Even Gretzky is surprised by Cujo's red-hot start

TERRY KOSHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 11:14 AM ET

Curtis Joseph is enjoying life in the Arizona desert and it's partly because he is disproving the old adage that you can't teach an old dog new tricks.

Few predicted the 38-year-old, who signed a one-year, $900,000 US base deal with the Phoenix Coyotes in August, would have had such a fine start, and even coach Wayne Gretzky said the day after Joseph's signing he expected Joseph and Brian Boucher to push each other for the No. 1 job. But it's early December and Joseph is among the league leaders in the integral goaltending categories. Going into last night, he was fourth with a 2.12 goals-against average, third with a .932 save percentage and tied for fourth with 11 wins.

Finally getting past ankle trouble and working with Coyotes goaltending coach Grant Fuhr have played into Joseph's hands. But spending a lot of his free time, often four days a week, during the lockout at the Franco Canadian Goaltending School in Toronto helped him greatly. Joseph's positioning and mobility have improved.

"You're never too old to learn, and I thought if I could pick up a few things it would help," Joseph, who took over as the starter when Boucher suffered a groin injury in camp, said in a phone interview yesterday. "I wanted to breathe more continuity into my game, become more efficient with blocking. And I wanted to be more efficient in moving in my crease."

Lo and behold, Joseph has put himself back into Canada's goaltending picture for the Olympics.

"I was just fired up about getting going again," Joseph said. "The Olympics have not really been part of my thinking. I signed a one-year contract and I'm looking at the short term. Absolutely, it has been going well, but I hate to talk about it to this point because it's not a full season."

Joseph's wife Nancy and their four children have settled in the Phoenix area, and with such a busy calendar, Joseph has not broken out his golf clubs. But he has not been busy enough to miss the date of Jan. 14, when the Coyotes will visit the Maple Leafs.

"I know we're in Ottawa and Buffalo on that trip and I've already told friends it will be a lot easier to get tickets in Buffalo," Joseph said. "I'm looking forward to it."

THE GLOWERING GREENHORN

While rookies Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin have been lighting up opposing goalies with their scintillating dekes followed by their megawatt smiles, another rookie will just as happily crush you.

One gets the feeling Dion Phaneuf would not crack a smile if he won the lottery. The Calgary Flames defenceman has drawn comparisons to Scott Stevens for his body blows and intense nature.

"It's all business," Phaneuf said in a phone interview. "I want to be a guy who others find hard to play against. I know that's the style of game I have to be in order to be successful.

Phaneuf yesterday was named NHL rookie of the month for November, but it was not for having the best scowl. The 20-year-old Edmonton native had three goals and six assists as the Flames won 10 of 13 games.

Phaneuf said he has benefited from playing with veteran Roman Hamrlik, but playing for Darryl Sutter after tutoring under Brent Sutter with the Red Deer Rebels in junior has been a bonus.

"They're two hard-nosed guys," said Phaneuf, who drew attention when he beat up Bill Guerin of the Dallas Stars in early October. "It's easy to leave it all out there."

DOWN AND OUT IN L.A.

Jeremy Roenick, who is in Toronto on Tuesday for the Los Angeles Kings' lone match against the Leafs this season, is finding that life in Hollywood is not all glitz and glamour.

Few during the lockout were as outspoken as Roenick, who told anyone who would listen the on-ice product had to be cleaned up drastically. Now if only Roenick could enjoy it. Going into last night, he had 11 points in 24 games and overall he has not been pleased with himself.

"I haven't felt comfortable on the ice since Day 1," Roenick said. "Is my game where it was three years ago, or two years ago? No. Will it be? I really don't know.

"I'm not happy with the way I've been playing, not at all. But I'll stay with it and I'll stay patient."

Roenick is in the final year of a deal that pays him $4.94 million US this season and the Kings aren't going to be patient forever.

"I think the year off has been a problem, no question," coach Andy Murray said. "We've shown him the respect we need to show him, but he is the guy who has to get his game going."

MEANWHILE, IN MOTOWN ...

Another quiet-challenged veteran, Brendan Shanahan, can't get enough of the new NHL that he championed. Shanahan, who helped put forth the open concept, has 15 goals for the Detroit Red Wings, just 10 less than he had in 2003-04.

"I was concerned (about the layoff because of the lockout)," the 36-year-old Mimico native said. "But I worked hard and just made sure if things changed it was not going to be because I was out of shape."

CROSS CHECKS

Does anyone like the Kings' Sean Avery? After he was boarded from behind by Avery on Wednesday, Mark Bell of the Chicago Blackhawks said: "We have a long feud going back to junior. Some day there's going to be no referee in the middle of us and I'm going to take care of him." ... Wings coach Mike Babcock does not buy the idea Steve Yzerman is close to retiring. "Sometimes as a coach you're the last to know, but I don't think that (Yzerman is thinking about retiring)." ... Montreal Canadiens players expressed relief when Joe Thornton was traded out of their division and conference, but in his final 15 games against Montreal in a Boston Bruins sweater (including playoffs), Thornton had one assist ... The next time someone says the schedule is compressed because of the Olympics, don't bite. The Canadiens have a week off after tonight, the Philadelphia Flyers had a week off in October and the Ottawa Senators would have had a week off if not for playing a rescheduled game this Monday in Florida. It's not right that some teams get a week off and others do not.


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