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Hockey Notes

After European detour, Mauldin back on course

By Kevin Paul Dupont
December 5, 2010

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Whatever mojo is coursing through Greg Mauldin’s veins at the moment, he only hopes it keeps up, especially if it maintains the offensive flow he has going with the Avalanche. Mauldin, a 28-year-old career minor leaguer who grew up in Holbrook, was called up to Colorado from Lake Erie (AHL) midway through November, and has looked pretty comfortable in his new environs, so much so that he popped in two goals and two assists in a 7-4 win last Saturday over Minnesota.

Four points. Not bad for a guy who not long ago was suiting up for the Bloomington Prairie Thunder in the United Hockey League, wondering what happened to the NHL dream that he began to chase upon leaving the UMass-Amherst campus in the spring of 2004.

“Not a good situation,’’ said Mauldin, reflecting on his brief stay in Bloomington. “I mean, I was losing my mind there. My career was going backwards at that point. If I’d stuck it out the whole year there, like I say, I would have been miserable.’’

So Mauldin packed his bags to play in Sweden, where he spent virtually all of the 2006-07 season (other than that two-game stay in Bloomington). It was on Sweden’s bigger ice sheets — the Olympic-sized variety, 15 feet wider than their North American cousins — that he began to get both a better feel and a greater appreciation for the pro game over here.

“Looking back,’’ he mused, “I think I learned a lot about myself and a lot about my game, too. There were no North Americans on my team, so I took classes to learn Swedish. That helped me a lot. I picked up the language pretty quickly and I felt I was growing in different ways.

“And on the ice, it’s funny, but the game is different over there because there is so much room. Being there, I could see how the North American game was different, and what things you have to do in that game to be successful.’’

To make his mark over here, Mauldin realized, he would have to be more assertive, more present in scoring areas and the work-intensive zone, along the wall and in the corners.

Ottawa took a chance on him the following season and assigned him to Binghamton (AHL), where he caught the eye of coach Cory Clouston, who turned into his mentor/advocate, and Mauldin that season popped in 15 goals and 33 points. He returned to Binghamton the next season and had 24 goals and 51 points.

Finally, five seasons out of Hockey East, some real traction.

Following a strong showing in the Islanders system (54 points last season in Bridgeport), he hitched on with Colorado this year and nearly made the varsity out of September’s training camp.

“I guess people saw me as kind of a sleeper to make it,’’ said Mauldin. “You never know. I felt I was close, but . . .’’

But it was back to the minors, this time to Lake Erie, where Mauldin remained until the injury bug began to deplete Colorado’s forward corps in early November.

Finally, the call came on Nov. 12, and Mauldin had to hustle his way from Cleveland to Columbus to play against the NHL club that had drafted him (No. 199 overall) in 2002 and then employed him for only a half-dozen NHL games before letting him go.

“I had to rent a small car to get there,’’ said Mauldin. “So small, I couldn’t get my stuff in the trunk. I didn’t take much — my equipment, obviously, along with a suit, a pair of jeans, and sneakers. I had no clue how long I was going for.’’

Mauldin popped in a shorthanded goal, the first strike of his NHL career, to snap a 1-1 tie and help the Avalanche to a 5-1 win. Seven years after getting those half-dozen games with the Blue Jackets, he had his first NHL goal, against the club that drafted him.

“Yeah, full circle,’’ said Mauldin. “Pretty crazy.’’

Mauldin still speaks a little Swedish when he gets the chance, although none of his current teammates speak the language (just another reason for the Avs to give Peter Forsberg another twirl).

“I had fun learning it,’’ he said. “In class, you started with the basics, learning how to say ‘cat’ and ‘dog.’ And then on the team, being around the guys all the time, I picked up the slang pretty quickly.

“Really, it was like only two weeks into it when the teacher said to me there was no need to keep coming to class, I had it down pretty good. I watched cartoons on TV, that helped. I went to the library and read.

“I liked the culture, the people. And you find out, if you try to learn someone’s language, they really appreciate it.’’

For now, Mauldin is trying to remain fluent in the NHL. Headed into weekend play, he had three goals and 7 points in 11 games. Not the stuff that has him knocking down the door of the Hockey Hall of Fame but enough to give him a toehold on a dream that started back when he played for the Holliston High Panthers and Mike Grier (now with 1,000-plus NHL games on his résumé) was among his idols.

If not for that side trip to Sweden, no telling whether this Bay Stater ever would have made it.

“Hey, I was over there using wooden sticks again, so it was kind of humbling, like starting over in a way,’’ he said. “In college, I could get away with things on the ice, not work as hard, because maybe I was one of the more skilled guys. Then you get to the pros and everyone’s good. You realize they were all stars in college or junior.’’

Now the only question left is, will he stick?

“Uh, you know, I don’t know,’’ he said. “If I keep playing the way I have, then it would make it tough for them. They ordered practice gear for me the other day, so I have two sets now — game and practice.

“So maybe that’s a good sign? I hope so. Honestly, I try not to think about it and just look straight ahead.’’

BUMP IN SCORING
Byfuglien off to a big start Substantial change at the top of the pyramid for scoring among defensemen this season, beginning with numero uno, Dustin Byfuglien (above), Atlanta’s 25-year-old powerhouse who yesterday morning stood an impressive 10-17—27.

The 6-foot-5-inch, 265-pound Byfuglien played both forward and wing in his Chicago days — prior to the Hawks-Thrashers mix-and-match dealings over the summer — but morphed almost exclusively into a winger with the Hawks amid Chicago’s blue line upgrades.

