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Youth movement greets Stempniak in St. Louis

Lee Stempniak didn't read too much into the situation. The West Seneca native was promoted to the St. Louis Blues for the third time this season after Doug Weight and Mike Sillinger were traded, but he didn't want to get caught adding two and two and coming up with 14.

Stempniak has enough to worry about without trying to solve the riddle known as an NHL front office. Many a brain has been cluttered when players stray from their own game and attempt to get into the minds of general managers. Stempniak is simply trying to find his way in the NHL.

He scored two goals against Chicago on Thursday night, giving him four goals in his past three games. He had seven goals and 11 points in 27 games going into the weekend, plus another two goals in shootouts.

"I just go out there and play. Day to day, I'm trying to stay in the league," Stempniak said by telephone before playing the Blackhawks. "I'm grateful for the opportunity I've had so far. I'm learning something new every day I'm out there in practice, and I'd like to think I'm improving as a player."

Stempniak, who turned 23 on Saturday, graduated from Dartmouth. Obviously, he's an intelligent kid, but he might need a few things spelled out for him. For starters, it appears the Blues have been impressed with him and are willing to give him every opportunity to prove he's part of their long-term future. He's been one of their best young players.

The Blues have the worst record in the Western Conference, and the franchise is up for sale. Negotiations between owners Bill and Nancy Laurie and an investment group have heated up in recent weeks. Spend enough time in this business, and you come to understand where there's smoke, there's a fire sale.

Weight and Sillinger were sent packing in an effort to cut costs. The Blues are less attractive to their fans without two of their better players, but they're more attractive to potential investors who are looking to keep expenses to a minimum. Weight is making $5.7 million this season.

There's Weight, then there's overweight. Winger Keith Tkachuk is making $7.6 million this season but missed 40 games with injuries. He was suspended by the team for being 25 pounds too heavy when he showed up for training camp. He turns 34 next month. He could be next in line to be traded.

It doesn't take a genius to see where the Blues, who for years reported losses between $15 million and $20 million annually, are headed. They're intent on trimming their payroll and rebuilding with youth. Every time the Blues make a move, it improves Stempniak's chances for establishing himself.

"Every day I go to the rink, I'm hoping I'll be there the next day," he said. "They haven't said anything. You never know. I try not to worry about that stuff."

He played well early in the season, but the Blues decided he needed more ice time with Peoria in the AHL while they sorted out the roster. He spent most of January in the minors and returned Monday. He was playing on a line with Dean McAmmond and Scott Young, who were two of the Blues' top four scorers.

He's one of nine skaters on their roster who is 25 or younger. Among them was 22-year-old defenseman Dennis Wideman, whom the Sabres selected in the eighth round in 2002 but decided not to sign. He's leading the Blues defensemen in scoring.

"A lot of the young guys are getting chances now, at least for the time being," Stempniak said. "You never know what they're going to do. The last few games I've played a lot. I'm just trying to make the most of it, work hard and try to play well enough to help the team win games."

>Learning curve

Thrashers winger Ilya Kovalchuk took more than his share of grief after the Sabres caught the franchise player using an illegal stick last week. Kovalchuk was kicked to the third line Friday night in Florida and was criticized by his teammates.

"There's rules for a reason and they took advantage of the rule," Thrashers defenseman Andy Sutton said. "We gave them the power to do that. You don't need to give the other team extra opportunities to dominate."

Kovalchuk was accused of using an illegal stick earlier in the season against Nashville, but Les Thrash reportedly pulled a switch and escaped penalty. This time, the Sabres caught him cold. The stick, curved enough to banish a street hockey player, shouldn't have been allowed anywhere near the ice.

"Half the league play with illegal sticks, so with anybody it can happen," Kovalchuk said. "I don't think it's a big deal. I just have to be careful next time. In Europe, it's different rules. You can use a bigger curve there and I play all my life with the same curve."

>Rangers in good shape

Rangers coach Tom Renney anticipated the schedule being condensed because of the Olympics, so over the summer he sent a letter to his players outlining conditioning requirements going into the season.

The result: The Blueshirts were 5-1 in the second game when playing back-to-back contests this season. They were 3-15-5-4 over the previous two seasons in that situation, when they were playing under Glen Sather.

"It's a different season, different team," defenseman Darius Kasparaitis said. "The last couple of years, we've been terrible everywhere, not just back-to-back."

>Emery on thin ice

Senators GM John Muckler's patience appears to be wearing thin with backup goalie/resident goofball Ray Emery. The latest Emeryism concerned his mask, which depicted Mike Tyson as a youth on one side and another as a facially tattooed adult on the other.

Emery is a boxing fan, but it's a safe assumption his respect for a convicted felon wasn't exactly comforting in Senstown. Earlier this season, Emery invited photographers to join him while he was getting a tattoo on his arm using money he won for eating an insect. Last week, he drew attention to himself after dying his hair platinum blond.

His bigger problem was a three-game losing streak in which he allowed 17 goals and had a .725 save percentage. Knowing Muckler, it's surprising Emery is still on the roster.

"I appreciate that Tyson was an idol to him as a boxer," Muckler said. "But after discussions about Tyson's past, how he's a convicted rapist and a female abuser, [Emery] said he'll no longer wear it on his face mask. I don't think he realized the notice it would bring on, but I think he realizes it now."

>Sabres end up on top

Steve Reinprecht and Keith Ballard, traded for one another in a Sabres-Avalanche swap, are playing together in Phoenix. The Flames traded Reinprecht and backup goalie Philippe Sauve for Brian Boucher and Mike Leclerc on Wednesday.

The Sabres traded Reinprecht to Calgary immediately after acquiring him from Colorado for Ballard. That move allowed the Sabres to acquire Chris Drury and Steve Begin (since lost in the waiver draft) from the Flames for Reinprecht and Rhett Warrener. Ballard wound up in Phoenix when the Coyotes shipped out former Sabres center Chris Gratton in a deal with Colorado.

Buffalo wound up with Daniel Briere after trading Gratton to Phoenix. All told, the Sabres traded away Ballard, Warrener, Gratton and Reinprecht for two co-captains in Drury and Briere. Ultimately, the Sabres wound up with the two best players.

>Around the boards

Isles rookie Kevin Colley climbed from the ECHL to the NHL this season and was establishing himself as a gritty role player when he suffered a broken neck against Washington. Fortunately, he suffered no spinal-cord damage. His father was in the stands. It was the first time he saw his son play an NHL game in person.

Dallas had won 12 of 15 games going into Saturday's matchup with St. Louis. The Stars won six straight, lost three straight and rattled off six straight.

U.S. Olympian Brian Rolston has been named captain in Minnesota. The center had 23 goals and 56 points in 54 games going into the weekend. His best season was in 2001-02, when he had 31 goals and 62 points for the Bruins.

Remember all the howling when Adrian Aucoin signed a four-year deal worth $16 million with Chicago? The defenseman is sidelined for the year with a shoulder injury. He had one goal, five assists and was minus-13 in 33 games this season. You might say he's not quite worth the $4 million he's collecting from the Blackhawks.


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