APRIL 2004 SOAPBOX ARCHIVES

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WHAT NEXT FOR THE NON-PLAYOFF CLUBS?

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS: Most of this past season was forgettable, yet they showed signs in it's final month they may have turned the corner. Aleksey Morozov and Milan Kraft found their games, plus they've got a good crop of promising youth in Marc-Andre Fleury, Ryan Malone and Konstantin Koltsev. Still, there's lots of work to be done as management will try to add affordable depth next season as the rebuilding continues. Owner Mario Lemieux might attempt one more season but his fans shouldn't get their hopes up.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS: The only decent talent remaining on the club after their salary-dump purge are Olaf Kolzig, Brendan Witt, Jeff Halpern and Dainius Zubrus. Who knows how much longer the former two will want to remain now that the Caps are in full-fledged rebuilding mode? The only promising youngster of note this season was winger Alexander Semin. Clearly there is a lot of work to be done as Capitals management seeks to rebuild almost from scratch.

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS: Hopes for significant improvement were dashed this season, but there is a strong corps of young talent to build upon. Rick Nash, Nikolai Zherdev, Marc Denis, and Rostislav Klesla are the foundation upon which the Blue Jackets future success is assured, but until these guys have matured enough to carry the club, management will still need to fill some gaps with affordable veterans.

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS: Injuries and salary dumps killed the 'Hawks playoff hopes this season, but there is reason for optimism for next year. Veterans Jocelyn Thibault and Eric Daze will return healthy, Bryan Berard gives them much-need offence from the blueline, and there's a promising crop of young talent up front in Tuomo Ruutu, Tyler Arnason, Mark Bell and Kyle Calder. If they're to have any chance to make the playoffs next year, however, they must bolster their blueline corps and their checking lines.

NEW YORK RANGERS: Their salary purge left Jaromir Jagr, Bobby Holik Darius Kasparaitis and Tom Poti as the only players of note on a team now largely consisting of callups and unknown kids. The Rangers will likely go shopping in this summer's free agent market to bolster their lineup but don't expect them to toss around large contracts. Instead, more youngsters could get more playing time as at long last the rebuilding process begins on Broadway.

PHOENIX COYOTES: Fans of the Desert Dawgs are starting to doubt the supposedly knowledgeable management team after a series of questionable trades over the past three years and the scapegoat firing of head coach Bobby Francis. There is still plenty of promising talent on this roster, led by emerging scoring star Shane Doan, but this club must stay healthier, their goaltending must improve, and they need a coach who can bring out the best in this young team if it's to make any headway next season.

ATLANTA THRASHERS: A strong first half and a solid finish was undermined by a horrible mid-season that killed their playoff hopes. Still, the Thrashers as a whole showed a lot of character after the death of Dan Snyder and the lengthy sidelining of Dany Heatley, and in Kari Lehtonen, they have a potential franchise goaltender. Ilya Kovalchuk took his rightful place as the game's most exciting goalscorer and they remain well-coached by Bob Hartley. With a healthy Heatley and centre Marc Savard in the lineup next season, the Thrashers could be ready to make some noise in the East. Expect management to seek out some more blueline depth in the off-season.

ANAHEIM MIGHTY DUCKS: Injuries and inconsistent play crushed the Ducks hopes of a follow-up to last season's stunning playoff success. There may not be as many free agent signings by GM Bryan Murray as there was last summer, other than possibly retaining defenceman Keith Carney. Murray may be loathe to conduct a major purge and instead could keep the lineup intact and give them another shot, as there will be several players, particularly goalie JS Giguere and forward Vaclav Prospal, who'll have a lot to prove next year after their disappointing play of this seaosn.

FLORIDA PANTHERS: A swiss-cheese blueline corps and a lousy faceoff percentage were two critical factors that contributed to the Panthers again missing the playoffs. Still, there is plenty of reason for optimism for next season. Roberto Luongo and Olli Jokinen remain the club's leaders, Stephen Weiss and Jay Bouwmeester took huge strides in their development and Nathan Horton had a very good rookie season. For the Panthers to take the next step, however, management must at least improve the defence or risk burning out Luongo before his time.

MINNESOTA WILD: Another club with a disappointing follow-up to a strong 2003 playoff run, the Wild were predominantly undone by the holdouts of scoring forwards Marian Gaborik and Pascal Dupuis. The presence of both for a full season next year will undoubtedly bolster their playoff chances, as will the continued improvement of Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Nick Schultz and Willie Mitchell.

