APRIL 2002 SOAPBOX ARCHIVES

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WHAT LIES AHEAD FOR NON-PLAYOFF CLUBS?

With all NHL teams having less than ten games remaining in the 2001-02 regular season, the focus is on those clubs that are either jockeying for playoff position and home ice advantage, or battling to lay claim to the final post-season berth in their respective conferences.

Overlooked is the plight of those clubs who will be on the outside looking in when the NHL regular season schedule ends on April 14th. Here, then, is my look at what could be in store for those teams who will be preparing for the golf course, rather than the playoffs:

WESTERN CONFERENCE.

ANAHEIM MIGHTY DUCKS: Given the tough times that have befallen this club, it's hard to believe that the Ducks were once considered one of the most promising teams in the NHL a few scant seasons ago. The not-so-Mighty Ducks face an off-season of uncertainty. Their owner, Disney, has been trying to unload the franchise. GM Pierre Gauthier faces the distinct possibility of losing his job, which would leave his predecessor trying to fill in the gaps in an incomplete roster. As the team struggled, the fan base shrank. Worse, team captain and sole superstar Paul Kariya, coming off his worst-ever NHL season, becomes a restricted free agent. With Disney showing an unwillingness to pay big bucks for top talent, the Ducks could start next season with Kariya holding out.The NHL's Disney "California Adventure" ride might not end pleasantly if things don't improve soon.

CALGARY FLAMES: Despite a red-hot opening two months, and the breakout season of impending Art Ross and Rocket Richard (and possible Hart nominee) winner Jarome Iginla, the Flames blazing beginning flickered out as the season progressed, and for the sixth consecutive season, they've failed to make the playoffs. Inconsistent second-half goaltending from starter Roman Turek, a lack of offense from other than the Iginla line, and a general breakdown in team play were the contributing factors to the Flames decline. There's speculation a big-market US team will pluck free agent Iginla away with a rich offer sheet, but that won't happen thanks to the NHL's Canadian small market assistance plan. Still, it's a good possibility "Iggy" could start the season on the sidelines in a protracted holdout. GM Craig Button must also assess the lack of goaltending depth behind Turek, as well as the lack of offensive depth on the forward lines. To do this, he may have to move one or two of his promising young blueliners. The biggest question of all: will the long-suffering Flames faithful take heart in the early-season promise and Iginla's performance to boost the team's season-ticket base this summer?

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS: There was hope of improvement for the Jackets in their second season, but such improvement was marginal. Injuries to scoring forward Ray Whitney and Geoff Sanderson were certainly contributing factors, while forwards Espen Knutsen and David Vyborny and defenceman Deron Quint failed to make noticeable improvement over the promise of last season. Still, with a healthier roster next season, the development of the above-noted players, the promise of young defenceman Rotislav Klesla and a good goaltending tandem in Ron Tugnutt and Marc Denis, the Jackets third season should be a marked improvement on their second one. Don't be surprised, however, if GM Doug MacLean tries to land some offensive depth via trade or by signing a "second-tier" unrestricted free agent.

MINNESOTA WILD: They're put down for playing a boring defensive game, but certainly no one can argue with the successful results the Wild had in only their second season. It may not be exciting, but head coach Jacques Lemaire has his team playing a sound defensive team game. That's not the only reason the Minnesota hockey fans are supporting this club. The play of last summer's free agent pickup, Andrew Brunette, and the continuing development of young blueliner Filip Kuba and sophomore forward sensation Marian Gaborik, shows the Wild are developing a nasty offensive bite. Credit GM Doug Risebrough for a fine job in building this promising young team. At this point, the Wild are only a decent second scoring line away from being a playoff contender.

NASHVILLE PREDATORS: The anticipated breakout season for the Predators failed to materialize in 2001-02, which led to the dumping of veteran leaders Cliff Ronning and Tom Fitzgerald by the March trade deadline. The pressure to improve will be scarely on the shoulders of promising youngsters like David Legwand, Denis Arkhipov, and Scott Hartnell, as well as blueliners Kimmo Timonen, Mark Eaton and Andy Delmore. Predators ownership launched an ambitious campaign that would offer refunds to season-ticket holders if the club fails to make the playoffs next season. Unless the Preds are planning on bringing in some big-league scoring talent in the off-season, the pressure will be ratcheted even higher on this young club for next season.

TEAMS ON THE BUBBLE: Dallas Stars, Edmonton Oilers, St. Louis Blues, Vancouver Canucks. It's still hard to believe the Stars, long one of the stalwart playoff clubs of the Western Conference, is in danger of missing the post-season. A season of upheaval that has seen botched free agent signings, bad trades, the resignation of the general manager and the firing of the coach looks to carry over into the off-season, as the Stars struggle to find a new direction. The Oilers have been one of the hottest teams in the league since the Olympic break, and the addition of nifty centre Mike York will certainly boost their offence, but it may not be enough to overcome an woeful mid-season. If this team can ever put together a solid season, they have the potential to be among the elite in the West.

Blues fans are finding out the hard way what Rangers fans have known for years: you cannot purchase a Cup contender by bringing in players with bloated contracts. That, a series of injuries to key players, and the inability of goaltenders Brent Johnson and Fred Brathwaite to step up as starting goalies have put their grandiose dreams of Cup glory into serious jeopardy. If the Blues fail to make the playoffs, or get eliminated in the first round if they do squeak in, there will be serious changes in store this summer in St. Louis. The Canucks have been red-hot in the second half, but it may not be enough to overcome a horrific first half of the season. Like the Oilers, the Canucks have the ability to become one of the top contenders in the West, but they must overcome a tendency toward prolonged periods of inconsistant play.

KOIVU'S RETURN CAPS HABS RETURN TO POST-SEASON.

Is there a bigger "feel-good" story this season than the successful battle with cancer by Montreal Canadiens captain Saku Koivu, and his subsequent return to NHL action?

All hockey fans are by now fully aware of Koivu's story. How he felt seriously ill on his flight over from Finland to the Canadiens September training camp. The diagnosis of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. The sight of Koivu standing bravely behind the Canadiens bench and waving to the fans in the team's home-opener, his number 11 jersey over his street clothes, his head bald and his face pale from his first round of treatment.

