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Setting His Own Standards : Kariya Quickly Becomes Unique Presence in NHL

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There are certain commandments in hockey, and one that Glen Sather holds most dear is “Thou shalt not compare anyone to Wayne.”

The questions about Paul Kariya and the obvious homage his game pays to Wayne Gretzky were put to Sather again last week, and the Edmonton Oilers’ general manager gave his usual answer: “Nobody has got any Gretzky in him.”

But on the day before the Mighty Ducks played in the building where Gretzky helped hang four Stanley Cup banners, Sather paid Kariya a more meaningful compliment. “He has lots of Kariya in him, but no Gretzky.”

In the end, that might be the best answer to the hype that has surrounded Kariya since he was a teen-ager--Kariya not as an aspiring Gretzky, but simply as Kariya. He will never match Gretzky’s scoring or the impact of Gretzky’s career. That only leaves him with everyone else who ever played the game. On the other hand, Kariya has something Gretzky never had--blazing speed. As he surges into his second season in the NHL, Kariya is gaining a reputation for the player he is, not the one he will never become.

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“He’s everything his press clippings said he was,” Sather said. “He’s intelligent, aggressive, a very dedicated player. . . . He’s going to be one of the new stars in the NHL.”

Kariya, 21, went home last summer after his first year in the NHL less than satisfied. He had led his team in scoring, the only rookie in the NHL who did. His 18 goals and 39 points during the lockout-shortened season didn’t sound like much, but over a full 82-game schedule they projected to 31 goals and 67 points. He was third in the voting for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, something he never professed to want but many had expected him to get.

It was a good start, a very good start, marred only by his defensive play, reflected in a plus-minus rating of minus-17 that was the worst on the team.

“A frustrated Paul Kariya is going to improve,” said David McNab, Duck director of player personnel. In his second season--still with less than the equivalent of a full season under his belt--Kariya is doing what Duck General Manager Jack Ferreira said all along he would do. He is rising to an elite level, just as he did at the University of Maine and playing for Canada in the World Championships and the Olympics.

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At roughly the quarter-way mark of his second season, Kariya had tripled his goal-scoring pace, from five to 15 goals. His 15 goals and 14 assists give him 29 points after 24 games--a 51-goal, 99-point pace, even though he’s in a relative cold streak with only three points over the last five games. On top of that, his plus-minus has improved to plus-6.

He is among the NHL’s top 10 in scoring, sixth in goals (after being as high in second), and leads the league in shots with 109--more than twice the number of the nearest Duck.

Kariya has gone from a playmaker who passed at every opportunity to one of the league’s leading goal-scorers, a player who doesn’t often pass up a shot. At this point, that’s what his team needs.

“Truly great players take advantage of the situation. Right now, Paul’s shooting the puck a lot,” Duck Coach Ron Wilson said. “You really don’t think of Wayne Gretzky as a goal-scorer, but Gretzky scored 92 goals one year.

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“Paul just reads the situation. Sometimes the pass is open. If it is, you pass it. If it’s not, you shoot it. I think that sometimes if people decide you’re a passer, you’re going to be more open than the guy you want to pass it to.”

Kariya’s game is changing with the circumstances, as always.

“In a sense, his game’s evolved,” said assistant coach Tim Army, who worked closely with Kariya from the beginning last season. “I think he’ll always be a playmaker first. He was [as a junior player], at Maine, on the national teams. In the NHL, he’s beginning to evolve as a goal-scorer.

“I guess the benchmark for all goal scorers is 50 goals. I think we all felt he could be a 100-point player, but did we think he might become a 50 goal-scorer? I don’t know.”

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Kariya himself knows he didn’t.

“I certainly didn’t picture coming into the NHL and being a goal-scorer,” he said. “I’m basically a playmaker, but you never know. Whatever circumstances happen, you’ve got to be able to adjust. That’s one thing I’ve done all my career. My mom always told me, the more versatile you are, the better player you are.

“I don’t look at it as goals or assists, or even points. As long as I’m creating offense for my line, as long as we’re creating offense, that’s what’s important.”

Kariya’s game looks playful, but his approach to it is serious, earnest, analytical. He says a hockey career is one long learning experience, and what he learned last season was that he needed to be stronger and have a stronger shot. That’s what his coaches saw when he came back in September.

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“Larry Bird always said he’d go back to Indiana in the summer and work on two more moves to add to his repertoire, and that’s what a lot of great players do,” Army said. “I think Paul added a better shot to his game.”

He added 10 pounds of muscle, too--now he might really weigh 172--and he changed his approach to practice time.

No more staying on the ice long after others have left it, dallying with tricks. No more perfectionism with his sticks, leaning over them day after day like some craftsman. This year, Kariya uses composite blades that don’t have to be curved: They’re identical every time, so there’s no more blaming an imperfect stick for an imperfect game.

Instead, Kariya puts his energy into the weight room--three times a week at home, every chance he can on the road.

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“Any time we’re not playing a game, I try to lift,” he said. “On the road, it’s a little harder. I feel I’m keeping my weight this season. I feel a lot stronger. More than anything, it’s mental. I feel a lot more confident.”

Kariya’s shot, Army says, is dramatically better.

“It’s vastly improved in the speed and quickness of his release and the hardness of his shot,” Army said. “Now Paul can be a threat from 60 feet. He couldn’t beat goalies from 60 feet last year. Now he can.”