BUFFALO SABRES: A lousy first half effectively ruined a strong second-half finish by the Sabres, dashing their playoff hopes in their second-last game of the season. The club has taken a pounding in the local media, but the Sabres are a much better club than their critics give them credit. Yes, the blueline corps needs more depth, but the only thing wrong with the goaltending and the forward lines is their youth. They displayed a lot of character down the stretch, indicating the Sabres may be poised to mature into a legitimate playoff club next season.

LOS ANGELES KINGS: A record setting rash of injuries to many key players, notably Jason Allison, Ziggy Palffy and Adam Deadmarsh were too much for this plucky bunch of Kings to overcome. Give full marks to head coach Andy Murray for keeping his players focussed and in the playoff picture for as long as they were this season. These Kings were perhaps the hardest working club in the NHL this season and they deserved a better fate. Hopefully they'll be a much healthier team next season.

EDMONTON OILERS: After a spirited stretch run the Oilers ultimately came up short. A combination of injuries to key players, lack of quality depth at centre and the distraction over the uncertainty of Mike Comrie and Tommy Salo led to their downfall. However, there is hope for next season. Ty Conklin and Jussi Markkanen give them a promising tandem in goal, the rise in the Canadian dollar and increase in season ticket sales should help them re-sign their key free agents, including Ryan Smyth and Jason Smith. However, the big question is whether they can afford to keep Petr Nedved, who was perhaps the key reason the Oilers came so close to making the playoffs after he came over from New York at the trade deadline.

CAROLINA HURRICANES: Struggled for the second straight season following their amazing 2002 Cup run. It's uncertain if they can afford to retain UFA blueliners Glen Wesley and Sean Hill, plus winger Jeff O'Neill's contract talks this summer could be contentious. There is plenty of promising youth on the 'Canes and they'll get more icetime next season, but future moves could depend on what happens with Wesley, Hill and O'Neill.

FIRST ROUND OBSERVATIONS.

- Is it me or are the Detroit Red Wings having difficulty with the upstart Nashville Predators?

Given all their depth of talent, the Wings were supposed to have little problem disposing of the young, inexperienced Preds. Instead, the Wings have been struggling, looking like a tired, old hockey team with their hands full trying to contain the speedier, younger Predators.

The big reason for the Predators hanging tough with the Wings is goaltender Tomas Vokoun, who throughout the regular season was a rock in the Nashville goal. He carried his young teammates back then and he's giving them a chance to win against Detroit in their first-ever playoff appearance.

Although the Wings are leading this series 2 games to 1 heading into Tuesday night's action, there has to be a genuine concern that the series may be slipping away from them. With the Preds winning Game Four to even the series, momentum could shift even further in favour of the Predators.

The Wings will have to put these pesky Predators down soon, because the longer this series goes, the more the danger of another first round upset for Detroit increases.

- Speaking of teams looking old and tired, say hello to the St. Louis Blues, who are in a war with the young, hungry San Jose Sharks.

Give the Blues credit: they held the Sharks off the scoreboard in Game One only to fall 1-0 in overtime and staged an impressive win in Game Three to avoid falling behind 3-0 in the series thanks to the hattrick of centre Mike Sillinger. However, a 4-3 loss in Game Four now has the Blues on the brink of elimination.

There's something definitely lacking in the Blues game this spring. Yes, key players - particularly on their blueline - are absent, but they seem to be lacking the spark and jump of previous series.

Even when the club was ravaged by the flu in last spring's first round elimination to the Vancouver Canucks, the Blues still played a rough, tough style and took the Canucks to the limit.

Maybe the Blues are finding their legs and will stage a big rally in this series, but so far, those legs are lacking jump.

- It's obvious that the outcome of the Ottawa Senators-Toronto Maple Leafs series rests on one person: Leafs goalie Eddie Belfour.

After dropping the opening game to the Sens, Belfour has been superb, posting back-to-back shutouts as the Leafs have taken a 2-1 series lead.

It's all the more notable when one considers the Sens were the highest scoring team in the league, with the best powerplay to boot, and completely dominated the Leafs in every aspect of the Games Two and Three.

Yet they've been unable to put a pea past Belfour, in part because of a seeming unwillingness to create traffic in front of "Eddie the Eagle".

If Belfour can see the shots, he's going to stop them. If the Sens want to truly kill their reputation for inability to beat the Leafs in post-season play, they must start clogging up the slot and setting up screen shots in front of the Leafs net.