Then came the news the treatment was successful, and of his determined attempts to whip himself back into game-shape. Speculation abounded over the season's final two months as to whether or not Koivu would return to the Habs lineup before season's end, or in the playoffs, or next season.

By the second-last weekend of the regular season, rumours spread of Koivu possibly making his return sometime during the Canadiens final handful of games, news he finally confirmed the day before the Habs third-to-last game of the season, a game in which the Canadiens could finally clinch their first post-season berth since 1998.

What hockey fans didn't know, until only very recently, was just how serious Koivu's illness was. Of how during the initial round of treatment, medical people close to the situation were saying Saku "would be lucky to see Christmas". Of the toll the chemo and drug treatments were taking on his mind as well as his body. Of how every day was a struggle. Of how shaken close friends such as Canadiens defenceman Craig Rivet and former teammate Brian Savage were to see just how wan and sickly the plucky Finn looked during those dark days.

Which is what made Koivu's return all the more triumphant on April 9th, 2002, to a Canadiens team that had traveled with his jersey in their dressing room as inspiration, and to their long-suffering fans, who had come to wonder if the once-great franchise was now cursed.

There was every reason to believe the Habs luck was going down fast. The years of bad trades and drafts in the 1990s by first Serge Savard and later Rejean Houle were big factors in the club's downfall, but injuries, particularly of the bad luck variety, dogged them. In every season since their last playoff appearance in 1998, the Canadiens suffered the most man-games lost to injury than any other team in the NHL. Indeed, in 1999-2000 and 2000-01, they led the league in that dubious category. Die-hard Canadiens fans believed their team had the talent, but were seeing their potential cut short by these injuries.

Perhaps no Canadien player's career was more hampered by injury than Koivu's. Which is why the news he'd been struck by a form of cancer seemed like the cruelest of jokes being played on the Canadiens and their captain. Many expected the Habs to roll over and die, especially when the injury bug again reared it's ugly head to strike down veteran netminder Jeff Hackett and newly-obtained forward Donald Audette.

But this is a different Canadiens team than those of the recent past. As noted by Montreal Gazette columnist Jack Todd in a recent article on Koivu's return, second-year GM Andre Savard brought in experienced depth and promising young talent via trades and free agency. The leadership of veterans Doug Gilmour, Yanic Perreault, Stephane Quintal, Joe Juneau, Shaun Van Allen and Andreas Dackell played an important role in keeping the Canadiens focused and in playoff contention. Young forward Richard Zednik burst out with a career season, seemingly with the promise of more to come in subsequent years.

Of course, the biggest reason for the Canadiens staying in contention was the breakout performance of young netminder Jose Theodore. How big was his improvement? In one year, Theodore went from being just another average NHL netminder with promise to one who leads the league in save percentage and is among the top five in goals-against average and shutouts, and the top ten in victories. Not only is there talk of Theodore for the Vezina trophy, but also a nomination for the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player.

Then factor in the spirit of Koivu, of the absent captain waging a lonely battle against a killing disease, that rallied the club during slumps, and kept them motivated during winning streaks.

It was these factors that kept the Canadiens in contention, and in the end, brought about a seven game winning streak by season's end that resulted, on the night of their captain's return, in clinching a playoff berth.

The 8 1/2 minute standing ovation he received from the Montreal faithful was something not heard since Canadiens fans saluted the legendary Maurice "Rocket" Richard at the closing of the old Montreal Forum in 1996.

Koivu has not had the career of the great Rocket thus far. Nor of other former great captains such as Jean Beliveau, Yvan Cournoyer, Serge Savard, Bob Gainey and Guy Carbonneau.

But that's not why he was cheered as he was. Montreal fans, and for that matter, hockey fans around the world, were cheering something that isn't seen very often in professional sports.

They were cheering the triumph of one man's fight against life-threatening adversity. They were cheering his courage. His determination. His perseverance. His inspiration.

In the end, these are qualities worth more than someone's worth to a child's game played by men.

Welcome back, Saku.

MUSINGS AS THE REGULAR SEASON ENDS.

WHO IS THE NHL'S "MOST IMPORTANT FRANCHISE"? In a recent article in the New York Post, hockey reporter Larry Brooks was stumping for the New York Rangers to make an obscenely large one-year offer sheet to Calgary Flames superstar, and impending restricted free agent, Jarome Iginla. While acknowledging such a move by the Rangers wouldn't go down well around the league, Brooks claimed the league hierarchy wouldn't dare "go to war" with their most important team.

That team, in Brooks's biased opinion, is the New York Rangers. In backing up this claim, Brooks cites the drop in the league's popularity since 1994, when the Blueshirts won their last Stanley Cup. Gee, and here we hockey fans believed the drop in the overall quality of the games was to blame, when all this time, it was the collapse of the New York Rangers that was responsible!

All sarcasm aside, Brooks's comments had me pondering as to which team could be considered the National Hockey League's "most valuable" franchise. Is it, as Brooks insists, the New York Rangers? After all, they play in the biggest sports market in North America, and a case could be made that every time the Rangers miss the playoffs, a large portion of that market tunes out the NHL.

However, such an opinion goes against history. The Rangers have had long stretches of futility in the past, but it had little or no adverse effect on the overall popularity of professional hockey. For example, the growth of pro hockey in the state of Texas was the direct result of the Dallas Stars success in the late 1990s, and had nothing to do with the success or failure of the Blueshirts. The Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild are nowhere near being considered playoff contenders at this stage in their young history, but their home attendance figures indicate they're a popular fixture in their respective cities, which has nothing to do with the New York Rangers.

Before I continue, let me state for the record this article is not "Rangers-bashing", as a couple of my readers recently accused me of. I do not hate the Rangers, their fans, or the city of New York. Indeed, I don't hate any team. What I hate is the horrid way the Rangers have been run in recent seasons, and the continuing misguided approach of their management and ownership in using free agency as the principle tool in a vain attempt to buy their way back into the playoffs. It's five straight seasons and this still isn't working, despite the presence of all-stars such as Eric Lindros, Pavel Bure, and Theo Fleury in the lineup. That's not bashing the team, folks, it's simply pointing out the fact their hierarchy isn't doing a good job.

