JANUARY 2004 SOAPBOX ARCHIVES

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AT THE HALF-WAY POINT.

With most teams at or approaching the mid-way point of the 2003-04 season, it's time to take a look at how each club is faring as they head into the second half (by order of league standing as of January 4, 2004).

- DETROIT RED WINGS: Have battled through injuries to key players and a goaltending controversy to lay claim to first overall in both the Western Conference and the league. Powered by the play of emerging superstar Pavel Datsyuk and the resurgent goaltending of Curtis Joseph, the Wings look to be in good shape. They must, however, get healthier if they're to sustain this run in the second half and into the playoffs, and figuring out what to do with "CuJo" once Dominik Hasek returns from a nagging groin injury has the potential to become a distraction.

- TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS: They were the hottest club in the league for a month, picking up points in sixteen straight games, but have cooled off noticeably since the Christmas break. Lesser clubs like Florida and Buffalo have pushed the Leafs to the limit as Toronto's defensive game has become erratic. If not for the stellar netminding of Ed Belfour, the Leafs might've been humiliated in those games. It's normal for teams to tail off somewhat after a long winning streak, but the Leafs must ensure they break those bad defensive habits they've picked up of late if they're to remain the top club in the Eastern Conference.

- PHILADELPHIA FLYERS: After looking so strong in the first two months of the season, the Flyers play dropped off noticeably in December. Sloppy goaltending and a puzzling inability to score have the Flyers playing .500 hockey. Expect backup Robert Esche to see more playing time between the pipes, but if he struggles like Jeff Hackett did last month, rumours of a trade for a goaltending upgrade will be an unwelcome distraction for this team. Regardless of who's tending goal, the Flyers offence must regain their touch if they're to finish strong this season. If it doesn't, the "Jarome Iginla to Philly" rumours will be resurrected once again.

- VANCOUVER CANUCKS: The pride of Canada's West Coast continues to roll along. Dan Cloutier has played well in goal, their blueline corps is arguably the best in the league and the Naslund-Morrison-Bertuzzi line is among the elite of the league. Still, there are lingering concerns about the Canucks heading into the second half. Their second line scoring remains inconsisten, forcing their first line to carry more of the load. And while Cloutier has proven over the past three years he's a capable regular season goalie, he'll still be dogged by concerns over his woeful playoff record. The Canucks should have little trouble remaining among the league's elite but those problem areas will continue to nag them.

- ST. LOUIS BLUES: Why haven't we heard much about the Blues this season? They've been riddled with injuries, yet they are the third best team in the Western Conference and the fifth best in the league at the half-way mark. Thanks to the goaltending of Chris Osgood, the return to form of Chris Pronger, the play of veterans like Tkachuk, Weight and Drake, and a lot of help from the farm, the Blues have overcome injury obstacles that would cripple a lesser team. If they get healthier in the second half, they could challenge for top spot in the West.

- OTTAWA SENATORS: Don't look now, but the team that was considered by some observers (including myself) as the most disappointing of the first half is finding it's stride at long last. After playing terribly throughout most of the first half, the Senators are playing a more focused game and climbing rapidly up the standings as a result. There was simply too much talent on this club for it to flounder for much longer. The Leafs and Flyers can expect the Sens to be breathing down their necks in the coming weeks, which should cool off the trade rumours that were flying out of Canada's capital city.

- NEW JERSEY DEVILS: Their disciplined defensive game has served the defending Stanley Cup champions well for most of this season, but of late they too appear to be struggling to stay on their game. It would be foolish to believe the Devils will stay in this slump for long, but their continued reliance on defence at the expense of their offensive game isn't helping matters. Don't expect head coach Pat Burns to get his charges to open up that aspect of their game.

- COLORADO AVALANCHE: The expected offensive onslaught that the addition of Kariya and Selanne were to bring never materialized, forcing the Avs to adjust their defensive game accordingly. While they too have been dogged by injuries, the Avalanche still remain one of the most dangerous teams in the NHL. If they too can get all their key guys back healthy, and if David Aebischer can continue his strong play in goal, the Avs could make their usual strong second half charge up the standings.

- SAN JOSE SHARKS: Another Western team that has seemingly fallen off everyone's radar, the Sharks have made considerable improvement this season. They've shrugged off last season's woeful performance and are playing a much better defensive game this year. They've also benefited from the addition of young, hungry talent like Jonathan Cheechoo and Nicholas Dimitrakos, and the improved play of veterans like Brad Stuart, Patrick Marleau and Alyn McCauley. If this keeps up, the Sharks will be assured of playoff spot this season.

