Tkachuk, Demitra capitalize on differences

Blues forwards Keith Tkachuk and Pavol Demitra are the strangest of linemates.

Updated: December 4, 2003, 7:57 PM ET
By Tom Wheatley | Special to ESPN.com

ST. LOUIS -- According to the laws of nature, opposites attract.

That helps explain the puckish attraction between St. Louis Blues linemates Pavol Demitra and Keith Tkachuk.

Pavol Demitra
Pavol Demitra could stickhandle in a phone booth ...
"They are an odd couple, as far as stars go,'' said teammate Doug Weight. "Definitely.''

"What does make them click is that they ARE opposite players," said teammate Dallas Drake, who was Tkachuk's linemate and best buddy in Phoenix.

Demitra is a slick Slovak. Tkachuk is a bruising Bostonian. Both speak English with thick accents. Other than that, they seem to have just two things in common: their constant bickering (all, or at least mostly, in fun) and their production (as good as, if not better, than any other NHL duo).

For the fifth time in six seasons, Demitra ranks among the Top 15 point-scorers in the National Hockey League. He has 24 points on 8 goals and 16 assists. Tkachuk, a two-time 50-goal scorer, ranks among the goal-scoring leaders with 13 goals and 5 assists in 19 games. Tkachuk has a plus-6 rating, Demitra is plus-5.

"We are so close,'' Demitra said. "All of a sudden, we started playing together (regularly) last year, and we started hanging out together, eating dinner together, stuff like that. We know each other very well. We got to be good friends.''

It's an odd development considering Tkachuk was obtained from Phoenix for Demitra's best friend on the Blues, center Michal Handzus, now with Philadelphia. The Blues also had to cough up another of Demitra's fellow countrymen, budding Slovakian sniper Ladislav Nagy, plus top prospect Jeff Taffe and a No.1 pick to get Tkachuk at the 2001 trade deadline.

Weight and Tkachuk, veterans of USA Hockey international play, expected to be paired. But soon after Tkachuk arrived, coach Joel Quenneville sent him out with Demitra in a 4-on-4 overtime shift. They fed off each other from the get-go. Quenneville has kept them paired, Demitra at center and Tkachuk on left wing, with veteran right winger Scott Mellanby anchoring the line.

"Usually when you envision things, it doesn't work,'' said Blues general manager Larry Pleau. "Definitely Pavol and Walt have tremendous chemistry with each other. And Mel's really fit well on the right side.''

Keith Tkachuk
The Blues will need a strong postseason performance from Keith Tkachuk.
Mellanby works the corners, the wall and the crease. Demitra and Tkachuk flow around the rest of the zone in tandem, weaving inside and out, making the routine less predictable.

"They are aware of each other on the ice,'' Quenneville said. "They have a feel for where the other guy is, especially when they have the puck in a danger area. They make a lot of plays in tight that other guys can't make."

They take opposite routes to the scoresheet. The 6-foot, 200-pound Demitra, who goes by Pav, is a dancer. Tkachuk, who answers to Walt -- as in former NHL forward Walt Tkaczuk -- is a 6-2, 231-pound piano mover.

"Pavol's skill jumps out at you,'' Drake said. "It's amazing what he can do with the puck in tight quarters. He has the patience and vision to wait in the corners and make a play. He's one of the few who can do that.

"Walt is the horse who goes to the net."

Tkachuk startled many Blues watchers with his speed. When he was an opponent, he generally parked himself in the crease for a muscle tussle with defenseman Chris Pronger. Tkachuk still shares squatter's rights in the crease with Mellanby, but he remains highly mobile, as well as hostile.

"Walt's a very good skater,'' Drake said. "Conditioning's a part of it now. Once he gets going, he can beat anyone in a race around the ice."

Even Blues speedster Jamal Mayers?

"I think so,'' Drake said, "because Walt's so strong. He picks up speed in the corners, where other guys have to slow down."

Tkachuk and Demitra may work in harmony off the ice, but friendly discord reigns off it.

"I feel like a referee in between them,'' said Mellanby, who makes it an odd-threesome for card-playing on plane trips and other social activities.

The witty repartee began as a one-sided affair. While Tkachuk has always been quick with a quip, Demitra was still learning the language and his role on the veteran team.

"Pavol's become pretty good at getting the one-liners back at people,'' said Kelly Chase, the Blues radio analyst and a master trash talker in his playing days. "Before, Pavol took things to heart.

"You were almost afraid that you were hurting his feelings if you said something to him. Now, he gives the zingers back to anyone. Even Pronger."

We did create a monster. Now he actually gives it back to you. I liked it better when he just sat there and took it.
Keith Tkachuk on teasing Pavol Demitra
And especially Tkachuk.

"We did create a monster," Tkachuk said. "Now he actually gives it back to you. I liked it better when he just sat there and took it."