Now then, if the New York Rangers cannot be considered the NHL's "most important franchise", then which team deserves the distinction? How about the Red Wings of Detroit, the NHL's self-named "Hockeytown"? Certainly, they have a large following, as well as a long history in the National Hockey League, and have been one of the league's most successful franchises over the past ten years.

But if we use the Brooks method of measuring an important franchise by their success or failure having a direct effect on the overall popularity of NHL hockey, then the Wings horrid record during the 1970s and most of the 1980s should've tolled the death knell for the NHL. Yet, surprise, surprise, the Wings woeful performance during that time period did nothing to hurt the National Hockey League's overall popularity.

If not the Red Wings, then how about the Montreal Canadiens? They're considered professional hockey's most storied franchise, the NHL's equivilent of the New York Yankees. The Habs fall from grace in recent years certainly upset their legion of fans as well as hockey historians, but like the Rangers, the Canadiens sub-par performances from 1995 to 2001 had little, if any, adverse effect on the league in general.

The same can be said for notable franchises such as the Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, and New York Islanders. They've had periods of great success and great struggle in their respective histories, yet the bad years these franchises suffered had little negative impact on the National Hockey league.

Can the size of the player payrolls be used as a determining factor? Teams like Detroit and Colorado could certainly be given mention under this category. However, as Toronto Star columnist Damien Cox pointed out in a recent article, of the 14 teams that didn't qualify for the playoffs, the overwhelming majority are US-based, and some of those include financial heavy hitters like the Rangers, Dallas Stars and Washington Capitals.

The bottom line here is there is no "most important franchise" in the National Hockey League. While arguments can be made for and against the volume of teams in the NHL, the fact remains that no single team is more important than the others.

There are other, more serious problems that can, and will continue, to harm the National Hockey League's popularity unless they're properly addressed by the league's powers-that-be. The financial disparity between "have" and "have-not" teams. The way unrestricted free agency is slowly poisoning the league in the same way it has poisoned Major League Baseball. The high ticket and concession prices, which are pushing away the middle-class hockey fan, who makes up the bulk of the NHL's fan base. The drop in the quality of the on-ice product in recent years. The hierarchy's stubborn refusal to acknowledge these problems and bring into effect any real change.

All of these have a far more adverse effect on the NHL's popularity than the ability of the New York Rangers, or any other team, for that matter, to make the playoffs.

A LOOK BACK AT MY 2001-02 SEASON PREVIEW: As another long NHL season winds to a close, let's take a look at how my season preview shook out.

EASTERN CONFERENCE:

NORTHWEST DIVISION:
My prediction: 1. Toronto. 2. Ottawa. 3. Buffalo. 4. Boston 5. Montreal.

Actual standings: 1. Boston. 2. Toronto. 3. Ottawa. 4. Montreal 5. Buffalo.

Review: An overall improvement by the Bruins, including the maturation of Joe Thornton, pushed them to the top of the heap, and pushed the Leafs and Senators down a notch. Toronto struggled with second half injuries to key guy, including goalie Curtis Joseph, while the Senators, despite a career season from Daniel Alfredsson, didn't give any indication they're rising above the label of playoff softies. The Canadiens rode the stellar netminding of potential Vezina-and-Hart candidate Jose Theodore to their first playoff berth in four years. My comments on how the Sabres season went are listed further in this article.

ATLANTIC DIVISION:

My prediction: 1. Philadelphia. 2. New Jersey. 3. Pittsburgh. 4. New York Rangers. 5. New York Islanders.

Actual standings (as of April 14th): 1. Philadelphia. 2. New Jersey Devils. 3. New York Islanders 4. New York Rangers 5. Pittsburgh Penguins.

Review: I called the Flyers topping the division, so score one for me! When I predicted the Isles in fifth, they had not yet obtained Chris Osgood from the waiver wire. The improved goaltending, as well as the additions of Yashin and Peca, ened the Isles six year post-season drought. The Devils struggled unexpectedly in the first half before firing Larry Robinson as coach and finding their game in the second half under new coach Kevin Constantine. The Rangers finished as expected, fourth and out of the playoffs. The Penguins would've easily made the post-season were it not for serious injuries to key players like Mario Lemieux and Martin Straka.

SOUTHEAST DIVISION:

My prediction: 1. Carolina. 2. Washington. 3. Florida. 4. Tampa Bay. 5. Atlanta.

Actual standings: 1. Carolina. 2. Washington. 3. Tampa Bay. 4. Florida. 5. Atlanta.

Review: Sure, a lot of folks laughed when I predicted the Hurricanes would top the Caps, but I knew the 'Canes were a better team than most gave them credit. To be fair to Washington, there were hampered by injuries this season, which put them out of the playoffs. The Lightning showed real improvement for the first time in years this season, thanks to the goaltending of Nikolai Khabibulin and the continued development of Brad Richards. The Panthers officially waved the white flag on this season when they dealt Pavel Bure to the Rangers at the March trade deadline, as well as signalled yet another rebuilding phase. Thrashers rookies Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk were the only bright spots in an otherwise dismal season in Atlanta.

WESTERN CONFERENCE:

CENTRAL DIVISION:
My prediction: 1. St. Louis. 2. Detroit. 3. Nashville. 4. Chicago. 5. Columbus.

Actual standings: 1. Detroit. 2. St. Louis. 3. Chicago. 4. Nashville. 5. Columbus.

Review: the only one I got right in this division was the Blue Jackets finishing fifth! The aging Red Wings proved they still have a lot left in the tank, totally dominating the season. The Blues faltered badly due to average goaltending and inconsistency, leading to speculation of major changes this summer if they don't have a strong playoff run. The coaching of Brian Sutter was the main reason for the Blackhawks return to respectability and the playoffs, but their goaltending could harm their hopes for a long playoff run. The Predators failed to take the next big step this season as I'd expected them too, while the Blue Jackets remain a building young team with a long way to go.

NORTHWEST DIVISION:

My prediction: 1. Colorado. 2. Vancouver. 3. Edmonton 4. Calgary. 5. Minnesota.

Actual standings: 1. Colorado. 2. Vancouver. 3. Edmonton 4. Calgary. 5. Minnesota.