- CALGARY FLAMES: The difference between this season's version of the Flames compared to those of the recent past is one person: head coach and GM Darryl Sutter. He's not only made his players accountable, but he's given them confidence, something that was previously lacking. This team believes it has a chance to win, regardless of the opponent, and that's carried this team through the adversity of injuries to key players like Steve Reinprecht and Craig Conroy. It's also given some of their youngsters the opportunity to step up and shine. If the Flames can get healthier in the second half, not only could they nail down their first playoff berth in seven years, but they could conceivably challenge for one of the top four spots in the West.

- BOSTON BRUINS: The talent is there for this club to be much better, and they've teased their fans with it for the past three years. Over the past two seasons they've gone into meltdown mode and struggled through the second half. The struggling defensive game is the significant reason but so too are the years of revolving door coaching changes and the constant departures of key players due to contract reasons. Regardless, the B's better get their act together soon, because if their malaise continues, they'll fall out of the playoff race by March.

- ATLANTA THRASHERS: The unity this club has shown in the face of serious adversity this season (the death of Dan Snyder in a car crash, the possible loss of Dany Heatley for the rest of the season from injuries in the same crash) is an inspiration, but it's beginning to look as though the Thrashers are in danger of tumbling back to earth. They've only won three of their last ten games, thanks in part to shaky goaltending, inconsistent defensive play and an over-reliance on Ilya Kovalchuk and Marc Savard to provide the offence. Head coach Bob Hartley will have his work cut out for him to refocus his charges as they head into the second half.

- MONTREAL CANADIENS: Since beating the Edmonton Oilers in the Heritage Classic in late November, the Canadiens have played over .500 hockey for a month and a half now. This is all the more impressive when one considers they haven't won consecutive games since late October. The return to form of goalie Jose Theodore, the Norris-candidate play of defenceman Sheldon Souray and the rise of young forwards Mike Ribeiro, Pierre Dagenais and Michael Ryder have the Habs in good shape at the mid-way point to nail down one of the last three playoff berths in the East. However, this club still lacks substantial size on their forward lines so they must be prepared to continue working hard the rest of the way to compensate.

- NEW YORK ISLANDERS: Just when it looked as though the Isles were going to crash and burn, GM Mike Milbury challenged his players to raise the level of their game and damned if it didn't work. The Islanders turned things around in December and have climbed back up into playoff contention once again in the East. Not even the prolonged absence of Alexei Yashin to injury has hurt them. Still, this team cannot afford to sit on it's laurels and must continue to work hard and play well as a team if they're to build on their strong play of December. If things keep up, we can safely ignore rumours about Michael Peca or Roman Hamrlik being shopped.

- NASHVILLE PREDATORS: Their ownership should've had that "playoffs guaranteed or your money back" pledge to the club's season ticket holders this year instead of last. The Predators have had a few stumbles here and there, but thus far this season they've stayed ahead in the winning column. The strong goaltending of the unheralded Tomas Vokoun and the overall improvement of their young roster bodes well for the Predators hopes in the second half. If they can keep up the pace, the Preds should make their first playoff appearance in franchise history this season.

- LOS ANGELES KINGS: You've gotta love the heart of this club to play as hard as they have this season having lost more man-games to injury than any other team in the league. Head coach Andy Murray deserves a tip of the hat for keeping his Kings in the thick of the playoff race in the West, but his coaching and his players heart may not be enough to overcome the injury woes. While they've tied five of their last ten games, they've won only once in that time. I hate to say it because I admire the Kings spirit, but the injuries may finally be taking their toll. They need to get healthier and soon.

- DALLAS STARS: After wallowing under .500 for most of the first half, the Stars are starting to make some noise in the Western Conference. They've been playing a much better defensive game of late, which has translated into a 5-2-3 record over their last ten games and has them with a .500 record at the midway point. Several players, including goaltender Marty Turco, team captain Mike Modano and forward Brenden Morrow, have improved their performance during that time, but the Stars will still need everyone, especially Modano, to step up down the stretch if they're to lock down a playoff berth by April.