In fact, the Blues veterans encouraged Demitra to assert himself after his Slovakian support group was dealt away.

"We wanted him to be in the core of the team,'' Weight said. "We wanted him to speak up. Now, he doesn't shut up. We're in trouble!"

Not really.

"Walt's really helped Pav get more comfortable,'' Quenneville said. "Not only around the team, but in his game. The yapping they do, it's barbing. They give each other barbs on the bench. They're always bugging each other, stuff like, 'Why did you do that? Why did you screw up?' ''

The interplay also includes Mellanby, the line's elder voice of reason.

"It's not the Three Stooges,'' Mellanby rasped, "but it's just a good mix all around. It works because we're so hard on each other. We take that professionally and not personally.

"Sometimes when guys are hard on each other it creates friction. It's a fine line. But we have a good mutual respect within the three of us. Well, Walt might be a little harder on Pav than he is on me.

"But that's because I've got a little age and a little seniority on him."

And Tkachuk has that double edge on Demitra.

"I call him Cookie Monster," Tkachuk said, "because he's out there trying to eat up all those points, all those cookies."

And what does Demitra needle Tkachuk about?

"Uh, different parts of his anatomy,'' Mellanby said. "Just leave it at that."

Demitra's pet name for Tkachuk is "Big Head,'' a reference to the size of the player's skull, not his attitude.

It starts in the pregame warmups. If Pavol's coming off a bad game and starts to look good, Walt will say, 'Welcome back!'
Chris Osgood on the repartee between Demitra and Tkachuk
One amused observer is goalie Chris Osgood, who arrived in St. Louis at last year's deadline. While playing for Detroit, Osgood got an eyeful of both Tkachuk in Phoenix and Demitra in St. Louis.

"They're always fighting," Osgood said with a laugh. "They're kidding sometimes, and sometimes it's pretty serious. Walt likes to keep Pavol going. If he gets off his game, Walt's all over him.

"It starts in the pregame warmups. If Pavol's coming off a bad game and starts to look good, Walt will say, 'Welcome back!'"

Tkachuk said their banter is a variation on two basic themes: "My rule to him is that he has to work hard on every shift. His rule to me is, I get him the puck."

For awhile last summer, their partnership was on hold. Demitra, 29, was a restricted free agent. He turned down an offer of $5 million, filed for arbitration and won $6.5 million, the second-highest award ever. The Blues seriously thought about rejecting the award and letting Demitra leave as a free agent. Even though he ranked sixth in the league last year with 93 points on 36 goals and 57 assists.

Tkachuk, who played just 56 games last season due to suspension and injuries, scored 31 goals and 24 assists for 55 points. Yet he earned $11 million, including a $2 million bonus, in the first year of a new five-year deal. He makes $10 million this season, including a $1 million bonus. Tkachuk, 31, will earn a flat $9 million next season, and $9 million plus a $1 million bonus for 2005-06. The last year is a club option at a flat $5 million.

Does that mean the Blues value Tkachuk almost twice as much as Demitra, who has been more productive?

"There's so much difference in the leverage of players,'' Pleau said. "Walt was going to be unrestricted this year. There's a big difference in the number of games Walt's played in his career compared to Pavol. And Walt came in with a contract for $8.3 million. His new deal averages out to $9 million for five years."

The other thing to remember, Chase said, "is that Walt bulldozes out there and makes a lot of space for Pavol."

Demitra knows that and appreciates it as well as his friendship with both linemates.

"We have so much fun playing together," Demitra said. "And we are all so close. If something happens to us at home, we always call each other. When my baby boy was born, they both came to visit me. And their wives came to visit my wife."

They still have room for improvement. Demitra's consistency and Tkachuk's temper -- he has been suspended twice in the last two seasons for stick fouls -- are constant issues.

And Quenneville said, "Offensively, they're fine. Defensively, they need to make sure they're committed to playing a team game."

And the odd couple shares one other plot of common ground: A thirst for the team's first Stanley Cup. In Tkachuk's three postseasons in St. Louis, he and Demitra have underachieved with the exact same stats: 8 goals, 15 assists and 23 points apiece in 32 games.

"Walt's changed his goals,'' said Osgood. "He doesn't care so much about scoring or getting assists. He just wants to win the Cup. It seems like he wants to be known as a winner."

Ditto for Demitra, who has no hard feelings about his contract status.

"A couple hours after arbitration, you don't feel very good,'' he said. "You hear things not too good about yourself in there. But it's always a business. I know that.

"I like it here. I don't want to leave. The fans are so great here. I want to win a Cup in this city. We want to be the first guys to do it here."

Tom Wheatley is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "St. Louis Sports Folks,'' due out this week, and co-author of "Bob Plager's Tales from the Blues Bench."