Review: The more things change, the more they stay the same. Well, not exactly. The Avs struggled earlier this season, with only Patrick Roy's goaltending at times keeping their heads above water. The Canucks looked like roadkill in the first half of the season and only made the playoffs in the final week. The Oilers had a terrific record, but in the highly competitive Western Conference, it wasn't good enough to make the playoffs. Calgary had a great start but stumbled badly the rest of the season, while the Wild continue their quiet development. Still, at least I save face by accurately predicting how this division would finish!

PACIFIC DIVISION:

My prediction: 1. San Jose. 2. Dallas. 3. Los Angeles. 4. Phoenix. 5. Anaheim.

Actual standings (as of April 14th) : 1. San Jose. 2. Los Angeles. 3. Phoenix. 4. Dallas. 5. Anaheim.

Review: As I expected, the Sharks finally had their breakout season after years of teasing us with their ability. The Kings had a terrible start, but the return of key veterans from injury, the acquisition of Jason Allison, and improved goaltending from Felix Potvin turned their season around. No one expected the Coyotes to do as well as they have this season. Goalie Sean Burke deserves much of the credit, but so does the rest of this promising young team, including emerging star Daniel Briere. I'll expound further on the Stars problems below, while the Mighty Ducks are a club badly in need of an overhaul. Team captain Paul Kariya's re-signing with the Ducks remains in doubt, despite his assurances he wants to stay.

WHAT NEXT FOR NON-PLAYOFF TEAMS (REVISITED). A couple of weeks ago, I published an article where I pondered what may lay in store for clubs who missed the post-season. As more teams will now be heading to the golf course, rather than into the playoffs, I present an updated list:

DALLAS STARS: It's ironic the Stars missed the playoffs while possessing a winning record, but in the Western Conference, it wasn't enough to make the cut. It was a disastrous season for the boys from the Lone Star State. Their free-agent signings, designed to inject more offence into their roster, failed. Their trades didn't work out. Their coach, general manager and team president all either quit or were fired, and their usually reliable starting goalie, Ed Belfour, had a terrible year.

That being said, things aren't as bad for the Stars as it seems. There is still plenty of talent on their roster, which will probably be bolstered by signing at least one of the major free agents available this summer. Promising netminder Marty Turco is poised to take over as the Stars top goalie. The major area that needs to be improved is behind the bench, and on their wings. Dallas needs a stronger whip hand than Rick Wilson, and they must shore up their offensive depth on their wings.

EDMONTON OILERS: Like the Stars, the Oilers had a winning record, but it wasn't enough to make the playoff grade. What killed them was a horrible mid-season slump, which would be their undoing, despite a strong start and a red-hot stretch run.

The Oilers possess good goaltending and defense and a decent first line, all of which should only get better. Their main problem areas were seen as lack of second-line depth, and sub-par performances by checking line forwards such as Jochen Hecht and Mike Grier. As noted in a recent Edmonton Journal article, this will lead to shake-ups this summer, with one or two of their checking line guys (possibly Grier and Todd Marchant) getting shopped to bring in offensive depth for their second line.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS: When the Caps dealt for superstar forward Jaromir Jagr last summer, it was seen as the major step required to make them a Cup contender. What a difference nearly 10 months makes! The Caps started slowly, saw injuries strike their key players, including Jagr, and were unable to make the cut despite a strong finish to the season.

Head coach Ron Wilson won't lose his job for this, but if he wants to retain it, he'll have to motivate his troops to get out of the blocks quicker next season than they have in recent years . There will be an overhaul to the lineup, but it'll be mainly chaff players like Dimitri Khristich and Joe Sacco. The Capitals have a good talent base, and if they're healthier next season, they shouldn't have any trouble making the playoffs. It wouldn't surprise me, though, to see them go after one of the top UFAs this summer to add some more depth.

BUFFALO SABRES: Once again, folks, it wasn't the departure of Dominik Hasek that led to the Sabres downfall this season! Martin Biron filled in quite well in the "Dominator's" absence. They also continued to play a good defensive game, finishing near the top ten overall in the league in that regard.

The main problem is there weren't enough guys scoring as hoped. Miro Satan did his part with 73 points in 82 games, and captain Stu Barnes undoubtedly would've had more than 48 points in 68 games if he hadn't been injured in the season's final weeks. But promising talents such as Tim Connolly and Maxim Afinogenov made marginal improvement, while JP Dumont failed to improve over his promising totals from last season. The suggestion has been raised there were too many "passengers" for the Sabres on too many nights this year, something the Sabres will have to address if they want to have a better 2002-03 season.

- Forget about Pavel Bure, perhaps the most exciting pure offensive forward to watch this season is
Phoenix's diminutive centre Daniel Briere. Nearly every one of his 32 regular season goals were highlight-reel stuff, and in Game Two of the Coyotes-San Jose Sharks series, Briere did it again. Going coast-to-coast, something that's much tougher to do in post-season play than in regular season competition, the littlest Desert Dawg scored the game-winner that tied the series. And to think this kid cleared waivers a year ago!

- Is it me, or is Mike Keenan becoming more life-like in recent years? First, there was the great job he did coaching the injury-depleted Boston Bruins in relief of the fired Pat Burns to within a one-game tiebreaker of making the playoffs in 2000-01. His reward was to be handed his walking papers, but it wasn't Keenan's fault the Bruins failed to make it. He softened his notorious "Iron Mike" attitude, which won him praise of the Boston roster, and the grace in which he accepted his unfair firing earned him sympathy of even long-time critics, including yours truly. Keenan then took over the coaching reins of the moribund Florida Panthers, and while he could do little to turn around a Panthers club woefully thin on depth, he at least made them reasonably competitive.

Then out of the blue, the team he coached to the Stanley Cup in 1994, the New York Rangers, came calling. One can't blame the Blueshirts for at least sending out a feeler. The old "Iron Mike" would've found some way to get out of the remaining two years on his contract in Florida to return to the city where he'd had his greatest triumph.

Instead, Keenan turns down the Rangers, opting instead to remain with the Panthers to help them in their rebuilding project. It remains to be seen if Keenan can mold the young Cats into a playoff contender over the next two years. Deep down, I'm sure there's still enough of the old, arrogant "Iron Mike" left in Keenan that he probably enjoyed having the Rangers asking to his help. It showed a lot of class on his part, however, to stay with a team that has a lot of growing pains ahead of it, when he could've gone back to the bright lights and the big name talent in the Big Apple.

