Brendan Shanahan will say just about anything to give you a good story.
Among the interesting accolades he has uttered in the first nine days of the New York Rangers-Buffalo Sabres conference semifinal series has been that Wes McCauley is the best young referee in the National Hockey League, free-agent 23-year-old defenceman Dan Girardi has turned into one of the Rangers' best defenceman and fourth-line forward Blair Betts is one of the top defensive centres in the league.
Each of Shanahan's comments caught my interest, but particularly the praise for the 27-year-old Betts. When I first met Betts more than seven years ago, he was a solid two-way junior for the Kelowna Rockets, coming off a 35-goal second season and playing for Canada at the 1999 world junior tournament in Winnipeg, a team that was coached by current Rangers bench boss Tom Renney.
He was drafted by the Calgary Flames in the second round in 1998, and big things were predicted for him. But knee problems cut short his final two seasons of junior and a serious shoulder injury hindered his development in the American Hockey League with the Saint John Flames.
Still, Betts, of Sherwood Park, Alta., showed promise with the AHL Flames in 2000-01 when he helped them win the Calder Cup. But he had to change his game to a defensive and shot-blocking specialist in order to finally get his chance with Renney and the Rangers last season.
Betts has yet to register a point in New York's eight playoff games this spring, but he has definitely made his mark in this series as a Rangers penalty killer. The Sabres' potent power play has struggled with only three goals in 25 opportunities, and has connected for only one goal in its past 16 chances.
Shanahan, who also kills penalties for New York, sits beside Betts in the Rangers dressing room, and when I went to talk to the latter the other day about his teammate's praise for him, Shanahan overheard me and said, "Oh, I didn't want him to hear it."