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Stempniak moves to world stage

By most accounts, Lee Stempniak had a terrific sophomore season with the St. Louis Blues. He had a team-high 27 goals. He watched his ice time soar, quickly evolved into a dangerous player, became a fan favorite in his adopted hometown and made a name for himself across the NHL. He arrived.

It wasn't enough to keep him satisfied because the Blues missed the playoffs for the second straight season. No worry, Stempniak's year is hardly finished. The West Seneca native was selected to play for the United States in the World Championships in Russia. He will make his international debut when the tournament begins Friday.

"You play the entire season to make the playoffs, and it's tough to see these games on TV and not be a part of it," Stempniak said by telephone last week. "This is a nice consolation prize. To be in the world championships is something I'm really excited about, playing on the international stage for the first time."

Stempniak, who also had 52 points, should be excited. If he plays well, it could eventually lead to something much, much bigger in about three years. Let's not get ahead of ourselves, but USA Hockey officials will be closely monitoring the tournament for prospects it can use in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia.

"That would be amazing, but I haven't even thought about that," he said. "I'm getting ready for this tournament. The Olympics come once every four years, it's such a grand scale and everybody from each country is so passionate about it. I can't even fathom how awesome of an experience that would be."

The Americans were humiliated last year in Italy, when they tied Latvia and were sent packing without coming close to a medal. Almost immediately, there was a call for younger faces that could freshen up the organization. Stempniak, 24, is one of 12 players on the roster who are 25 years or younger.

Among them are Bruins rookie Phil Kessel, Avalanche rookie Paul Stastny, University of Michigan star Jack Johnson, who signed with the Kings, former Sabres first-round pick Keith Ballard of the Coyotes, Boston College goaltender Cory Schneider and Miami (Ohio) forward Nathan Davis.

Team USA will spend a few days in Sweden getting ready for the tournament before going to Russia. The experience alone will help Stempniak, a former fifth-round pick who was a star at Dartmouth. He struggled to crack the lineup early last season and played 57 games before emerging this year.

"To be named to the team definitely gives you a boost of confidence," he said. "You go over there and play well, you have a good feeling going into the summer and jump into training camp riding that high from the tournament. You're confident that you can get out of the gates right away."

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>Thrashing around

Don't be surprised if Thrashers General Manager Don Waddell and coach Bob Hartley avoid the axe despite Atlanta's postseason meltdown against the Rangers. Both are expected to be back for at least one more season.
Waddell appeared to be putting his job on the line when he started wheeling and dealing at the NHL trade deadline. Les Thrash picked up Alexei Zhitnik from Philly for prospect Braydon Coburn and made a strong play for Keith Tkachuk. At least Waddell had the spine to make some moves.

Hartley could wind up going earlier. It sure looked like his players stopped listening in the postseason. They were either too tight, which is often a reflection of the coach, or they didn't play hard, which is definitely a reflection of the coach. Sources said they put out an APB for Marian Hossa.

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>The Yashin problem

Islanders owner Charles Wang has been Alexei Yashin's biggest -- only? -- supporter for years, but a buyout could be in the works if Ted Nolan has a say.

Wang thought Nolan was the one guy who could motivate Yashin, but nobody can work that miracle. Nolan and Yashin had a good relationship early in the season. Sure enough, Yashin free-skated back to the tank and vanished in the playoffs.

For years, Wang has resisted suggestions that the Isles should spend the $17 million on buying out Yashin's contract, admit the mistake and move forward. The difference now is that Wang holds Nolan in high regard and will listen to his coach. If that's the case, Yashin is definitely a goner.

Other than a buyout, there aren't many options. The Isles could waive Yashin and hope some other sucker takes him, which isn't going to happen. They could bury him in AHL Bridgeport, but he wouldn't care. I'm not sure what's worse, his poor play or his indifference about the game.

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>MacLean strikes out

The only surprising part about Columbus firing Doug MacLean was that it took so long for the owners to lose their patience. The Blue Jackets showed very few signs of improvement after joining the league in 2000.

MacLean had four coaches over his six seasons there, including himself and current savior Ken Hitchcock. The best roster decision he made was drafting scorer Rick Nash, but he trumped that by failing to build the big winger. Sergei Fedorov, mediocre at best since the lockout, was a waste of money.

Dave Taylor and Craig Patrick are the early front runners to replace MacLean, but they should take a long look at Rick Dudley. The guy has proved several times he knows how to build a team. It's exactly what the Jackets need.

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>Around the boards

* You want scary? The Senators' dismantling of a strong but inexperienced Penguins team should send shivers down the spines of every team in the Eastern Conference. The Senators outscored the Penguins, 18-10, over the five games, blowing out Pittsburgh in the opener and shutting out Pittsburgh to close out the series.
* Just in case you weren't paying attention, former Sabres J.P. Dumont and Taylor Pyatt played well in the opening round. Dumont led Nashville with four goals, six points and was plus-4 in five games against San Jose. Pyatt led Vancouver with four points in five games was a plus-2 and scored the winner in Game Three against Dallas.

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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