JUNE 2002 SOAPBOX ARCHIVES

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THE HURRICANES DESERVE MEDIA RESPECT, NOT CHEAPSHOTS.

The media has been nothing if not predictable in their analysis of the 2002 Stanley Cup finals. In practically every analysis, few are giving the Carolina Hurricanes a chance against the mighty Detroit Red Wings. Most anticipate a sweep of the series, and with the exception of Raleigh area sports reporters, only one outside journalist that I've read - the Montreal Gazette's Red Fisher - is giving the 'Canes a shot at upsetting the Wings.

Heck, even I don't think the Hurricanes can beat the Wings. That being said, however, in my analysis of the Finals, I give the Carolina franchise respect for what they've accomplished thus far this spring. I acknowledge the Hurricanes are capable of pulling off the upset, believe they'll give the Wings a hard battle and could win two games in this series, wouldn't be disappointed if they proved my prediction of a Wings Cup victory wrong, and admit freely that I'll be pulling for them against Detroit.

That's a helluva lot more than most in the press give them. I can understand the Detroit media feeling full of confidence regarding their home team's chances. I also give kudos to long-time veteran reporter Fisher for having the guts to go against the flow and risk ridicule by claiming the 'Canes could win it all.

The analysis coming from the rest of the hockey world, however, is far less kind. Most dismiss the Hurricanes chances, predicting a four-game sweep by the Wings, and claiming the "boredom" of a Hurricanes-Red Wings playoff matchup is a good reason why the league should examine the concept of "re-seeding" the playoffs as they progress, in order to ensure a rip-roaring finals matchup.

Worse, there are snide remarks regarding the fans of Carolina, dismissing them as know-nothing "johnny-come-latelies" who chew tobacco, say "y'all" a lot, and are more interested in racing cars and college hoops than they are in their National Hockey League franchise.

What a load of garbage! It's obvious many in the media haven't really paid attention to the way the Hurricanes have played this year, and this spring. The blithe dismissal of the Hurricanes "trapping system" ignores the fact this club is capable of being dangerous offensively. The Devils and Canadiens found this out the hard way, but everyone keeps pointing to the lack of offence the 'Canes produced against the gritty Toronto Maple Leafs as proof the Hurricanes can't produce offensively and over-rely on the trap to win their games.

There's no question the Hurricanes employ a strong defensive trapping style, and that they stick to that system, no matter what. And yes, the Leafs played with several players either out with injury or still hobbled and still limited the Hurricanes offensive output. But this is simply a case of the Leafs employing the trap themselves, because they were restricted by the number of injuries riddling their roster and had no choice. The Hurricanes may not have scored much in their Eastern Conference series, but they still out-scored the Leafs, while limiting the highest scoring team in the East to just six goals in six games. They may not have scored a lot, but they scored when they needed to, making the most of their chances. And let's not forget, without Curtis Joseph playing as well as he did for the Leafs in that series, it would've been a Hurricanes blowout in five games.

I can cut the media from many of the other NHL cities some slack in their analysis of the Finals, as they probably haven't paid that much attention to what the Hurricanes have accomplished. The snide remarks coming out of the Toronto and New York area media regarding the Hurricanes chances, however, tells me these so-called "commentators" are still seething that their beloved Leafs and Devils were whipped by an "upstart".

Al Strachan and Damian Cox of the Toronto Sun and Star respectively, and Larry Brooks of the New York Post, consider the Hurricanes road-kill against the Hall-of-Fame roster of the Red Wings. Did these gentlemen learn nothing from watching the Hurricanes defeat their teams this spring? Or are they still ticked off over the fact a team from Carolina, from NASCAR and NCAA basketball country, a team whose fans "barely understand the game", in the words of one commentator, actually beat their heavily-favoured clubs and are now in the Stanley Cup Finals?

Hey, I have no problem with their not believing the Hurricanes can beat the Red Wings. That's their perogative, and even I believe their chances are long. But please, give the Carolina Hurricanes some credit for getting to the big dance when nobody ever thought we'd ever see them in the Finals!

And what's all this nonsense about "re-seeding"? So this Hurricanes-Red Wings matchup won't make for exciting hockey action and big TV ratings? Gee, maybe the ratings might be better if it were the Vancouver Canucks, Los Angeles Kings, Phoenix Coyotes or San Jose Sharks were about to tangle with the Hurricanes in the Finals?

So hockey reporters in "marquee NHL cities" like New York, Toronto, Philadelphia or Montreal won't get to see the "dream matchup" of their clubs slogging it out in mid-June for the Stanley Cup against the Wings. Big fat hairy deal! That's the chances you take in a thirty-team league, folks! And that's why the top eight teams in each conference make the playoffs, rather than the top sixteen clubs overall in points, which would spare us from an overload of one conference having more teams in the playoffs than others.

