DECEMBER 2002 SOAPBOX ARCHIVES

Click here to return to Spector's Soapbox Archives

SPECTOR ANSWERS YOUR QUESTIONS.

In the four years since I first began covering the NHL, I've received hundreds of e-mail queries from hockey fans like yourselves, inquiring into everything from the state of the game to which prospect could be the next big thing.

I always try to respond to these questions, and in doing so, I've noticed that there are several of these queries come up more than others. Thus, this week's Soapbox is dedicated to publicly responding to those questions. Please bear in mind that the questions are a composition of those I've received.

Q: With teams like the Detroit Red Wings buying the Stanley Cup by signing free agents, do you think teams will get lazy and ignore the draft and try to build their teams with free agency?

A: Teams cannot "buy" the Stanley Cup. That complaint has been flying around because the Dallas Stars, Colorado Avalanche and Detroit Red Wings ponyed up big bucks to land high-priced free-agents in recent years, who in turn were instrumental in bringing the Stanley Cup to their new clubs.

Yes, free agents played a key roles in the Cup victories of the Avs, Stars and Wings, but they were only a piece of the puzzle.

Cup champion rosters are built partially through free agency, partially through shrewd trades, and partially through the draft. You also need a strong coaching staff in place to mould the players into winners, and the money to retain your core players.

Those were the common factors that brought the Stanley Cup to Dallas, Denver and Detroit since 1996, with a one-year break for the New Jersey Devils win in 2000.

The biggest budgets won't bring you a Cup contender. The NY Rangers usually top the league in payroll since 1997-98, yet for all their spending, they've missed the playoffs for five straight seasons. In that time, the Rangers lacked the strong coaching and player development so vital to building a Cup contender.

The Philadelphia Flyers have most of the key components in place, and aren't afraid to spend the dough, but their revolving-door approach to coaches and a lack of quality depth in goal and on the blueline have cost them.

The Toronto Maple Leafs have the highest payroll of all Canadian teams , as well as ranking among the highest in the league in that regard, but poor drafting and a failure to recognize and retain rising talent have hamstrung their Cup efforts. Instead, they have far too many aging, overpaid veterans whose best-before date was several years ago, thus making them all but impossible to move.

To summarize, having a lot of money to spend on players helps, but they're not the sole, nor the best method, of building a champion. If they were, we'd be seeingCup parades in New York City, Toronto and Philadelphia.

Q: Should I believe trade rumours in the media? They never seem to come true, and when a trade does happen, the media almost never predicts it.

A: Trade rumours are 98% BS. There's usually nothing to them, and they're to be taken with a entire shaker of salt, let alone a grain.

Who starts them? Sometimes, they're "planted" by general managers through a sympathetic reporter, in an attempt to raise some interest in a player they're hoping to move. Sometimes, they're through "unnamed NHL or team sources", who more often than not are out to create mischief. And sometimes, they're dreamed up by a reporter during a slow news period to help sell papers or to attract attention to their bylines. Yes, they'll deny it, but I've spoken with several "unnamed sources" of my own in the hockey world since I began covering the NHL who claim otherwise. At the end of the day, money talks, and a fake sports headline about a potential trade certainly gets the job done.

When you read a trade rumour, first determine if the trade suitably addresses each team's needs. If one team makes out like a bandit while the other club gets screwed, that's usually a good yardstick in determining the validity of the rumour.

Another factor to consider is payroll. For example, it makes no sense for a small market Canadian team, to add salary in a trade, particularly if the players they'd add wouldn't replace the offence they'd lose if they dealt their best offensive forward. That's another side factor important to consider: all small market or Canadian clubs (except the Leafs) have to mind their budgets. They must get the best return they can in any trade they make.

That being said, they're not going to dump payroll just for the sake of dumping payroll. Also, bear in mind a team usually won't give up a good player for a package of two or three average joes. Quantity does not equal quality.

Finally, ask yourself if the trade makes sense. Eric Lindros for Martin Lapointe straight up. Would you do it? Would you trade a player with Lindros's talent (even with his injury history) for a third liner, picking up said third liner's $5.5 million per season salary, as well as a good portion of Lindros's clause filled contract, further jacking up your already wasteful payroll? All under the auspices of "improving your powerplay?" If you answered yes, be prepared to get laughed out of every sports bar in North America.

And what do you do if the trade you're dissing actually goes down? Sometimes, GMs actually lose their minds and make deals that even a hockey fan of minimal intelligence wouldn't make.

Everyone can't be right all the time, but if you can be right most of the time, you'll come out of it smelling like a rose, unlike the smell that tends to linger around those who spend their time planting BS rumours.

Yeah, they're fun to read and fun to discuss. Yes, they're a popular section on my site, but most reported in the press aren't to be taken seriously.

Q: It didn't take long for some players and commentators to start complaining about the new crackdown on obstruction. Does this mean the new rules will be ignored as the season goes on like in past years?

A: I hope not. So far, League headquarters is maintaining the crackdown will stay in place throughout the season. We'll find out as the season progresses if they're right.