- NEW YORK RANGERS: Another team showing recent improvement, going 6-3-0-1 in their last ten games. They've received consistently strong play from Bobby Holik and Martin Rucinsky, Mark Messier has been strong in the faceoff circle and continues to contribute offensively, and Eric Lindros has shown signs of getting back to his former hard-hitting self. Still, there are concerns over the play of starting goalie Mike Dunham and if backup Jussi Markkanen cannot successfully step into the breach, the Rangers may be forced to shop for an upgrade. There are still too many passengers on this club (Anson Carter, Jan Hlavac, Tom Poti) whom GM Glen Sather would love to move but may not find many takers. They'll need everyone on board in the second half if they're to return to the playoffs for the first time since 1997.

- TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING: Perhaps like the Ottawa Senators the Lightning were guilty of believing their press clippings. Whatever the reason they haven't built on the success of last season when they were the Southeast Division champs. The feud between Vincent Lecavalier and head coach John Tortorella hasn't helped matters either. Still, the Bolts are playing over .500 hockey and remain very much in the hunt for a playoff spot, but they're going to need a more unified, disciplined team effort if they're to make an encore playoff appearance.

- PHOENIX COYOTES: For a team that wasn't expected to do very much this season, the Coyotes have surprised and impressed many observers with their dogged determination. They still suffer from defensive lapses and occasionally inconsistent goaltending, but despite this they're still in the hunt for one of the final playoff spots in the West. There are several bright spots on this young roster, including forwards Shane Doan and Ladislav Nagy and defenceman Paul Mara, who are keeping the Desert Dawgs in contention. Their future looks bright but their immediate concern is a stronger performance in the second half.

- MINNESOTA WILD: After a struggling first half that saw holdouts by Marian Gaborik and Pascal Dupuis, the Wild finally seem to be getting their game in order. They've lost only once in their last ten games, are one point under .500 and thanks to their strong team defensive game could be poised to move up in the standings in the second half. Still, it hasn't come without cost. Gaborik and Dupuis, the club's leading scorers last season, have been anything but this year, and given the team's overall anemic scoring, the Wild will need both these guys to find their games soon if they're to move back into playoff contention.

- BUFFALO SABRES: While this season is considerably better for the Sabres compared to the uncertainty of a year ago, this club continues to be maddeningly inconsistent in the play. Some games they appear poised to burst out, other games they fizzle and sputter. While the grumblings amongst the players toward head coach Lindy Ruff have faded in recent weeks, one has to wonder if he can get his charges sufficiently motivated to go for it in the second half. They're not that far out of playoff contention, all they need is a more consistent effort.

- FLORIDA PANTHERS: There's still lots of promising young talent on this team and it's going to require patience for them to hit their stride. Still, they're not far out of a playoff berth and that may entice management to consider a trade. Goalie Roberto Luongo has complained about the amount of rubber he's faced this season and GM Rick Dudley said he was going to address the problem. With rumours of a possible deal in the works with the Ottawa Senators, the Panthers might be able to land some veteran help that might push them into a playoff berth.

- EDMONTON OILERS: Since losing to the Montreal Canadiens in the Heritage Classic in late-November, the Oilers have been in free-fall in the Western Conference standings. They rank dead-last in powerplay goals and penalty killing, their faceoff percentage is terrible, and they've struggled to score. There's still time for the Oilers to save their season, but improving upon their myriad of problems is going to take a strong team effort, which may be lacking. If they don't pick things up within the next month, don't be surprised if GM Kevin Lowe swings a couple of major trades.

- ANAHEIM MIGHTY DUCKS: After all the promise of last year's playoff run and last summer's UFA acquisitions of Sergei Fedorov and Vaclav Prospal, the Mighty Ducks are in danger of missing the playoffs in 2004. Smythe-winner J-S Giguere has struggled between the pipes, their defensive game has been inconsistent, promising youngsters like Stanislav Chistov have not shown improvement, while Fedorov and Prospal have struggled. If the Ducks fail to turn things around in the second half, they'll be ranked with the Florida Panthers, Washington Capitals, Buffalo Sabres and Carolina Hurricanes as "one-hit playoff wonders" who failed to build on their unexpected trip to the Stanley Cup finals.

- CAROLINA HURRICANES: After firing long time head coach Paul Maurice, the 'Canes seemed to get a lift from replacement Peter Laviolette. However, it may be short lived as the Hurricanes struggles continued. Their defensive game has been very good, as has the play of goaltender Kevin Weekes, but their downfall has been a maddening inability to score. If guys like Jeff O'Neill, Erik Cole, Ron Francis, Rod Brind'amour and Josef Vasicek don't start finding the back of the net more often, the Hurricanes can forget about making the playoffs.

- CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS: Serious long-term injuries to key players like Alexei Zhamnov, Jocelyn Thibault and Eric Daze crippled the 'Hawks season. They stand almost no chance of making the playoffs, but the injuries to those veterans have opened the door for youngsters like Mark Bell, Tyler Arnason, Brett McLean, Igor Radulov and Tuomo Ruutu to see more playing time. Although this season seems lost, these promising youngsters should give the Blackhawks and their fans hope for the future.

- WASHINGTON CAPITALS: The firing of Bruce Cassidy as head coach did little to improve the fortunes of this club. Although Robert Lang is on pace for a career season and Jaromir Jagr has improved, the Caps are still lacking defensively and most of their best players simply aren't playing as well as they could. Management would love to move some of their high-priced talent, but most clubs are unwilling to take them on because of uncertainty over the next CBA. This has clearly been a season to forget in Washington.

- COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS: The anticipated improvement of this young club has thus far failed to materialize. While sophomore Rick Nash and UFA pickup Todd Marchant have played well, veterans like Geoff Sanderson and Andrew Cassels have not. With their vets failing to lead the way, the Jackets are spinning their wheels. Doug MacLean has done a fine job building this club but couldn't recapture the coaching magic he once had in Florida. He'll have his work cut out for him to find a coach that can work with this mainly young team. In the meantime, the best they can hope for is a high pick in the 2004 draft.

- PITTSBURGH PENGUINS: The once high-flying Penguins have hit rock bottom. Even if team owner and captain Mario Lemieux can return from injury later this season, it won't be enough to improve the Penguins. The only thing the Pens and their fans can take comfort in is the fact their roster is young and affordable, leaving them room for improvement in the future. And if the hockey gods are smiling down upon them, they'll get the consolation prize: the first overall pick, which they'll undoubtedly use to draft Russian sensation Alexander Ovechkin.

BOUCHER BREAKS RECORD, SAVES CAREER.

Hats off to Phoenix Coyotes goaltender Brian Boucher, who this past Friday broke the modern era consecutive shutout streak record, previously held by Montreal Canadiens Hall-of-Famer Bill Durnan.

Boucher earned his fifth consecutive shutout against the Minnesota Wild, and in doing so broke Durnan's record, which had stood since 1949.

Some naysayers will try to belittle Boucher's accomplishment by saying he achieved it in a watered down league against weak competition.

Granted, Durnan's accomplishment was made during the old "Original Six" league days when only the very best players in the world competed, but if this were such an easy record to beat, why did it take nearly 55 years to do so?

Many great goaltenders have come and gone since Durnan's days. Terry Sawchuk, Jacques Plante, Glenn Hall, Tony Esposito, Ken Dryden, Bernie Parent, Patrick Roy, Dominik Hasek and Martin Brodeur had or are having great careers, racking up noteworthy achievements in the process, but none of them were able to break that record.

Boucher's career pales by comparison with these giants and it's unlikely he'll go on to have a career that'll match up to theirs. But his is a story that would make a great plot for a "movie-of-the-week". In a season dogged by the specter of a possible labour war that could radically alter the future of the league, with fans staying away and players complaining about the style of today's game, Boucher's accomplishment and the story leading up to it is a welcome bit of happy news.

After bursting on the NHL scene in spectacular fashion with the Philadelphia Flyers in 1999-2000 by backstopping them to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference Finals, Boucher struggled to follow up on the promise of his rookie season. He lost his starter's job to Roman Cechmanek the following year, and eventually was dealt to the Phoenix Coyotes.

Since then, as injury and inconsistency dogged him, Boucher has played in the shadow of Sean Burke . When minor league fill-in Zak Bierk came up midway last season to fill in for Burke and Boucher when they were sidelined by injury, his play was so impressive that he eventually took over the backup role from Boucher.

At the start of this season, Boucher was essentially unwanted by the 'Yotes. Burke and Bierk (great name for a company, eh?) were the designated tandem, and "Booch" was told to stay home while management tried to trade him.

Sadly, his stock had declined so much that nobody wanted to take him on. There was talk of the Coyotes letting him go after this season, as they wanted to avoid buying out the remainder of his salary.

It seemed Boucher's NHL career was over, until fate played a hand.

Bierk, who has a history of hip problems, was sidelined when it flared up again. That put Boucher into the backup's role once again. However, Burke has been struggling in recent weeks, forcing head coach Bobby Francis to go with Boucher.

Since then, the goalie the Coyotes and the rest of the league deemed expendable has been on a tear, playing the best hockey of his career. It would've been good enough for him to rack up five straight victories, but to do so by not allowing a single goal in those games is phenomenal.