Besides, let's face fact here, it makes no sense - NO SENSE - having the Stanley Cup finals going off in June. Hockey is a winter sport, Mr. Bettman, which means it should be finished by no later than mid-May, when the last of the spring snow is finally melting in Alberta and Northern Ontario and PEI and Labrador!

But I digress. Thing is, most hockey commentators haven't had much of a problem with the current system up to this season. Indeed, I don't recall reading or hearing many calls for "re-seeding" the playoffs in the recent past. Nobody was too upset when the upstart New Jersey Devils squared off against the Red Wings in 1995. There weren't too many folks with their noses out of joint when the Canucks shocked everyone and went against the New York Rangers in one of the most exciting Cup Finals in recent years. I don't recall hearing much bitching about the Florida Panthers and Colorado Avalanche going to the dance in 1996. Or the Washington Capitals squaring off against the defending champion Wings in 1998. Or of the squaring-off between the two best defensive teams in the NHL, the Dallas Stars and Buffalo Sabres, in 1999.

But all of a sudden, the Carolina Hurricanes are in the Stanley Cup finals, against the well-respected and heavily favoured Detroit Red Wings, and suddenly, this is a disgrace to hockey? Now, it's a ratings problem? Why is it the Hurricanes going to the Finals is grounds for re-seeding?

If the National Hockey League is worried about their precious TV ratings, then they should never have expanded to "small markets" or "non-hockey" markets like Carolina, Pittsburgh or Buffalo in the first place! Or for that matter, Tampa Bay, San Jose, Miami, Anaheim, Atlanta,Nashville, and Phoenix.

I asked this question before, and I'll ask it again: just what the hell did the NHL, or those who cover the game in the media in the "marquee cities", expect when they expanded to these "small, non-hockey" markets? Did they believe these teams would be cannon fodder for the big, long-established hockey clubs for all eternity? Did they never consider the fact these teams might, you know, have an owner who knew how to hire the right hockey people to build his franchise? Did they never believe it was possible they would actually hire a general manager who knew how to build a team? Or hire a coach that knew, you know, how to coach? Or have players on their roster who could inspire their teammates to bigger and better things?

Personally, I'm disgusted with the condescending manner of many in the press regarding the Hurricanes, but more so at their treatment of Carolina hockey fans.

Granted, yes, Hurricanes fans haven't experienced NHL hockey for as long as the rest of their counterparts in other NHL cities. Yes, their franchise had a rocky start, due primarily to their team playing their first two seasons in Greensboro while their arena in Raleigh was being built for them. Yes, they were slow at first to take to this thing called professional hockey.

But if anyone cared to check out their attendence figures, and to be honest, I too have been negligent in this regard, attendence at Hurricanes games has been rising steadily, from 12, 401 per game in 2000 to over 15,000 in 2002. To gain over 3,000 fans per game within two years is impressive by any team's standard, and that's before the 'Canes embarked on their surprise playoff run this spring. Odds are they'll easily gain another 2,000 fans per game after this season, which would push them well above the league average for attendence. Obviously, then, the interest in NHL hockey in Carolina is growing.

And enthusiastic! Listen to the noise level at a Hurricanes home game! While some deride the club's use of cheerleaders in the stands to whip up fan excitement, to me, that's no different than the other NHL clubs using the big jumbotrons to encite their fans to "make some noise!" In fact, given the choice between an overgrown idiot box and a bevy of attractive young ladies (and yes, why not get some good-looking guys in there to exhort the female fans, too!) trying to get me more excited about a hockey game than I already am, I'll take the cheerleaders any time!

It's no secret to me that hockey is growing in popularity in Carolina. I saw that when they made the playoffs in 1999 and lost their first round series to the Boston Bruins in six hard-fought games. The fans then packed the building and rallied their Hurricanes, especially during an emotional overtime victory. I saw it again in last spring's opening round playoff loss to the Devils, when the Hurricanes threw a scare into the defending Cup champions before falling, again, in six hard-fought games. When the fans stood in the final five minutes, with the game and their Hurricanes season obviously over, and gave their club a standing ovation as the clock counted down the end of the game, I knew that hockey had established more than just a foothold on Tobacco Road.

So why are Carolina hockey fans being subjected to a wave of put-downs from the media around the NHL? Why call Raleigh "Hokeytown" in an obvious take-off of Detroit's "Hockeytown" moniker? Why the shots that they're "Mayberry"? Why the depiction of Hurricanes fans as dumb country yokels who still think a puck is something that's found in the urinals in "them fancy eatin' places in the big city"?