Is there validity to the complaints?

Some critics, like Detroit's Chris Chelios and HNIC's Don Cherry, insist the stricter enforcement on obstruction is taking hitting out of the game, as well as encouraging "diving", attempts to draw penalties.

Some, like Marc Bergevin and Mario Lemieux of the Pittsburgh Penguins, claim the enforcement of the new rules is slipping and needs to go further.

So how do we resolve this dilemma?

The quality of the on-ice product would be improved if the game were called properly by the officials. There's a rule-book that's been around for decades, which outlines what on-ice infractions must be called, and what penalty is to be assessed.

That doesn't mean bodychecking should be taken out of the game. It means the obstruction that has sucked the life out of the game for the past six years - hooking, holding and interference - must be called.

For those who are complaining that the new obstruction crackdown is hurting the game, simply watch tapes of NHL games from about 8 or 10 years ago, and notice the difference in how the game was played then, compared to now.

The officials had far better control of the games back then compared to what we've suffered through since 1995-96.

Q: Commissioner Gary Bettman keeps saying attendance is increasing, but every year there seem to be less people going to the games. Why is this?

A: There is no one reason why attendance has suffered in the NHL in recent years, Gary Bettman's assessment to the contrary. Rather, there are several.

First, the overall quality of the on-ice product itself. Since the mid-1990s, the game has been going steadily downhill, thanks to uncalled obstruction sucking the life out of the games. With the expansion of the league to 30 teams, there are now players on NHL teams who have no business being there, whose skill level would be more suitable to the minor leagues. It's led to a deterioration of the NHL game, which has turned off many fans.

Second, the rising cost to attend an NHL game. Once upon a time, a family of four could attend the average NHL game for less than $100.00 Canadian. That included tickets, programs, parking and concession sales. Today, it costs over $250.00 US. Who the hell in the lower-to-middle class can afford that on a weekly basis? Or a monthly basis? Obviously, judging by the increasing number of empty seats in NHL arenas, not a lot!

Third, the inability to attract a major TV contract to broadcast games in the US. Fox Sports got out of televising NHL games as the product deteriorated in the late-90s. ABC now broadcasts the games, but they've cut the number of games televised on ESPN from over 120 per season to less that 85, and only telecasts Saturday afternoon games in the second half of the season, as well as limited playoff coverage. How do you build an audience for your sport with coverage like that? Answer: you don't.

Fourth, unrestricted free agency, whereby players forego their loyalty to a long-time club in pursuit of riches on other teams. Certainly, no one is advocating players be in servitude to one team for life, but obviously, the free agent bonanza has created the perception amongst fans that the players care only for money, and not for the fans in cities who supported them for years. Why be loyal to a player when he'll only leave in a few years to chase big bucks, turning his back on you?

With those factors in place, is it any wonder there are less folks filling NHL arenas than in the past?

Oh, by the way, the reason Bettman claims attendance is up over the last few years is due to the addition of four expansions clubs. The Nashville Predators, Columbus Blue Jackets, Atlanta Thrashers and Columbus Blue Jackets joined the league in that time, so naturally, attendance would be up.

However, in already established markets like Boston, Buffalo, Long Island, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Anaheim, Ottawa, Florida, New Jersey, Calgary, Washington and Phoenix, it's been dropping.

Yeah, the season tickets may be getting sold to corporations and the box seats may be sold, but there's still a lack of arses in the seats in those arenas on most nights. That means less revenue from parking, concessions, souvenirs and so on. That translates into less revenue for the teams, and in turn, for the league.

Unless the NHL can get a grip on the problems plaguing the game, the fans will continue to stay away.

Q: Last year Jose Theodore and Jarome Iginla were the two best players in the league and got major pay raises by their teams. This year, they're playing terribly. Has the money made them lazy, or is there more pressure on them this season? Are they for real, or one-year wonders?

A: I've heard those "flash-in-the-pan" critiques of both guys this season, and in my opinion, the people making those claims are talking out of their butts!

Iginla and Theodore seemed to come out of nowhere last season, but to fans of the Calgary Flames and Montreal Canadiens, as well as more knowledgeable hockey fans, they were slowly but surely building toward those break-out seasons a year ago. A quick check of their individuals stats proves it.

So why do they suck so bad this season?

I doubt the money is the main factor. Sure, it's a small part, but not the main reason.

First, there's more attention being paid to these two compared to last year. The expectations of the fans and media are much higher. The pressure on these two has to be tremendous, and their woeful performances this season certainly aren't helping to relieve that pressure.

Next, don't forget these two are still young (25 years old). Unlike guys like Orr, Lafleur, Gretzky, and Lemieux, who were well-established superstars by that point in their lives, Iginla and Theodore aren't used to the spotlight that's been cast on them, and never had it on them early in their careers. When you go from obscure player (in the minds of casual observers) to league superstar in one season, it's a helluva gear shift.

