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Feeling blue and loving it

Toivonen is happy about change in goal

HANNU TOIVONEN No Boston bitterness HANNU TOIVONEN No Boston bitterness

Hannu Toivonen has a blue note on his chest nowadays, sharing the St. Louis netminding chores with veteran Manny Legace. His career path and timeline were altered dramatically in July when the Bruins flipped the 23-year-old backstop for Swedish forward prospect Carl Soderberg.

"Everything doesn't always go like a fairy tale," Toivonen said last week, reached just hours before the Blues played their home opener at the Scottrade Center. "I was fortunate that I was able to play for the Bruins. They drafted me [29th overall in 2002]. Unfortunately, it didn't work out the way I wanted - or the way the Bruins wanted, either.

"But, hey, that's hockey, I guess, right?"

Indeed, if there is in organization that has grown accustomed to things falling something short of fairy tale . . . it's called Bruins.

Once billed as the Hub's goalie of the future, Toivonen had his job status in Boston reach the critical list in the offseason when general manager Peter Chiarelli, displeased with the Tim Thomas-Toivonen tandem, acquired Manny Fernandez July 1. Three weeks later, Toivonen was dealt, an inevitable move considering the Bruins also had prime Finnish prospect Tuukka Rask designated for Providence.

"I have to say, I was a little relieved, to be honest," said Toivonen. "It was the first time I had been traded, so sure, that's a shock for anyone. But I knew it would be best for me, that it made the most sense for my career.

"If I was going to get better, get my career going, to show that I belong in the league, it was a good thing to make a change."

Meanwhile, the pride of Kalvola, Finland, is undergoing a bit of a metamorphosis in Missouri. Blues president John Davidson, an ex-goalie, said recently that the agile Toivonen, a bit of a contortionist, was "maybe too athletic" - to the point where his being able to turn himself inside-out and upside-down actually worked against him. Tutored under goalie coach and ex-Habs netminder Rick Wamsley, Toivonen has modified his methods slightly.

"It's a different approach with [Wamsley]," said Toivonen, who began to develop his style in grade school while already working with an assigned goalie coach. "He wants me to be more patient, use my size more. I'm a big boy [6 feet 2 inches, 200 pounds], and in some ways maybe I've relied too much on my ability to do things - splits and things - that most goalies can't do.

"I'm keeping things more compact now. It makes sense to use my size more. If I'm spread out all the time, the way I have been in the past, then maybe I'm not using my size to my best advantage. Lots of work to do . . . but it's getting better."

Toivonen, hindered by an ankle injury the last two seasons, won only three times in Boston last season. Once he got his feet solidly beneath him, he spent most of the second half in Providence, where his game showed significant improvement, including during 13 postseason games.

His ankle fully healthy again by September, Toivonen won the job as Legace's backup in Blues training camp. When the ex-Red Wing backstop tweaked a knee midway through a game in Los Angeles Saturday, Toivonen was summoned and picked up the win, stopping 7 of 8 shots. Toivonen entered with the Kings in charge of a 2-1 lead, and gave up a goal late in the second period to make it 3-1. But a four-goal run in the third led the Blues to the 5-3 triumph.

"Not a lot of work for me to do in that one," acknowledged Toivonen. "Manny's knee wasn't comfortable - they didn't want to take a chance - and that got me in there. I made a couple of saves early that got me into it, made me feel good. It's what I have to do, come to the rink every day prepared to play, and just try to keep improving."

Meanwhile, fellow ex-Bostonian Brad Boyes, dealt for Dennis Wideman at the February trading deadline, has turned into a key component in the Blues' offense. He had seven shots over his first two games and picked up a goal against Phoenix, logging an average of 17-plus minutes per game. Boyes, who averaged only slightly more than two shots per game last year, scored on both of his shots Wednesday night and was selected first star in a 4-1 win over Nashville, and added another goal Friday night in a 4-1 win over Colorado.

"He's had his shots," noted Toivonen. "And he's out there with some pretty good linemates, too. He had Paul Kariya and Doug Weight with him one night, and Keith Tkachuk with Kariya another night. Good linemates. That helps quite a bit, too.

"Brad's working hard, like everyone here. Andy Murray is a very, very demanding coach. The practices aren't long, but they're hard - everyone is working all the time they're out there. The guys like that."

Blues fans appear to like it, too. Season tickets have just about doubled from an anemic low of about 4,400 last season. On Wednesday night, 19,150 fans were on hand.

"I'm excited - everyone in the city is excited," said Toivonen, who has settled into a place in the St. Louis suburbs. "You're hearing about it on TV and radio, and you're hearing it in the streets. Everyone is really pumped up.

"I'm thankful for the years I was in Boston. I loved the team. I loved the city. But for me, this is the best place I could be right now."

Color analyst makes point

Faithful reader Jim Burrows believes the NHL is missing out on a huge marketing/branding opportunity.

Burrows wonders why the league doesn't mandate the use of team logos on player helmets, making them as much a part of the uniform - and, more important, team identity - as they are in football.

"Can you imagine where the NFL would be if they had taken the same approach?" said Burrows. "Imagine the Colts playing away [games] with a blue helmet! The helmet is central to the brand in football."

Adding to Burrows's point is the fact that the NHL now has all visiting teams wearing their white sweaters. Ergo, colors never really change in each of the 30 rinks. For instance, the Bruins wear black each game - and long gone are the days when the Blackhawks showed up in their blood-red sweaters, or the Canadiens in their patented red, the Sharks in their teal.