I've gotta give the Carolina fans a lot of credit. They've turned the other cheek with the insults and handled it with good humour. But I wonder how Detroit area hockey fans would enjoy it if the media slammed them as nothing more than murderous car assembly plant workers? Or how would Canadiens fans cotton to being called pepsi-swilling separatist frogs? Or Dallas fans as dumb redneck oil working cowboys? Or Toronto fans as dumb, toque-wearin' New York wanna-bes who say "eh?" a lot? Or Boston fans being called a bunch of "bean-eatin' chowdah-heads?"

There's nothing wrong with some good-natured ribbing, but some in the press have been unnecessarily cruel in their depiction of Hurricanes hockey fans.

The bottom line here is, the Carolina Hurricanes deserve respect. Their front office deserves respect for building a team that promises to be a force in the Eastern Conference for a long time to come. Their coach deserves respect for weathering years of uncertainty and getting his team to buy into his system. Their players deserve respect for working their tails off to do something no one, not even their die-hard fans, expected them to do this season: go to the Stanley Cup Finals. And most importantly, their fans deserve respect for getting to know their team, for learning the game, for sticking with them during their awkward first years, and for supporting this franchise when nobody - not even me - believed there was enough support for an NHL franchise in Carolina.

Maybe the Hurricanes won't win the Stanley Cup this spring. Maybe, as their naysayers in the press claim, they won't even win a game against Detroit. But they've won the respect of the Detroit Red Wings players before the puck was even dropped to start the Finals. They've won the respect of this hockey fan, and I would hazard a guess they've won the respect of many other hockey fans, regardless of what teams they cheer for.

They've earned that respect. The least the media can do is show them some.

RANDOM MUSINGS DURING THE FINALS.

HURRICANES EARNING RESPECT. After the first three games of the 2002 Stanley Cup finals, it's become very clear this series won't be the walk-over for the Detroit Red Wings most expected it to be. The Carolina Hurricanes have not only made this a series, but they're quickly earning respect, not just from in Detroit, but around the National Hockey League.

The Wings presently lead the series two games to one, but they've had to battle hard for get to this point against the plucky, hard-working Hurricanes, including a triple overtime war in Game Three that was a rollercoaster of excitement.

Detroit may indeed go on to win this series as many (myself included) predicted, but they're going to know they've been in a battle once it's all over. But nobody should count out the Hurricanes out. They're still capable of pulling off an upset, and are perhaps the most unflappable underdog in the face of pressure I've ever seen.

RANGERS HIRE TROTTIER AS HEAD COACH. One of this spring's biggest mysteries - who would coach the NY Rangers next season - was finally solved this past week. In a surprise move, Rangers GM Glen Sather hired Colorado Avalanche assistant coach - and former NY Islanders superstar - Bryan Trottier as his bench boss.

Immediately, there was much speculation in the press regarding how die-hard Rangers fans would take to a former star player of their bitter cross-town rivals coaching their club.

I suspect that, should Trottier be able to guide the Rangers back into the playoffs after a five-year absence next spring, the Broadway faithful will be more than happy to overlook the fact Trottier was once a member of the "enemy camp".

The more pressing question about Trottier shouldn't be his former affiliation with the Islanders, but rather, does he have what it takes to motivate a team of overpaid, under-achieving fat-cats into a playoff team?

NOLAN PASSED OVER AGAIN. Another year, another team decides to take a pass on former Buffalo Sabres coach Ted Nolan.

The 1997 Coach-of-the-Year was interviewed by the NY Rangers prior to their hiring Bryan Trottier. Roughly this time a year ago, he was also interviewed by the NY Islanders, prior to their hiring Peter Laviolette. He's also been interviewed by other clubs before that for vacant head coaching positions.

Speculation has it the reason the Rangers spurned Nolan was that he'd been out of the NHL for too long and that the game had changed since he was last behind the bench of an NHL team.

Nonsense! I realize five years is a long time in the world of professional sports, but the NHL game hasn't changed that much since Nolan won the Jack Adams trophy. If Nolan's last NHL coaching job had been, say, back in 1980, like Hockey Night in Canada's Don Cherry, then that criticism of Nolan's coaching abilities might hold water.

Fact is, Nolan has a bad reputation as a coach who has trouble working well with management from his days in Buffalo. Whether justified or not, that - not his absence from the game - is the real reason why he hasn't been back in the coaching ranks of the National Hockey League.

TEAMS SHOPPING FIRST ROUNDERS. What does it say about the quality of the upcoming 2002 entry draft, when at least a dozen teams, including those with high picks like the Tampa Bay Lightning and Nashville Predators, are interested in shopping their high first round picks?

While anything can happen on draft day, don't expect there to be too much of a trading frenzy going on to land higher picks as we've seen in previous draft years.

