Liles valuable on a team of vets

In the dressing room after a morning skate late last week, Adam Foote was complimenting his fellow Colorado Avalanche defenseman, John-Michael Liles. How Liles has stepped in as a rookie and "has done a great job." How he has "great positioning." And how despite the fact that his mischievous teammates made him wear his "Robin" (as in Batman and...) Halloween costume on a team chartered flight in November, he even plays much bigger and stronger than his Robin-like listed size of 5-10 (yeah, right) and 185 pounds.

Once the tape recorder was off, Foote smiled.

"Now tell him he owes me a hundred bucks," Foote said.

The message was relayed, prompting Liles to ask across the room: "A hundred bucks? For what?"

"For saying nice things about you!" Foote yelled back.

The rites of rookiedom have been toned down over the years, from hazing and humiliation with such implements as shavers, but they still survive.

And the fact is, John-Michael Liles still looks like the little brother everyone picks on. At least off the ice. At age 23, Liles is a year removed from a four-year career at Michigan State, and his season-long tenancy among the Avalanche's top six defensemen has been a bit of a surprise.

At this rate, in fact, pretty soon he's going to be pushing the Maple Leafs' Ken Klee as the best Indiana-born player in NHL history. He already has reminded longtime Colorado hockey fans -- and there are plenty of them in an area with deep hockey roots -- of his eerie similarity to new St. Louis Blues head coach Mike Kitchen. "Kitch" was one of the most popular members of the Colorado Rockies because of his heart and grit as an undersized defenseman, and he was listed at 5-10 and 180 when he was the only player with the Rockies organization for their entire six-season run in Denver. Even more eerie, Kitchen wore No. 26 with the Rockies -- Liles' Avalanche number.

With his goal in a 5-4 overtime loss at Columbus on Saturday, Liles had six goals and 15 assists, and was a plus-7, through 64 games for Colorado. (He also was out a lot more than 100 bucks after lining up 35 tickets for the game at Nationwide Arena for family members and friends.) A swift skater, he has a strong and accurate shot, and with his low center of gravity, he seems to almost swoop in at times to get it off. And at the defensive end, he and most frequent partner Derek Morris have been solid, though Morris hasn't been nearly as physical in the past, which would seem to be a potential danger when he is playing with an undersized partner.

"In a sense, it's surprised me how well it's gone," Liles said. "When you get the opportunity they've given me, and you have the chance to play alongside the guys I've gotten to play with, it's easier. It's not like I'm playing with chopped liver. That's what dad always tells me, and so does everybody else. It's made it that much easier for me. They've helped me as much as they can.''

In addition to Morris, Liles also has played with Rob Blake and Foote at times. The recent pickup of Bob Boughner from the Carolina Hurricanes, plus the trade of Martin Skoula to the Anaheim Mighty Ducks for the more stay-at-home Kurt Sauer, seemed to portend some shuffling -- perhaps even to the point where Liles would become the seventh defenseman, also taking some spot shifts at wing. But Boughner underwent minor knee surgery last week and will be out until at least mid-March, and there always is the possibility that general manager Pierre Lacroix could make another deal that affects the Avalanche defense in the week remaining until the trading deadline.

At this stage, though, it seems a safe assumption that Liles will be suiting up in the playoffs for the Avalanche -- either as a top-six defenseman or as a utility player.

That's pretty heady stuff for a kid from Zionsville, Ind., about a half-hour north of Indianapolis. "It's like a suburb outside the suburbs," he said. "Cornfields, brick main street, stuff like that."

Living in Indianapolis at first, Liles started playing hockey when he was "5 or 6, and I had gone to Checkers and Ice games when I was younger." His father, John Jr., is a vice president of an Indianapolis company, and the family moved to Zionsville when John-Michael -- named for his father, grandfather and great-uncle Michael Laughlin -- was in the seventh grade. By then, he was getting into hockey, so he often came back into Indianapolis for practice and games.

"I was pretty fortunate that all the teams I played on had parents who wanted us to play against the best competition," he said. "So we traveled to Michigan every couple of weeks and went up to Toronto and anywhere we could find the best competition. It was tough. You're a team from Indiana wanting to play them, and they aren't coming down to Indiana.

