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LeClair should be Penguins' MVP

| Monday, March 19, 2007

The Penguins' incredible and unexpected run toward the top of the Eastern Conference can be attributed to a lot of things -- a great sophomore year from Sidney Crosby, a terrific freshman year from Evgeni Malkin and the improvement of Marc-Andre Fleury, to name a few. But my vote for team MVP this year goes to John LeClair. That's right: John LeClair.

LeClair scored two goals for the Penguins before getting the early Christmas present of an unconditional release after he refused a demotion to Wilkes-Barre in December. He was an aging power forward that just didn't produce enough in the new NHL and who couldn't keep pace with the young Penguins.

But way back in September, it was LeClair who collided with Evgeni Malkin during the Penguins' first preseason game and caused Malkin to hurt his shoulder. It was Malkin's first game of any kind in a Penguins uniform and the injury caused him to miss all of training camp and the first two weeks of the season.

That allowed rookie Jordan Staal to get a lot of ice time during the preseason, impressing the team enough to keep him on their opening night roster despite the fact that he was 17 years old when training camp started. He played so well that thoughts of ever returning him to his junior team quickly disappeared and he has been the biggest individual surprise in a season full of collective surprises for this hockey team.

You knew Crosby would be great again. You figured Malkin would be an immediate star. You hoped Fleury would mature. But nobody, not even Staal's mom and dad, could have expected this out of the fresh-faced kid that entered last night's game with 28 goals. Those include a league-leading seven short-handed goals, the most ever by a rookie.

In the process he's become the youngest player in league history to record a hat trick, the youngest to score two short-handed goals in the same game, and the youngest to score on a penalty shot.

All of those are statistical ways to measure Staal's success. But the fact that coach Michel Therrien even trusted him to kill penalties, nearly three full years before he can buy his first legal beer here in Pittsburgh, is a story in itself.

We've all seen teenagers who can perform incredible physical feats in their respective sports. But even they usually take a while before truly knowing and understanding the nuances of their particular sport. Not Staal. His physical skills are dwarfed by his hockey sense. He's a crafty veteran at age 18 using his long reach and long stick to have a legendary rookie season. His season has helped propel the Penguins to their unlikely quick rise.

It sounds crazy, but if Malkin doesn't get hurt in Moncton in his first appearance in a Penguins uniform, there is a good chance Staal is sent back to Peterborough if not before the season, then before he played 10 games, so this year wouldn't count as a full season contractually.

So John LeClair, wherever you are, as you come to grips with retirement, know that even in your partial, final season, you played a major role in helping the Pittsburgh Penguins.

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