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Kopitar will have a good year -- Gretzky and Belfour will not
Mark Spector, National Post
Published: Friday, October 13, 2006

"I don't think our team can get that much lower than this. We've got to get back to basics here. By basics, I mean we can't even pass the puck five feet right now." -- Wayne Gretzky.

With the lack of success that his team has had in Phoenix, you have to wonder: Didn't the guy who picked the name for that franchise ever watch Bugs Bunny?

For those of you raised on the metric system, that's about one-and-a-half metres that The Great One's Not Very Good Ones are struggling with down in the desert. And in Columbus, where the Coyotes lost 5-1. And in Detroit, where the mangy dogs were spanked 9-2.

Who would have thought you could slip a couple of trusty soldiers like Jeremy Roenick and Owen Nolan in with a cast of characters down in Phoenix that already included Derek Morris, Mike Comrie and Oleg Saprykin, then when the puck drops your team would lack discipline, dedication, and -- we're willing to guess on this one -- fitness?

OK, we know. It's still golf season. J.R. will put his game together by Christmas. Then, when he starts concentrating on hockey, watch out.

Seriously, if Wayne Gretzky is ready to make such grave determinations about his club after just four games, then so are we ready to begin drawing our own conclusions on the 2006-07 campaign, with slightly more than 3% of the National Hockey League schedule having been played prior to last night's games.

The time has come to wonder aloud if we're going to be able to tell the speed-ageing Wayne from the gracefully-ageing Walter by season's end. Or to get all freaked out over the fact that the NHL has clearly been taken over by the Euros.

Heading into last night's games, only three players among the Top 10 scorers were North Americans. (Canadians all, thank God.) The rest? All interlopers.

Of 15 offensive categories on the NHL stats package, nine of the early leaders are Europeans. They've even infiltrated the rookie ranks, where you can't tie your dog [Lasse Kukkonen] to a Pole [Wojtek Wolski] without finding some guy named Alexander Suglobov or Loui [Satchmo] Eriksson.

This deep into the season, it's obvious: The Calder Trophy will go to Anze Kopitar, the Los Angeles Kings draft pick who hails from Slovenia. There, hockey is so scarcely played that one in four registered players makes Slovenia's national team. (And still they wouldn't pick Rob Zamuner).

But it's early, right? The Kopitar kid can't keep on averaging 21 minutes and scoring two points per game, can he?

"I've played against Slovenia," declared Ryan Smyth, the passport-at-the-ready Oilers veteran who has his doctorate in international play. "I knew he was going to be a good player when I took a face off against him in Innsbruck at the World Championships. He won the draw, it was in our zone, and as a centre, I'm supposed to lock up my centreman, right? Well, boom -- he went right through me and he was gone to the net."

With that, we're ready to anoint Kopitar as the NHL's next great power forward. And we will also boldly predict that Ted Nolan, the serial applicant whose resume was finally accepted by the Islanders, will alienate another general manager in Long Island.

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