Through it all, Boucher has carried himself with a quiet, cool demeanour that seems to indicate a maturity that never previously showed through in his game. Perhaps the knowledge that his NHL career was hanging by a thread forced him to rein in his emotions and play a more disciplined game.

Whatever the reason, Boucher earned his record and the accolades that have come with it.

It's possible this could only be a "flash in the pan" moment for Boucher's career; an otherwise undistinguished career highlighted by a footnote in NHL history.

Whether he can parlay this into an NHL career worthy of Hall-of-Fame merit for more than just the shutout streak record is debatable.

But here's hoping that this streak is a sign that he's saved his NHL career.

DAMNED IF THEY DO, DAMNED IF THEY DON'T.

NHL fans have been buzzing for the past several days over the antics and comments aimed at the officiating by Philadelphia Flyers forward Jeremy Roenick.

To recap, during a recent Flyers-Buffalo Sabres game, Roenick became furious at referee Blaine Angus for failing to call a high stick by Sabres defenceman Rory Fitzpatrick that carved Roenick's mouth, knocked out a couple of teeth and left the Flyers centre a bloody mess.

At one point it's believed Roenick spit blood on Angus, who claimed he never saw the high-sticking infraction occur, although Roenick claimed it happened right in front of the official. Video replay of the incident appeared to back up Roenick's version.

Tagged with an unsportmanslike conduct call that fetched him a game misconduct, the enraged Roenick, looking like a vampire with the blood dripping from his mouth, hurled a water bottle from his bench across the ice, which struck one of the officials in the leg.

"JR" wasn't finished. After the game he slammed Angus for missing the call, then took the NHL to task for what he considered it's poor officiating, imploring the league to "wake up!".

Roenick received a one-game suspension for the water-bottle incident and his subsequent comments, but his actions have once again resurrected the debate over the quality of officiating in the National Hockey League.

A growing number of players, many of them skill players like Roenick, have voiced concerns and complaints over what they perceive as poor officiating by the referees, taking considerable pains to slam the two-referee system currently in place for failing to crack down on the number of obstruction and stick-fouls that are harming the game.

The league's referee-in-chief, Andy Van Hellemond, has recently spoken out on behalf of his officials, pointing out they do the best they can. He said that any rules changes or improvements on how the game is called is the domain of the 30 NHL general managers, who as he correctly points out are responsible for maintenance of on-ice rules, noting his officials are merely calling the game as directed by the league.

League disciplinarian Colin Campbell also addressed Roenick's comments during a recent Hockey Night in Canada segment, dismissing the notion that the officials aren't held accountable for their actions if they miss blatant calls. He noted that the games are closely monitored and the officials are subsequently notified after games by the head office if they've failed to control the game accordingly. Campbell also noted that if the league believes that official isn't doing a good job, they're dismissed, which is the kiss of death for their officiating careers.

Is the quality of the on-ice officiating that bad?

NHL referees and linesmen are the best in the business. Like NHL players, they must work their way up through the ranks of junior hockey and the minors, and must attend camps to hone their skills, if they're to work the big league games.

Officials are human and are prone to make mistakes. The type of games they call often tend to reflect their personalities. Some like to instill control right away, to make sure the players and coaches know who's boss, while others prefer to let the players go and call only the most blatantly obvious infractions.

I've taken the on-ice officials to task over the years for not calling the games the way they're supposed to be, by the NHL rule book, but over time I've come to realize that these officials hands are tied, as Van Hellemond subtly suggested, by those in the front office.

Since 1993, the National Hockey League has several times publicly stated that they were going to crack down on obstruction and stick fouls, Each time, their announcements have turned out to be empty words.

Last season was a perfect example. The League promised they were going to "get tough" on the obstruction disguised as "defensive hockey" - hooking, holding and high sticking.

The players, particularly talented offensive stars like Mats Sundin and Brett Hull, were leery, having heard this type of thing before. But over the first six-to-eight weeks of the 2002-03 season, the league stayed true to it's word. The on-ice officials were calling everything by the book, which also resulted in a steady parade of players to the penalty box.

Still the feeling was that, after a month or two, the players would finally realize that the obstruction tactics they'd gotten away with for years weren't going to be allowed, and a better quality game, based on skill, would become the end result.

Unfortunately, that's not what transpired. And the players had a hand in ensuring that the crackdown on obstruction would fail.