Otherwise, Belfour could end up stealing away from the Senators a series they've truly deserved to win.

- Montreal Canadiens centre Mike Ribeiro has taken a lot of heat from the press and from some of the Boston Bruins for his theatrics in the closing moments of Game Three when he was supposedly injured after colliding with two Bruins at centre ice.

The collision look innocent enough, more like a bump than a hard hit, but Ribeiro was writhing in apparent agony on the ice, clutching his right shoulder. It looked so serious that play was stopped.

After being helped to his feet by the Habs trainer, Ribeiro skated by the Bruins bench and taunted several of their players, giving a "come-on" sign as if he wanted to tangle with them in a scrap.

Indeed, as he was sitting on the bench, Ribeiro engaged in a war of words with Bruins forward Martin Lapointe, laughing and again giving the "come-on" sign, much to the televised disgust of Lapointe.

Ribeiro didn't practice the following day and the Habs coaching staff and his teammates claimed he really was injured, but their words weren't enough to convince a growing number of doubters who saw the replays of the incident.

If Ribeiro really was hurt, then he could be accused of embellishing the injury. But if he wasn't, then his antics were nothing more than faking hurt in an attempt to draw a penalty. In other words, taking a dive.

The young Habs centre has a well-deserved rep for this sort of thing, having done it several times during the season, including a game against the Bruins earlier in the year.

If he's not careful, one day he'll get genuinely and seriously hurt and none of the on-ice officials will believe him. And with his club now down 3-1 in this series, he could get called for a diving penalty that could cost his club a game...and the series.

- For a couple of teams that went into the playoffs on hot streaks, the Dallas Stars and New Jersey Devils have been ice cold in the opening round of the playoffs.

Both clubs dropped their first two games, and were in danger of falling behind 3-zip in their respective series heading into Monday night.

To their credit, both teams responded to the challenge, feeling the desperation of knowing that falling behind by that margin is the kiss of death in NHL playoffs. For the record, only two teams - the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs and the 1975 NY Islanders - have rallied from a 0-3 series deficit to go on to win the series in seven games.

It's understandable why the Devils have struggled, as the Flyers did a great job of containing the Patrik Elias-Scott Gomez line in the first two games. With their scoring line in check, the Devils struggled. It was only when the Flyers let down their guard in Game Three that this line came alive and made the difference in that game.

If they're to have any chance of beating the Flyers, other members of the Devils must step up offensively, like they did during last spring's playoffs. If the Flyers put the clamp down on Elias and Gomez the rest of the way, this series could be over in five.

The Stars struggles have been more puzzling. They're a club with plenty of offensive firepower, veteran presence, a decent (although banged-up) defence and one of the supposedly better goalies in the NHL in Marty Turco.

But they've been a shell of themselves in this series, falling easily in the first two games to the Colorado Avalanche. With their backs to the wall, they staged a thrilling overtime victory in Game Three to put themselves back in the series, but problem areas remain, specifically their goaltending and the play of Bill Guerin.

Turco, for all his regular season brilliance, seems to struggle in post-season competition. Meanwhile, forward and leading scorer Guerin has been nowhere to be found offensively in this series.

Both will have to step it up the rest of the way if they want to reverse the series in their club's favour. Otherwise, it'll be the Avs advancing to the second round, not the Stars.

- The Lightning and Islanders series has certainly been interesting, with all three games thus far having ended with 3-0 scores.

It was two key defensive breakdowns by Isles defenceman Eric Cairns that led to two goals as the Bolts cruised to victory in Game One, but the Isles rallied with a strong defensive effort to knot the series at a game apiece in Game Two.

Back on the Island for Game Three, the fleet-footed Lighting took advantage of defensive breakdowns by the Islanders and rode the goaltending of Nikolai Khabibulin to victory.

So what does Game Four hold? Will the Isles rally in front of their faithful fans? Or will the Bolts take a commanding three games to one lead back to Tampa Bay?

And will the outcome of that game be a 3-0 score?

- Gotta admit, it's great to see the Calgary Flames back in the playoffs again.

Watching the roar of the crowd in the Saddledome for Game Three - the first playoff game there since 1996 - sent chills down my spine.

Calgary fans love their hockey and this season they've finally be given reason to love their Flames again.

They'll have their hands full with the Canucks, who going into Game Four did a terrific job of shutting down the Jarome Iginla line, taking a 2-1 series lead .