BETTMAN ATTEMPTING TO GET NHLPA TO OPEN TALKS ON 2004 CBA. Amid growing concern of a league shutdown in 2004, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman stated publicly this past week he'd like the NHL Players Association to come to the bargaining table and open up talks on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement now, rather than in two years time, when the current CBA expires.

Bettman took a shot at the NHLPA for not doing enough to bring player salaries under control, lamenting the adverse effect it was having on small-market teams, including those in Canada.

However, NHLPA prez Bob Goodenow dismissed the notion of starting negotiations earlier than 2004. Regarding Bettman's comments of rising salaries, Goodenow suggested Bettman discuss the matter with certain free-spending owners, whom Goodenow claims are the real culprits in driving up player salaries.

The real issue here, of course, is a salary cap. Bettman and the team owners want a cap put in place. Goodenow and the players are against it. Factor in the widening gulf between Bettman and Goodenow, who despise each other, plus the lingering bad feelings between players and owners from the 1995 lockout, and the likelihood of avoiding an NHL shutdown after the 2003-04 season grows dimmer.

NHLPA FILES GRIEVANCE AGAINST ALBERTA PLAYER TAX: The province of Alberta, with struggling NHL franchises in Calgary and Edmonton, did what it could to help out their small-market clubs by introducing a luxury tax on visiting NHL players, to commence next season. The additional revenue from this tax would go toward helping the Flames and Oilers boost their revenues, without having to jack ticket prices.

However, the NHLPA filed a grievance against the NHL, who gave the tax their blessing, the province of Alberta and the Oilers and Flames. The NHLPA claims it violates the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

If you ask me, high player salaries forcing small-market clubs Calgary and Edmonton into slow extinction is more of a violation! If the NHLPA is hoping to win over fans in Alberta to their cause, they're clearly going about it the wrong way!

POST-FINALS NEWS AND NOTES.

BOWMAN RETIRES. The news of Detroit head coach Scotty Bowman's retirement continues to reverberate around the National Hockey League.

By winning his 9th Stanley Cup, Bowman moved past his mentor, Montreal's immortal Toe Blake, for coaching teams to the most Cup victories. And while Bowman was typically modest regarding this achievement, claiming Blake was the better coach, the fact he was able to do it in three different decades over a five decade career is perhaps more impressive.

The NHL has changed significantly since Bowman first became an NHL bench boss, back in the late 1960s with the St. Louis Blues. During that time, players were at the mercy of the head coach and had to do his bidding, lest they end up banished to the minors. That style no longer works in today's NHL, but the fact Bowman was able to coach clubs in Montreal, Pittsburgh and Detroit to Cup victories as the decades passed and the game changed is a testament to his ability at being adaptable and changing with the times.

The one constant, however, in Bowman's coaching style was his ability to motivate his players, to get inside their heads, to keep them guessing and ultimately, to bring out their best. It was this ability as a master motivator that convinced Steve Yzerman to become a more well-rounded forward, that convinced a top offensive forward like Brett Hull to willingly accept fourth-line duty, that took a dressing room full of superstar egos and molded them into a champion.

Many have emulated his style, most notably Mike Keenan. Some, like Jacques Demers, Pat Quinn and Pat Burns, have matched or won more Adams trophies than Bowman. None, however, have been able to duplicate his winning ways. Most regular season victories. Most playoff victories. Most playoff round victories. And most important, most Stanley Cup victories, in an incredible career that spanned five decades. Scotty Bowman, for lack of a better comparison, is the Gordie Howe of NHL coaches.

There may never be another head coach like him in the National Hockey League. The Detroit Red Wings, and the NHL, will feel his absence for a long time.

OLAUSSON TO RETURN TO SWEDEN. Barely two days after Scotty Bowman announced his retirement, Wings defenceman Fredrik Olausson announced he, too, was leaving the NHL.

Olausson was coaxed out of playing in Europe by the Red Wings last summer to return to the NHL. The veteran Swede played a key role in both the Wings regular-season dominance, and their run to the Stanley Cup. Having finally fulfilled the goal of playing on a Cup winner, Olausson decided to return home to Sweden for good.

Could other Wings be ready to follow him and Bowman into retirement? Goaltender Dominik Hasek said he'll make a decision on his future within the next few days, and speculation abounds veteran Igor Larionov will finally call it a career and return to Russia to work with his old friend and Russia's minister of sport, Slava Fetisov. Team captain Steve Yzerman is facing reconstructive knee surgery and a six-month healing sabbatical, plenty of time to consider that going out a winner may not be such a bad idea.

The hockey world waits and wonders...

DEVILS FIRE CONSTANTINE, HIRE BURNS. More than anyone, Scotty Bowman knew what it felt like to be replaced. However, three of his moves - out of St. Louis, Montreal and Detroit - were by his own design. He was only fired twice.