Third, and most important, their opponents aren't going to be caught by surprise this season as they were last year. Iginla is being watched more closely than last season, while teams are learning to exploit Theodore's weak points.

But, they're not one-year wonders. Iginla and Theodore will improve, if not during this season, then definitely by next season.

Q: Do you think the NHL will shut down after the collective bargaining agreement ends in 2004? What effects will this have on the league as a whole?

A: I sincerely hope not, but given the war of words in the media between Gary Bettman and NHLPA honcho Bob Goodnenow, it certainly appears either a player's strike or lockout is inevitable after the 2003-04 season.

The factor that could shut down the league is a salary cap. Put simply, the league (read: the owners) want a cap. The Players association does not.

The league says the players must become more reasonable with their salaries. The PA says, "hey, don't blame us because there are owners out there willing to pay them!"

Indeed, not only will individual salaries be capped, but there's talk of a league-wide cap, believed to be set between $30-$40 million per team. Any club who exceeds the cap would have to cut players, which would then be picked up either via free agency or dispersal draft by other teams.

Obviously, teams sitting among the top ten in payroll (Rangers, Flyers, Red Wings, Maple Leafs, Stars, Avalanche) aren't open to that possibility. It has the potential, not only to pit the owners against the players, but also owners against owners.

Small market teams in Canada and the USA cannot carry on if the status quo is maintained in the next CBA. If it doesn't satisfactorily address their plights, it could mean several of those clubs will fold.

Fans and media in the big market cities don't care. One need only to read commentary in the New York Post, Denver Post or Dallas Morning News, or check out the responses on the topic in any internet message board, to find that out. One suspects big-market ownership really wouldn't miss several of these smaller market clubs if they folded.

However, the league is only as strong as it's weakest link, and seeing four or six or ten franchises fold would be a huge embarrassment for the NHL, as well as a potential financial disaster.

And I'm not talking about little-loved expansion clubs like Nashville or Tampa Bay or Florida biting the big one. I'm also talking about long-established small market teams with history and (for the most part) loyal fans bases, like Buffalo and Vancouver and Pittsburgh and Edmonton and Calgary.

I'm talking about teams in supposedly big markets like the NY Islanders, New Jersey Devils, Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, Anaheim Mighty Ducks and Washington Capitals, where fans are, or have been, staying away.

I'm talking about teams holding out hope for an improved CBA like the Phoenix Coyotes and Ottawa Senators, well-managed teams that are strapped for cash and grimly struggling to hang on until the current one ends.

Take a good look at those 30 NHL franchises, and I bet you can spot at least ten that could be goners by the end of the decade if the owners and it's players can't come to some sort of arrangement that will benefit both sides.

Q: Why do you hate (the Ottawa Sun's) Bruce Garrioch, (the Toronto Sun's) Al Strachan and (the New York Post's) Larry Brooks so much?

A. Hate is a strong word, and I don't hate these three. They've done nothing to me personally that would make me want to hate them.

When they stick to reporting the games, I believe they do a fine job. It's their trade rumour reports I have a problem with.

Granted, all hockey reporters write of potential trades, and yes, they've all had rumours they reported come to nothing.

However, when it comes to unsubstantiated speculations that rarely pan out, Garrioch, Strachan and Brooks corner the market . If these guys were baseball players, their batting average would be so atrocious they wouldn't make the lineup of a Beer League Slo-Pitch team!

Worse, their rumours get picked up by other media sources and reported as gospel. In my opinion, this makes the hockey media community look like fools. A lot of coaches and GMS have low enough opinion of the fourth estate as it is. This sort of thing merely adds to it.

I don't know if Garrioch, Strachan and Brooks realize it, or if they even care, but their "rumours" are losing them credibility amongst hockey fans. Post up any rumour on an internet message board attributed to them, and a storm of responses will ineviably appear, slamming the rumour, the reporter and the poor sod who made the mistake of posting it in the first place.

The one thing I will give these three is they make it fun for me to shoot down their speculations. In turn, that adds to the popularity of my site. For that, gentlemen, I thank you!

 

THE AX FALLS IN SAN JOSE AND CALGARY.

Sharks Sutter, Flames Gilbert fired.

It took two months into the 2002-03 season before a coach lost his job, but it finally happened. In the case of one, it was long expected, if not over-due. In the case of the other, it was seen as a scapegoat move designed to deflect criticism away from management.

That's two of the three categories the firing of an NHL coach usually falls under. You're given your pink slip because either your team just isn't performing, you've been hamstrung by a front office that probably wasn't all that keen in retaining your services, or you've butted heads with a star player, resulting in an "he-goes-or-I-go" situation.

We haven't seen the last one rise up yet, but in the recent firings of now-former Calgary Flames head coach Greg Gilbert and San Jose Shark bench boss Daryl Sutter, the other two categories certainly apply.

Sutter's firing came first, catching many observers off-guard, as most hockey fans expected Gilbert to be the first to go. More on that later.

