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On December 5th the Detroit Red Wings sent goaltender Curtis Joseph down to their minor league affiliate in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This move was done to remove the tension in the Wings dressing room of carrying three netminders on their roster.

Joseph, signed by the Wings in the summer of 2002 to a three-year contract as an unrestricted free agent, found himself the odd man out in Detroit after former starting goalie Dominik Hasek decided to come out of retirement last summer and return to the Wings.

Although "CuJo" was signed as a replacement for Hasek, it's believed Wings management didn't want to risk losing "the Dominator" to another club, particularly their arch-rivals, the Colorado Avalanche.

There is also speculation the front office may have lost faith in Joseph as their starter after the Wings, the defending Stanley Cup champions, were bounced from the 2003 playoffs in a shocking first-round sweep at the hands of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks.

To date the Red Wings have been unsuccessful in their attempt to trade Joseph to another team.

Before proceeding further, let me state that I'm not a fan of Curtis Joseph. I've long considered him over-rated as a goaltender, and was critical of his attempt to be paid as much as Mats Sundin during his failed contract negotiations with his former club, the Toronto Maple Leafs. I didn't believe his career up to that point merited a contract worth more than those of proven champions like Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur and former Vezina winners Olaf Kolzig and Jose Theodore, and I still don't.

When the Wings decided to pick up the option year on Hasek and expressed their intentions on trading Joseph, I had little sympathy for him. But having had time to think about it, I reached the conclusion that, regardless of my feelings about Joseph's playing ability or his salary demands with his former club, he didn't deserve what happened to him.

He signed a contract with the Wings with the knowledge he'd be their starting goalie. Yet after only one year, he's now being cast aside for yesterday's hero.

He was hired for a job to replace somebody who retired, but now finds himself being forced out because his predecessor decided to come out of retirement and seek his old job back.

I know if that were to happen to me, I'd be pissed off, regardless of my employers calling around trying to find someone else to take on me and my salary.

I made this point in recent comments on this situation in my trade rumours page the same day Joseph was sent down to Grand Rapids, based on a report in the Toronto Star:

It's a real mess for Joseph, but... while it would be easy to slam him for this, the real culprit is the Wings front office, who signed CuJo to that salary in the first place, decided to bring back Dominik Hasek after unfairly making Cujo the scapegoat for last spring's playoff loss to the Mighty Ducks, and now can't find any suitors to take that contract off their hands. That, folks, is called bad management and Joseph doesn't deserve that treatment, regardless of whether you like him or hate him.

These comments brought in quick responses from some Red Wings fans who disagreed with my take.

Thus I've decided to use today's Soapbox to address a compilation of the key points raised by those fans with the rest of my readers. If you have anything to add, please send it along and I'll post it to my "Fans Speak Out" section.

And my thanks to those knowledgeable fans who raised these points with me. You folks kept the discourse friendly and lively and I enjoyed the debate on this topic. Their e-mails can be found in my "Fans Speak Out" section.

- The Wings made this move because they want to ice the best team they can. That's what separates them from many of the losing franchises in the NHL. Any team that wins three Cups in six years is not badly managed.

I never claimed the Wings were a badly managed team. I said their handling of this particularly situation is bad management. Even the best GMs can suffer brainfarts and Ken Holland is no different.

- If they hadn't signed Hasek, he would've gone off and signed with another team, probably Colorado.

How do we know this for certain? Hasek claimed he only wanted to play for the Red Wings. If we take him at his word, then the Wings had nothing to fear. Still, with Patrick Roy having recently retired, I think the Avs would've contacted Hasek and he might've signed with them.

But so what? They committed a hefty long-term deal to Curtis Joseph and designated him their main man between the pipes. If they had any faith in CuJo, they would've stuck by him and wished Hasek the best of luck in his future endeavours.

After all, this is a team that won their last three Stanley Cups with three different goaltenders. As I recall, they didn't toss Mike Vernon or Chris Osgood aside when they failed to bring the Cup to Detroit in their first seasons guarding the Wings net.

