Ozzie enjoying second 'fresh start'

Chris Osgood is a wise man.

One of just four active goalies to backstop a team to a Stanley Cup -- along with the Devils' Martin Brodeur, the Wings' Dominik Hasek, the Leafs' Ed Belfour -- Osgood gladly took a pay cut during the offseason to stay with the St. Louis Blues.

Why? Because he believes the Blues have the talent to win the Stanley Cup and, with a crowded goalie market and teams taking a conservative approach with free agents, he didn't want to be left looking for a job.

"This is a good team, here," said Osgood, who signed a one-year, $3M deal in June after being acquired from the New York Islanders in a trade deadline deal last March. "When I first got here, it was a little different. But right from training camp, I've felt a much more confident attitude in the room.

"Our star players are playing great -- Keith Tkachuk has never played better -- we have a strong system and we're playing a very well-rounded game. If we can just keep our defensemen healthy," -- they've dressed 12 so far this year -- "we'll be fine."

So far, Osgood has been fine, too. He has completely recovered from the ankle injury that hampered him last season, and he has concentrated on staying on his skates and not wandering too far from his cage. Though he's just 4-3 in his first seven games, he has posted a 1.85 goals-against average and an impressive .928 save percentage. That's a major improvement over last season, when his GAA hovered around a career-worst 3.00 and his save percentage sank below .900 in 46 games with the Isles and Blues.

"He really wanted to be here," said Blues general manager Larry Pleau, who just received a contract extension through the 2006-07 season. "We felt it was important that he wanted to stay. And he was willing to accept a deal that was below the market value of a goalie of his record and experience."

Plus, it was a little more than two years ago that Osgood found himself in the same position Curtis Joseph is in now. He too was once the No. 1 goalie for the Detroit Red Wings and, after losing in the first round of the playoffs to a No. 7 seed, found himself the odd man out when Hasek rolled into town. The Wings couldn't make a trade for Osgood, either. But unlike Joseph, Osgood escaped from Hasek's shadow before the season began when he was selected by the Islanders in the 2001 waiver draft.

"At the time, I had mixed feelings," Osgood said. "I was in the organization for 10 years, so I didn't want to leave. But at the same time, I knew I would get a chance to start fresh somewhere else."

Still wearing his red-and-white leg pads and gloves, Osgood led the long-suffering Islanders to an eye-opening 11-1-1-1 start that propelled them to a 42-28-8-4 record and their first playoff appearance in seven years.

"That first year with the Islanders was probably one of the best, most fun years of my career," he said.

The second season wasn't so fun. For the first six weeks, nothing clicked. The team wasn't playing well, and Osgood wasn't able to bail the Isles out.

"I was struggling, and I had trouble figuring out why," he said. "I lost my confidence, and I started trying too many things and listening to too many people. It got so bad that I started changing my routine -- how I'd drive to the rink and what I ate before the game -- thinking that would help. It didn't."

Osgood eventually rediscovered his game and helped the team climb to the .500 mark before the New Year. But on Jan. 21, Osgood suffered a severe high-ankle sprain in a collision with Rangers center Bobby Holik. Osgood didn't play again until March 8. Three days later, he was traded to the Blues.

"I knew they wanted to make room for Ricky [DiPietro]," Osgood says. "He's a good young goalie. Both Garth [Snow] and I knew one of us was going to be traded. Really, neither one of us wanted to go."

Playing on a bad ankle, Osgood couldn't save the Blues from blowing a 3-1 series lead to the Vancouver Canucks in the first round of the playoffs.

"That was probably the worst injury of my career," he said. "As a goalie, an ankle injury really kills your movement and hampers you for a long while. It just lingered with me. I didn't feel totally healed until two months after the season."

This summer, after securing his own job with the Blues, Osgood watched as Hasek ended his one-year retirement and Joseph became the latest unneeded goalie in Hockeytown. Looking back, Osgood said he was a little surprised when Joseph signed with Detroit in the first place.

"Having played there, I know about the pressure around the team," Osgood said. "It's like the Yankees in baseball. It's not about getting to the Final; it's about winning the Cup.

"Knowing that, I thought it would be a no-win situation for any goalie following Dominik Hasek -- arguably the best goalie ever with Patrick Roy -- after he helped them win it. No matter what the next guy did, if he didn't win the Cup, it wasn't going to be good enough."

Osgood knows there's a pretty good chance he'll meet Hasek and the Red Wings on the road to the Cup. In the past, the Blues haven't been able to get through Detroit, which has taken 24 of possible 30 points in their past 15 meetings and has eliminated St. Louis from the playoffs four times since 1996. But Osgood -- who is 0-4-1 against his old team -- isn't bent on revenge.

"In Detroit, Scotty Bowman used to tell us that sometimes you can think too much about the team you're playing and not enough about the team that you are," Osgood said. "We just have to play our game against them. If we do that, we can beat them."

Around the Hrink

  • Rangers defenseman Brian Leetch, who injured his left ankle during a Sept. 5 pre-training camp scrimmage when he was struck with a shot by teammate Bobby Holik, has started skating in light drills with the team. Leetch figures he's at least 10-14 days away from returning to active duty. Without him, the Rangers' power play has been downright dismal -- 0-for-30 in their first seven games. The only encouraging part is they haven't allowed any short-handed goals. Too often, the Rangers are content to work the puck around the perimeter. When they do shoot, they usually take low percentage shots with little traffic around the cage. They'd be wiser -- and likely more productive -- to create some traffic around the opponent's crease, then get the puck to the net.