Whoops! Hang on a second! Now there's speculation Keenan himself requested the Rangers head coaching job, but couldn't get out of his contract with the Panthers. Mind you, the source of this story is Larry Brooks of the NY Post, so take this story with a grain of salt. Is there truth to this? Did Keenan try to get out of Florida? Did Sather breach protocol? Will we ever find out the real story? I doubt it. The league will sweep this untidy little mess under the carpet. It may be years before we find out for sure whether Keenan came begging to the Rangers to return to Broadway, or it was the other way round.

- It's no coincidence the Anaheim Mighty Ducks descent from promising young team that made the playoffs in consecutive seasons in the late 90s to one of the worst clubs in the NHL occurred on the watch of GM Pierre Gauthier.

According to reports, "The Grey Ghost", as he was nicknamed during his tenure as Ottawa Senators GM, treated his employees poorly. He did little to improve on the work of his predecessor, Jack Ferreira, who built the Ducks into a playoff contender. Granted, the Ducks owners, and Gauthier's boss, Disney, didn't throw open the vault to allow him to sign the type of free agents to keep the club competitive, or to retain popular scoring winger Teemu Selanne.

However, there are teams in the NHL with arguably less talent on their rosters than the Ducks, and with equal or lessor payrolls, who did far better than Anaheim, both in terms of winning and in building their clubs. When that happens, it's the fault of the general manager.

Gauthier came to Anaheim with good credentials, the result of helping to build the Ottawa Senators from a laughingstock into a perennial playoff team. But whatever skills he had as a team builder in Canada's capital city abandoned him in sunny California.

As one reporter covering the story of Gauthier's axing noted, he'll probably get a job elsewhere in the NHL on another team, probably as director of player personnel. But he can forget about slipping back in the GM's chair any time soon.

- In the wake of the Detroit Red Wings struggles with the Vancouver Canucks in the opening round of their playoff matchup, there has been much made of a cover by ESPN magazine with a feature article on the Wings. The cover showed Dominik Hasek, Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan, Igor Larionov, Brett Hull, Chris Chelios, Niklas Lidstrom and Sergei Federov, all future Hall-of-Famers, and the caption, "Why the Wings are the best team, ever".

Even if the Red Wings were to steamroller their way to the Stanley Cup in 2002, they are not now, nor will they ever be, "the best team, ever".

Indeed, they may not even be the best Red Wings team, ever. That honour, in my opinion, belongs to the Red Wings of 1952-1955. Led by the "Production Line" of Gordie Howe, Sid Abel and Ted Lindsay, and anchored by the goaltending of Terry Sawchuk, they won three Cups in four years and completely dominated the NHL during that time.

Many arguments could be made as to which team could be considered "the best, ever". The Toronto Maple Leafs of the late 1940s, winners of three consecutive Cups and the league's first true dynasty, comes to mind. So does the "three-in-a-row" Leafs of the early 1960s. Ditto the Montreal Canadiens of the late 70s and NY Islanders of the early 80s, winners of four consecutive Cups each. The 1980s Edmonton Oilers went to the finals six times, winning the Cup five times.

The award for "best team, ever" still goes to the Montreal Canadiens of 1956-1960. All they did during that time was win the Stanley Cup five straight seasons, a record that has not been matched. If you're talking single-season, the Wings don't get the nod there either. That would go to the Habs of 1976-77, the first club to win 60 games and lose only 8 times, the latter a record to this date. Ken Dryden, Larry Robinson, Guy Lafleur and Bob Gainey won the Vezina, Norris, Hart, Ross, Smythe and Selke trophies, a record for single-season individual dominance that continues to this day. Oh yeah, they won the Stanley Cup, too.

If the future Hall-of-Famers in the present Wings lineup were, oh, four or five years younger and still in their prime, then perhaps there could be basis for this argument of them being "the best ever". They probably would've been a serious threat to breaking the record of 8 losses by the 1977 Habs. It's also doubtful any club would be a serious threat to derail their march to the Cup.

But as the Vancouver Canucks have shown, the Wings can be beaten by a hard-hitting, fast-skating team. Granted, the Canucks haven't won anything, and Detroit could still win this series, and indeed, march on to Cup glory. The fact is, however, they're going to have to fight like dogs to do it. The Wings of the early 1950s, the Habs of the late '50s and '70s, and the Islanders of the early 1980s rarely had to do that when they were in their prime.

A great looking team, this 2001-02 Red Wings squad. A favourite to win the Cup? Yes, indeed. The best ever? Not by a long shot.

MORE PLAYOFFS NEWS AND NOTES.

CRITIQUES OF OFFICIATING JUSTIFIED: TSN's playoff "insiders" panel of Gord Miller, Bob McKenzie and Pierre McGuire recently defended NHL officiating against the recent tirades by certain NHL general managers.

In the span of a week, Mike Milbury of the NY Islanders, Pat Quinn of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Brian Burke of the Vancouver Canucks have spoken out in press conferences about the quality of the officiating in regards to their respective teams.

TSN's panel were of the opinion that the criticisms had to stop. They believe the GMs need to go through "proper off-ice channels" to make their complaints known, and that taking their beefs public was turning the NHL into something akin to the World Wrestling Federation. They called for the league to level stiff fines against general managers who air their complaints in the press.

That's all well and good, guys. But did you ever stop to consider that perhaps the reason GMs of playoff teams are calling press conferences to denounce the officiating is because it really has been atrocious? Maybe the GMs have tried going the route you suggest, but found that, over the years, it's done nothing to improve the quality of the officiating?

Granted, there are ulterior motives to the madness of Milbury, Quinn and Burke. They want to deflect media attention away from their players and place it on themselve, in order that their charges can better focus on upcoming games . It used to work for Scotty Bowman when he coached the Montreal Canadiens dynasty of the late-1970s. It used to work for Glen Sather during the 1980s when he was coach and GM of the Edmonton Oilers. It worked for Team Canada honcho Wayne Gretzky during the Salt Lake City Olympics. Obviously, it's a tried-and-true method.