- Wings management didn't create this situation, Hasek did by coming out of retirement.

Here's where Wings GM Ken Holland dropped the ball. When Hasek retired, Holland should've confirmed "the Dominator" filed his retirement papers before spending all that dough on his replacement. When Hasek made known his desire to return to the Wings, Holland could've said "thanks but we've already got a starting goalie". It was Holland's decision to pick up Hasek's option year, coupled with his failure to ensure Hasek filed retirement papers the year prior, that created this situation.

- The Wings decided to go with Hasek because Joseph played poorly last season/in the playoffs.

If that's the case, then it confirms my suspicions that, their public support aside, the Wings front office considered Joseph at fault for last spring's debacle.

And as the stats show, Joseph didn't play that poorly (2.08 GAA, .917 SP) in those four games. Of course, it would've helped if his teammates could've scored, but they took the Ducks too lightly and when they finally did wake up to reality, it was too late.

Joseph's stats last season (32 wins, 5 shutouts, 2.49 GAA, .911 SP) disproves the notion he played poorly last season. Yes, I know they're not great compared to those of Marty Turco and Martin Brodeur last season, but they're not terrible.

- The same situation happened in Toronto when the Leafs signed Joseph as a free agent when they already had Felix Potvin on the roster. The Leafs did what they felt was right for their club and so are the Wings.

And was Joseph to blame for that? In fact, this isn't quite the same situation at all. Joseph wasn't coming to Toronto asking for his old job back like Hasek did. The Leafs pursued Joseph, not the other way round.

- Hasek was the goalie who helped them win their last Stanley Cup, something Joseph couldn't accomplish.

As I noted earlier, the Wings won their last three Cups in six years with three different goalies. Yet they didn't toss aside Chris Osgood and Mike Vernon when they failed to win the Cup after their first seasons in Detroit. They were given other chances, so why not give CuJo another shot? They were willing to be patient with Osgood and Vernon when Holland was assistant GM back then, but I guess his patience must be shorter now that he's the general manager.

- Joseph's getting what he deserved because he spurned Toronto to come to Detroit to win a Stanley Cup. It just goes to show you should be careful for what you wish for, you might just get it...

And you could apply the same saying to the Wings and Dominik Hasek.

- Wings GM Ken Holland is only human and is going to make mistakes.

And Joseph's not human and not allowed to make them? I never claimed that Holland was a bad general manager, but his handling of this situation is more than just committing mistakes. Had he faith in Joseph or took the time to ensure Hasek filed retirement papers in 2002, he wouldn't have created this mess.

- Joseph's contract was not ridiculous. They needed a goalie comparable to Hasek to replace him and that's why they signed CuJo.

If they wanted a truly "comparable" goaltender to Hasek, the Wings front office should've taken the advice of Steve Yzerman, Brett Hull and Brendan Shanahan and signed Eddie Belfour. Regardless, it's that hefty contract that makes CuJo unmoveable right now. Obviously Ken Holland believed Joseph was the right man to replace Hasek, otherwise he wouldn't have signed him to a three-year, $24 million deal.

- CuJo took less money to come to Detroit even though there were other teams interested in him that would've paid more. The Wings got him at a discount.

The Leafs offered Joseph $9 million per season for two seasons. The Wings got him for $8 mil per season for three seasons. That's hardly a discount. The Leafs and Wings were the only clubs seriously negotiating for Joseph. The Rangers were chasing Bobby Holik and Darius Kasparaitis and the Dallas Stars already had Marty Turco and were pursuing Bill Guerin and others. While other teams may have made inquiries, only the Leafs and Wings were serious about Joseph.

-The Red Wings never made Joseph the scapegoat for last spring's playoff upset and publicly supported him.

Their decision to bring back Hasek indicates otherwise. If they had full confidence in Joseph, and honestly felt he wasn't the scapegoat for last spring's disaster, they would'nt have picked up Hasek's option year and taken their chances with CuJo.

- The current trade market dictates that they cannot move Joseph right now. That's not bad management but rather a confluence of unfortunate events.