Kevin Constantine, formerly of the San Jose Sharks and Pittsburgh Penguins, passes Bowman in that dubious distinction with his firing by the New Jersey Devils this past week. Constantine did a terrific job in turning around a moribund Devils squad that at mid-season appeared poised to tumble out of playoff contention. However, the fact his team bowed out in six games in the first round to the upstart Carolina Hurricanes was an unpardonable sin to GM Lou Lamoriello.

Replacing Constantine is another fellow who's no stranger to being replaced, Pat Burns. The only three-time Adams winner had previously been let go by the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins. This will mark the first team he's coached in the NHL that isn't one of the "Original Six."

Burns will have his work cut out for him to avoid matching Constantine's fired record with the Devils. The one-time Eastern Conference powerhouse has been a team in turmoil over the past season, with team captain Scott Stevens in the twilight of his career, rugged centre Bobby Holik poised to depart via free agency, the possibility of contract holdouts by Patrik Elias and Scott Gomez. The first half of last season was marred by injuries to key players and talk of backstabbing and general unhappiness, which led to the downfall of former coach Larry Robinson.

The club's one great strength, their farm-system depth, have been seriously depleted by management, who dealt off promising young talent for veterans, who in turn usually wound up leaving via free agency because Lamoriello was either unwilling or unable to pay them their perceived market value.

Worse for Burns, he's working for a general manager who has no qualms in axing a coach. Within the last two years, Lamoriello has fired Robbie Ftorek, Robinson and Constantine. If the Devils get off to another struggling start, Burns could feel the heat very quickly.

SENATORS HIRE MUCKLER AS NEW GM. The Ottawa Senators ended their search for a replacement for retired general manager Marshall Johnston this past week by signing John Muckler, one of the most respected minds in hockey.

Muckler was an assistant coach to Glen Sather during the Edmonton Oilers glory years in the 1980s, and coached them to their last Cup win in 1990. In 1993, he departed Edmonton to become the general manager of the Buffalo Sabres, where he had considerable success building the Sabres into the Cup contending team they would become in the late-1990s.

Like the Sabres, the Senators are a small-market team with a limited budget. Unlike the Sabres, they have considerable depth of talent, both on their roster and in their farm system. Muckler's experience and keen eye for talent should be invaluable for the Sens as they continue their attempts to build a Cup contender with limited financial resources.

One positive sign of this is Muckler's stated determination to re-sign team captain Daniel Alfredsson. There was some concern the Senators might decide to move "Alfie" rather than pay the big bucks to keep him with the team. Re-signing Alfredsson could make it difficult for the Sens to re-sign other restricted free agents, such as Marian Hossa. Muckler's abilities will be put to the test this summer, and anxious Senators fans will be watching closely.

HABS GETTING HEAT FOR RDS DEAL. Hockey fans in Quebec are apparently still upset with the Montreal Canadiens decision to sell the broadcast rights to all their games to the Francophone cable network RDS, in turn ending their 50-year association with CBC's Radio Canada.

Le Soiree du Hockey was available free to hockey fans throughout Quebec and Canada. This deal spawned several angry editorials in both the English and French media in the province, even bringing a response from the federal government's heritage minister.

The Habs have been accused of "selling out"; that this deal is only to line the ownership's pockets at the expense of the working poor in Quebec, who couldn' t afford, or didn't have acces to, cable TV, and whose few diversions in life were, to paraphrase one journalist, settling down on Saturday night to watch La Soiree du Hockey over a few cold Molson's.

But before we break out our hankies, let's consider several facts. First, RDS was willing to share broadcasts of several Canadiens games with CBC, but the offer was refused. Second, the CBC - English and French versions - hasn't been free to most Canadians in any urban areas, since it's long been part of a basic cable package. Depending on where you live, that runs you between $20.00 - $30.00.

Third, while I have no statistics on this topic, I'm willing to be most of the so-called "working poor" have cable, and I'm betting a lot of those folks pay that little bit extra for specialty packages that include RDS. Fourth, for those folks who live in rural or isolated regions of Quebec that have no access to cable, there is still sattelite TV, or even radio broadcasts.

Fifth, and most important, as sad as it is that a fifty year tradition has come to an end, it's also the reality of the business of professional sports. The Canadiens have to deal with being a Canadian-based team paying their players in US dollars. They need all the money they can lay their hands on if they're to field a competitive team. The RDS deal is simply part of that process.

So, what kind of Canadiens team do the critics of this deal want? One that is available for "free" on CBC, but is, at best, a marginal playoff club because it cannot afford to pay the salaries of it's best players, like Koivu and Theodore? Or one that, thanks in small part to money you're already paying on your cable bill, can afford to ice a competitive team?

