Loud and Clear
A pair of self-assured rookies have given the Avalanche offensive spark and kept the team in the postseason picture
IN OCTOBER, when rookies are sometimes seen but seldom heard, Avalanche first-year forwards Paul Stastny and Wojtek Wolski were already outshouting veteran teammates and coaches from the bench. "Cycle, cycle!" Wolski screamed. "Man high!" Stastny interjected.
"Nobody expects to see two rookies step in and assert themselves like they did," says coach Joel Quenneville.
Since then the pair has expanded its impact onto the ice, becoming the league's best one-two rookie punch since Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk joined the Thrashers in 2001. Through Sunday, Stastny ranked third in scoring among rookies (behind the Penguins' Evgeni Malkin and the Kings' Anze Kopitar), with 32 points. Wolski, third among rookies with 14 goals, was fourth in scoring with 29 points.
After the league went to a salary cap last season, teams such as the Avalanche have turned to rookies for help instead of costlier free agents. Despite the loss of key players through trade (left wing Alex Tanguay), free agency (defenseman Rob Blake) and retirement (left wing Steve Konowalchuk) in the off-season, Colorado is in playoff contention, largely thanks to its two rookie forwards. Linemates to start the season, they have skated separately for several weeks. The 20-year-old Wolski, a left wing, plays with captain Joe Sakic, while Stastny, 21, centers a line with sniper Milan Hejduk.
Stastny has a rich hockey bloodline. His father, Peter, and uncles Anton and Marian defected from Czechoslovakia and in the 1980s formed one of the game's most entertaining lines for the Quebec Nordiques. Stastny's older brother, Yan, is a second-year center for the Bruins. Still, many questioned Paul's decision in the summer to forgo his junior year at the University of Denver. "We felt he was ready," says Peter. "He needed to get stronger and faster, but he was already thinking one step ahead of other players. He has an instinctive spontaneity. He knows which loose pucks he can win." Unlike many young players, Stastny is most impressive without the puck, finding open ice, cutting off passing lanes and blocking shots. Quenneville regularly uses him on power plays and penalty kills.
"He's just a smart hockey player," says Sakic, who broke in as Peter's teammate in Quebec. "He plays a lot like his dad. He's got that great hockey sense."
Though Wolski's game is flashier, his background is more blue-collar. His father, Wes, a stonemason, moved his family from Poland when Wojtek was two and eventually settled in Mississauga, Ont., where he owns a marble and granite company. "He'd sit me down every time I didn't play well," says Wojtek, "and it always made me expect more of myself." Wolski still responds well to a kick in the pants. Sent down to Brampton of the Ontario Hockey League early last season, he had 128 points in 56 OHL games. When he was called to the Avalanche for the playoffs, he scored three points against Dallas in his first game back. In November, after Quenneville scratched him from a game against Anaheim because he was committing too many turnovers and blind passes, Wolski had a goal and three assists in the next game.
A couple of weeks ago the rookies moved in together in Cherry Creek, Colo., where Wolski is trying to expand Stastny's cinematic horizons beyond a dozen viewings of Pirates of the Caribbean. "He watches everything," Stastny says, "and then I watch the DVDs he likes." That's Stastny assisted by Wolski, a combination that could last awhile.
ONLY AT SI.COM Brian Cazeneuve's notes around the league at SI.com/nhl.
Pierre McGuire's In the Crease
For the third straight year Canada won the world junior championships, beating Russia 4--2 last Friday in Sweden. The difference maker was goalie Carey Price (right), the Canadiens' first-round pick (No. 5 overall) in 2005, who had a 1.14 GAA and displayed poise and athleticism at key moments in the tournament.... Watch for talented U.S. right wing Patrick Kane and Russian right wing Alexei Cherepanov to be the top two selections in this summer's draft. Kane has a slight edge to go No. 1 because of his ability to score and make slick passes. Cherepanov will remind you of the Sabres' Maxim Afinogenov—a solid goal scorer with blazing speed.... Rangers fans should be excited about defenseman Marc Staal (the 12th pick in '05). A major league defensive stopper who can handle big minutes, he has started to show glimpses of offensive touch.