Holland failed to ensure Hasek filed retirement papers with the league before he went in pursuit of Joseph. He signed CuJo to a three year, $24 million US contract with a no-trade clause. He's the one who decided to pick up Hasek's option year. He also knows of the uncertainty regarding the outcome of the next CBA. Even if there were a booming trade market for goalies right now, concerns over the next round of labour talks would still make Joseph a difficult sell with that hefty contract. These weren't just unfortunate events. This was bungling on Ken Holland's part.


CASSIDY FIRED: Can't say we didn't see this one coming. After months of turmoil that had carried over from last season, the Washington Capitals finally fired head coach Bruce Cassidy this past week.

Some questioned the Caps decision to hire a coach with no previous NHL experience as their bench boss, given the considerable egos of some of the players that would be under him.

Although Cassidy did get the Capitals into the playoffs last season, he butted heads with stars like Jaromir Jagr and Peter Bondra, as well as with long-time Caps like defenceman Calle Johansson. The club's upset loss in the opening round of last spring's playoffs and the subsequent retirement of Johansson was considered proof that Cassidy couldn't motivate his charges.

The situation got progressively worse when this season began. He'd been hamstrung by management who failed to bring in suitable replacements for the departed Johansson and Ken Klee (free agency), which seriously weakened his blueline.

Throw in Jagr's obvious unhappiness along with that of goalie Olaf Kolzig and the mounting losses as the season progressed, and it was obvious Cassidy's days in Washington were numbered.

The final straw was Cassidy's lashing out at the perception some players may be using their families as excuses not to work harder. Although he apologized for his remarks, it was too late to save his job.

Assistant coach Glen Hanlon took over for Cassidy in the interim, but it remains to be seen if his fortunes will be better than his predecessor.

And whether he likes it or not, Jagr has added to his reputation as a "coach-killer".

COMRIE ASKED TO PAY TO BE DEALT: Seems some folks disagreed with my opinion that Oilers GM Kevin Lowe was wrong to demand holdout centre Mike Comrie to pay over $2 million bucks to facilitate a potential trade to Anaheim.

As I stated in my comments about this on my trade rumours page, Lowe is a shrewd general manager and I don't doubt that he's looking for the best deal he can find for his team.

But I can recall no incident in my thirty plus years of following the NHL where a player had to pay a team in order to be traded.

If Lowe can't find a better deal for a player of Comrie's skills than the prospect and draft pick the Mighty Ducks were offering, perhaps that has to do with Comrie gaining a reputation for being sensitive to criticism and difficult to negotiate with. It doesn't say much for what he's been getting offered by other clubs.

As for not asking for cash from the Ducks, either Murray won't have that much to free up, or the Ducks GM knows how desperate Lowe is to move Comrie and isn't willing to give it up. It would certainly explain the lack of outrage from the NHLPA. It also further highlights just how cash-strapped the Oilers are, having to ask a player to pay to be traded so that they can use the money to pay another player being brought in from a seperate deal.

And if the asking price for Comrie is a player, pick and cash, that's considerably less than what was perceived to be Lowe's asking price of a scoring centre or top four d-man. No wonder his phone has started ringing again!

Regardless of Lowe's intent, it may have killed off any chance of a deal with the Ducks before the Christmas trade freeze, and possibly for good.

Meaning the Comrie holdout saga might still have more time to run.

THEODORE ROUNDING INTO FORM: Remember all the chatter this past summer about Montreal Canadiens goalie Jose Theodore?

After a poor followup up last season to his Hart-Vezina-Crozier performance the year prior, some in the media and more than a few fans were painting him as the second coming of Jim Carey.

And when several of his relatives were arrested on loansharking charges this past summer, several talking heads assured us the Canadiens would move Theodore rather than risk his family's off-ice woes becoming a distraction.

Those who made these claims didn't know Theodore's character.

To be the starting goaltender in Montreal, you must have strength of character and supreme confidence in your abilities. That's what separates the Patrick Roys from the Jocelyn Thibaults in Habland.