But coaches and general managers are becoming more vocal with their complaints in recent years, and in most cases, it has little to do with taking attention off their players, and everything to do with the calibre of the officiating.

In my own observations, as well as in discussions with fellow hockey fans, I've found the complaints among those who watch the games to be the same. In the first period, the on-ice officials call everything, set the tone, make sure the players know who's boss. They don't call as many in the second period as in the first, and only call the most flagrant in the third. In overtime, they swallow their whistles.

Over the years, we've seen the quality of the game deteriorate, in part due to a decade of uncalled obstruction and stick fouls. Look at tapes of NHL games - regular season and playoff - from 1992, and the difference is striking. In the last ten years, the flow of the game has been ruined by these uncalled penalties.

We've been told for the past couple of seasons that the "two-referee" system was supposed to catch more of these uncalled penalties, but from what I, and other hockey fans, have noticed, things haven't improved all that much, especially in the playoffs.

I understand that an official's job in the NHL is a thankless one. I realize they can't see everything all the time, and they're going to miss fouls here and there. I'm even sympathetic to this, as the advent of jumbotrons in arenas, where instant and slo-mo replays are broadcast throughout the game, cast their honest oversights into a harsher light, and open for further criticism by thousands of fans in the arena.

But more often than not, we're seeing blatant penalties occuring right in front of officials that are ignored, even dismissed. Is it any wonder players are arguing every call? Is it any wonder coaches go into an obscenity-laced rant with a referee at least once in every game? Is it any wonder general managers, and even some owners, are calling press conferences to blast the officiating?

If the referees and linesmen were calling the games by the book, enforcing the rules and penalizing every obvious infraction they see, these criticisms will magically disappear. And don't give me any garbage about "slowing down the game" by calling too many penalties. That's a cop-out. Here's a newsflash for those who buy into that theory: if the refs are calling a lot of penalties, it's because the players are committing acts that must be penalized in accordance with the NHL rulebook! In other words, blame the players, not the officials who are doing their job.

Given several games like this, the players would get the message they wouldn't be able to get away with the dirty work they're presently given a free pass on. The number of fouls would be reduced, thus the number of game-stopping penalties would also drop. In turn, there would be less yapping from the players, less bitching from the coaches, and no more press conferences from GMs pointing out the failings of National Hockey League officials.

The NHL head office should finally do what they've only toyed with doing over the years: cracking down on uncalled obstruction and stick work, and making sure their officials not only call the game by the rulebook, but give them their full support when they are criticized for "slowing down the game by calling too many penalties".

However, given the "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" attitude of the NHL hierarchy, don't expect that to happen anytime soon!

McLAREN DESERVES DOMI-TYPE SUSPENSION: By now, all of the hockey world has seen the footage of the vicious hit laid out by Boston defenceman Kyle McLaren on Montreal forward Richard Zednik during Game four of their first-round playoff series last Thursday night.

To recap, there was less than 2 minutes remaining in a game that was going into the record books as a 5-2 Bruins victory. Zednik, one of the "never-say-die" forwards that the Habs seem to be blessed with this season, took a pass near the Bruins blueline and began to turn in order to get a better scoring chance on the Boston goal. McLaren moved swiftly toward Zednik, and at the last second, raised his bent-arm into Zednik's face.

The Canadiens forward hit the ice like a sack of potatoes, out cold. He was on the ice for nearly twenty minutes, being attended to by the training and medical staff of both teams, before being carried off on a stretcher. He was hospitalized with a severe concussion, a bruised throat and a broken nose. His playoffs are over.

McLaren's actions touched off a firestorm of angry statements by the Montreal team and it's press, with head coach Michel Therrien threatening revenge for McLaren's actions. GM Andre Savard is demanding the NHL disciplinary arm serve up the same suspension to McLaren that Maple Leafs forward Tie Domi received in last spring's playoff tilt with the New Jersey Devils, when Domi levelled Devils blueliner Scott Niedermayer with an elbow to the head.

The Bruins, naturally, are rallying behind McLaren. The young blueliner insists there was no intent to injure Zednik on his part, while he and Bruins management pointed out he'd never received any suspensions in the past for dirty play, hoping these statements will bring about some leniency from the front office when McLaren's suspension comes down.

No, Kyle McLaren is not a dirty player. Watching the replay, there's no question the hit wasn't pre-meditated, but rather a spur-of-the-moment one. Zednik, it should be known, has been trash-talking the Bruins throughout the series, and has thrown several minor, but still illegal, cheapshots at several Bruin players, including McLaren.

But regardless of what Zednik may or may not have done in this series, he didn't deserve the punishment inflicted upon him by McLaren. Regardless of whether McLaren has no history of dirty play in his playing career, that's no excuse to do what he did to Zednik, premeditated or not.

The Habs are correct when they say the precedent was set with Tie Domi's suspension last season. Indeed, one can bet if it were Canadiens blueliner Stephane Quintal clotheslining Bruins forward Sergei Samsonov into intensive care, Boston players, fans and media would be howling for his head on a pike.

McLaren deserved ten games, and if it were up to me, a $100,000 fine. The league won't hit McLaren, or any player, for that matter, where it hurts most, in the pocketbook. Thus, the ten games punishment must stand. If the Habs managed to defeat the Bruins in this series, then the remainder of the suspension carries over into the start of next season.

RANGERS CONTINUE SEARCH FOR NEW HEAD COACH: In the weeks since Glen Sather relieved Ron Low of the coaching reins of the NY Rangers, speculation abounds as to who "Slats" will hire as Low's replacement.

Many names have been mentioned and there have been many interviews, but thus far, no one as yet appears to have the lock on the job. Here's a list of who's available:

Ken Hitchcock: former coach of the Dallas Stars, and considered the front runner. Won a Cup with the Stars and is respected by Sather. However, his determination to stick to a defensive style of play may not go down well with offensive Rangers like Pavel Bure and Tom Poti.

Pat Burns: Only coach to win Coach-of-the-Year honours with three seperate teams. Coached the Montreal Canadiens to a Finals berth in 1989. Like Hitchcock, he too favours a defensive style, and his hard-nosed persona tends to wear on his players after a couple of seasons.