The Sharks were off to a struggling start this season, though little of that was Sutter's fault. GM Dean Lombardi decided to do his usual hard-ball approach to player contract negotiations, this time with Evgeni Nabokov and Brad Stuart. Thus, the Sharks began the season minus their best goalie and defenceman respectively.

As the Sharks wallowed neared the bottom of the Western Conference, Lombardi eventually caved and got Nabokov and Stuart under contract. The club appeared to be reversing their woeful early-season fortunes, but it wasn't quick enough for the Sharks GM.

The suspicion amongst media and many Sharks fans is Sutter was a lame-duck this season, regardless of how his team performed.

Despite taking over a moribund Sharks team five years ago and turning it into a perennial playoff team, the big knock on Sutter was his club seemed to lack the ability to rise from being merely a playoff club to one of legitimate Cup contender.

Certainly, the talent on the roster suggests such a leap was possible. But Sutter's abrasive, no-nonsense style was seen as the reason why the Sharks couldn't rise to the next level. When the chips were down, Sutter couldn't motivate his team into a Cup contender.

The basis for this criticism was the Sharks inability to eliminate the Colorado Avalanche in the 2002 playoffs, falling to the defending Cup champs in seven bitter games after seemingly having the Avs on the ropes with a 3-2 series lead.

Is the criticism justified? Possibly, but we'll never know for certain. It wasn't Sutter's fault he had to start the season with Nabokov and Stuart, not to mention veteran blueliner Gary Suter who, it was whispered, retired rather than return to spend another season playing for Sutter. That's laughable, for Suter was an unrestricted free agent and would've found plenty of takers if he'd wanted to shop himself around the league.

If this were the mid-way or stretch run portion of the season, and the Sharks were struggling to make the post-season, axing Sutter might have made more sense. To plunge the dagger this early in the season suggests Sutter's fate was sealed much earlier.

In my opinion, Sutter at least deserved another twenty games to turn his struggling roster around. The Sharks remain in striking distance of a playoff berth, and there's plenty of time, not to mention talent on the Sharks roster, to get back into the running.

But life is never fair, and that's certainly true when it comes to the coaching in the NHL.

Still, one shouldn't feel pity for Sutter. . He's built up a good reputation due to the work he did behind the Sharks bench over the past five years, so he won't be unemployed for long.

Gilbert's firing, on the other hand, was the inevitable end to a prolonged death-watch of his tenure with the Flames.

When the Flames leapt from the starting gate last season, posting up one of the best records in the league in those giddy two months, it appeared to mark a reversal of several seasons of misfortune for the Calgary franchise. Gilbert, who replaced Don Hay during the final weeks of the 2000-01 season, was widely praised for his efforts and was considered an early favourite for Coach-of-the-Year.

Unfortunately, in December 2001the Flames went into a swoon they never recovered from, and missed the playoffs for the sixth straight season. That funk carried over into this campaign, reaching it's nadir by the end of November, when the struggling Flames posted the worst one-month record in club history.

From the start of this season, everything went wrong for Gilbert. Goaltender Roman Turek battled injury and inconsistency. Their promising young blueline played well in their own end, but struggled with the transition game. Centre Marc Savard clashed with Gilbert, carrying over their feud from the previous season, resulting in his trade to the Atlanta Thrashers. Worst of all, last season's Ross-Richard-Pearson winner, Jarome Iginla, was firing blanks, seemingly unable to carry over his red-hot scoring touch from the previous season.

As speculation grew that Gilbert's coaching tenure was nearing an end, his players spoke out, professing loyalty and promises of improved performance. The loyalty may have been genuine, but the promise of better play proved empty.

Some may point to Gilbert's clashes with Savard as the reason for his demise, but that's missing the mark. As talented offensively as Savard is, his poor defensive game would get him jacked up by every other coach in the league. Sure, the Thrashers claim to be happy to have him, but remember, this is the team that scratched scoring wizard Ilya Kovalchuk for his lousy defensive stats. If they'll do it to a future Richard winner like Kovalchuk, they'll have no qualms of doing the same to Savard.

But I digress. Gilbert's disputes with Savard may have sent a ripple or two through the Flames dressing room, but it wasn't what got him fired. The bottom line was, as much as the Flames claimed to like Gilbert, they didn't respect him. That lack of respect transformed into poor play, despite having a roster that, by rights, is talented enough to be a playoff contender.

It was inevitiable. Gilbert simply wasn't getting through to his troops, and in the end, it cost him. The only shame in this sorry story is the Flames front office allowed the death-watch go on as long as it did.

The question now is, who can the Flames bring in to turn their struggling club around? Whoever they get, they'll have to be good enough to not only get the Flames back into playoff contention quickly, but also to get this club to play up to it's potential in the future. That type of coach has been missing in Calgary for a long time.

As for Gilbert, he'll probably end up coaching again, although it may be some time before he's behind the bench of an NHL club again. Sutter at least has a record of reasonable success, which will translate into another NHL head coaching job if he wants it. The same, sadly, cannot be said for Gilbert.

 

END OF THE ROAD FOR RICHTER?

