The Petr Principle


Late last Saturday, as the resurgent Rangers finished a 4-1 victory over the formidable St. Louis Blues—their seventh win in eight games—MSG Network’s sterling duo of Sam Rosen and John Davidson began calling the roll of key Blueshirts missing from action: Brian Leetch was still healing his broken arm; Adam Graves was home with his wife and prematurely born twin sons; Darren Langdon was nursing a groin injury.

“And,” JD added, slipping into his occasional role as half of the Sunshine Boys, “no Keith Tkachuk. No Keith Primeau.”

Yuk. Yuk.

Those large forwards had been regularly rumored New York-bound this season. In a year of increasingly bizarre hockey stories—see last weekend’s Kevin Stevens drug/solicitation bust—the biggest local nonstory thus far is Petr Nedved to Carolina, the holdout Primeau to Phoenix, and the too-expensive-for-Phoenix Tkachuk to New York—a never-consummated triangle trade twister that spun though town last week. Some salivated at the thought of Tkachuk banging opponents and banging in goals on Broadway, but this tale, touching ground during the Rangers’—and Nedved’s—most impressive stretch in memory, was pretty curious.

Poor Petr. When last fall’s hot rumor had him switching places with Primeau, in his mind he went to Carolina, admitting last weekend, “I let it bother me.” His play showed it: In December he was temporarily dumped to the third line.

But now that Nedved seems, finally, to be the go-to guy, would Neil Smith truly consider swapping him?

In late December, Smith pulled off one of the most quietly brilliant trades of his tenure, dealing Todd Harvey for the speedy, skilled Radek Dvorak. Coach John Muckler instantly installed Dvorak on Nedved’s left wing and added a third Czech native, rookie Jan Hlavak, to the right.

Boom—a combined 12 goals and 17 assists in 10 games. With five goals and nine assists in those 10 games, with dominant play all over the ice, Nedved may have grown into the player teams jockeyed to grab 10 years ago.

He was picked second overall in the 1990 Entry Draft by the Canucks, and his selection was greeted by an unprecedented, wild standing ovation by the 20,000 spectators at the draft venue in Vancouver. Superstardom was predicted within five years.

The young Nedved found his gifts difficult to harness. Expectations overwhelmed him. One NHL GM called rookie Nedved “the only player currently in the NHL with the same kind of flashy creativity as Wayne Gretzky.” Two years later, he scored 38 goals, but he demanded a trade and was reviled for a poor playoff performance and for asking Gretzky for his stick after the Great One’s Kings eliminated the Canucks.

He dropped out of the NHL, played for the Canadian National Team, then failed in stints with St. Louis and the Rangers. After seasons of 45 (with 54 assists) and 33 goals for Pittsburgh, he staged a contract rebellion and dropped out again. He often showed an aversion to playing in traffic. One NHL scout watching him skate for the Rangers in 1995 flatly stated, “Petr Nedved looks scared out there.”

No longer. Number 93 shows intensity and commitment. He fearlessly goes to the net, into the corners, and absorbs rough defending. His scoring makes him a target of intimidation and, as he showed by throttling St. Louis pest Tyson Nash with a stick-rake across the face on Saturday, he willingly gives as good as he gets.

Whatever “chemistry” means for a hockey team, the Rangers suddenly have it, and Nedved is the main reason why. Petr and his linemates form a flashy trio, and don’t appear to be just a flash in the pan. There is real talent at work here. With deft passes, sharp shooting, and physical play, Nedved is the catalyst.

On Sunday, Primeau was shipped to Philadelphia, but Tkachuk is still being dangled. Trade Nedved for him? Why? Who’d center for Tkachuk? Graves, who has never flourished in that role? Theo Fleury, who withers in clogged-up Eastern hockey? What would become of Nedved’s two young Czechmates, just coming into their own with Petr as their guide?

As the cliché goes, sometimes your best trades are the ones you don’t make.