Still, Kariya’s shot isn’t even the hardest on the Ducks. That distinction belongs to defenseman Milos Holan.

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“He’s got a better than average shot, but what he’s got is an incredibly quick release, a Brett Hull type release,” Wilson said. “It’s not just how hard you shoot, it’s how quickly, and whether you catch the goalie moving or shoot before the defenseman is ready.”

The improvement in Kariya’s shot is one thing that enabled Wilson to try him at the point on the power play--something he suspected would help the Ducks’ faltering attack. He also had a hunch it would invigorate Kariya by introducing his active mind to a new aspect of the game.

“The first couple of games, it was like, ‘Wow,’ ” Kariya said. He quickly began studying the play of such point men as Detroit’s Paul Coffey, Boston’s Ray Bourque and Chicago’s tandem of Chris Chelios and Gary Suter.

In his first game playing the point, Kariya got nine shots on goal--setting a club record he has since matched twice.

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Wilson played the point as an offensive defenseman, and he wasn’t surprised Kariya took to it so enthusiastically.

“I’ve played all the positions, and for me it’s the most fun,” Wilson said. “You’re not hemmed in by the boards, you have the whole play in front of you. It’s the only position in hockey where you’re truly a quarterback. A good pass at the right time can be a subtle play but it can lead to an easy goal. Someone like Paul realizes that.”

Kariya also needed to realize that if he was playing a position usually handled by a defenseman, he had to think defensively too or else the Ducks would get burned for short-handed goals.

“There’s not as much freedom, because you’re the second-to-last line of defense,” Kariya said. “It’s a big-time challenge. You have to learn what you can get away with.”

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Last season, Kariya was a defensive liability. But he has held up both ends of the bargain from the point, never more impressively than in the third period of a tense battle against Montreal when he lost the puck at the blue line and Vincent Damphousse jumped on it, taking off on what looked like a sure breakaway and perhaps a game-breaking goal.

But Kariya sprinted back, caught Damphousse and got right in his face. He not only kept him from scoring, he goaded Damphousse into a penalty.

“I knew I’d catch him,” Kariya said matter-of-factly after the game. “If you make a mistake, you’ve got to get on your horse and get back.”

“He knows that being out there you can look real bad because it will be one-on-one,” Wilson said. “His pride is challenged. Plus the fact that he’s stronger. I know last year if we’d done that he wouldn’t have been half as successful.”

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Last season, before Kariya had developed a defensive conscience, it might have been disastrous.

“Halfway through, I started realizing I wasn’t playing well defensively and that hurt our offense,” Kariya said. “I’m a lot more conscious now about coming back. If things aren’t going well offensively, don’t push it and end up getting scored against. Stay patient, and then boom, you’ll get your chances. Last year I tried to go more offensive and at times it cost us.”

Wilson has called Kariya stubborn at times, and the plus-minus issue was an example. Kariya didn’t think it was important at first. But Wilson explained why Peter Forsberg was rookie of the year and he wasn’t. Forsberg was plus-17; Kariya wasn’t.

“I think he was truly embarrassed by being minus-17,” Wilson said. “He always said he never paid attention to that stat and he never played for a team that kept it. But I don’t see how you ignore a stat that says the other team scored 17 times more than your team when you were on the ice.

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“One of the reasons I think he has the puck more this year is because we have the puck more. He comes back more and it creates more opportunities because five people are trying to get the puck back instead of four.”

Kariya has learned some things about being a team player: It means more than setting people up for goals. It means playing defense and making sacrifices. One thing he started to do late last season was block an occasional shot. It’s a learned skill--and a studied risk--that was not part of his game before.

“I think he’s come to appreciate what other people do to contribute to a victory,” Wilson said. “The other night he went down and blocked a shot by Phil Housley. That had to hurt like hell. But when he starts to do it, and other guys see that the smallest guy on our team is willing to pay the price . . . That’s very important. He does that occasionally, and it earns him a lot of respect from his teammates.”

Kariya is still learning to deal with another kind of respect--the respect opponents show him when they put a checking line on him or hound him with the same defense pair all night. Earlier this season, he was left unfettered, but lately the attention has returned.

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“Paul’s got to deal with it. He’s going to be checked some nights,” Wilson said. “He can’t ask me to change lines to get him away. I said to him last night, Wayne Gretzky has faced this for 17 years. It isn’t my job to spend the whole night making changes. You’ve got to deal with it, be patient. There’s always a moment of weakness where the guy checking you forgets.”

And when he does, Kariya’s job is to make it a mistake the guy won’t soon forget.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Paul Kariya File

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The book on the Mighty Ducks’ Paul Kariya:

* Born: Oct. 16, 1974 in Vancouver

* Acquired: Drafted in the first round (fourth overall selection) of the 1993 NHL entry draft.

* Last season: Scored 18 goals and had 21 assists in 47 games with the Mighty Ducks. Was finalist for Calder Trophy, given to the NHL’s top rookie.

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* College: Helped lead Maine to NCAA Division I championship in 1992-93; his three assists in the third period of the title game helped the Black Bears rally for a 5-4 victory. He won 1993 Hobey Baker Award as top U.S. college player, the first freshman to do so.

* International: Played for Canada in the World Championships in 1993 and then in the 1994 Olympics, where Canada won the silver medal. After the Games, he played in his second World Championships, leading Canada to the gold medal with 12 points in eight games.

Source: Mighty Ducks


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