The hockey world was shocked this past week when it was announced long-time NY Rangers goaltender Mike Richter was finished for the rest of the 2002-03 season. Richter, who suffered a concussion earlier this season, is still struggling with post-concussive symptoms, and his doctors decided it best for him to take the remainder of the season off to allow time for his symptoms to clear.

This injury is the latest in a series that have plagued Richter for the past several years. He struggled with knee injuries that ultimately required off-season reconstructive surgery to repair in the spring of 2001. He returned to his usually strong form last season, most notably in a starring role with Team USA at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, backstopping that squad to a silver medal.

But then came a fractured skull and concussion when he took a shot off the side of his head in a March 2002 game, which finished him for the remainder of the '01-'02, as well as the last hopes of the Rangers in ending their playoff drought.

As if the physical pain wasn't bad enough, Richter found himself in the off-season watching Rangers management bidding for unrestricted free agent peers like Curtis Joseph and Ed Belfour. Only when the Rangers lost out in the bidding wars for those two did they offer a new deal to Richter, for considerably less than what he'd previously made with the club. With his age and injury history keeping other clubs from calling, and the desire to finish his career in New York still strong, Richter quietly accepted the offer.

He came back this season determined to prove to management, fans and the New York media that he hadn't lost it, that he had put his injuries behind him and could still deliver the quality goaltending he had for years as a Blueshirt.

Richter understood his role this season was to share the workload more evenly with promising youngster Dan Blackburn, to act as the kid's tutor and have him benefit from Richter's experience and expertise.

Never a prima donna who chafed at sharing the goaltending limelight, Richter accepted his role, happy to have a chance to get his career back on track, and remain with the only team he'd ever played for.

His stats this season weren't terrific, they weren't bad either. In recent seasons Richter had been saddled with a swiss-cheese blueline corps and a team defensive concept that was practically non-existant. Yet rarely did Richter criticize his teammates, playing the good soldier and bravely facing every challenge as wave after wave of opponents bore down on him in game after game.

Then, a seemingly innocuous bump to his head during a goalmouth scramble, unintentionally provided by the knee of Edmonton Oilers forward Todd Marchant, sent Ricther spinning off into the nightmare of concussion symptoms that would plague him for weeks.

Richter gamely tried to overcome his ailment in hopes of returning to a Rangers club that badly needed his services. As promising as Blackburn is, he's struggling under the added burden of carrying the goalie chores alone.

Richter wanted to come back, wanted to help his young apprentice, wanted to help his struggling teammates, wanted to help the Rangers win. But post-concussion symptoms simply wasn't allowing him to do this. His aching, fuzzy head was too much. It finished it season.

It may have finished his career.

Critics might bring up how many players have returned from more numerous bell-ringers than the two Richter has sustained in the past year. But ask any neurologist or head trauma specialist, and they'll tell you each injury, and each sufferer, is unique. What one person may be able to recover quickly from could waylay another person for days, weeks, months, perhaps even years.

Scant hours after Richter's announcement he was done for the season, Rangers GM Glen Sather traded forward Rem Murray and two blueline prospects to Nashville for Mike Dunham.

Sather had no choice. Blackburn is wilting under the intense pressure, and there is no one in his farm system capable enough to help the kid. The Rangers have missed the post-season the last five years, and there is a real danger they could miss it again next spring.

Dunham comes in with good credentials. A seven-year veteran, he'd been the starting goalie for the Nashville Predators since 1998-99, when he was the first pick of that club in it's expansion draft. He's never had a save percentage below .905, and only once has his goals-against average climbed above 3.00. He'd also rattled off two-straight twenty-win seasons, not bad for a guy backstopping a team that's struggled to build into a playoff contender since it's inception four years ago.

He also has the advantage of being used to playing in the demanding New York area. Dunham began his career with the New Jersey Devils as Martin Brodeur's under-study and played well in limited action there.

There is a downside, in that Dunham himself has an injury history, but it's not as severe as that of Ricther.

If Richter cannot recuperate from his injury, his career is finished. But even if he makes a full recovery and returns healthy next season, the presence of Dunham could spell the end of his tenure as a Ranger.

Dunham is younger (30 to Richter's 36), he's been healthier compared to Richter's litany of serious injuries, and his stats playing for an inferior team over the past three seasons have been better than Richter's.

If Dunham can play well enough to keep the Rangers close to post-season contention, he'll have accomplished as much as Richter did last season, for far less money ($2.8 mil to Richter's $4 mil). If he can backstop the Blueshirts to their first playoff appearance since 1997, he'll have done more in one season than Richter has in five.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out what happens next.

That may be the cruelest blow of all to Richter, a guy who bleeds Ranger blue, who is considered by some to be "the greatest goaltender in Rangers history".

To have a great career ended by injury is one thing. But to have your continued association with the only NHL club you've ever played for ended because of nagging injuries...well, let's just say that might hurt worse than any injury Richter has ever suffered.

SPECTOR'S CHRISTMAS WISH LIST.

