- E.J. Hradek, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
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If you're waiting for the defending Stanley Cup champion Devils to unveil a third jersey, don't hold your breath. General manager Lou Lamoriello, who has built one of the most successful professional sports organizations in North America, said his club will never engage in the marketing gimmick while he's running the show.
"I don't believe in it," Lamoriello said. "I strongly believe that you have to have one identity as a team. We want to create a feeling that our home and away jerseys are special and that it means something special to wear one."
So while many other clubs around the league have been diving into the pool of short-term financial gain by cloaking their fans with a third, fourth or fifth jersey (at an approximate cost of $175 for an authentic model), Lamoriello always has seen the big picture and planned accordingly.
Lamoriello was doing just that during the summer when he added defensive guru Jacques Laperriere to his coaching staff. Laperriere -- a Hall of Fame defenseman who won six Stanley Cups during a 12-year playing career with the Canadiens and two more during his 16 seasons as an assistant coach -- is known as one of the league's top teachers and was hired in part to work with a pair of rookie blueliners, David Hale and Paul Martin.
"At this stage of their development -- both very successful U.S. college players who've been part of national championship teams -- we felt they were ready to take the next step," Lamoriello says. "We felt, based on what we'd see in training camp, they'd be better off with us, rather than start the season in Albany. But we still wanted to be patient with them and make sure they get the right instruction on a day-to-day basis."
Laperriere previously served as an assistant under Devils coach Pat Burns in both Montreal and Boston. His relationship with Larry Robinson, the team's special assignment coach, dates back to the 1970s when the two were teammates with the Habs and later when Robinson was an assistant.
"When Jacques became available, we all talked about it," Lamoriello says. "We just felt he'd be great for our young defensemen."
Laperriere's two young pupils have distinctly different styles. Hale, a first-round pick in 2000, is a physical (6-foot-1, 215 pounds), stay-at-home type who rang up 241 penalty minutes in 104 games at the University of North Dakota. Lamoriello signed Hale last spring and made a point of having him around the team during last spring's Stanley Cup run. Martin, the Devils' fourth second-round pick in 2000, is slighty smaller (6-1, 190) and a more offensive-minded player, totalling 20-77-97 in 127 games at the University of Minnesota. Lamoriello calls Martin, "a natural athlete."
Lamoriello, whose scouting staff has kept a close eye on both draft picks, plucked the 22-year-olds from their college teams after just three seasons. The jump from the college game to the NHL is a difficult one, especially for defensemen, but Laperriere's guidance has helped them adjust quickly.
Both players have enabled Burns to manipulate his defensive pairings when needed. Sometimes they're paired with one of the highly talented veterans, like Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer or Brian Rafalski, and sometimes with each other. During last Saturday's 3-2 overtime loss to Tampa Bay, Martin was paired with Tommy Abelin and Hale partnered with Colin White. Martin, who has been averaging 18:32 of ice time and sees duty on the power play, scored his first NHL goal against the Lightning. Hale has been averaging 15:31.
Lamoriello's hiring of Laperriere is having an immediate impact, allowing the Devils to recover from losing Oleg Tverdovsky and Ken Daneyko. And if Hale and Martin remain part of the Devils, you can bet they won't be wearing third jerseys in Lamoriello's big picture.
Around the Hrink
The Nashville Predators are thrilled with the early-season work of first-year, Czech-born defenseman Marek Zidlicky, who was acquired from the Rangers with defenseman Tomas Kloucek and left winger Rem Murray for goalie Mike Dunham on Dec. 12, 2002. Through five games, the 5-11, 187-pound Zidlicky, 26, led the club in scoring with six points and averaged nearly 20 minutes per game. His smallish frame and offensive skills have some scouts comparing him to the Devils' Brian Rafalski. Both players starred in the Finnish Elite League before finding their way to the NHL. Zidlicky piled up 144 points in 208 games for HIFK Helsinki from 1999-2003. "There are some similarities," said one scout. "Rafalski has a thicker body and will play more physical, though." The Rangers took a flyer on Zidlicky with the 176th pick of the 2001 draft. Zidlicky, however, was hesitant to come to New York because he didn't think he'd get an opportunity with a veteran team. After the deal, he was eager to try his game in North America. Zidlicki replaces the departed Andy Delmore, who was traded to Buffalo, on the Preds' power play.
