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Liles' game is lost and found in Colorado, a Hull of an idea, more


One quarter of the way into the NHL season, the Northwest Division leader is .... yes, the Colorado Avalanche

Feel free to swoon.

Now, last year at this time you would have been permitted to fall into a dead faint and summon paramedics, but the Avalanche made the playoffs against substantial odds, so a solid start to 2010-11 was not out of the question.

"Maybe a lot of people thought we overachieved last year," defenseman John-Michael Liles said by phone.

(That is a circumspect way of saying the hockey world saw the Avalanche as a fluke.)

But even among those of us who thought the Avs had enough to carve out a playoff spot again, the preseason darling of their soft division was the Vancouver Canucks, who seemed to have all the elements of a Stanley Cup contender, including a dynamic top line, secondary scoring, a rebuilt defense and an Olympic gold-medal winning goalie.

Indeed, Vancouver is still a Cup threat. Even if they begin to hyperventilate at the sight of the Chicago Blackhawks -- the Hawks are so deeply imbedded into their brains that the Canucks get queasy at the mere mention of deep-dish pizza and flee any room in which the TV gets Superstation WGN -- they still look more capable of hanging around late in the playoff tournament than Colorado ... assuming the Canucks' plane isn't diverted to O'Hare.

But Colorado has some intriguing assets, including the best player you know little about -- Chris Stewart, whose power, speed and hands are making him the NHL's next terrific power forward -- and a capable second-year coach in Joe Sacco.The Avs also have the leading candidate for the one award that, incidentally, this trophy-crazed league doesn't have. That would be the virtual comeback player of the year, and he would be Liles.

While Montreal goaltender Carey Price has had to skate around the rose petals tossed in his direction for a bounce-back season -- .932 save percentage, four shutouts -- his fast start is not much of a shock. Price always had the credentials, if not the maturity level to be a star, and at age 23, there were tons of blank pages on which to write his story. Liles is different. He turns 30 this week, starting the back nine of a career that, in turn, has been improbable, promising, frustrating and resurrected.

You probably thought you knew everything you needed to about a smallish defenseman out of Indiana via Michigan State who went from a fifth-round draft choice to the edge of stardom and then fell from grace. Now you are learning something quite new.

Liles signed a four-year, $16.8 million contract two seasons ago ... and then dropped out of sight. He was good enough to play in the 2006 Olympics, but he wasn't even invited to Team USA's orientation camp in August 2009. He then spent the first several months of the 2009-10 season justifying the snub. Sacco made Liles a healthy scratch perhaps 10 times. That's a staggering amount for a well-paid veteran on a team with an unheralded defense. Liles started to snap out of his funk late in the season -- he had three points and a 0 plus/minus in six games last April, which qualifies as improvement -- but a six goal, 31-point year was substandard for an offensive defenseman who was chum in the trade market water.

"Last year was a wake-up call for me," Liles said. "(Sacco) expected me to be a big part of the team every night. When I really dug deep and looked at my play, I realized I wasn't. I was a big part of the team in a few games, but not every game. You have this feeling that you're doing everything you can, but you're not ... I needed to compete more.

"There was a tendency to get complacent. I realized I wasn't helping the forwards as much as I could, not being part of the second wave of attack that the coaches were looking for."

Liles made the NHL because of his skating ability, which had grown fallow the past two seasons. He dedicated himself last summer to relocating that part of the game, training diligently and eating better. He lost nine pounds and arrived at training camp feeling better, also in part because of the offseason wrist and shoulder surgeries he had to correct nagging injuries.

The result: Liles is playing 22:30 minutes per game. He is a plus player. He was named the NHL's Second Star for the week ending Nov. 21 after accumulating two goals, five assists and plus-five rating. He is tied with Detroit's Nick Lidstrom among NHL defenseman in scoring with three goals and 17 assists.

"I think I'm about 1,000 points behind Lidstrom now," Liles said.

Only 815. But at least Lidstrom isn't widening the gap.

Brett Hull, now an executive vice-president with the Dallas Stars, used to be a font of goals. Now he is a font of ideas. He thinks the NHL can use an old approach to open a second front in its war against blindside hits that target the head: reinsert the red line.

The red line topic has cropped up in passing in discussions among GMs -- Ottawa's Bryan Murray is said to be a proponent of the idea -- but it never has gained any sort of traction. Then again, the argument in favor of the return to the red line never has been made quite in the way Hull frames it.

Hull says players are increasingly vulnerable to the Rule 48 hits because they continually turn their heads to look back for the long passes that are encouraged by the increased open ice. The old-time zone-to-zone-to-zone passes, he posits, would help alleviate the problem.

Just a thought. Certainly it's worth examining some videotape to gather empirical data.

Pat Burns's funeral will be held next Monday in downtown Montreal, about a 30-minute walk from the blue-collar neighborhood where he grew up.

This will be a way tougher ticket than the Bell Centre.

Burns liked to position himself as just an ordinary Joe, which he was. But he also knew about a lot of things other than hockey. The most significant area of his expertise was people. Although he would bristle when he heard the "cop" references as his successful NHL coaching career marched forward, I always thought that his police instincts for instantly sizing up people was one of his great attributes. Burns knew who he could trust and who was trying to con him. He was rarely wrong about his players.

He also knew a lot about music, motorcycles and the media.

Burns figured out the media hierarchy early into his first job with the Canadiens. He talked to the beat reporters in the hallways, and was a world-class grump on his bad days. In this simpler time, the columnists were invited into his office where the discussions tended to be more civil and substantive.

Maybe you recall this story that set hockey people's hair on fire for a week or two some two decades ago: a Montreal doctor, who was (and remains) active in treating AIDS patients, announced that one of his patients, who'd recently died, had had sex with dozens of NHL players.

I was typing a column for a Montreal newspaper at the time and dropped down to the Forum to get Burns' view. Sitting behind his desk, he verbally tap-danced around the subject for 10 minutes or so. I was literally about to rise and say, "Thanks, Pat," when he said, "And oh yeah ... and I told (the Canadiens trainer) to put condoms in the training room. And I don't want these guys using them as water balloons, either."

With Burns, you could always count on a story.