With the holiday season upon us once again, here's my Christmas wish list for the National Hockey League:

For the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, continued improvement that will hopefully bring the fans back to the Arrowhead Pond. For Paul Kariya, a chance to once again captain a playoff-bound team

For Atlanta Thrashers GM Don Waddell, the rugged defenceman he's been vainly seeking since October. For Dany Heatley, a fast recuperation from his recent groin injury.

For Boston Bruins fans, a committment from owner Jeremy Jacobs to build - and maintain - a Cup contender. For Sergei Samsonov, a smooth recovery from his imminent wrist surgery.

For the Buffalo Sabres, new ownership who'll not only keep the team in Buffalo where they belong and make them competitive, but also won't one day get hauled off in handcuffs.

For the Calgary Flames, Ted Nolan or Bob Hartley as head coach. And for Jarome Iginla, a return to his high-scoring form. And for Flames fans, a second half improvement that puts their club into the post-season.

For the Carolina Hurricanes, a healthy return to form of goalie Kevin Weekes, defenceman Bret Hedican and centre Josef Vasicek. For GM Jim Rutherford and head coach Paul Maurice, the respect they deserve for the job they've done with the 'Canes.

For the Chicago Blackhawks, long-overdue enlightenment for owner Bill Wirtz so he'll quit killing interest in hockey by screwing over die-hard 'Hawks fans. For Theo Fleury, a happy, sober life.

For the Columbus Blue Jackets, a legitimate shot at a playoff berth. And a pat on the back for GM Doug MacLean for the fantastic job he's done in less than six months to turn his club from expansion pushovers to potential post-season contender.

For the Colorado Avalanche, a big mirror so the entire roster can look at who to blame for their average performance this season. For recently-fired head coach Bob Hartley, the opportunity to coach again in the NHL.

For the Dallas Stars, a speedy recovery from another concussion for Mike Modano. For goalie Marty Turco, continued strides out of the lingering shadow of Ed Belfour.

For the Detroit Red Wings, a triumphant return to action of team captain Steve Yzerman. And a quick re-signing of Sergei Fedorov. And the realization of management they probably should've signed Ed Belfour instead of Curtis Joseph.

For the Edmonton Oilers, a return to the playoffs and a lengthy playoff run. And the hope that in 2004, the league owners and the players association will work out a new CBA that'll benefit small-market clubs like the Oilers.

For the Florida Panthers, thick skins to the more sensitive-souled on the club to cushion them from the verbal barrages of coach Mike Keenan. For Roberto Luongo, a return to form, and for centre Olli Jokinen, a continuation of his surprising performance this season.

For the Los Angeles Kings, the ability to finally beat the hated Colorado Avalanche in the playoffs. For defenceman Aaron Miller and forward Adam Deadmarsh, a healthy return from injury.

For the Minnesota Wild, applause for their strong performance in their breakout season. This, folks, is how an expansion team is built from nothing to playoff contender in less than five years. And for Marian Gaborik, duly earned recognition as one of the rising young superstars in the game!

For the Montreal Canadiens, a couple of big, strong talented forwards and defencemen. Either that, or some poor sap who'll take overpaid under-achievers Donald Audette and Mariusz Czerkawski off their hands. Failing that, a return to form of goalie Jose Theodore.

For the Nashville Predators, a miraculous improvement for a promising young franchise that has painfully gone off the rails this season. Or padding for the arses of GM Dave Poile and coach Barry Trotz when ownership boots them out the door by season's end.

For the New Jersey Devils, a much-needed boost to their anemic offensive game. I hear Jason Arnott may be available. If that's not possible, the wish that Patrik Elias, Scott Gomez, Jeff Friesen and Joe Nieuwendyk rediscover their offensive touch.

For the New York Islanders, a reversal of fortune. They'll need it to save their season. Otherwise, GM Mike Milbury will start making trades, and we all know what an adventure that can be!

For the New York Rangers, the long-overdue realization you cannot build a playoff team by overpaying free agent veterans and gutting your farm club by dealing away youth for more overpaid veterans. It's been six years and counting, folks. Who said Rangers fans won't wait for a winner?

For the Ottawa Senators, a big, nasty power forward who'll give them the extra shot of grit they need to take the next step to Cup contention. Oh, and a lot more money so they won't have to keep borrowing from the league to make their payroll.

For the Philadelphia Flyers, new management. It's been over eight years, and what has Clarke achieved? Nothing! Anybody else would've walked the plank years ago, but owner Ed Snider treats Clarke like a son. Well, Ed, it's time to send that son to bed without supper and let someone else have a go.

For the Phoenix Coyotes, a healthy roster. Injuries have hamstrung the Coyotes development this season. If they were healthier, they'd probably be much higher in the standings.

For the Pittsburgh Penguins, a better blueline corps, more scoring depth, more money, and a new arena. But if none of those things are possible, a healthy season for Mario Lemieux.