Happily for Flames fans, their team wasn't ready to roll over and quit, posting a 4-0 win to knot the series at two going back to Vancouver, and ensuring their long-suffering fans will see their heroes once more in this series.

FIRST ROUND FALLOUT.

-Is it the end of an era for the New Jersey Devils?

That appears to be the consensus in the wake of the Devils first round elimination by the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday.

It would be easy to pin their defeat solely on the absence of team captain Scott Stevens, who's been out since mid-season with post-concussion syndrome. Stevens' absence played a part, no question, but it wasn't the only reason for the Devils defeat.

First, the Devils offence was sorely lacking beyond their first line. Elias and Gomez did their best and played well, but nobody else on the roster stepped up to take the load off their shoulders. The ineffectiveness of late-season additions Viktor Kozlov and Jan Hrdina didn't help matters, either.

Most notable, however, was the play of goaltender Martin Brodeur, who was a shadow of his usually strong self against Philadelphia. There's some speculation Brodeur may have nursed a back injury which would certainly account for it, but he also has a habit of following up a Stanley Cup-clinching performance with an uneven one the next year.

If there's one consolation the Devils can take from this, it's that if Stevens is forced to retire, acting captain Scott Niedermayer is very capable of filling that role on a permanent basis. His play and leadership has been largely overlooked over the years and it was his assumption of the captaincy that finally shone a spotlight on him.

For now, however, Devils fans will be left to speculate if their club's era of dominance is really over and if rebuilding is in order.

- The Nashville Predators first round elimination by the Detroit Red Wings came as no surprise, but the fact the Preds refused to go quietly certainly was.

The Predators led throughout most of the first game only to lose late in the game. They showed a lot of character by rallying at home to erase a 2-0 series deficit to tie it and throw a massive scare into the denizens of "Hockeytown".

Finally, the Red Wings found their second wind and easily defeated the Predators in the next two games to take the series.

The bulk of the credit for the Predators determined stand goes to goalie Tomas Vokoun, but the rest of the Nashville squad also deserves credit for putting up a heckuva fight.

This should hopefully be a good character building experience for the Predators, a young squad who are hopefully coming into their own.

- In the first half of this past season, Dallas Stars owner Tom Hicks was threatening to make major changes to his roster if it didn't turn things around. The Stars rallied in the second half to easily make the playoffs, forcing Hicks to back off from his threats.

However, with their embarrassingly easy five-game elimination by the Colorado Avalanche, one wonders if Hicks will revisit those threats.

Not that there's any shame in losing to the Avs, but to bow out as meekly as the Stars did will be cause for concern in the Lone Star State.

Most notable in the defeat was the poor play of goaltender Marty Turco and forward Bill Guerin. As noted in an earlier column, Turco plays brilliantly in the regular season but has come up small in the playoffs for the second straight year. As for Guerin, the Stars leading scorer was invisible throughout the series, leading to speculation he may be hiding an injury.

If Hicks does decide to get into housecleaning, it'll be UFAs like Richard Matvichuk and Scott Young who could get their walking papers. Don't be surprised if a shakeup in management and/or coaching staff could be in the offing.

-Speaking of management changes, might there be one in store for the NY Islanders?

A third straight first round elimination is better than the years of ineptitude prior to 2002, but the Isles have been spinning their wheels since acquiring Michael Peca and Alexei Yashin in the summer of 2001.

Peca really picked up his play in the second half of the season and was a big reason for the Isles making the playoffs after the team struggled through parts of the season. Unfortunately, he was a non-factor in the playoffs.

The most notable one, however, was Yashin, who continued his post-season tradition of coming up flat. Don't expect the Isles to trade him, simply because his hefty salary makes him untradeable. There is speculation the Isles might instead try to bring in a talented winger to play on his line, but given their lack of big moves this past year and the uncertainty over the outcome of the next CBA, Isles fans probably won't be holding their breath.

Somehow, general manager Mike Milbury has continued to survive, despite a dubious management record rife with questionable trades that invariably went against the Islanders.

This club is long overdue for a management shakeup, but as long as Milbury has the confidence of ownership, he won't be going anywhere.

One bright spot in their otherwise woeful postseason was the play of young goaltender Rick DiPietro, who finally seems to be emerging as the starting goalie Milbury envisioned he would become.

- The San Jose Sharks finished off an otherwise forgettable season of the St. Louis Blues by eliminating them in five games, setting the table for what might be an off-season of change.