This has only added to the anonymity factor the NHL constantly bucks. In days of yore, as clubs came into "your" building, at least the laundry changed. Now it's just variations on the same theme - white, whiter, and whitest (maybe a Clorox sponsorship is in the offing?).

"My suggestion is a contest in every city, to choose the helmet to be worn by every club," said Burrows. "It will improve the brand identity of each club and the look of the game - both live and on HDTV."

Rangers may want to cash out with Mara

Ex-Bruin Paul Mara, swapped to the Rangers for Aaron Ward at the 11th hour of the February trading deadline, has become a pricey and unexpected spare part in the Blueshirt backline rotation.

According to New York Post columnist Larry Brooks, the 28-year-old Mara now occupies the not-so-revered Darius Kasparaitis slot in coach Tom Renney's doghouse. The affable Mara leads the salary list of all Ranger blue liners at $3 million, a number that Broadway boss Glen Sather won't want to carry long, especially with his club struggling to score (nine goals in four games).

The Rangers could have an interest in picking up warhorse Ed Jovanovski, whose Coyotes deal, worth $26 million over the next four seasons, includes a no-trade clause. If he wanted out of the desert, a deal almost certainly would include Mara, whose contract expires at the end of this season, going west.

The Bruins host the Rangers Saturday night.

Etc.

Keeping his glove hand in it

Veteran backstop Curtis Joseph hasn't officially retired, but the lack of an NHL offer over the summer has him home in Toronto, skating and working out, just in case a club comes calling for a backup. "Enjoying some family time," said his longtime agent, Don Meehan. CuJo, who turned 40 in April, has played 1,044 games (a season-high 72 with the 1996-97 Oilers), including 131 in the playoffs. Given the realities of the salary cap, a backup vet is likely to command around $600,000.

No fighting collision course

The game is much faster these days, a consequence of league officials remaining vigilant in calling interference penalties, the infractions that bogged down play so miserably for the better part of a decade. But with speed comes less protection, often leaving defensemen easy targets for oncoming forwards. Those collisions, and others, are going to lead to more fights, according to ex-Bruin Mike Knuble, still one of the Flyers' core offensive members. "Guys are getting hit harder, because guys can skate more," Knuble said. "Fighting is going to go up, too. They're parallel. They're on the same track."

Chara has his timing down

Sometimes succinct says it best. Ottawa coach John Paddock on watching Zdeno Chara pack up as a free agent in July 2006: "Losing Zdeno Chara was atrocious." Big Z looks much more himself this season. Headed into weekend play, Chara had logged a total 75 minutes 53 seconds in ice time in three games under coach Claude Julien. Last year, Z played 90:01 in his first three under Dave Lewis.

Decisive move in Chicago

Rocky Wirtz, now in charge of the Blackhawks since the passing of his father, took away Bob Pulford's decision-making role in hockey operations and pushed him upstairs to a club vice president job. Read: Pull hear, Pully, to employ the golden parachute. Now it is truly Dale Tallon's club to guide, for better or worse. And to his credit, Tallon, in concert with assistant GM Rick Dudley, has added some shape and hope to the sad-sack franchise in recent months. Now, if they can only figure a way to get Martin Havlat (shoulder separation) back on the ice and keep him there.

Gone without waving goodbye

Two kids, Mason Raymond and Ryan Shannon, were left standing in Vancouver when training camp broke. "The players that deserve to be here are here," said coach Alain Vigneault. But with the Canucks off to a troubled start (2-2-0, and outscored, 16-12), they shipped Shannon, ex- of Boston College (Class of '05) to the minors. Shannon suited up for 64 games, including 11 in the postseason, with the Ducks last season, but was flipped to Vancouver in the deal that brought Jason King to Anaheim. Shannon, 23, had two goals, a veritable bounty on a club struggling for offense. Why did he get the bus ticket to the Manitoba Moose? "I'll give you an honest answer," Vigneault said. "He doesn't need waivers and we need to move some guys." Ex-Bruin Brad Isbister, still on the roster, once again has shown up as an underperforming part.

Loose pucks

Rumors continue to swirl that both the Bruins and Devils are eyeing ex-Red Wing blue liner Danny Markov, the 31-year-old Russian who began his career with the Leafs. But at an asking price of $2.5 million or more, Markov doesn't seem a comfortable fit against either club's cap figure . . . Ex-Bruin Dan Lacouture, eager for a fresh start with Anaheim, cleared waivers last week. The asking price was only $125. Ditto for another ex-Bruin, defenseman Jamie Rivers, his services not needed by the Canadiens . . . Dany Heatley's new deal in Ottawa, worth $45 million over six seasons, will kick in next October and pay him $10 million for 2008-09. Three players - Tomas Vanek (Buffalo), Scott Gomez (NY Rangers), and Daniel Briere (Philadelphia) - earn $10 million this season. As of yesterday morning, only Briere (4-3 -7 in three games) was earning his keep. Vanek had one goal in three games. Gomez stood 1-0 -1, averaging just under 20 minutes of ice time per game . . . Ex-Bruin Andrew Raycroft was in net for the Maple Leafs' 8-1 thumping of the Islanders Thursday night, which came only 48 hours after Vesa Toskala, the Leafs' anointed No. 1, played the full 60 minutes in a 7-1 thumping by the Hurricanes . . . The Flyers, who began their season on the road with stops in Calgary, Edmonton, and Vancouver, detoured for a two-day team bonding session in Whistler, the storybook ski resort north of Vancouver. Among the group activities: a Lego session, in which players were asked to construct something that best symbolized the team. When they came down from the mountain, the Flyers smacked the Canucks, 8-2. Hey, if that's all it takes, order up the Erector Sets and Tinker Toys.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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