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Based on WJC, Penguins future looks bright

| Sunday, Dec. 21, 2003

Oh, to be in Finland on Dec. 26.

That's when the World Junior Championship begins - and a chance to see not only the future stars of the NHL but also the future stars of the Penguins. Just imagine if the final game of the tournament again comes down to Canada vs. Russia. Marc-Andre Fleury will be in goal, playing against future teammate Sergei Anshakov and -dare we say - possible future teammate Alexandre Ovechkin.

Now that will be some good hockey.

The Penguins have seven prospects in this year's tournament, including a league-high three on the Canadian national team. For a team whose scouting and drafting has been criticized in recent years, that's pretty good. And they managed to pick up most of the players later in the draft. Fleury, this year's No. 1, was a no-brainer. But Canadian teammate Maxime Talbot was drafted in the eighth round, 234th overall, in 2002. He is an assistant captain on the national team and is gaining quite a bit of press for his natural leadership and gutsy play on the ice. The other Canadian player, Stephen Dixon, was drafted this year in the seventh round, 229th overall.

"I think they're both excellent choices, especially where Pittsburgh picked them up," said Blair Mackasey, head scout for Hockey Canada. "We expect they'll both have a chance to play for the Penguins."

In fact, outside of Fleury, Russian forward Sergei Anshakov, who was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings and acquired in the Martin Straka trade, only Czech defenseman Ondrej Nemec was selected higher than the fifth round in the draft. Nemec was taken in the second round, 35th overall, in 2002. But Swiss forward Patrick Bartschi, who made a name for himself in last year's junior and senior world tournaments, was taken in the seventh round (202nd overall) in 2002, and Russian forward Evgeni Isakov, a teammate of Anshakov's, was taken in the fifth round, 161st overall, in 2003.

... Speaking of Fleury, a bizarre story came out of Canada on Saturday that a forward from the London Knights lost his spot on the Canadian national team because of a run-in with Fleury.

According to the story, which cited an unnamed source, Fleury went to Hockey Canada and told them that he would not play in the tournament if Corey Perry made the team. An unnamed NHL scout said that many observers felt Perry was the third-best forward on the ice during the team's selection camp in Kitchener, Ontario, but he was left off the final roster on Tuesday.

Perry wouldn't comment, and Mackasey told the London Free Press it was the first he'd heard of any incident, which the story said began on the ice and continued at the team hotel, where a teammate intervened.

Mackasey also said it would be totally out of character for Fleury.

That teammates might not get along or might have an argument is certainly understandable, especially in a camp where competition is fierce. But to suggest that Fleury threatened not to play if Perry was part of the team seems not only out of character, but utterly ridiculous.

Fleury may be a star, especially among his fellow teenagers on the team. He's no diva, though, and it's impossible to imagine him demanding a drink of water coming off the ice let alone the exclusion of a player on the national team's final roster.

... Finally, get two free tickets to the Penguins vs. the Toronto Maple Leafs on Jan. 5 but more importantly, help a good cause by donating blood at Mellon Arena on Friday. Call the Central Blood Bank at 1-800-310-9551 to schedule a time.

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