Sources in Chicago say the relationship between general manager Mike Smith and head coach Brian Sutter is getting worse by the minute. At this point, neither man should feel too comfortable. Without top forwards Alexei Zhamnov and Eric Daze, both out with back problems, it appears it's going to be another long season in the Windy City. There is some hope for the future, though. Seven rookies already have suited up for the Hawks, including the highly touted Tuomo Ruutu, and several scouts feel there is more young talent playing at their American Hockey League affiliate in Norfolk. Forwards Mikhail Yakubov (10th overall, 2001 draft), Matt Ellison (128th, '02) and Matt Keith (59th, '01), and defensemen Anton Babchuk (21st, '02), Michal Barinka (59th, '03) and Duncan Keith (54th, 02) all have yet to reach their 21st birthdays. If Smith opts to replace Sutter, Norfolk coach Trent Yawney is a possible replacement. The ex-Hawk forward is getting a good look at the club's future. If Smith doesn't survive another losing season, the team might look to hire former Sharks GM Dean Lombardi, who is the son-in-law of Hawks' senior vice president Bob Pulford. Lombardi currently is doing some pro scouting work for the Flyers.
With inconsistent Flames starting goalie Roman Turek sidelined for up to a month by a knee injury, veteran journeyman Jamie "Noodles" McLennan will take over the No. 1 job. Last season, McLennan played well but received almost no offensive support, as the Flames were shutout in six of his 17 starts. As a result, he recorded just two victories and none after a 3-2 win at New Jersey on Nov. 5, 2002. "If you didn't see the games, you didn't realize how well he played," said former Flames GM Craig Button. Current coach/GM Darryl Sutter sought to replace the 32-year-old goalie during training camp, but kept him for lack of a better option. McLennen responded by posting wins in his first three appearances, allowing just two goals.
Agent David Schatia, who took over the Marian Gaborik negotiations from his partner, Allan Walsh, isn't a newcomer to the business. The Montreal-based attorney was a big-time agent in the 1970s and '80s. Schatia negotiated Denis Potvin's first contract with the Islanders in 1973. He disappeared from the business in the late 80s before resurfacing as Walsh's partner in 1994.
Q: How do you explain your sudden breakthrough last season?
A: I was thinking it was my last chance to play. I was on my way out of the league. So I just worked hard in the summer and on Day One of training camp I was ready to take charge and play hard. Everything went well from the first day and it just kept rolling from there.
Q: What is it like playing for Mike Keenan?
A: He's a tough coach. He's always challenging the guys. He's an honest guy. He's fair. Most of the time when he's telling you something, it's the truth and sometimes the truth hurts. But if you play hard for him, you're going to play. He doesn't look at the name on your back. Whoever works hard is going to play. I like his style. He keeps you on your toes every day. For a young team, it's a perfect fit.
Q: How do you feel about being the captain?
A: Mike [Keenan] asked me if I wanted to take that responsibility and I thought, "I'm ready to do that." My game is not going to change. I just want to work hard every day. I want to push the guys to be better and I want to be better myself. I think the best way to lead a team is to work hard. You don't have to make any speeches in the room. You have to show the guys you're ready to go to work every single day. I think that's the best way to lead a team.
Q: What do you remember most from your time with the Kings and Islanders?
A: It was a good time in L.A. and with the Islanders. I was young; I'm still young. Then, I wasn't mentally ready or physically ready. I was trying to do too much. When you're not mentally or physically ready to do that, you can't play. It's tough when you get traded two times in your first three years in the league. It has been good to finally find a home in Florida.
Q: How tough is it for a young European, Scandinavian or Russian player to adjust to the NHL and life in North America?
A: It's very tough if you're 18, and in my case, you're in L.A. and you barely speak English. Back home, in Finland, you have five million in your whole country. In L.A., you have 50 million people. The Kings placed me with a family for my first three months. That helped a lot. But it's a totally different life here. Luckily, when you're young, you learn quickly. Once you learn the language, everything else gets a little easier.
Bargain or bust?
The Finnish-born goalie was one of the top reasons for the Thrashers' strong showing during the second half of last season. He finished the season with club records for wins (21) and goals-against average (2.88).
In the final year of his contract, Nurminen, 27, will get a substantial raise and a one-way deal next time. Unfortunately, he'll also have highly-touted countryman Kari Lehtonen trying to steal his job.
Who do you think is the most underrated coach in the league?
-- C. Simmons, Buffalo, N.Y.
I really think Kings coach Andy Murray does an excellent job. He's very well prepared and he seems to get the most out of his players. Last season, under trying circumstances, he kept an injury-riddled team in the playoff chase until late in the year. He's not the most well-liked coach. Some of his peers think he sometimes has too much to say. But, it isn't a popularity contest, is it?
GM Lou Lamoriello brought in the best kind of teacher for his two rookie defensemen -- an ex-Canadien.