There's been speculation for months that they won't requalify Chris Pronger, whom it would cost an additional ten percent of his $9.5 million salary to retain as a restricted free agent. However, the club seems determined to keep him around and Pronger himself suggested he might sign a long term contract for less money.

Veteran goalie Chris Osgood was underwhelming in the playoffs, leading to suggestions management won't re-sign him. However, without this summer's UFA market considered a weak one, it's possible they might retain him for another year while giving one of the young goalies in their system an opportunity to step up.

Injuries to their blueline, notably to Al MacInnis and Barrett Jackman, were difficult to overcome, while a lack of scoring depth beyond their first line of Keith Tkachuck, Pavol Demitra and Doug Weight also contributed to their middling regular season and their first round exit.

There's know some talk that GM Larry Pleau might be on the hotseat, as some of his moves, like dealing away promising young talent to acquire Tkachuk, did nothing to turn the Blues into the Cup contender they appeared poised to become four years ago.

Factor in the shocking arrest of tough-guy forward Mike Danton for apparently attempting to murder his gay lover by hiring a hitman, and it's shaping up to be an interesting off-season in St. Louis! 

RANDOM PLAYOFF MUSINGS.

- Can you believe that there were actually suggestions in the Boston media that Boston Bruins captain Joe Thornton should give up the "C" during the Bruins-Montreal Canadiens series?

Boston Globe reporter and Hockey Hall of Fame member Kevin Paul Dupont actually made the suggestion prior to Game Seven of that series, ultimately won by the Habs.

Dupont acknowledged Thornton was nursing a rib injury but suggested Thornton and his club would've been better served if the 24-year-old star wasn't burdened with the captaincy.

To me it seems the true basis for Dupont's column was the fact Thornton blew off the media in the aftermath of Game Six (a 5-2 Canadiens victory) and prior to the series-ending Game Seven. The reporter apparently compared notes with a Montreal reporter who said if Canadiens captain Saku Koivu dared to commit such a sin they'd "kick his ass" down St. Catherine's Street.

Ho-ho! Funny stuff, that. Of course, any reporters in Montreal would only kick Koivu's ass metaphorically via their columns, as none of them have the physical ability or courage to actually attempt to raise a boot in anger to the backside of the Habs captain.

And speaking of Koivu, some in the Montreal media questioned his leadership a couple of months ago when the Canadiens were slumping and Koivu got into a dustup in practice with Mike Ribeiro. Of course, now that the Canadiens are in the second round, those who were critical of him now have their lips firmly implanted on his Finnish butt.

So Dupont was miffed because Thornton didn't want to face a bunch of boring, repetitive questions over why the Bruins weren't playing well and how he was feeling. That's no reason to demand a change in the team captaincy.

Yes, Thornton didn't play well, but as we all now know he was nursing the type of injury (torn rib cartilege) that would sideline a normal person for up to six weeks. Thornton missed the final two regular season games and was there for every game in the playoffs, even if he was at half-speed. Can you imagine how tough it was to absorb punishment and breath with that type of injury? Thornton deserves full marks for showing up at all.

One thing Dupont should also take into account is Thornton is only 24 years old and still has his prime years ahead of him, which mean he has plenty of time to mature further as a leader.

And hey! Didn't the so-called "experts" once proclaim Detroit's Steve Yzerman to be a lousy captain?

- Speaking of the Canadiens, even their harshest critics have to admit their rallying from a 1-3 series deficit to defeat the Bruins in seven games was impressive.

It also marked the first time in the club's 95 year history they'd ever com back from such a deficit to win a series. Considering the great teams the Habs have had throughout the decades, that's a noteworthy accomplishment.

The standouts in that series were the veteran first line of Koivu, Richard Zednik and Alex Kovalev, who went from series goat in Game Four after his quitting on a play in overtime due to a slash on his right hand cost the Habs the game to series hero with his strong play in the final three games. Also noteworthy was the play of goaltender Jose Theodore, who rallied from a slow start to come through when his team needed him most.

Rookie defenceman Mike Komisarek, thrust into the heat of playoff battle for the first time after veteran Stephane Quintal was lost to a shoulder injury, came through with a poised, confident performance.

Every team should have a player like Steve Begin, who returned from a knee injury and to losing a few teeth to be a constant thorn in the side of the Bruins.

But the main reason for the Habs win was head coach Claude Julien, who re-focused his club when they were on the brink of elimination to rally back for victory. Julien's isn't flashy or excitable, which may be his great strength. He's unflappable, which seems to rub off on his players.