Ted Nolan: Coach of the Year with the Buffalo Sabres in 1997, but has been unable to find another coach job in the NHL, believed in part from "blackballing" by former Sabres GM John Muckler. Was able to turn a young Sabres team into a gritty playoff contender six seasons ago, but it's unknown if his motivational tactics would work on a team believed filled with fat-cat veterans.

John Paddock: currently the head coach of the Rangers farm team, and has received high marks for the job he's done there. Used to coach in the NHL, but was considered "too soft". He now claims he has the temperment to be a successful NHL coach, but he may be unable to garner respect of the Rangers roster.

Herb Brooks: coached US Olympic hockey team to upset gold medal in 1980, and to silver in 2002 Winter Games. Former coach of Rangers, Devils and Penguins. Considered one of the brightest minds in hockey. Is respected by American-born players, which could be useful in enticing free agents such as Bill Guerin and Tony Amonte to Broadway. However, has never duplicated his Olympic success on the NHL stage.

Mike Keenan: coached the Flyers and Blackhawks to Finals berths, coached the Rangers to Stanley Cup in 1994. Believed by some to be the only man who can get the respect of individualistic Rangers stars and mold them into a winner. However, is under contract with the Florida Panthers, and amid rumours of his supposed interest in the job, maintains he wants to help build the Panthers.

Guy Carbonneau: current assistant coach with the Montreal Canadiens. Supposedly has not been approached by Sather yet. Was one of the most respected players in the game. However, it's unlikely Sather will hire a novice. Could be headed to Dallas to coach the Stars, where much of the roster is made up of former teammates who have great fondness and respect for him.

It's hard to say at this point whom Sather is leaning toward hiring. I doubt Nolan has a shot, given his past relationship with Muckler, who's an old friend of Sather's. Paddock just doesn't have "name" credentials. Burns's hard-ass attitude probably won't go down well with some on the Rangers roster. Hitchcock's wouldn't either, despite the Cup ring on his resume. Forget Carbonneau, he'll either stay in Montreal or go to Dallas before he'd go to Broadway. Keenan, ironically, would be perfect for the Rangers, but his contractual status in Florida makes him untouchable for the next two seasons.

By process of elimination, that leaves Brooks, who is respected for the reasons noted above. He also coaches a style more suited to the offensive-minded Rangers forwards. Naturally, this is my best guess. It's up to Sather whom he'll take. He could make the predictable choice (Hitchcock) or he could shock us all.

Either way, let's hope he makes a choice that will benefit the Rangers, who desperately need a strong guiding hand behind the bench.

THE NHL'S TWO-TIER JUSTICE SYSTEM.

Three days after Boston defenceman Kyle McLaren laid out Montreal forward Richard Zednik with a controversial hit, hockey fans everywhere were speculating as to what form of punishment the Bruins blueliner would receive.

For those few who may have missed it, it was late in Game Four, a game the Bruins had sewn up 5-2, when Zednik took a pass near the Bruins blueline, and upon entering the Bruins zone, cut sharply toward the middle of the ice to avoid McLaren. Believing the 6', , 195 lbs Zednik would get around him, the 6'4" 225 lb McLaren raised his left arm, striking Zednik, who had his head down, squarely in the face.

Zednik struck the ice like a sack of potatoes, and lay motionless. He suffered a concussion, a broken nose, facial lacerations and a bruised throat. He was on the ice for twenty minutes and had to be carried off on a stretcher, with the medical staff of both clubs working to move him to an ambulance. He spent the night in intensive care in a Montreal hospital and was released two days later. The severity of his injuries have put him out of the remainder of the Bruins-Canadiens series, and quite possibly, the remainder of the playoffs if the Habs manage to march on.

Many observers believed McLaren would be suspended anywhere from 5 to 10 games, with the precedent of last spring's suspension to Toronto Maple Leafs forward Tie Domi of the remainder of the playoffs and the first 8 games of the season held up as an example.

After nearly three days of deliberation, NHL Vice-President (and much-maligned league disciplinarian) Colin Campbell finally laid down his verdict on April 28th.

"After a thorough review of the videotape as well as an in-person hearing with Mr. McLaren, and consideration of all the circumstances, I have determined that by extending his arm to impede the progress of Mr. Zednik, Mr. McLaren delivered a dangerous blow to the head of his opponent and caused significant injuries to the opposing player."

Very good, Mr. Campbell. Thank you for pointing out the blatantly obvious.

"Mr. McLaren clearly must be held accountable for his actions in this regard."

Yes, he must. While no one other than die-hard Canadiens fans believe McLaren deliberately attempted to injury Zednik through a premeditated attack, there is no doubt that his spur-of-the-moment reaction was unnecessary, given how late in the game it was, with the outcome of the game (in the Bruins favour) no longer in doubt.

Campbell went on to say, "I also have concluded, and thus taken into account, that the incident resulted from an instantaneous, but inappropriate, on-ice reaction by a defending player who was about to be beaten by an opposing puck carrier. Based on my years of experience with the game, I don't believe you can fairly conclude that this was a pre-meditated attempt to injure the Montreal player."

Again, no one but the most biased Habs fans believes McLaren premeditated to injury Zednik. It was spontaneous, but again, there was no need for such a reaction by the Bruins defenceman.

Then Campbell lowered the boom. McLaren, who had already been suspended from Game Five pending his hearing, would be suspended for the remainder of the Bruins-Canadiens series.

In other words, the punishment amounts to two games if the Habs defeat the Bruins in Game Six, or three games if the Bruins win in Game Six and force a seventh game back in Boston.

I thought I'd seen huge piles of manure when I was growing up in rural Nova Scotia, but nothing compares to the whopping pile of dung being shovelled out by the NHL's disciplinary arm.

The McLaren suspension is yet another example why the National Hockey League is never taken as seriously as it's bigger, more popular professional sports rivals in North America, baseball, basketball and football.

Campbell also justified his decision based on McLaren's "clean record of conduct in the past".

Granted, McLaren has never been, nor will he ever be considered, a dirty player. He's big, he's rugged, he plays a hard-hitting game, but he is not a dirty player. Yes, Zednik had his head down cutting into the middle of the Bruins zone, and yes, McLaren's reaction was spontaneous.