Tradition? Or a Contender? You make the call...

RE-SEED THE POST-SEASON? Ever since the Carolina Hurricanes made the Stanley Cup finals, there has been a growing call for the NHL to "re-seed" the playoff format after the second round according to overall points, to ensure the Cup Finals doesn't turn into an anti-climatic affair.

In this way, argue the critics of the present system, the Conference Finals would've seen Detroit meeting Carolina, and Colorado taking on Toronto. Then, by golly, we would've seen a more exciting Cup final.

Then there are those who believe the playoffs should be limited to the top sixteen teams in overall points, not just the top eight in each conference. In this way, teams with more points in one conference, such as the Dallas Stars and Edmonton Oilers this season, wouldn't miss the playoffs, while teams with less points in another conference, such as the Montreal Canadiens, make the cut.Then there are those who believe the seedings should be ranking from first to last of the top eight teams in each conference, based on points.

Still, as I've noted in earlier articles on this topic, playoff re-seeding never really became an issue until it became clear the Carolina Hurricanes were going to make it to the Stanley Cup finals. Then all of a sudden, re-seeding became the "cause de jour" among some in the press. Coincidence? I think not! The mere thought of a supposedly "inferior" club like the Hurricanes actually participating in the Finals sent some media hacks into a conniption, convinced a Wings-'Canes matchup would be ratings "death".

But, surprise, surprise! The ratings didn't plunge horrifically, nor was the Finals "a disaster" as a member of the New York press predicted it would be. Sure, the Hurricanes were over-matched, and fell in five games to the powerful Red Wings, but they were game, full of fight and had Wings fans chewing their nails in all but the fourth game.

It's interesting to note where much of the call for playoff re-seeding is coming from. The articles have popped up in Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto and New York. Hmmmm, let's see, that's one from a city that bowed out in the first round, whereas re-seeding might have given them an easier opponent than the Red Wings. One from a city whose club had a better record than the 8th place Eastern Conference playoff seed from Montreal, but didn't have enough points to make the cut in the tougher Western Conference. One from a city whose club failed, one again, to end the second-longest active Cup drought in the league. And one from a city whose team was filled with a bunch of overpaid big-name fat-cats that failed, yet again, to make the playoffs. Do I detect a whiff of sour grapes coming from these sources?

In my opinion, these people need to quit their bitching. Don't they remember what it used to be like, back in the 1980s? That's when teams with sub-.500 records made the playoffs in some divisions, while teams with above-.500 records missed the playoffs in tougher divisions. This happened not just once in a while, but seemingly every damn playoff year.

You can't please everyone, that's for certain. I'm no Gary Bettman "mark", but his introduction of the current playoff format works just fine. OK, so a division leader with less points than clubs in another division within the conference being guaranteed a higher seed isn't a great idea, but that's about all that needs to be fixed.

CAN TEAMS "BUY" THE STANLEY CUP? Speaking of sour grapes, some fans and journalists are attempting to besmirch the Wings triumph this season by cattily calling them "the best team money can buy".

The inference, of course, is the Detroit Red Wings bought the Cup. There's no denying their payroll was the highest in the league, and their roster was loaded with potential Hall-of-Fame candidates.

Other NHL teams are also "stacked" with big name, marquee talent. The New York Rangers, St. Louis Blues and Philadelphia Flyers are three clubs loaded with supposedly high-quality, all-star calibre talent. They've laid outa lot of money over the years building their clubs as the Red Wings did their Cup champion squad.

However, if teams could "buy" the Stanley Cup, surely the Rangers, Flyers and Blues would've had at least one Stanley Cup parade each over the past four years. Or at least , they should've gone to the Finals at least once in the last four years themselves.

Yes, the Wings paid out a lot of money to load up for their Cup run this season, but let's get one thing clear: money alone won't bring you the Stanley Cup. You need a strong coaching staff capable of molding a bunch of egotists into a functioning team. You need a respected team captain who can lead by example and inspire his teammates. You need other on-and-off ice leaders to help him ensure those of perhaps lesser talent or character push themselves to aspire for more. Most importantly, you need teamwork, a group of players dedicated to the same goal, no matter what the cost.

That was the difference between the 2002 Detroit Red Wings, and other free-spending pretenders.

DRAFT WEEKEND DEALINGS AND RUMOURS.

Tell the truth: when the opening round of the 2002 Entry Draft kicked off on Saturday with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announcing the Florida Panthers had traded their first round pick, your heart quickened at the thought of a major blockbuster deal. Certainly everyone in attendence at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto believed a big trade was going down, judging by the collective gasp at the first part of Bettman's announcement.

