Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Kolanos' Wild Ride

How great was that Wild game against Boston last night? I enjoyed every minute of it.

But what I got most out of it was the solidification of a story line that's been developing for two or three seasons now. Russo mentions in his post-game blog what a great comeback story Kolanos is turning out to be. No doubt. But I think it's made even more crisp when you throw the parallel story of Benoit Pouliot into the mix, and maybe a dash of Gaborik.

The story begins in Houston with Aeros fans plodding through 2 seasons of Pouliot's coasting and lack of passion. The first season was a bust for the team as a whole and he was a rookie, so he got a pass. The second, he showed flashes of brilliance with the puck -- flashes of brilliance this low-scoring team desperately needed on a regular basis if they were to compete.

But 95% of the time, he brought none of the heart to match the talent in his limbs, nor did he show much in the way of the hockey sense you want to see in a star forward. Never the less, he could have been a hero on such a low-scoring team. But he just didn't have the maturity or the fire or the stones or whatever it is (maybe all three) to be the guy they needed him to be.

On the year, he contributed four fewer points than Steve Kelly, who only played two more games than Pouly. Those aren't numbers that get you a guaranteed spot in the NHL, my friends.

And yet, because the Wild were desperate for scoring and centers, Pouly was handed a spot on the Wild this season basically by virtue of his one good year in juniors, his high draft status (4th overall pick in 2005) and an okay late-season call-up last year.

So, up he goes this season. And struggle he does. He makes Pierre-Marc Bouchard look like Chuck Norris, he's so weak on the puck and averse to physical contact. And Lemaire makes no bones about it, basically saying in the media that he's coasting on his talent and that won't fly in the NHL. He's been given a gift of an NHL roster spot, again on a team desperate for scoring, and he plays like he's afraid of breaking a nail.


Meanwhile, in Houston, where nobody I've talked to is missing Pouliot, there's this guy called Krys Kolanos making everyone else on the ice look like rec leaguers. Basically doing what most thought Pouliot COULD have done if he's shown an ounce of gumption.

Now, you'll recall that when the season started, I wasn't sold on Kolanos. They signed him and I started doing some research: I see that the Aeros are his NINTH team since the lockout, I hear from Quad City Flames fans (with whom he had an AHL contract last season) that he's lazy, won't play in his own end, cherry picks, is bad with fans, bad in the room, bad with media... bad bad bad. Take your goals and go elsewhere, TYVM.

So I'm thinking, "Uh oh, this is going to be a train wreck."

But then he scored. And then he scored again. And he doesn't just score. He scores on from these crazy sharp angles around the net, or on blistering wrap-arounds, or on wristers lasered in from the slot. And he's doing it almost on his own, with one, two, or sometimes three defensemen on his heels or on his back or flanking him, trying to push him off the puck.

Even without knowing his back-story, he's looking very much like a man who believes he belongs in the NHL and is hell bent to prove it. What's more, he's leading the team in +/-! What the...?

And yet, there IS this amazing back-story of a severe concussion in January of his rookie year with Phoenix in 2002. He was their first round draft pick, made the team out of camp in 2001, was NHL Rookie of the Month in November, and had been selected to play in the Young Stars game of the NHL All Star weekend. He was a guy who clearly had potential and was going places.

But a second concussion during a pre-season game the following Fall kept him out the rest of that season and kicked off a 6 year journey bouncing around the NHL, AHL, and European leagues trying to recouperate, looking for his game, and maybe looking for his marbles a little. You can read a terrific article about that period of his life here.

(And BTW, I have to interject that I love that his story spreads the word about Active Release Therapy. I had similar treatment called Graston Therapy that fixed my Achillies Tendinitis a couple of years ago and I'm a HUGE believer in it for soft tissue injuries. Every sports trainer or sports physician should be on top of what's going on in that field these days, but I think it was still fairly new back when he had his injuries.)

Anyway, as Kolanos was becoming a shiny blonde rock star in Houston (ohhh, there's that squee-worthy photo again! Thank you Fred!), he was getting a call-up here and there but not getting much out of it beyond probably a better per diem and bigger paycheck. He either was getting benched or was just looking out of place when he did play.

But in his last and most recent call up, Lemaire, fed up with Pouliot's halfassery, saw it as an opportunity to enroll Benny in How to Make It in the NHL 101 (Professor Jacques Lemaire with Teaching Assistant Krys Kolanos). He scratched Ben and put Kolanos in his spot. And Kolanos brought every bit of the noise he said he was going to this time around.

He's winning most of his face-offs, he's getting quality scoring chances, he's getting points, showing incredible hockey sense, playing a team game, playing physical, finishing his checks, defending his zone, getting singled out for praise by Lemaire and winning over Wild fans left and right. His tenacity and talent and williness to do whatever he had to do to ressurect his ailing career is paying off a little more with every game, and he is looking now like a man who has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that he belongs in the NHL.

The hot topic in the Wild Kingdom is whether the team should re-sign Backstrom.

It's a highly debateable and complex discussion, but here's what isn't complex or debateable in my mind:

The Wild are losing Gaborik, their 2000 first round draft pick, to free agency and getting nothing in return, and right under their noses is another 2000 first round draft pick in Kolanos.

I'm not saying Kolanos fills the hole that Gaborik leaves but the symmetry is awfully hard to dismiss. It's painfully clear that Pouliot isn't going to be this team's savior, and in fact, I think they'd trade him in a heartbeat if they could find a team willing to gamble that his maturity and passion level will some day catch up to his talent. And Sheppard and Gillies are going to be great NHLers some day but don't show the elite knack for the net that guys like Gaborik, Kolanos, and (sometimes) Pouliot have.

I'm not saying Kolanos doesn't have some dings in his record. You have to figure where there's smoke, there's fire, and there's been lots of smoke around his eccentric personality. And you can't ignore the concussion history, which could really come back to bite a team if he gets another one.

Never the less, I contend that the Wild have an elite offensive stud on their hands who, unlike some guys on the Wild roster, has shown heart and tenacity and love of the game beyond most peoples' expectations.

I suspect the Wild could lock him up for a relative song if they act sooner than later, and I for one have seen absolutely nothing that makes me think they shouldn't get on that and get on it pronto.


Nick in New York  January 7, 2009 at 6:43 PM  

That was awesome. Outstanding story - and I think you're really onto something.

Thanks for a great read!

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