Older first-year defenders from across the pond are making a big impact
Of all the candidates to emerge as the Bruins' most dependable defenseman, few on Boston's preseason roster would have seemed a longer shot than 27-year-old Jarno Kultanen, a Finn who was the team's sixth-round draft pick early last summer. Yet through Sunday, Kultanen had seven assists, second on the Boston defense, and was averaging 22:41 of ice time, developments that made him not only a first-year surprise but also the bellwether of a leaguewide trend.
Never have so many European defensemen in their mid-20s and older made their NHL debuts at one time, and they have done so with unexpected success. The Blues have gotten nearly 20 minutes per game from Alexander Khavanov, a 28-year-old Russian. The Wild's highest-scoring defender is 32-year-old Lubomir Sekeras (13 points), a Slovak, and the Kings' quick-strike offense has been goosed time and again by 24-year-old Slovakian back-liner Lubomir Visnovsky (18 points). None of the aforementioned, save for Visnovsky, are eligible for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year because they're older than 26.
Expansion has depleted the ranks of experienced defensemen in recent years, and because nothing whitens general managers' hair faster than watching mistake-prone young blue-liners, NHL clubs have turned to Europe for help. The defensemen coming from there have been seasoned by years of topflight competition in pro leagues and have been playing on larger surfaces than their North American counterparts, thus developing excellent puck-moving ability. "These guys have the skills and experience to play right away," says St. Louis general manager Larry Pleau.
Despite their potential for immediate impact, it's no accident that Visnovsky, who was selected 118th last June, Kultanen (174th), Sekeras (232nd) and Khavanov (232nd in 1999) weren't taken until relatively late in the draft. "The first few rounds you try to get a young guy who might develop into an All-Star," says Kings G.M. Dave Taylor. "The older Europeans are perfect for later in the draft, because at that stage, if you can get a player who makes your team, it's a good pick."
In addition to solidifying NHL defenses, the Euro-picks have inspired new hope across the pond. "The guys over there see who has been getting drafted and that we're doing well," says the Thrashers' 27-year-old Czech defenseman, Frantisek Kaberle, who broke in with L.A. "With two more teams in the NHL, even the older guys know they have a chance."
Lightning Skills Coach
A Seer and His Believers
"When you grew up in the 1950s and '60s with a learning disability, as I did, people thought you were stupid," says Paul Vincent, a Lightning assistant. "I couldn't translate things from my head to the page, but I taught myself to be a keen observer. I watched what my teachers did, how they approached the learning process, and I remembered the details."
Vincent, 54, has been using his sharpened powers of observation to help hockey players since he began coaching a team of 10-year-olds that played near his home outside Boston 30 years ago. Those kids improved so dramatically that Vincent, a Boston cop by profession, became a local legend and began moonlighting as a consultant for the Boston College hockey program. He also stalled a summer hockey school that many future NHL All-Stars—including center Adam Oates of the Capitals and wing Bill Guerin of the Bruins—attended.
Now he's in his second season as the full-time special skills coach for Tampa Bay, the only NHL team that has such a position. "We have guys on our team who wouldn't be here if not for him," says general manager Rick Dudley. "Think about what that's worth to a franchise."