No Kidding Around

Times Staff Writer

The NHL is billed as being a little tougher than this:

The Mighty Ducks won the opening faceoff and right wing Stanislav Chistov zoomed past San Jose defenseman Bryan Marchment as if he were glued to the ice before tucking a shot into the net.

The NHL is supposed to be a Rubik's Cube for players from Europe:

The Kings' right wing, Alexander Frolov, carried the puck from the right corner behind the net to the other side before powering a wrap-around shot past Vancouver goaltender Dan Cloutier.

Those were heady moments early in the season for two rookies from Russia. There have been potholes, as well. Yet one thing is clear -- these kids are all right.

"Around the league now, people are starting to talk about the way this kid, at his size and age, competes against the good players in the league," Duck General Manager Bryan Murray said of Chistov.

In Canada, reporters have described some of Frolov's moves as "Savardian spin-o-rama," a comparison to former Montreal star Serge Savard.

The lengthy list of quality rookies in the NHL this season includes Rick Nash of Columbus, the leading rookie scorer with 25 points; Tyler Arnason of Chicago, who has 24 points; and Ales Kotalik of Buffalo, who is tied with Arnason for the goal-scoring lead with 12. Jay Bouwmeester of Florida, Henrik Zetterberg of Detroit and Barret Jackman of St. Louis all have made impacts on playoff-bound teams.

Chistov and Frolov fit nicely into that group. They have been selected to play in the NHL's Young Stars game Feb. 1.

Bigger days lie ahead.

"I think it's just a matter of time," King defenseman Mathieu Schneider said of Frolov.

"This kid's going to be a superstar one day."

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The Kings and Ducks, both struggling to stay in playoff contention, have made youth a priority.

The too-young-to-legally-drink crowd is getting a chance with the Ducks because, well, what did management have to lose? Duck officials all but drool when talking about what a nasty power forward Alexei Smirnov can become. Defenseman Kurt Sauer, at 20, is savvier than many veteran NHL defensemen.

The Kings went to great lengths to promote their young players this summer when other teams made headlines signing free agents, so maybe it wasn't so surprising when forward Michael Cammalleri had two game-winning goals after being recalled from Manchester.

Frolov and Chistov, though, are at the top of the class for their teams. Since helping Russia to the title in the 2002 World Junior Championships, both have been effective, although they are stylistically different.

Frolov, 20, carries around a constant grin that seems to highlight his 6-foot-3, 195-pound frame. He is strong on the puck, with bull-like charges to the net. He arrived with his wife, Kate, 10 years his senior, and they lived for a time in a hotel a slap shot away from the Kings' practice facility.

Chistov, 19, totes around boyish looks and serious expressions in a compact 5-10, 195-pound body. His Bolshoi-type moves have baffled opponents. Single, he lived in North America for a year as a teen and, despite his coach's suspicions, knows how to make toast.

What Frolov and Chistov do have in common is the ability to turn on red lights at hockey rinks. Both rank among the rookie leaders in scoring. Frolov has eight goals and 16 points and is tied for second on the team with a plus-five. Chistov has eight goals and 19 points, which include four power-play assists.

"A normal rookie would be in [the minor leagues] right now," Duck Coach Mike Babcock said about Chistov.

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Frolov, the 30th player taken in the 2000 draft, wanted to stay in Russia for one more season. The Kings were ready for him after he was selected the Russian Super League's rookie of the year.

He arrived at camp loaded down with expectations but without any hockey equipment.

"He had to go into the back room and get all brand-new gear," King Coach Andy Murray said.

"He went out and couldn't hardly stand up."

Opinions changed rapidly.

In the Kings' final exhibition game, Frolov scored a wrap-around goal against Patrick Roy, reaching around the net and shoving the puck past the Avalanche goaltender.

Frolov is already skilled at using his big body as a shield to create room to maneuver.

"He looks a little bit like a stork out there," Murray said. "Kind of like Gumby, he rolls off guys, a little bit like Jason [Allison]. People wouldn't call Jason the most elegant player in the world, but he certainly is effective. He's quite similar to Jason Allison. Deceptive speed too.

"He's taken some pretty good hits and come back just as hard. That's a great sign for a kid his age."

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Chistov is overjoyed to be here.

He did not play last season, as officials from Avangard Omsk, his Russian team, kept him at home by putting him in the Army. He was discharged in June.

That was good news for the Ducks, who'd drafted him fifth overall in 2001, one scout calling him "the best prospect in 10 years." Of course, that was hard to tell when Chistov showed up in less than game shape.

"Like a lot of young players, he did not understand the commitment, physically, you have to make," Bryan Murray said. "He is a game player, no doubt about it. When you see him in the game, when a player has to think, has to see the ice, has to develop a play in his head first, he can really do that."

Chistov was shuttled to the minor league team briefly during camp but predicted that team officials would be more impressed once he started playing in games. He was right.

"He's so relaxed, holding onto the puck before he makes the play," Duck defenseman Ruslan Salei said. "He's got a big future in this league."

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Both have adapted to living in the United States.

Chistov has an edge there, having spent a year living and playing hockey in Northern California and then in Canada. He was amused to learn he was one of three players Babcock believed didn't know how to make toast.

"You put it in the toaster, right?" Chistov said.

Frolov's transition has been a little more difficult, although it helped that Kate Frolov came along.

"When two people love each other, it's normal," he said of their age difference. "I know many people the same age and they can't live together."

Another advantage was when the Kings acquired Dmitry Yushkevich from Florida, which gave Frolov a countryman in the dressing room and a bilingual roommate on trips.

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Chistov burst into the NHL with a goal and three assists against St. Louis in the season opener, the most points in an NHL debut since 1977.

Some wondered about his strength, but he has held up well. Dallas' behemoth Darien Hatcher knocked Chistov down and sat on him in one game. Chistov retaliated by knocking the 6-5, 235-pound Hatcher flat as they skated to the bench.

"Nice one, huh?" Chistov said.

That eye-for-an-eye instinct just makes the package that much better.

"The talent stuff and all, that's there already," Babcock said. "But the disposition that allows you to get better is the key to being professional. There are lots of guys who look great early, but don't like hockey enough to work at it every day. To me, this kid, he likes hockey and likes to work at it."

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Frolov started a bit more slowly. It took him four games to earn a point and six before he scored his first goal -- the game winner in a 6-2 victory over the New York Rangers.

"I didn't know what to expect of him," Andy Murray said. "It's been a real pleasant surprise that he's been this good. I heard he was good, but I'd never seen him play so I didn't know what to expect. Our scouts said he could play right away, and obviously they were right."

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Times staff writer Jerry Crowe contributed to this report.

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