However, the rest of the announcement quickly brought everyone back down to earth. The Panthers had swapped picks with the Columbus Blues Jackets, taking their third overall pick. Jackets GM Doug MacLean coveted London Knights forward Rick Nash, and knew the Panthers would take Jay Bouwmeester with their selection. Florida GM Rick Dudley then did a little dealing with the Atlanta Thrashers, shipping them a couple of picks to ensure GM Don Waddell wouldn't scoop up Bouwmeester before Dudley could select him. Sort of a "gentleman's agreement" between the two. Waddell had hoped to deal off his pick, second overall, to land an impact player for either his first line or his blueline, but failing that, decided to take goaltender Kari Lehtonen. So much for "I've got plenty of depth in goal already", eh, Don?

This flip-flopping of two of the top three picks essentially set the tone for this year's draft. As the first round and the subsequent rounds progressed, there were many subsequent announcement of trades, with the bulk of them teams trading up or down in the draft. Watching the coverage on TSN, it got to a point where the trade announcements inspired little more than idle curiousity. When the number 56 pick is being swapped for the number 62 pick, well, let's just say it lacks the punch of "the Ottawa Senators have dealt centre Alexei Yashin to the NY Islanders in exchange for the Islanders first round pick, defenceman Zdeno Chara and forward Bill Muckalt".

Indeed, as the TSN reporting staff pointed out, the 2002 draft certainly lacked the drama of last year's, where the availability of big name free agent holdouts such as Yashin and Michael Peca added an adrenaline rush of excitement to the proceedings.

Still, while the flipping of numbers for young players whom most hockey fans barely know doesn't make for exciting television, it is nevertheless important for the teams involved. As important as it is for clubs to draft well in the first round, it is as vitally important to do well in the subsequent rounds. For it is there that the scouting staff has their work cut out for them, to come up with the names of players who, while not at the "impact" level of the higher picks, could one day blossom into potential stars.

Indeed, clubs like the Ottawa Senators (Daniel Alfredsson 133rd overall, Magnus Arvedson 119th overall, Karel Rachunek 229th overall), Colorado Avalanche (Chris Drury 72nd overall, Milan Hejduk 87th overall) and the Carolina Hurricanes ( Erik Cole 71st overall, Sami Kapanen 87th overall, Jaroslav Svoboda 208th overall, Josef Hasicek 91st overall) have done very well in landing quality talent further down into the draft.

I won't go into a complete analysis of the picks made, as there are websites, such as Hockeysfuture.com, who do a much better job of it than I. However, here's a quick breakdown of some of the first round selections:

COLUMBUS: Rick Nash. The Jackets wanted him and dealt to get him. A good move by the Jackets, who have, in successive years, drafted a potential superstar on the blueline in Rostislav Klesla, a "goalie of the future" in Pacal Leclaire, and now, a possible offensive star on a team that needs offence in Nash. This kid could become the marquee name in Columbus, but don't be shocked if the Jackets decide he needs another year in junior to build his game.

ATLANTA: Kari Lehtonen. If he's as good as he's been made out to be, this big Finnish goalie could be playing for the Thrashers next season. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me at all to see Lehtonen playing as Milan Hnilicka's backup by season's end. Waddell denied he needed more depth in goal, but let's face it, that's the one area where the Thrash need the most help. Lehtonen will go a long way to addressing that problem.

FLORIDA: Jay Bouwmeester. It came as a shock that he didn't go first overall as everyone expected, but he did land with the Panthers like we all thought he would. There's some talk the soft-spoken Bouwmeester might have trouble playing for the demanding Mike Keenan, but beneath that calm exterior lurks the heart of a true competitor. Indeed, for all "Iron Mike's" faults, he's earned some reknown for developing young players into superstars, such as Chris Pronger in St. Louis and Joe Thornton in Boston. Look for Keenan to bring out the best in Bouwmeester, starting as early as next season.

PITTSBURGH: Ryan Whitney. The Penguins needed some size on their blueline, and they'll get it with the 6-3, 210 lb (and still growing!)Whitney. He's an excellent skater and passer, and once he polishes his physical game, he'll be a presence for years on the Pens blueline. However, don't expect to see him next season, as the Pens are content to let him remain in university to develop his skills.

NASHVILLE: Scottie Upshall. My favourite in this year's draft. He doesn't have the natural physical gifts of Nash and Bouwmeester, but Upshall has the one intangible that will one day make him a presence in the NHL: his fierce competitive spirit. Not for nothing he earned the nickname "Devil Boy". There are concerns about his size, but I believe they're blown out of proportion. Small players, from Doug Gilmour to Theo Fleury to John Madden to Steve Sullivan to Daniel Briere, have always made an impact in this league. This kid will one day be the captain of the Predators and perhaps their most popular player.