It's been obvious for several years that Theodore had these characteristics. And they've never been more evident than this season.

Theodore has answered his critics with a strong start to this season, ranking among the league leaders in wins and shutouts while posting a GAA of 2.26 and an SP of .923 as of this writing. And he seems to be getting stronger with each passing game.

If Theodore is concerned about his family, he's not carrying it onto the ice.

And nobody's compared him to the infamous "Net Detective" in weeks.

MY TAKE ON DARCY TUCKER: Every now and gain, I'll post something up that'll attract an angry barrage of replies from fans. Nothing wrong with that. I'd be worried if my comments failed to generate responses.

I've made several comments this season regarding the trade value of Darcy Tucker which upset several of his fans. You can read their comments in my "Fans Speak Out" archives.

They've accused me of unfairly tarring Tucker a loose cannon and for considering his trade value low because of it. They point to his improved play this season as proof I'm talking out my butt.

There is no question Tucker has cleaned up his act thus far this season. When he plays a disciplined, focussed game as he has this year, he's a valuable asset to the Leafs, and would be to any other club.

But whether his fans like it or not, Tucker has a well-deserved, well-documented rep as a loose cannon. Don't take my word for it, go check out the archives of any Toronto based newspapers for the past two seasons.

And he's also got a reputation for being a troublemaker in the dressing room. This has followed him since his days as a Montreal Canadien. The Gazette published a couple of article on him prior to his trade to Tampa Bay in the fall of 1997 noting his poor attitude in training camp and his bullying of rookies.

After he was dealt from the Lightning to the Leafs, the Tampa Bay media reported Tucker, along with Chris Gratton, put themselves above their teammates, and were particularly hard on the young players.

Then there were the numerous reports in the Toronto press last season over how he, brother-in-law Shayne Corson and centre Travis Green were causing divisions in the Leafs dressing room.

Whether true or not, it's interesting to note how much better Tucker's playing now that Corson and Green are ex-Leafs.

I doubt Tucker or any other Leaf was on the block earlier this season as incoming GM John Ferguson Jr wanted to evaluate his club prior to considering making major trades. But if he were being shopped as the media suggested, the fact there was no interest wasn't due to Tucker's sunny disposition and gentlemanly on-ice play prior to this season.

Should Tucker carry his strong early-season play throughout the rest of the season and the playoffs, I'll finally believe that he's matured and has put his "Charlie Manson" days behind him.


The holiday season is upon us once again, so here's my wish list for the National Hockey League:

For fans of the Chicago Blackhawks: an owner who gives a damn and a front office staff that can build and maintain a quality team.

For J.S. Giguere: a free phone call to Montreal Canadiens goalie Jose Theodore to learn how to recover from a poor follow-up to an outstanding prior season.

For the New York Rangers ownership: the long-overdue realization that one cannot build a winner by signing or trading for expensive talent year after year.

For the Toronto Maple Leafs: a blueline corps strong enough to carry them to the Stanley Cup.

For the Montreal Canadiens: continued patience with their young players who are finally starting to show their worth.

For the Calgary Flames: a long-overdue return to the postseason.

For the NHLPA and the owners: common sense in negotiating a new CBA that'll work for both sides. Shutting down the league will cause more harm than good, boys.

For the Vancouver Canucks: a reliable second scoring line.

For Dany Heatley: best wishes for your speedy recovery.

For Marian Gaborik: a trip back in time where he hires his new agent a month earlier. That holdout hurt his game and his team.

For Marc-Andre Fleury: unshakeable confidence in your abilities despite the situation you're in with the Penguins. Yeah, I know he's confident already, but there's nothing wrong with reinforcement.

For Penguins fans: the hope you'll stick by your club and come out and support them through these tough times and that things will hopefully pick up down the road.

For Mario Lemieux: A new hip so we can watch you at your best one last time. Failing that, a new arena to keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh.

For Jaromir Jagr: Maturity.

For David Aebischer: a successful season as the Avs starter and a good run in the playoffs, so it'll stop all the stupid rumours your GM wants to replace you.

