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Tverdovsky Rises in the Coyotes’ Defense

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Let’s begin with all the things Oleg Tverdovsky is not.

He is not an out-of-control teenager attempting to learn by trial and error.

He’s certainly not Bobby Orr.

He’s definitely not a Mighty Duck.

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Tverdovsky, 20, is instead an NHL All-Star, among the league’s top scoring defensemen, and at last fulfilling the great expectations of many.

And he’s doing it for the Phoenix Coyotes, who play the Ducks at noon today at the Pond.

From the start, it was easy to forget Tverdovsky was young--only 18 when he joined the Ducks as a first-round draft pick (and second overall) in 1994.

If he teased teammates, management and fans with flashes of brilliance, it wasn’t his fault. His talent and skill appeared to escape in unpredictable bursts.

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He made mistakes, to be sure. Many were mind-boggling. But if he wasn’t always a shining light among Duck defensemen, it was merely because he was just a teenager.

Plus, he had to contend with the lockout during his rookie season and a bout with something called Reiters Syndrome, a painful condition that often left his feet too swollen to lace up his skates. Both conspired to slow his progress in 1994-95.

Last season, he had to deal with the kidnapping of his mother, who was held in an extortion plot by alleged members of the Russian mafia. She was returned safely and has since left Russia to live with Tverdovsky.

When it seemed he had rebounded from all that, his career took a detour. The Ducks traded Tverdovsky and Chad Kilger, their first-round pick in 1995, to Winnipeg for right wing Teemu Selanne on Feb. 7, 1996.

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The trade made sense to most. The Ducks needed scoring and a marquee name to keep filling the Pond. The Jets needed help on the blue line.

Tverdovsky seemed confused, hurt and angry--mostly at Duck Coach Ron Wilson.

“He is the kind of coach who’s not very patient with young players,” Tverdovsky said a few days after the trade. “He doesn’t allow young players to make a mistake. I was afraid to make a mistake.”

Tverdovsky went to Winnipeg, the Jets then moved to Phoenix after last season, and it seems all the ill feelings have been forgotten. Tverdovsky has emerged, swiftly and smartly, as one of the league’s top defensemen.

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He is the Coyotes’ third-leading scorer this season with eight goals and 35 assists for a career-high 43 points.

It comes as no surprise to Wilson, who watched Tverdovsky record four assists in the Coyotes’ 6-3 victory over the Ducks on Jan. 23 at Phoenix.

“We always thought Oleg was going to be a great hockey player,” Wilson said. “But you don’t often have a player like Teemu become available.”

The trade wasn’t personal, in other words.

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“I’m sure his confidence has grown playing in Phoenix,” Wilson said. “I’m sure he’s gained a lot of experience. He was only 19 [last season]. I don’t know what everybody was expecting from him.”

Greatness perhaps?

Part of the blame for the grandiose expectations can be traced to John Ferguson, former director of player personnel for the Ottawa Senators. It was Ferguson who, on the eve of the ’94 draft, compared Tverdovsky to the legendary Orr, widely regarded as the greatest defenseman in NHL history.

It was heady stuff for an 18-year-old from Donetsk, Ukraine. These days, Tverdovsky tries to forget such comparisons. He realizes they’re absurd.

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And at last, Tverdovsky’s standout play as the Coyotes’ top playmaker has helped him to establish his reputation.

“When I try to think of who he reminds me of, I don’t picture anyone,” veteran Phoenix defenseman Teppo Numminen said earlier this season. “He has his own kind of style. He gets in trouble [still], yes, but don’t forget how young he is and how well he plays.”

It seems age continues to be an issue for Tverdovsky. Sometimes even he can’t resist pointing it out.

At the All-Star game Jan. 18 at San Jose, Tverdovsky was paired with Detroit’s Slava Fetisov--perhaps the best Russian defenseman of all time. Suffice to say, Tverdovsky was in awe.

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“He’s twice as old as me,” he told the Hockey News earlier this month. “I could have been his son. When he played his first game with the Russian National team in 1975, I was 1 year old. He’s the best defenseman in the world. I had a great time out there with him.”

Some day, some young defenseman might have similar comments about Tverdovsky. After all, his best days are still several years ahead. Most NHL defensemen don’t reach their prime until their late 20s and many continue to be reliable players into their late 30s.

“It always takes defensemen longer to get up to speed,” said Wilson, a former defenseman with Minnesota and Toronto. “It’s the most difficult position to learn, but it’s the easiest to stay on top of once you’ve learned it.

“Oleg is going to mature.”

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