As the number of penalty calls increased, so did the number of power play opportunities. Fun for the fans to watch, but the players (and some commentators) complained that all the penalty calls and power plays were slowing down the natural rhythm of the game.

Worse, the incidents of "diving" - players tumbling to the ice if they were barely grazed by an opponent in order to draw a penalty - also increased, which of course led to the inevitable complaints. The league published a "divers" list by mid-season hoping it would act as a deterrant, but the fact that list was updated for the following season was proof of it's ineffectiveness.

The true death knell of the "crackdown on obstruction" came when notable defensive players, such as Chris Chelios, openly complained how it was adversely affecting their game. Suddenly they felt they were being unfairly called for barely touching an opposing player.

Several prominent coaches and general managers also chimed in with those defensive players in criticizing the system. Thus, by the time the 02-03 season came to an end, non-calls of obstruction were back in place again.

This season, it's as if teams are trying to make up for that lost time of the first half of last season. There've been reports that obstruction is up again, and some reporters glumly note it's a major contributing factor to the low-scoring of the 2003-04 season. As one commentator noted, at this rate there won't be a single player scoring 50 goals or even 90 points, something that hasn't happened since the mid-1960s of the "Original Six" league.

So what's to be done to improve this?

Put simply, the National Hockey League must put the teeth back into their officiating.

The rulebook is there for a reason, and the officials are supposed to call the game as per that rulebook. But it's difficult for them to do so when the very league they work for sabotages their efforts.

When they call the game by the rules, players, coaches and management complain the officials are trying to control the outcome of a game. That's pure nonsense, and something the league could easily address by essentially telling those whiners to shut up and get on with the game.

They could ensure players on-ice behaviour also improved by allowing their officials to crack down on the profanity-laced tirades and chattering of the players and some coaches whenever penalties are called.

Back in the 1970s and early 80s, if a player was cursing out a referee for a penalty call, they'd be immediately slapped with a misconduct. There was a lot more respect for officials back then. If a player received a penalty back then, even if he disagreed with the call, he skated directly to the penalty box and said little, if anything, to the official.

Nowadays, a player will curse an official all the way to the penalty box, and often won't even stop when he arrives there, but rarely will the officials hit them with a misconduct to shut them up. It's pointless for the players to carry on the way they do because it doesn't change the call.

If the players understood their constant jabbering wasn't going to be tolerated, it might help improve their level of respect toward the officials.

At the same time, if the league would back the officials in calling the game by the book, they would eventually understand that this isn't a temporary measure that'll go away when enough people complain, and would have no choice but to adjust their game accordingly.

Until the league finally enforces it's rules, there's very little that will be done to finally bring the obstruction and high-sticking under control.

Meaning more officials will bear the brunt of criticism and tirades, many that are more often than not unjustified.

THE JAGR TRADE.

As I write this it's been two days since the NY Rangers obtained Jaromir Jagr from the Washington Capitals, yet the buzz from this move still reverberates around the league.

I've received several e-mails from Rangers fans who feel positive toward this move. They consider Jagr an obvious upgrade over Anson Carter and believe Jagr will ignite the Rangers powerplay. They also believe Jagr will benefit from playing with a more veteran laden club where he's not being singled out as the main star.

Most pundits seem to believe the same thing except, curiously, some from the New York area. Larry Brooks of the New York Post and Sherry Ross of the New York Daily News were quick to slam the deal, claiming the end result of the Jagr acquisition will be no different than those that following the acquisitions of Eric Lindros, Pavel Bure and Alexei Kovalev.

I've received several e-mails that criticized my take of this trade. You'll be able to read them on Monday in "The Fans Speak Out". All but one who disagreed with me did so in a respectful, intelligent manner, and while I may not agree with them, I respect their opinions.

So I've decided to use this week's Soapbox to address the points raised by those who disagreed with me about this trade.

First off, More than one demanded to know the basis of my opinion that Sather made this move out of desperation.

Let's start with the goaltending, where starter Mike Dunham was struggling between the pipes before he suffered a mild concussion. I believe he hasn't fully recovered from that hip flexor injury he suffered in early November. Two of the Rangers best defencemen, Darius Kasparaitis and Greg de Vries, are out for lengthy periods with injuries. The Blueshirts gained only 1 point in their last four games leading up to the Jagr deal, slipping to tenth overall in the Conference. The powerplay has struggled, despite the presence of notable offensive stars such as Brian Leetch, Eric Lindros, Alexei Kovalev and Petr Nedved.

