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Bumper Crop
Michael Farber
November 22, 1999
This season's deep and talented group of rookies looks to be the best to enter the NHL in years
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November 22, 1999

Bumper Crop

This season's deep and talented group of rookies looks to be the best to enter the NHL in years

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Kariya's ability to back off defenders and worm his way into the places where goal scorers go earned him the left wing spot on Vancouver's most dynamic line. Coach Marc Crawford, however, would have kept Kariya even if he were a fourth-line player. "One of his great assets is how hard he works," says Crawford, whose Canucks finished last season 23-47-12. "If we had been a tremendously hard-working team, he wouldn't have been given the opportunity. If we were the Dallas Stars, he wouldn't have been given the chance, because they don't need the heightened level of professionalism he brings or the work ethic that we desperately needed."

There's an almost disquieting studiousness to Kariya's approach. Near the end of a practice earlier this month, while Vancouver's other forwards were leisurely taking turns flipping shots at a goalie, Kariya would shoot and dash off, skating by himself in tight figure eights, working on his puckhandling before returning to the line and his jabbering teammates. Kariya still has difficulty chipping the puck out of the defensive zone on hard around-the-board passes from his defensemen, but this is a quibble for a rookie who had 10 points and was +4 through Sunday.

Unlike Kariya, Schaefer isn't only the best player in his family but also the best player ever from his hometown. A sign on the main street of Yellow Grass, Saskatchewan, proclaims it HOME OF PETER SCHAEFER. That sign is a Yellow Grass landmark, along with the town's three churches, a gas station, a rink, a bank, a grocery store and Bonnie's Cafe. "I was a city boy, if you can have a city boy in a town of 500," says the 22-year-old Schaefer, who was drafted in the third round in 1995. "I think I'm the only one in the whole community who doesn't know how to drive a tractor."

This should be Schaefer's second year in the league, but in his 25th game last season he sprained his left shoulder. (A player with more than 25 NHL games in one season loses his rookie standing.) He worked out and got stronger over the summer and now has enough oomph on his shot to hold down the left point on the Vancouver power play after injuries knocked out other candidates. Schaefer is a regular on the fourth line, but his most impressive minutes have come on specialty teams, which have accounted for eight of his 14 points. "What sets Peter and Steve apart is they have really good vision on the ice," Crawford says. "Most young players who come into the league do something well, and then they spend most of their time demonstrating that one skill. These players grasp the overall scheme of things."

By paying attention to what's happening on the ice, Schaefer avoided peeking into the General Motors Place stands during a game against the Nashville Predators on Oct. 30, when his mother, Tracy, covered in gauze from head to toe, wore a sign that read WHOSE MUMMY? She was flanked by her sisters, Bonnie and Jackie, in ant costumes. They each wore a sign that read WHOSE ANT? Schaefer lives in fear that a clip of his family dressed like that for Halloween will find its way into a team video session.

You wouldn't need to look at videotape long to figure out that the rookie who might have the greatest long-term impact is San Jose's Stuart. The 20-year-old, who is being schooled by veteran partner Gary Suter, already is a presence even if he makes occasional mistakes reading the rush. Stuart's low moment this season came on Oct. 20 against the Detroit Red Wings when his lazy clearing pass was intercepted and turned into a goal in the third period. Steadfast Sharks coach Darryl Sutter left Stuart on the ice after the gaffe, and 40 seconds later Stuart pounced on a loose puck and rifled a slap shot past goalie Chris Osgood.

"The best thing about Stuart is that when he makes a mistake, he usually turns around and does two or three things that only a handful of guys in the league can do," Sutter says of the third pick in the 1998 draft. "It tells you what kind of player he's going to be. He has as much or more ability than any defenseman in the league, but experience is still a huge factor."

Like the fine vintages the rookies will pay for, Stuart simply needs aging—a reminder that life is a cabernet.

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