For the NHL brain trust: common sense in addressing the real problems facing the on-ice product. Rather than shooting down some of these suggestions (hurry-up faceoffs, no touch icing, elimination of the red line, four-on-four regulation hockey), why not give 'em a try. Hell, they couldn't be any worse than the boring product you've shoved down the throats of your loyal fans these past ten years!

For Mike Comrie: Here's hoping you get everything you've got coming to you with the Philadelphia Flyers.

For the Ottawa Senators: a map and compass so they can find their way back to the game they left behind last spring.

To those handful of my readers who believe any criticism I make of their club is proof I'm biased against them: the understanding that a difference of opinion doesn't equal bias or hatred. Failing that, a high-jump award for automatically jumping to the wrong conclusions will suffice.

For Mike Milbury: a trip back in time to undo the moves that cost him Todd Bertuzzi, Roberto Luongo, Eric Brewer and other young stars. If he'd kept at least half the young talent he dealt away and hired the right coaches to develop them, the Isles would be an elite franchise by now.

For Mark Messier: retirement. Playing 25 years is a remarkable achievement, but there are kids watching you play now who never saw you in your prime wondering why the Rangers keep playing the bald, fading old guy instead of their younger players. Call it a wrap, Moose. Please.

For Doug Gilmour: to stay in retirement. I understand that "Killer" doesn't want the last memory of his NHL career to be his crawling off the ice in pain, but sometimes things don't go according to the script. Nobody wants the last memory of Gilmour to be the long-faded star now relegated to fourth line duty.

For the Atlanta Thrashers: the hope they can carry their impressive first half performance into their first post-season appearance. Their unified team play in the face of injuries and tragedy is an inspiration.

For Curtis Joseph: that he rallies and becomes the Detroit Red Wings best goaltender thus forcing the club to retain him. Not because I'm a fan of his (I'm not) or because I hate the Red Wings (I don't) but because I'd love the irony.

For the San Jose Sharks: Kudos for turning last season's disaster into this season's promising run for a playoff berth.

For Jason Allison and Adam Deadmarsh: the hope they'll overcome their respective injuries (whiplash and post-concussion symptoms) to resume their NHL careers.

For the Florida Panthers: the hope they'll keep their young club together and find the right coach to mould them. There's plenty of good young talent here, they just need to be patient a little longer.

For the St. Louis Blues: a loud cheer for continuing to play at a high level despite another season of injuries to key players in your roster.

For Chris Osgood: my vote as comeback player of the year.

For Coyotes GM Michael Barnett: a belated slap upside the head for trading away talented little centre Daniel Briere for the larger, over-rated underachiever Chris Gratton. This ain't 20-20 hindsight, either; I questioned the sense of this deal when it went down. It was dumb then, and it's still dumb!

For Senators coach Jacques Martin: a refreshed resume. If the Sens don't improve and make it at least back to the Conference Finals, he'll be looking for another coaching job next summer.

For Paul Maurice: the hope he won't be unemployed for long. If he can't get a coaching gig, he's got the personality to be a great hockey commentator.

To my readers and hockey fans everywhere: all the best for the holiday season and the New Year.


With a brand new year almost upon us, and the current NHL season almost half over, here's my take on those teams and players whose performance in the first half was worthy of notice:

Best Team: Toronto Maple Leafs. After the usual sputtering start, the Leafs have been red-hot since late November, running up a 16 game point streak by Boxing Day and sitting atop the league's overall standings. This veteran-laden club, led by captain Mats Sundin, has shaken off injuries during this time, bringing out the best in all their players in the process. Even their much-maligned blueline has shown improvement. It remains to be seen if they can keep up that torrid pace, but if they don't cool off too much in the second half, their prospects for ending their 36 year old Cup drought will look very good by season's end.