For the St. Louis Blues, like the Coyotes, they need a healthier roster. Injuries have cut a swath through the roster, and if it weren't for their strong team play, and the goaltending of Fred Brathwaite, they'd be wallowing in the basement of the Western Conference. Speaking of Brathwaite, let's hope he gets dealt to as good a team as the Blues when GM Larry Pleau finally cuts him loose.

For the San Jose Sharks, a GM who won't make his coach the scapegoat for his blunders. Come on, Dean Lombardi, you know damn well who's responsible for your club's poor start this season. You don't force your best goalie and defenceman into contract holdouts and then blame the coach when the team starts the season poorly!

For the Tampa Bay Lightning, my sincere hope their fast start will continue throughout the rest of the season. Your long-suffering fans deserve it. And for Vinny Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, a hearty welcome to the upper echelon of NHL stars.

For the Toronto Maple Leafs, a better general manager. The Leafs would be an improved team if Steve Sullivan, Yannic Perreault, Danny Markov and Dmitry Yushkevich were still on the roster, rather than Shayne Corson, Robert Reichel, Mikael Renberg and Robert Svehla. Pat Quinn must relinquish the management reins to someone more worthy.

For the Vancouver Canucks, the mantle of "Canada's Team". They're far more deserving of the accolade than the Maple Leafs. And my hope ownership and management will be able to keep this rising young club together for a long time.

For the Washington Capitals, a better defence corps, and for Jaromir Jagr to step up and start earning his nearly $11 mil per season. With the amount of money the Caps paid out for him, it's almost a crime Jagr isn't playing up to form.

For NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA honcho Bob Goodenow, cooperation and understanding in drafting up a workable new Collective Bargaining Agreement. One that gives small market clubs a real chance to compete with their big-market brethren, puts some form of reasonable salary cap in place, and most importantly, prevents the league from shutting down in 2004.

For all my readers, all the best to you and yours this holiday season!

SPECTOR'S FIRST HALF AWARDS.

With the mid-season point almost upon us, here's my take of those deserving of my "First Half Awards".

- Best team: Ottawa Senators. No club was hotter in the first half than the Sens, who've been on fire since early November. Not bad for a team that's having money problems. Still, the Senators could dominate the rest of the way and it won't mean squat until they finally take the next step and become a legitimate Cup contender.

- Worst team: Buffalo Sabres. On and off the ice, this club has been in a downward spiral. With the threat of bankruptcy and relocation hanging over them like a dark shroud, don't expect things to get better in the second half.

- Most overrated team: Toronto Maple Leafs. Canada's team? I think not. The Ottawa Senators and Vancouver Canucks are more worthy of that accolade than the Leafs. Apart from going to a couple of Conference Finals, what has this club really done in the past few years?

- Most underrated team: Anaheim Mighty Ducks. Lost in the hype over the surprising performances of the Minnesota Wild and Tampa Bay Lighting is the resurgence of the Ducks, who've been quietly playing much better this season than most expected them to. They're presently in the hunt for one of the final playoff spots in the East and are not a team to be taken lightly.

- Most surprising team (tie): Tampa Bay Lightning, Minnesota Wild. Sceptics expected these two to sink to the bottom of the standings by mid-season, yet they're still in the thick of the playoff race. As the season progresses, the Bolts and Wild are proving to doubters they're for real.

-Most disappointing team (tie): New York Rangers, NY Islanders. Has it finally sunk in to the Rangers organization and their fans that you cannot buy a winner? All that talent and they're already in danger of missing the playoffs for the sixth straight season. As for the Isles, all the promise of last season has faded away as they struggle to get back into a playoff berth. The return of captain Mike Peca from injury may help, but will it come in time to save the season?

Most snakebitten team: Phoenix Coyotes. If it weren't for all the injuries they've suffered this season, the Desert Dawgs would be a much better hockey club. If they get some of their injured guys back healthy in the second half, especially goalie Sean Burke, the Coyotes could get back into the playoff picture again.

Best player: Mario Lemieux. On a team lacking quality depth throughout it's roster, Lemieux has almost single-handedly made the Penguins a better team than they are. He's presently on pace for a 140 point season and is far ahead of anyone else in the scoring race. Now that, folks, is true greatness that we haven't seen in this league in a long time.

Second best player: Joe Thornton. If it weren't for Lemieux, Thornton would be the clear choice for the Hart trophy this season. Given his steady improvement over the past two years, it's not surprising. Thornton is now ready to join the long list of Bruins greats.

Most over-rated player: Eric Lindros. The next one? Take a good look at the fellow leading an otherwise mediocre Penguins team there, Eric. That's what greatness looks like. On a team full of overpaid under-achievers, Lindros stands out as the worst of all.

Most under-rated: Jocelyn Thibault. For years he's taken his knocks over his worthiness as a starting goaltender. This season "T-Bo" has thus far silenced those critics, yet outside of Chicago, you rarely hear a word about his stellar goaltending.

Biggest breakthroughs (tie): Marian Gaborik, Wild; Vincent Lecavalier, Lightning. These two are perhaps the biggest reasons their respective clubs have been so surprising this season. Gaborik is among the league leaders in goals, while Lecavalier's improved all-round play is heralding his long-awaited breakthrough into stardom.