With the possibility of missing the playoffs for a seventh straight season looming, the media and fans aren't happy, as witnessed by the "Fire Sather" chants at the Rangers last home game prior to the trade. And undoubtedly ownership is starting to put pressure on him. So I'd say there's plenty of basis to claim Sather panicked.

Some questioned my contention that the Rangers sliding in the standings provided additional motivation for Sather to swing this trade.

While they were only four points out of the last playoff spot in the East heading into the day after the trade, the fact remains they're still out of the last playoff spot in the East. Remember, it wasn't too long ago the Rangers were jousting with the Islanders and Canadiens for the bottom two spots in the Conference. They didn't need Jagr back then.

But the Habs, with little more than half the salary and stocked with younger talent, surged ahead of the Blueshirts by a full nine points leading up to the deal. Meanwhile, the dysfunctional Islanders managed to catch and pass the Rangers after threatening to fall out of the playoffs just two short months ago.

Factor in the Rangers managing only one point in their previous four games leading up to January 23rd, and I'd say the case can be made that the Rangers were slipping in the standings.

And after witnessing the highlights of that 9-1 slaughter on Saturday night at the hands of the Ottawa Senators, in which Jagr was on the ice for three Senators goals and never registered a point, I'd say that case is further buttressed. Six points out and seemingly fading fast....

Most who disagreed with me claimed "Jagr is a distinct improvement over Anson Carter, who was the Rangers worst defensive player at -12 prior to the trade".

Yes, Jagr (at -4 going into his first game as a Ranger) is a distinct upgrade over Carter...just like Eric Lindros was a distinct upgrade over Jan Hlavac, Pavel Brendl and Kim Johnsson in 2001, Pavel Bure was an upgrade over the prospects the Rangers shipped to the Panthers in 2002, and Alexei Kovalev was an upgrade over the package of journeymen Sather shipped to the cash-strapped Penguins.

I remember those moves being greeted with cheers from the Rangers faithful, but there was no cheering the final results. Despite the presence of those players, the Rangers failed to make the playoffs in 2002 and 2003.

If Jagr were one of the top goalies or one of the best defencemen in the game, I'd applaud this move by Sather, because it would've addressed one of his primary needs. But Jagr isn't renowned for his love of two-way hockey, and his petulant moodiness in recent years doesn't bode well if he struggles to adjust on Broadway.

So what guarantee do we have that Jagr will prevent the Blueshirts from missing the playoffs in 2004?

When I compared the Jagr trade to those that brought Lindros, Bure and Kovalev to New York, it was pointed out that it wasn't fair to consider those trades failures, as injuries affected the play of Lindros and Bure and contributed to the Rangers failure to make the playoffs in '02 and '03.

Don't expect any sympathy from fans of the Blues, Maple Leafs, Thrashers and Kings.

The St. Louis Blues were whacked with injuries to key players last season and again this season, yet they've remained in the thick of the playoff race in the West. The Toronto Maple Leafs currently have over $30 million worth of salary sidelined because of serious injuries, yet they're sitting atop the Eastern Conference standings.

The Atlanta Thrashers were written off when Dan Snyder was killed and Dany Heatley seriously injured in that car crash last fall, and have suffered their share of other injuries to key players like Marc Savard and Slava Kozlov, yet for the first three months of the season led the Southeast Division. The LA Kings have lost more man-game to injury than any other team this season, losing all their top forwards, yet as of this writing they've played .500 hockey in their last ten games and sit only one point out of the final playoff spot in the West.

So why are those teams doing what the Rangers couldn't do with their depth of star talent before dealing for Jaromir Jagr? Could it be they play more like individuals rather than as a team?

And don't forget that nagging groin problem Jagr's had since the 1996-97 season. In the seven seasons leading up to this one, he managed only two full ones; the rest saw him miss considerable time because of that problem.

If he tweaks that groin again on the notoriously bad MSG ice, what are the Rangers to do then? It'll be Lindros and Bure all over again.

Another point of contention was my claim this deal did nothing to improve the Rangers goaltending, blueline corps and team defence. How do I know that Sather isn't planning on trading for a top goalie or defenceman after bringing in Jagr?

You're right, I don't know that...but I don't know what he's got to offer up in his current roster to bring in said player.

Oh, but wait, Sather got Bure and Kovalev for the equivilant of two bags of pucks, so he can do it again, right? Sure he can, but how do we know such a deal is out there now? And based on his track record with the Rangers, how do we know it'll be good enough to improve those problem areas?

