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Jamming the crease

Keep an eye on Mike Modano's play over the next couple weeks. Now that he's finally coerced the monkey that was the American-born scoring record off his back with a pair of goals on Wednesday night in San Jose, Modano is likely to be a much more comfortable, and productive, player. The frustration of his prolonged pursuit of Phil Housley was evident on nearly every shift over the past month. The veteran center spent almost as much time looking heavenward for answers after each missed opportunity as he did following the play.

Speaking of that scoring mark, the American record of 1,233 points stands sixth on the all-time list by country, behind Canada (Wayne Gretzky, 2,857), Czech Republic (Jaromir Jagr, 1,543), Finland (Jari Kurri, 1,398), Sweden (Mats Sundin, 1,264) and Slovakia (Peter Stastny, 1,239). On the plus side, it's well ahead of Russia (Sergei Fedorov, 1,113), Ireland (Owen Nolan, 778), Brazil (Robyn Regehr, 104) and Indonesia (Richie Regehr, 4).

With nearly every NHL franchise employing at least one player who is still in his first year of eligibility to vote for thievin' politicians, it seems that few teams these days have the patience to allow a youngster to develop before he is thrust headlong into the world's best league.

The meteoric rise of goalie Carey Price being the exception, the Canadiens have bucked that trend. The Habs are giving their top prospects plenty of time to simmer and soak up seasoning. That was the tasty approach they took with Tomas Plekanec, giving the Czech import three full seasons to learn how to play the game in the American Hockey League with the Hamilton Bulldogs before handing him an NHL job in 2005-06.

Two years later, the Habs may now have one of the game's best young centers, and easily one of its best-kept secrets.

His Q rating isn't likely to change any time soon. Despite possessing plenty of flash, Plekanec isn't the sort of player who will generate headlines outside of Montreal. He doesn't possess the natural gifts to become a first-line center, or the media savvy to draw attention to his accomplishments. But he's exactly the sort of player who can be invaluable in returning the Habs to glory.

Not that he was ever considered a sure thing. The 71st overall choice in the 2001 draft, Plekanec arrived in North America a year later to little fanfare. Despite an eighth-place finish the previous season, the Habs resisted any thought of rushing his development and sent him to Hamilton to apprentice under Doug Jarvis.

"It's about putting a player in a situation where he has the best chance to succeed," Montreal GM Bob Gainey has said about the team's philosophy.

Although Plekanec blossomed quickly with Jarvis, who was a crafty center in his day, the Habs remained committed to the long-term approach. Plekanec's defensive game was already fairly sound, so he was asked to work on his offense. After scoring 19 goals as an AHL rookie, he steadily improved to 23, and then 29 -- a total made more impressive when you consider the AHL was stocked with young NHLers during the 2004-05 lockout. Gainey certainly noticed, and after three long years, Plekanec earned the call.

The key to his success then, as now, is speed. He changes gears effortlessly and has a world-class top end, a skill he displayed repeatedly in Thursday night's goal-and assist effort in Montreal's 2-1 win over the Bruins. But beyond that, the little things define Plekanec as a player worth watching.

"He finds ways to make you notice him," an Eastern Conference scout said. "He may have been Montreal's best player against Carolina in the playoffs two years ago. He's not that big (5-10, 196), but he really battles out there. The first thing you notice is his attention to his own zone, but he's really tricky with the puck, and he excels at finding open space. And he's good at making the most of his wingers, but he doesn't need to rely on them to create offense."

After Thursday night's performance, Plekanec had five goals and 13 points in 15 games, tied for second on the team. That puts him on pace for a career-high 65 points -- a solid output for a second-line center, as well as a step up that suggests an even better future.

"Three years riding the buses can seem like an eternity," the scout said. "But guys who are going through it can look at a kid like Plekanec. He's proof there's light at the end of the tunnel."

And proof to NHL teams that patience can be rewarded.

If anyone was keeping a candle lit for the speedy return of Boston forward Patrice Bergeron, yesterday's solemn press conference should have doused it. When three spotlights for local TV cameras in the room are noted as a hazard to his comfort, you get a sense of just how far away he is from returning to action.

Meeting with the media for the first time since he was the victim of a brutal hit-from-behind delivered by Philly's Randy Jones, Bergeron described himself as feeling dizzy when he walks and said he has trouble performing everyday activities. Wearing a neck brace and hunching awkwardly, he said he still feels a lot of symptoms from the concussion he suffered on the play, but he remains positive about his future.

"I'm sure I'll be back," he said. "But right now, my goal is to feel better as a person."

That had to be a positive message for his teammates, but you have to think that the Bruins, who've been held to just one goal in each of their last three games, and six of their last nine, will continue to struggle without Bergeron's contributions. Call-ups from Providence -- diminutive center Vladimir Sobotka is an intriguing option -- are the first course of action, but it wouldn't surprise anyone to see another one of those Bruins panic deals that have generously improved the fortunes of so many other teams around the league.

Now that the Blues and Avs have cracked the ice with the season's first trade -- Thursday's blockbuster that saw 2001 first-rounder Jason Bacashihua go from St. Louis to Colorado in exchange for a 2008 seventh-rounder -- we can probably expect a few more teams to tinker with faulty formulas.

One club that should be active: the Calgary Flames.

Losers of four straight and participants for maybe 20 minutes in each of those contests, the Flames are a team that has yet to become comfortable with the demands of Mike Keenan. To the fiery coach's credit, he's been patient during the process, allowing his players time to adjust. But it's becoming clear that not everyone is on board, and a shakeup seems inevitable.

Stephane Yelle, a solid defensive player who could add something to any team's penalty kill, could be available. Center Craig Conroy, who has just two goals this season despite playing alongside Jarome Iginla and Alex Tanguay for long stretches, is another candidate. His contract brings a $2.85 million hit, but it only goes through this season and becomes more manageable for another team to assume with each passing day. Calgary would like to add scoring (who wouldn't?), but might be willing to take on a veteran forward with leadership experience and a winning background.

Atlanta's Bobby Holik, perhaps?

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