Most disappointing players (tie): Jarome Iginla, Flames; Jose Theodore, Canadiens. The two most valuable players of 2001-02 have been shadows of themselves this season. Theodore, the Hart-Vezina-Crozier winner, has recently returned to his strong form, which gives his Canadiens hope for returning to the playoffs. However, Iginla, hampered by injury and distracted by the off-ice turmoil over the club's coaching, has yet to return to his Pearson-Richard-Ross winning ways, which doesn't bode well for the Flames hopes of ending their seven year streak of post-season absences.

Captains Courageous (tie) Michael Peca, Islanders; Steve Yzerman, Red Wings. Both suffered serious knee injuries that required off-season surgery last summer. Peca came back much earlier than expected and has been a positive force for his struggling Isles. Yzerman is still sidelined and training for a comeback, even while his doctor admits the odds are 50-50 of this happening. Nobody, however, is dumb enough to bet against "Stevie Y".

Biggest waste of money: Jaromir Jagr. Maybe he's being plagued by injuries we're not aware of. Maybe he's past his prime. Maybe his heart just isn't in it anymore. Regardless, Jagr is definitely not earning his nearly $11 million US per season. Indeed, he's worth barely half that right now. If he had any conscience at all, he'd go to management and renegotiate his contract to free up money to bring in more depth for the Caps swiss-cheese blueline.

Best coach: Jacques Lemaire, Wild. Nobody thought his club could cope with the rule changes on obstruction, but the crafty Lemaire exploited them by using his team's speed to his advantage. Should the Wild make the playoffs, and it appears likely they will, Lemaire should win coach-of-the-year accolades.

Worst coach: Michel Therrien, Montreal Canadiens. Let's face it, if it weren't for the Habs strong goaltending, they'd be wallowing in the depths of the Eastern Conference. The Canadiens are consistently outshot by wide margins game after game, and show no signs of improving defensively. That's because Therrien doesn't seem to grasp the importance of defensive hockey. Yeah, I know, the Habs are one of the league's smaller clubs, but that's no excuse for not playing a better defensive game.

Best General Manager: Brian Burke, Vancouver Canucks. There are plenty of great GMs in this league, but Burke's work in turning the Canucks from a moribund also-ran into a powerhouse in the West puts him above all others this season. Sadly, his efforts have gone largely unnoticed around the league, and he gets unfairly bashed at times in the local press. His work in building the Canucks on a tight budget is worthy of much more.

Worst General Manager: Glen Sather, New York Rangers. He was supposed to rebuild the Rangers with youth in the same way he managed the Edmonton Oilers for all those years. Instead, he's done no better than his oft-maligned predecessor, Neil Smith, shipping out young talent to make room for overpaid underachieving veterans. The Rangers have the biggest payroll in the league but are one of it's worst teams. So much for the "genius" of Sather.

Best acquisitions: the deals that landed the Washington Capitals forwards Michael Nylander and Mike Grier. Since coming over from Chicago, Nylander has been on a tear, averaging a point per game and leading the Caps in scoring for most of this season. Meanwhile, Grier has been rejuvenated since coming over from Edmonton, providing the Caps much-needed muscle and extra scoring depth up front.

Worst trade: For the first time in recent memory, a trade hurt both teams. It was universally agreed the deal that saw the Calgary Flames ship defenceman Derek Morris to the Colorado Avalanche as part of a package deal to land forward Chris Drury in a return package would benefit both teams. Instead, it's had the opposite effect. Losing Drury's timely offence has hurt the Avs, while the Flames have missed Morris's offensive presence on their blueline.

Here now are my first-half picks for the NHL's individual awards.

Hart, Pearson and Ross: Mario Lemieux. Unless he gets sidelined by injury in the second half, he wins these awards in a walk.

Vezina: Ed Belfour, Toronto Maple Leafs. Face facts, gang, the only reason the Leafs are even in the midst of the playoff race is due to the play of Eddie the Eagle. He may not be as fan-friendly as his predecessor, Curtis Joseph, but Belfour is clearly the better netminder and perhaps the smartest free agent signing Pat Quinn has ever made.

Norris: Nicklas Lidstrom, Red Wings. This guy is the dominant defenceman in the NHL right now. No one comes close to matching Lidstroms all-round skills.

Selke: Jere Lehtinen, Dallas Stars. Consistently one of the best defensive forwards in the game, Lehtinen has been head and shoulders above all others thus far this season.

Calder: If leading all rookie scorers is the yardstick for measuring rookie-of-the-year nominees, Chicago centre Tyler Arnason is thus the first half winner. If he can only improve on his faceoff skills, he'd be even better.

Adams: Jacques Lemaire, Minnesota Wild. Shot down the myth he was solely a one-dimensional coach, and proved once again he's one of the best coaches in the league. His ability to develop young talent is one of the big reasons the Wild are a playoff contender.