Worst team: Pittsburgh Penguins. Their best players have either been traded away (Jagr, Kovalev, Straka), lost to free agency (Francis, Kasparaitis), injury (Lemieux) or loaned to Team Canada for the World Juniors (Fleury). There's only three good things to say about this club: their youth gives them years to develop, they're inexpensive so it'll be easy to keep the roster intact if there's a hard salary cap in the next CBA, and they're in the running for Russian wunderkid Alexander Ovechkin in next year's draft. That's cold comfort for their fans.

Most over-rated team. Colorado Avalanche.The Avs haven't rocketed out of the chute as the offensive juggernaut many observers believed they would be when Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne signed with them in the off-season. Injuries to Kariya, Peter Forsberg and Alex Tanguay have been a factor, but it was obvious this club sacrificed defensive grit to load up on offence. In today's NHL, that doesn't lead to a Stanley Cup, let alone league dominance.

Most surprising team: Calgary Flames. Not much was expected from the gang from Cowtown other than another season of faint playoff hopes to be cruelly dashed by New Year's Day. Instead, the Flames are red-hot heading into the New Year, battling through injuries to find themselves in the middle of the playoff race in the West. A combination of savvy off-season moves by new GM and head coach Darryl Sutter, outstanding goaltending by Mikko Kiprusoff, the play of several promising youngsters and the re-ignition of Jarome Iginla's scoring touch has made believers out of Flames fans.

Most under-rated team. Montreal Canadiens. Another club that wasn't expected to do much, Les Canadiens have quietly played their way back into playoff contention. New GM Bob Gainey's watchword thus far is patience and it's been rewarded so far. If veterans Jose Theodore and Sheldon Souray and youngsters Mike Ribeiro, Pierre Dagenais and Michael Ryder can carry their strong first half performances into the second half, and get some help from the rest of the roster, the Habs could surprise a few clubs in the East down the stretch.

Most disappointing team: Ottawa Senators. They're probably not in danger of missing the playoffs, but the Sens have failed to live up to pre-season expectations as the next Cup winner. Obviously they've been believing their own press and didn't put forth a strong effort in the first half, resulting in games lost to clubs they should easily defeat. They've seemingly made a turnaround in December , which bodes well for the second half, but they must improve their consistency if they're to make any noise in the 2004 post-season.

Most inspirational team: Atlanta Thrashers. When a popular player is killed in a car crash and a top player is lost for most of the season to injuries sustained in the same accident, it can be a recipe for disaster for a hockey team, particularly a promising young club. Instead the Thrashers have used the memory of their absent teammates as inspiration to find themselves atop the Southeast Division. Even if they get no further this season, they've been an inspiration for character and teamwork in the face of adversity.

Best player (tie): Martin Brodeur, New Jersey Devils, Mats Sundin, Toronto Maple Leafs. With Patrick Roy retired and Dominik Hasek in career twilight, Brodeur has emerged as the dominant goaltender in the game. Not only that, but he's playing perhaps the best hockey of his career right now. A first-ever Hart Trophy to go with a second career Vezina isn't out of the question for the Devils veteran backstop. As for Sundin, he is also playing the best hockey of his career, and most importantly, he's been the best on-ice leader, scoring clutch goals whilst leading his Maple Leafs to a 16-game point streak and ownership of the top spot in the NHL standings. The talented Swede could be in line for the Hart if he keeps it up in the second half.

Most over-rated player: Vincent Lecavalier, Tampa Bay Lightning. Last season it looked as though Lecavalier was finally taking major strides toward superstardom. This season, however, he's spinning his wheels. There's no denying his offensive skills, but as the Calgary Herald's Eric Duhatschek correctly pointed out, he's not working hard enough in front of the net and along the boards to generate more scoring plays. And his defensive game has shown little improvement. Duhatschek says Lecavalier is in danger of becoming this generation's Pierre Turgeon, another supremely gifted offensive player whose soft play has limited his capabilities and frustrated his coaches, and it's hard right now to argue that point.

Most under-rated player: Tomas Vokoun, Nashville Predators. The improvement of the youth on the Preds roster is one of two reasons why they're in contention for a playoff berth. The other is Vokoun, who night in and night out gives his upstart club a chance to win. The only reason why so little is known about him is because of where he plays. If he plied his craft in one of the major hockey cities, he'd be written up as a Vezina candidate.

