, he always will trigger memories of his father, whose No. 26 was retired at Quebec, but now is on his son's back for the relocated franchise in Denver.
Paul, who was born in Quebec and mostly raised in St. Louis, where his parents still have a home, was like a lot of sons. Perhaps he didn't take his father's and family's background for granted, but he didn't ask a lot of questions, either. So while Paul was aware of his father's 1980 defection and the Stastny legend in Slovakia -- Peter, in fact, represents the reborn nation in the European Parliament -- the son didn't try to find out many details, whether about Peter and Anton's dangerous defection or anything else. (If he was tired of playing Jason Bourne but wanted to make more espionage movies, Matt Damon could play Peter in the film depicting the brothers' wild and intricately plotted escape during a tournament in Innsbruck, Austria.)
"He came out with a book -- but it was in French and Slovak," Paul said of his father with a smile. "He doesn't talk about stuff like that. A couple of years ago, I asked him and he sat me down and told me the whole story. And I've heard it since, like when we're at something together and someone asks him, and I'll sit there and listen to it because it was such a tough situation and such a crazy story that I can listen to it over and over again."
Paul's older brother, Yan, 25, played two seasons at the University of Notre Dame before turning pro, and still hasn't gotten a protracted shot in the NHL, playing only 41 games with Edmonton and Boston. After a trade from the Bruins to the Blues last season, Yan still is with the Peoria Rivermen of the American Hockey League. So that foils an on-ice reunion of the latest brothers Stastny on Friday night in the Scottrade Center.
For now, Paul is carrying on the family tradition in the NHL alone, but adding to its glory.
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and the upcoming "'77."