Few are picking the Canadiens to defeat the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round, and if Game One of that series, a 4-0 Bolts victory, is any indication, the Lightning will be a much tougher opponent than the Bruins.

But the lift the Habs got from that Bruins series could make them a difficult opponent. This is a team that doesn't quit, and as typified by Begin, play with a lot of heart.

- It wasn't surprising that the Ottawa Senators fired long-time head coach Jacques Martin.

He did a tremendous job building the Sens from a doormat laughingstock into one of the top clubs in the NHL. But as one columnist noted, the young players Martin inherited when he was hired by the Sens have now matured, and can be developed no futher.

What the Senators now need is a coach who can inspire veteran players to take their game higher, something Martin wasn't able to do. Put simply, the Sens had outgrown their mentor.

Don't feel bad for Martin. He got a $750K salary buyout, and he's not likely to be unemployed for long. The man has proven his ability to take young teams and mould them into contenders, and if I were the GM of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Phoenix Coyotes, Edmonton Oilers or Florida Panthers, I'd be speed-dialing Martin right now.

The Ottawa Senators got to where they are today because of Martin, and while his players may have outgrown him, they owe him a huge debt of gratitude to developing them into the stars many of them are today.

- Why is it that a good hockey man like Martin can lose his job, while an inept one like Mike Milbury still has his?

Come on, folks, give me one good reason why the NY Islanders should keep him as their general manager?

After nine years at the Isles helm, he's been able to improve the club from doormats to a consistently marginal playoff club, a "first round and out" team.

Meanwhile, former Islanders like Roberto Luongo, Olli Jokinen, Todd Bertuzzi, Bryan McCabe, Wade Redden, Zdeno Chara, Eric Brewer and JP Dumont(to name a few) have gone on to find success elsewhere.

Sure, the ownership situation before Charles Wang came onboard was shaky, which cost him players like Ziggy Palffy and Darius Kasparaitis, but Milbury can no longer hide behind that excuse.

It's obvious the Isles need a change in the GM's office, but as long as MM has the confidence of Wang, he won't be going anywhere. Which unfortunately means Islanders fans can expect more of what they've seen over the past three years. It may be better than the six years of missing the playoffs, but only barely.

- Congrats to the Calgary Flamesfor breaking the Cup curse! After 15 long years, they finally won a playoff series, defeating the Vancouver Canucks in seven games. It was the first series victory for the Flames dating back to their 1989 Stanley Cup championship season.

Having lived in Calgary back in the mid-1990s, I know how much this means to hockey fans in that city. Hiring Daryl Sutter as head coach and GM was just what this club needed.

Team captain Jarome Iginla has stepped up to provide the playoff leadership they Flames needed. Goaltending sensation Miikka Kiprusoff has been the main reason the Flames are where they are right now, and if they should confound the odds and go all the way, he'll be a lock for the Conn Smythe. Obtaining "Kipper" will likely go down in Flames history as one of the best trades they ever made.

Best of all, young defencemen Robyn Regehr and Jordan Leopold have shone in their first-ever playoff appearances, further highlighting the fact the Flames have perhaps the best young blueline corps in the NHL.

As with the Canadiens, most experts aren't predicting the Flames to advance to the Conference Finals, but it would be a mistake for the Detroit Red Wings to take this fast-skating, hardworking club lightly.

- Finally, why are the Vancouver Canucks dicking around with Brian Burke?

Why hasn't this man been re-signed to a new contract as their general manager?

It was Burke who took over a floundering Canucks team in 1998, a team losing money and fan support, laden with too many underachieving veterans, and turned it around into one of the best teams in the NHL.

So Burke is blustery and outspoken. That seems to be more upsetting to his critics in the press who write unsubstantiated rumours about him and the team than it is to his players, most of whom seem to appreciate Burke's plainspoken support.

Burke brought in Ed Jovanovski, Dan Cloutier, Alexander Auld, Marek Malik, Sami Salo, Brendan Morrison, and the Sedin Twins, plus brought back fan favourite Trevor Linden.

He was also able to re-sign Jovanovski, Todd Bertuzzi and Markus Naslund for less than "market value" to long-term contracts.

So why is he still unsigned?

Is he asking for too much money?

Some suggested Burke wanted over $2 million per season to stay on with the Canucks, a charge he vigorously denied.

If you ask me, considering what he's done for that organization, he'd be well worth that kind of dough.

The Canucks must re-sign Brian Burke. If they fail to do so, it'll be the biggest mistake ever made by that organization