But you know what? I've never committed murder before, indeed, the worst you'll find in my criminal hotshot was underage drinking, speeding and petty vandalism (no, not all at once!). Since these indiscretions, which happened twenty years ago, I've been a model citizen. By Mr. Campbell's thinking, does this mean I can go out and kill somebody on a spur-of-the-moment and get a "mulligan" because I've never done anything like this before? All I can say is, thank God Campbell and his bunch aren't running our criminal justice systems!

Now, I realize some Bruins fans will take exception to my rant, but consider this thought: if, say, Montreal defenceman Stephane Quintal had laid out Bruins forward Sergei Samsonov the same way, and Campbell laid down this verdict, you'd be screaming for Campbell's and Quintal's heads on pikes. Don't even try to back away from that one. You'd be calling for blood, resignations and hefty fines and suspensions, just like Canadiens fans are right now.

But really, should we be surprised by Campbell's inability to make the right call here? After all, McLaren isn't a "goon" like Tie Domi. His hit on Zednik didn't take place away from the play. No, Mr. McLaren is a skilled hockey player who was simply "finishing his check".

Ah, yes, finishing his check. Just like Gary Roberts and Darcy Tucker of the Toronto Maple Leafs did on the NY Islanders Kenny Jonsson and Michael Peca in their playoff matchup, right? Notice how quickly the league jumped on Roberts and Tucker to punish them for their transgressions...oh, wait, they did nothing, didn't they? Never mind.

If McLaren had been a thug, a brawler, a goon, it would've been so much easier for Campbell to hit him with an 8-to-10 game suspension. If he were just a marginal player, a fifth-or-sixth blueliner, the league would've come down on McLaren like a ton of bricks.

But McLaren is Boston's best defenceman, a skilled workhorse who plays a bruising defensive style. A guy who's "never done anything like this before".

And so, the NHL's two-tiered justice system goes on full display once again. Just as it did in last year's playoffs.

Everyone remembers Domi's elbow to the head of Devils defenceman Scott Niedermayer. Conveniently overlooked was the vicious hit from behind on Dallas Stars defenceman Richard Matvichuck by then-Edmonton Oilers forward Doug Weight in Game Two of their opening round series last spring. Matvichuk sustained a concussion and missed a couple of games in that series. Weight was ejected for attempting to injure. He received no further punishment. Why? Because he's Doug Weight, a scoring star "who's never done anything like this before".

I commented on this last year when the Domi suspension came down. The National Hockey League has a long history of looking the other way when star players commit infractions that inflict injury, while coming down on the heavies, of whom such dastardly deeds are expected. Here's what I wrote:

"Eddie Shore, the fabled Boston Bruins star of the 1920s and 30s, was also one of the dirtiest men to ever play the game. He crippled Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Ace Bailey by running him from behind, yet Shore is in the Hockey Hall of Fame, celebrated as one of the greatest Bruins to ever lace up the skates.

Gordie Howe, the reknowned "Mr Hockey" is celebrated not only for his remarkable scoring feats, but also for his ability to handle himself with his fists. Nothing wrong with that, as Howe played in the day when star players played like men, and took care of themselves mano-a-mano, without needing the protection of a "team policeman". Yet the League also celebrates the sharp elbows of Howe, as though his sneaky shots to the head of players who provoked him was noteworthy of praise.

Those are just two examples from the dim past. Fast forward to the recent future, and you'll see even more examples of star players getting away with injuring an opponent.

Take, for example, LA Kings captain Wayne Gretzky clipping Toronto centre Doug Gilmour in the face with this stick, in front of both referee Kerry Fraser and a linesman, during the 1993 Western Conference finals. Gilmour was cut on the chin and bleeding heavily, yet the two officials looked the other way, rather than impose a five minute major penalty on Gretzky.

Sure, it was an accident, but lesser players were getting called left and right for similar stick infractions. Because it was the Great Gretzky, the officials decided that Gilmour must've cut his chin when he fell to the ice, even though video replay clearly showed otherwise. They didn't even have the guts to call a two minute minor! Gretzky subsequently scored to win the game in OT, which changed the course of the series.

During the 1994 playoffs, Vancouver Canucks star Pavel Bure laid out Dallas Stars tough-guy Shane Churla with a vicious elbow that was every bit as ugly as the one Domi laid into Niedermayer. Yet hardly anything was done to "the Russian Rocket", as he went on to become one of the Canucks scoring leaders throughout those playoffs.

In the 1996 Western Conference finals, then-Colorado Avalanche forward, and playoff legend, Claude Lemieux ran Detroit Red Wings forward Kris Draper from behind, ramming him face-first into the boards and effectively rearranging his features.

Draper required reconstructive facial surgery to repair a broken jaw and other injuries. Lemieux was given a two game suspension, thus allowing him to re-join his teammates mid-way through the Stanley Cup finals. While Lemieux drank champagne from the Cup, Draper was in hospital drinking his food through a straw.

Worse, Lemieux is known throughout the league as a dirty player, someone who'll throw as many cheapshots as he can get away with in the course of a game. If he weren't a former Smythe winner, and one of the best clutch forwards in playoff history, Lemieux likely would've been banished for the rest of the playoffs. But because of who he is, "Pepe" was given the usual light punishment reserved for star players."

Granted, McLaren isn't in the same class as the players noted above, but the same principle applies. He's a skilled player, the Bruins best defenceman, not a thuggish goon with marginal skills. So, rather than bring down the appropriate punishment, best to suspend him for the remainder of the Bruins-Habs series, and hope this whole thing dies down when the series is over and the league has moved on to the second round.

I wrote the following conclusion to my article regarding the Domi suspension and the National Hockey League's two-tiered justice system last May. It's as appropriate today as it was a year ago:

"...what's more sickening is how the NHL continues to make a travesty of itself when it comes to disciplining it's players. By allowing star players off the hook when their infractions end up injuring an opponent, they're basically sending the message that the elite players in the league have carte blanche when it comes to dirty or questionable play.

The NHL front office states that those who deliberately attempt to injure an opponent, or those who commit an infraction that results in an opponent being injured, are subject to disciplinary action.

A pity it lacks the courage to ensure equal justice for all."