Best rookie: Michael Ryder, Montreal Canadiens. Yeah, there are other rookie players more talented than this young Newfoundlander, but nobody worked harder to get to this point than Ryder. An 8th round pick in 1997, this kid battled the odds through hard work and determination to become a regular on the Habs top scoring lines, one of the leaders in NHL rookie scoring, and a key factor in the Canadiens improvement this season.

Biggest breakthrough player: Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit Red Wings. The fans in "Hockeytown" always knew this young Russian had talent, but the rest of the league were never fully aware of it until this season. Nearing the midway point of the season, Datsyuk finds himself battling for the league scoring title in only his third NHL season. Blessed with skills that makes him a human highlight reel, Datsyuk could be the heir apparent to Steve Yzerman.

Most disappointing player: Michael Peca, NY Islanders. He's never been the same since his knee injury in the 2002 playoffs. His vaunted leadership failed to contain fractures in the Islanders dressing room last season that cost Peter Laviolette his head coaching job and he was powerless to stop the malaise that crippled the club this past November. With his game in decline, his leadership in question and his name popping up in trade rumours, this could be considered the low point in Peca's career. The big question now is, can he recover? And if not on Long Island, then where?

Most inspirational player(tie): Steve Yzerman, Detroit Red Wings and Sheldon Souray, Montreal Canadiens. There were fears that Yzerman's surgically repaired knee would leave him a shadow of his former self. Instead, "Stevie Y" came back and assumed his customary role as team leader and inspiration. As for Souray, his career was believed over after he missed last season due to four wrist surgeries. Instead, he's become the kind of big, strong two-way blueliner any team would kill to have, and a major factor in the Canadiens improvement this season.

Biggest waste of money: Jaromir Jagr, Washington Capitals. His talent is undeniable, but his fat contract, moodiness, nagging groin injuries and a reputation as a "coach-killer" is destroying his career. In his three seasons in Washington, Jagr has done nothing to deserve the $11 million per season he's been earning.

Best coach: Darryl Sutter, Calgary Flames. As GM he made the right moves to improve his roster, but they wouldn't have amounted to much if Sutter was unable to convince his players they could compete and win. So far, he's done just that, and given the eggshell fragility of the Flames confidence in recent years, that's no small feat.

Worst coach: Bruce Cassidy, Washington Capitals. From the gutting of the blueline by management to key veterans like Jaromir Jagr dismissing him as a pro-coaching neophyte, Cassidy certainly had his hands full this season as the losses piled up and the death watch on his coaching tenure with the Capitals ticked on. The frustration led him to accuse some of his players of using their family problems as excuses for not working harder. No matter how bad things may be for your team, as a coach you never, ever bring the players families into it. Despite the pressure he was under, that was a big time no-no and sealed his fate.

Best general manager: Brian Burke, Vancouver Canucks. He made a deadline deal for gritty forward Brad May, shored up his goaltending by bringing in veteran Anders Hedberg, re-signed top power forward Todd Bertuzzi to a new deal far below the going rate for players of his ilk, saw one of his draft picks, Jason King, blossoming as a rookie scoring star, and brought in more valuable depth by signing inexpensive free agents Magnus Arvedson and Mike Keane. He still needs to improve the club's second line scoring, but considering these other achievements, Burke's done more this year to improve his team than any other GM.

Worst general manager: Glen Sather, NY Rangers. It's not as though Sather hasn't made any decent moves over the past year to improve his club (see Greg de Vries, Chris Simon, Jussi Markkanen and Martin Rucinsky). But supposed steals like Alexei Kovalev and Anson Carter have done nothing to make the Rangers a better club, his continued insistence on dragging back the aging, fading Mark Messier to captain this squad continues to hinder rather than help, and young players with potential like Jamie Lundmark and Dominic Moore found themselves buried behind the pricey veterans in the pecking order for playing time. If the Rangers fail to make the post-season for the seventh straight season, how much longer will he remain their general manager?