  • Mighty Ducks defenseman Keith Carney could return to the lineup when the club faces the Islanders on Saturday. Carney, who suffered a non-displaced fracture in his right foot during training camp, was hoping to come back for Wednesday night's game in Washington, but the club decided he needed a few more days after a Tuesday morning skating session. Carney's return will force the Ducks to move another defenseman out of the lineup, likely Vitaly Vishnevski or waiver wire pickup Todd Simpson. In goal, the club is planning to alternate hot backup Martin Gerber and cold starter Jean-Sebastien Giguere on its current road swing. Goaltending guru Francois Allaire has accompanied the team to work with struggling Giguere, who is just 1-5 with a 3.14 goals-against average and a .893 save percentage.

  • The contract battles being waged with the Wild's Marian Gaborik and the Oilers' Mike Comrie are about one thing: leverage. Right now, the clubs don't seem ready to give it up. During their first contract negotiations, both Gaborik and Comrie had leverage. In Gaborik's case, the club had little choice but to offer its first-ever draft pick an established market value deal. Comrie, meanwhile, threatened to walk away from his hometown team as an unrestricted free agent. Both received bonus-laden deals that allowed them to triple their base salaries. This time, the only power they have is to withhold their services -- which still has a negative effect on them. Both Minnesota GM Doug Risebrough and Edmonton GM Kevin Lowe seem ready to let their unsigned stars sit and watch for a good while.

  • Pro scouts in attendance at Monday's Canadiens-Flyers game in Philadelphia were stunned by the shoddy work ethic displayed by the Habs. The Flyers took advantage of the Canadiens' no-show performance en route to a 5-0 win. The Canadiens weren't much better Tuesday night in a 2-0 loss to the Bruins at home. That same evening, GM Bob Gainey and top pro scout Pierre Gauthier were eyeballing the Ducks and Rangers at Madison Square Garden. If this downward trend continues, expect Gainey to seek a minor deal to shake up his roster.

    Power-play time with ...

    Mighty Ducks coach Mike Babcock...

    Q: What was the most important thing you learned from your first season as an NHL coach?
    You learn what a grind it is. Every team and every coaching staff is elite. You have to have a lot of respect for the players. People come to games and they don't care how many games you've played or how banged up you are, they just want you to play hard. And for the most part, these guys do a fantastic job.

    Q: Over the summer, how often did you think about the Game 7 loss to the Devils in the Cup final?
    Lots. But I believe coaching is about the test of time. A guy like Pat Burns put in a lot of years and he got his due reward. I feel like if I continue to do good things and I'm real fortunate to have some good breaks, one day I'll get another opportunity. But it was hell of a ride and as much fun as I've ever had.

    Q: Did you talk to any other coaches about what to expect after such a successful year?
    Absolutely I did. And I spoke to coaches in different sports. I spoke with Mike Scioscia with the Angels. I talked to Paul Maurice at the draft. I talk to a lot of coaches all the time. And everybody tells you it will be a challenge. First, I think you have to look at yourself. Then, we as a coaching staff have to evaluate the players. Then, we have to move forward together and be better.

    Q: After such a successful season, what was different about training camp this year?
    It was a lot different. The guys knew who I was; I don't know if that's a good thing. This year, because we felt the guys earned it, we gave them more rope. And even though we felt we had a good training camp, the urgency and intensity in our one-on-one battles weren't the same as the year before and it has transferred into the start of the season.

    Q: So far, what's the difference between this year's Ducks and last year's Ducks?
    There is a huge difference. Last year, we were a great team. We had a passion to play the game, a relentlessness about us, and simple structure that we never varied from as we got going. Now we've got good players, but we're not a very good team. The thing that makes you a good team in this league -- without question -- is work ethic. Now, if you've got talent and work, that's the best. But work beats talent unless talent works. There's no question about it.

    This week's bargain/bust
    BUST: Pierre Turgeon, C, Dallas Stars ($7.5 million)

    Turgeon used to rank among the game's top offensive players since being drafted by the Sabres with the first overall pick in 1987. He enjoyed his best season in 1992-93 when he finished with career highs in goals (58), assists (74) and points (132) while with the Islanders.

    That said, the Stars made a major mistake by signing Turgeon to a monster free-agent deal in the summer of 2001. During that offseason, the club had hoped to make a play for potential free agents John LeClair or Jeremy Roenick. When they opted for the Flyers, the Stars set their sights on Turgeon and Donald Audette (another bad signing).

    The Stars were able to dump Audette on the Montreal Canadiens, but they haven't been as fortunate with Turgeon, who has averaged less than a point per game during his time in Big D.

    No other team bit when Turgeon was placed on waivers, and he's virtually untradeable because of his contract (he's due another $13M over the next two seasons). The Stars would have liked to have used that money to re-sign former captain Derian Hatcher, who left Dallas for Detroit via free agency last summer.

    Mail bag
    Can the Thrashers continue their strong early season play?
    -- Frank Griess, Atlanta

    I think they can if they continue to get good goaltending and don't suffer too many injuries, especially to their thin group of defensemen. So far, Pasi Nurminen has picked up where he left off late last season. He's been rock steady, keeping Byron Dafoe and recently acquired Jani Hurme on the bench. Since arriving in January, coach Bob Hartley has done a terrific job of implementing a system of play that allows players to be creative offensively while still being responsible defensively. He deserves a great deal of credit for the turnaround in Atlanta.

    E.J. Hradek covers hockey for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at ej.hradek@espnmag.com.