"It was fun, growing up and always being on the road, always being with your hockey buddies. It made it tough to play any other sports or hang around with your friends from school on the weekend, but it was fun."

Eventually, Liles played at Culver Military Academy and then with the U.S. National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich. He twice earned All-America honors while at MSU and finished his career as a Hobey Baker Memorial Award finalist. The Avalanche took him in the sixth round of the 2000 draft, after his freshman season. He signed after last season, finished the season at Hershey and was expected to return to the AHL for 2003-04.

But after training camp with the Avalanche, he never left.

"As my years progressed at Michigan State, I had more of a realization that maybe I could make a living at playing hockey, and I just kept trying to work on everything I could to get stronger and hopefully make that jump. So far this year, I've been able to make it with a lot of help."

Avalanche assistant Jacques Cloutier, the former NHL goaltender, handles the defense. Cloutier smiled when told Liles isn't much bigger than his diminutive position coach. "No," said Cloutier, "but it's the size of your heart! And he moves the puck well, he sees the ice very well, and he's trying to improve his game every day."

Colorado coach Tony Granato, of course, also had a full four-year college career, at Wisconsin.

"Johnny's done a very solid job for us," Granato said. "I think his maturity level at this point of his career is accelerated, more than you would expect from a young kid -- especially an undersized defenseman. You always wonder, 'Yeah, he's a great offensive defenseman, but how is he going to handle the rigors of playing 80-plus games.' And he's done a great job. He doesn't play like a rookie."

He gets treated like one, still, though -- at least in the dressing room and on the team plane.

"I tell everybody," he said, "that sometimes I just take a step back and say, 'Is this really happening?'"


Other rookies to watch

Ryan Malone, LW, Pittsburgh Penguins: We'd call the Penguins the NHL's version of the Little Sisters of the Poor, but the nuns down the street would object and say they're praying for Pittsburgh to actually build an arena and save the Pens. But sometimes amid the rubble, discoveries are made, and Malone, the big Pittsburgh-born left winger who played four seasons at St. Cloud State after the Penguins took him with the No. 115 pick of the 1999 draft, has held his own and been coming on, with nine goals in his last 15 games.

Andrew Raycroft, G, Boston Bruins: He has cooled off a bit since an exemplary January, and an 11-2 run through Feb. 10, but he remains the leading candidate for the Calder Trophy. Now the issue becomes -- well, as it has been all along -- whether the 22-year-old can be the money goalie in the postseason. Some guys flunk their first test there, as Marty Turco did last season. Others step up and luxuriate in the spotlight.

Tuomo Ruutu, C, Chicago Blackhawks: OK, he sometimes seems bewildered, he's playing for a rotten team, and since he's good, the Blackhawks will find a way to get rid of him. But he also is the real deal, a complete pain in the posterior to play against, both because of his trash talking and his willingness to be physical. He finally made it over this season after going ninth in the 2001 draft. At times, the talk that he was the best player in the world not playing in the NHL seems to have portended more than he has delivered, but with this mess around him, he deserves some slack. Plus, he has kicked it up since the trades of Steve Sullivan and
Alexei Zhamnov -- hey, last guy out turn out the lights, OK? -- with
five goals in the last eight games.

Michael Ryder, RW, Montreal Canadiens: The NHL's leading rookie scorer, just ahead of the Islanders' Trent Hunter, 23-year-old Ryder probably deserves some extra credit for perseverance after serving a three-season apprenticeship in the AHL. He is second to Hunter, who also is 23, in rookie goal scoring, and he has 12 of his 19 goals since the New Year. He went even later in the 1998 draft than did John-Michael Liles, lasting until the 216th overall choice.

Nikolai Zherdev, RW, Columbus Blue Jackets: The 19-year-old Ukrainian continues to fight the red tape -- and that included a trip to Switzerland for IIHF arbitration proceedings last week -- but two things are clear: The Russian federation's claims are empty, and he has been terrific under the circumstances since joining the Blue Jackets on Dec. 2. His numbers don't show as much promise as firsthand glimpses do because he makes plays that make mouths drop and project greatness.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming," available nationwide, and 2004's "Third Down and a War to Go."