“Good kid and a tremendous story,’’ said former Chicago general manager Mike Smith, who was the top Hawk when they made Byfuglien the 245th pick in the 2003 draft. “Just the fact that he can play both positions says a lot about his talent, and overall, I always thought he was a better defenseman than a forward.’’

New Atlanta GM Rick Dudley thought the same, though the move to put Byfuglien on the blue line initially looked curious, given that Byfuglien had played up front for the defending Cup champs and that Atlanta needed help up front as much as it needed it along the blue line. But right now, Big Buf, though not your typically nimble high-impact new-NHL defenseman, has played himself into Norris Trophy contention.

Of course, Zdeno Chara, also not your typically nimble high-impact new-NHL defenseman, won the 2009 Norris. Maybe there is just no typical anymore?

As of yesterday morning, a look at the top nine defensemen in scoring included only three repeats from the season-end list of 2009-10: Tobias Enstrom (Atlanta), Nicklas Lidstrom (Detroit), and Dan Boyle (San Jose).

ETC.
Partners align in Sabre dance Nothing has been made official yet — not even Tom Golisano’s intention to sell his majority ownership share — but it became ever more public in Buffalo last week that Terry Pegula is on course to buy the Sabres.

The sale is pegged at around $175 million, according to a report by the Buffalo News.

No one on either side is saying much, and understandably so, given that the league’s track record for vetting new owners has been, let’s say, spotty in recent years.

Once the league has checked off on Pegula as a prospective owner, which is vastly different than ratifying a sale, then Pegula and Golisano can get around to revealing all their cards, calling a home inspector, signing a P&S, and passing papers.

Then we get to see how Pegula wants to decorate the Sabres house. Like Jeff Vinik’s recent purchase of the Lightning, this should bode well for the Sabres.

Meanwhile, Pegula, a billionaire whose wife grew up around Western New York, shuttled in and out of Happy Valley last week, advancing the aggressive plans to build a state-of-the-art rink (approximate seating: 6,000) on the Penn State campus and fund the men’s Division 1 hockey program. The Nittany Lions will take the ice as a full varsity sport in the fall of 2012. The new rink’s doors should fly open less than a year later.

According to Ben Bouma, who grew up in Boston and is now the hockey program’s project adviser, there has been a flood of résumés for the coaching position.

“From former NHL head coaches, assistant coaches, ex-players . . . right on down the list,’’ said Bouma, who was sitting at Pegula’s side, reviewing potential rink designs at PSU, when word of Pegula’s interest in the Sabres began to perk furiously Monday morning. “The formal search process for a coach begins [next month] and the hire probably will be made in May. That’s only about 18 months from the drop of the puck. So for recruiting purposes, it’s important to have a guy in place.’’

Oilers on the move? Eastward ho? That could be the call from Edmonton, where the Oilers ratcheted up the stakes last week when their front office folks, including ex-defenseman and former GM Kevin Lowe, now president of hockey ops, met in Quebec City with mayor Regis Labeaume. We know the play here, folks. For those who need a refresher course, search: “Kraft, Patriots, Hartford, threat.’’ The Oilers aren’t saying they’ll pack their bags for Quebec if they don’t get their new arena in Edmonton, but some things are just self-evident. Is such a Colt-like bolt realistic? Only a few people in Edmonton know that, and the bet here is that they’ll promote the possibility, even if only by their silence, to get city fathers to erect their shiny new arena, most likely with chunks of public money. The Krafts all advanced to first-chair violin with their Nutmeg Concerto, but to their credit, when it came time to put up their Lighthouse in the Forest, they came up with a load of their own dough.

He was fun Impossible to find a better guy and professional than Jim Kelley, the former Buffalo News hockey writer and later columnist who succumbed to cancer last week. He was 61 years old. He equally loved the sport and his job, which he did with tenacity, with style, with grace, and often with that teensy bit of rich humor that is increasingly harder to find in the fast-changing media landscape. So many of us have lost our smile. Kell consistently conveyed his honesty, his passion, and his wit, both in print and in person. Not a bad hat trick, my friend; you had a great pen and an equal laugh. A job well done. A life well-lived.

Loose pucks Ex-Bruin Dave Scatchard made it back to The Show last week when the Blues called him up from Peoria. Scatchard was one of Mike O’Connell’s last free agent signings, prior to the 2005-06 season, but he was moved out of town after playing only 16 games (4-6—10) and O’Connell was shown the door before the season came to an end. Scatchard played a few games with Nashville last year, but overall played only 16 NHL games over three seasons before being summoned by the Blues . . . a lower-body injury has Marian Hossa (left) out of the Hawks lineup again, which will make the defending Cup champs even leaner in the goal department. Syracuse-raised Jeremy Morin, who scored 47 goals last year in Kitchener (OHL), got the call . . . If he still has the goods, Scott Hannan could bring some shape and stability to that loosey-goosey Capitals back line. But Hannan, whose best days were in San Jose, will be 32 next month and may find it a struggle to log big minutes in Washington’s constant attack mode. “I think it completes our defense,’’ said GM George McPhee. We’ll find out quickly. The Capitals sent Czech-born Tomas Fleischmann to Colorado in the swap. He should have an easier transition in Denver, where the Avalanche need him to pick up some of the slack now with Chris Stewart (fractured hand) out of the lineup . . . Rumors in Toronto have the Rogers Media empire, owner of the Blue Jays, closing a deal (possibly for as much as $1.5 billion) for a package that would include the Leafs and Raptors. Meanwhile, in Detroit, Mike Ilitch, owner of the Red Wings and Tigers, still hopes to close a deal to buy the Pistons and eventually build a new arena in downtown Detroit. Rumor has it that there is good land available, and cheap. Perhaps the Wings and Pistons will play in the “Building 19 Building’’?

Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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