I was told that Sather would've been crazy to pass up an opportunity to bring in one of the best offensive forwards in the game in Jagr.

I have two problems with this. First, Jagr wasn't the only player the Capitals were trying to move. We've now found out that Washington could be on the verge of a major firesale with guys like Sergei Gonchar, Olaf Kolzig, Robert Lang and Peter Bondra available.

Wouldn't it have made more sense for Sather to try to bring in Kolzig? Or how about a Kolzig-Gonchar package? After all, if the Caps are desperate to dump salary and Sather is so renowned for his trade "steals" that surely he could've landed at least one or both of those players instead of bringing in another offensive forward with a hefty contract.

Ah, but the Rangers need Jagr because their power play is slumping badly.

You know, it never ceases to amaze me that a team that carried proven offensive players like Kovalev, Carter, Nedved, Lindros, Rucinsky, Messier, Leetch and Poti could have such a woeful powerplay.

Indeed, it never ceases to amaze me that a team with all the "name" talent it's carried since 1997-98 continually finds itself out of playoff contention. But I digress.

Perhaps Jagr's acquisition will bolster that PP, but if it doesn't, what will the excuse be this time?

My second problem is the one I've been harping on: his acquisition does nothing to address their major problem areas. That's a point made abundantly clear in Jagr's first game with the Rangers. The Sens ran them out of the building, exploited their shaky goaltending, porous blueline and sloppy team play. Jagr didn't get a point and finished -3 for the night. Sure, it's only one game, but I think it's a harbinger of things to come.

Rather than wasting his time chasing yet another pricey forward he clearly didn't need, Sather should've devoted more time to landing either an upgrade between the pipes and/or a quality top-two defenceman.

And don't tell me they're not available or that Sather can't land them. Remember, he's the miracle man who brought in Lindros, Bure and Kovalev for next to nothing, and got Jagr for Carter straight up. Surely he could've weaved his managerial magic, his renowned Satherian savvy, and brought in the help the team truly needs?

As one reader pointed out, perhaps the problem isn't the Rangers players themselves, but rather the blame rests with the coach, general manager and ownership.

And that reader, folks, hit the nail squarely on the head.

People always wonder why star players who go to the Rangers via free agency or trades end up as shadows of their former selves. Despite their star power, the Rangers haven't succeeded because they're lacking a coach who can kick this collection of prima donnas in the ass , make them accountable for their actions, and get them to buy into a team system. They're lacking a general manager who knows how to properly address the problem areas and shortfall within his roster, as well as develop and retain promising youth, rather than deal it away for quick fixes. And they're lacking ownership that understands it's not the amount of money you throw around, but rather the bang for the buck.

That's what separates the Rangers from the Detroit Red Wings and Colorado Avalanche. That's why teams with lesser payroll and younger talent, like the Vancouver Canucks and Montreal Canadiens, are better than the "star-studded" Rangers. That's why the Toronto Maple Leafs are far ahead of them in the Eastern Conference standings. That's why the New Jersey Devils have raised three Cup banners in ten years, missing the playoffs only once during that time, while the Blueshirts have missed them six times whilst raising only one banner ten long years ago.

As I noted last year, we've heard for too long the excuse that Rangers fans won't wait for a winner, that they won't come out to watch a team of struggling nobodies and that they need to fill the seats at MSG with the best talent money can buy.

Well, folks, Rangers fans have waited more than six years for a team good enough to make the playoffs, let alone contend for the Stanley Cup. And what good is it to come out and watch a star-laden team that has consistently failed to make the playoffs for six straight years and is in danger of missing a seventh? What good is it to plunk down big bucks for season tickets to watch a group of individuals going nowhere, rather than a team determined to be the best in the league?

Maybe Jagr will be the catalyst to put the Rangers back into the playoffs. Maybe Sather has some magic left after all and will bring in top-two defenceman and an experienced starting goalie who'll bolster the roster and end the misery of their fans. Maybe everything will work out and I'll be proven wrong by season's end.

But after the parade of overpriced free agents and the failed trades of the past four years, who can blame me for being cynical?

For the long-suffering Rangers fans, I sincerely hope this trade works for you guys, I really do. However, I just can't bring myself to believe it will.

Sather made this deal because he's not only worried about missing the playoffs again, but also because he's worried about losing his job. Jagr doesn't address the goaltending and defence problems, and isn't the type of player to rally his teammates into playing a better all-round team game.

It was a bad trade for the New York Rangers.