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Who'll lead the NHL's light brigade over the next 10 years? Count on these young studs, for starters . . .
Jean Lefebvre, Calgary Herald
Published: Sunday, January 28, 2007

You're tossing and turning in bed one night, when suddenly it hits you like Derek Boogaard driving a cement truck downhill.

Eureka, you've found it, you tell yourself. A foolproof way to make the National Hockey League insanely popular in the U.S., from Montpelier to Monterey, from Sarasota to Seattle.

No one can explain it, but said plan has the American networks falling all over themselves to offer billion-dollar TV deals.

Major companies abandon expensive Super Bowl commercials to throw their advertising shekels into the NHL.

The frozen game's widespread acceptance even motivates baseball broadcasters to make a solemn vow to never again make the tired, old, anachronistic "it's like a hockey game out there" wisecrack when the weekly bench-clearing melee breaks out on the diamond.

NHL owners are so grateful for the bucks bulging their bank accounts, they award you an expansion franchise -- Quebec City or Winnipeg, here we come -- and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to stock said club with game's very best merchandise.

Any 20 current NHLers, the bigwigs tell you, are yours for the taking.

Salary-cap considerations? Waived.

Conditions? Only two.

Firstly, at the insistence of the New York Islanders, each of the 20 players must be given iron-clad 10-year contracts (negotiated down from 15 years).

Secondly, over the objections of the Phoenix Coyotes, who hate the thought of losing a bartering partner, your club is barred from trading and drafting for the next decade.

In other words, come heck or high water, these chaps are your team until the end of 2016-2017 campaign. Now comes the exhilarating/excruciating part -- whom do you choose, knowing any mistakes will be paid for again and again until the end of Hillary Rodham Clinton's second term in the Oval Office, and beyond?

The Calgary Herald offers its suggestions . . .

Tending the twine

Years ago, the inimitable Casey Stengel was asked where he'd start if he was building a baseball team from scratch.

"You have to have a catcher," the Ol' Perfesser replied, "or you'll have all passed balls."

In that spirit, in a concerted effort to cut down on empty-net goals, we begin with the masked men.

- KARI LEHTONEN (23 years old): Several years ago, when still a junior, Lehtonen played on Finland's world championship entry. Then-Flames defenceman Toni Lydman was a teammate, and was so impressed he declared Lehtonen a future superstar. Injuries slowed that progression, but a healthy Lehtonen is a major reason the Thrashers are leading the Southwest Division.

- CAM WARD (22): His 2005-06 regular season was ordinary. His numbers this season aren't that great, either. We don't care. The Carolina stopper, after all, already has a Stanley Cup ring and a Conn Smythe

Trophy to his credit.

On the Blueline

Any resemblance between our next-decade defence and the blueline brigade of the Nashville Predators is purely intentional.

Preds architect David Poile has done a masterful job stockpiling rearguard studs, three of whom make the cut here.

- DAN HAMHUIS (24): The late bloomer from Smithers, B.C., is the oldest member of our squad (we had a self-imposed cutoff age of 24).

A defensive stalwart.

- RYAN SUTER (21): Like the bloodlines (son of Miracle on Ice Olympian Bob; nephew of ex-Flame Gary). Love the skill set.

- SHEA WEBER (21): The third D-man plucked from the Predators may well be the best. Big and strong, possessor of a mean streak and better-than-average offensive ability.

- DION PHANEUF (21): So many folks made a point of highlighting the Calgary stud's rookie season in the Year of Sid the Kid and Alex the Great, Phaneuf may qualify as the NHL's worst-kept secret. A big hitter with a big shot.

- JAY BOUWMEESTER (23): Between Phaneuf and this strong, silent type, our team won't be winning any media awards. That's OK -- we're looking at building a coaching staff of Jacques Lemaire, Jeremy Roenick and, somewhere down the line, Craig Conroy to entertain the scribes.

- JONI PITKANEN (23): Take the Finn's double-digit minus figure in 2006-07, look it over . . . then kick it as far as you can and ignore it. Like virtually every Flyer, Pitkanen has had his share of misery this season, but he's been too good in his first two campaigns to think the difficulties are anything but temporary.

Beyond a handful of obvious choices, settling on a dozen forwards was an arduous process. No fewer than two dozen young hotshots merited serious consideration, and it broke our hearts to make the final cuts. The surviving group, needless to say, is spectacular.

- SIDNEY CROSBY (19): Of course. El Sid is already an MVP candidate.

- ALEXANDER OVECHKIN (21): In comparisons with Crosby, the most-often heard criticism of the Washington sniper is that he's two years older. Uh, we'll live.

- EVGENI MALKIN (20): First, Lemieux-Jagr. Now Crosby-Malkin. In the name on Schock, Shack and Schinkel, somebody has to find a way to keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh.

- RICK NASH (22): The big guy with a soft touch won a share of the Rocket Richard Trophy at age 19.

- ILYA KOVALCHUK (23): One of the best pure scorers in the business has averaged 40 goals in his first four seasons.

- PATRICE BERGERON (21): His emergence made it easier for Bruins to trade Joe Thornton. One of those rare second-round picks (45th overall in 2003) who made the NHL as an 18-year-old.

- JASON SPEZZA (23): With all the finishers in this lineup, a premier playmaker like Spezza would have a blast.

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