ANAHEIM: Joffrey Lupul. The Ducks need more size as well as skill up front, and the 6-1, 195 Lupul could bring this to them. However, in my opinion, the guy could be a wild-card. He may well be a "late-bloomer", but can he carry over that development into being a star forward at the NHL level? The Ducks certainly are hoping so, and one shouldn't scoff at scoring 56 goals for a non-playoff club like the WHL's Medicine Hat Tigers. Still, I cannot shake this feeling that Lupul is either going to be a big success, or a big bust.

MINNESOTA: Pierre-Marc Bouchard. He's the smallest guy taken in the first round, and there are more concerns about his lack of size than there are about Upshall's. Unlike Upshall, Bouchard is more of a one-dimensional offensive player, and at 5-10 and 155 lbs, his size will be the focus once he gets to the NHL level. However, if he can burst forth like Daniel Briere, another small, offensive star from the QMJHL, he could one day form an offensive "one-two punch" with Marian Gaborik.

CALGARY: Eric Nystrom. The son of former Islander Bob Nystrom, he's considered not as tough as his dad, but a better offensive player. Still, like his father, he's not afraid of the rough going along the boards and in front of the net. If he turns out to be even half the player his father was, Nystrom could have a good future in Calgary as a two-way forward.

MONTREAL: Christopher Higgins. This guy was thrilled to be selected by the Canadiens, and why not? He grew up cheering for the Habs, and his good friend, Mike Komisarek, was drafted by the Habs in the first round last season. He's a good, all-round forward, who can score, skate well, isn't afraid to hit and is cool under pressure. The latter will come in handy, as Habs fans always have lofty expectations for their club's first rounders. GM Andre Savard won't rush him, allowing Higgins to return to Yale to continue his education and his development as a player.

Still, the day wasn't without some trade excitement. The following is my take on the significant deals that went down on Saturday:

THE PHILADELPHIA FLYERS TRADED FORWARD RUSLAN FEDOTENKO, PLUS THE 34th AND 52nd PICKS OVERALL IN THE 2002 DRAFT, TO THE TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING IN EXCHANGE FOR THE FOURTH OVERALL PICK IN THE 2002 DRAFT.

The Bolts are being roasted in the hockey media for making this trade, with the assumption being GM Jay Feaster could've landed a better deal for shopping the fourth overall pick. That well may be, but you can't tell Feaster that. He's convinced Fedotenko, a "responsible two-way forward", has the potential to pot 20-25 goals playing on the Lightning's second line next season. This prediction could work out, and Fedotenko's strong defensive game will make him a favourite of head coach John Tortorella.

This is still a big gamble on Feaster's part. "Feds" will have to mesh well with unhappy Vincent Lecavalier for those projected offensive numbers to come through. Meanwhile, the Flyers draft themseles a strong blueliner prospect in Joni Pitkanen. GM Bob Clarke obviously acknowledged the fact his blueline will need more depth, particularly a couple of years down the road.

If the Finn becomes a big-time NHL blueliner, and Fedotenko doesn't pan out, Lightning fans will never forgive Feaster for this move. Still, the Bolts front office understands their club needs help now, and apparently are confident enough in the young talent they presently have. Should this gamble pay off, Feaster will look like a genius. We'll find out come next April if he's a goat or a hero.

THE NY ISLANDERS TRADE FORWARD MARIUSZ CZERKAWSKI TO THE MONTREAL CANADIENS IN EXCHANGE FOR FORWARD AARON ASHAM AND MONTREAL'S FIFTH ROUND PICK.

The Habs need offence, and the two-time former 30-goal scorer should give it a much-needed boost. Yes, he may be "one-dimensional", but as Isles GM Mike Milbury pointed out, it's a good dimension to have. Apparently, Canadiens GM Andre Savard agrees.

Injuries and the inability to mesh with Alexei Yashin led to Czerkawski's offensive slump last season. He should have no difficulty fitting into the Habs first line with Saku Koivu and Richard Zednik next season. Finally, the Canadiens will have a first line that is worth getting excited about.

As for the Isles, they get a small, but fiesty and hardworking forward, in Asham. Islanders fans may be scratching their heads over this deal now, but with more icetime, Asham could emerge as their version of Darcy Tucker, a gritty little pest with a decent touch around the net. If so, this would be the second straight reclamation project Milbury has undergone, what with his signing away Shawn Bates from Boston last summer.

THE COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS TRADE DEFENCEMAN MATTIAS TIMANDER TO THE NY ISLANDERS IN EXCHANGE FOR THE ISLANDERS FOURTH ROUND PICK.

Pure salary dump by the Jackets, hoping to free up payroll for potential off-season improvements to their roster, just as they did with goalie Ron Tugnutt.

The Islanders, meanwhile, get themselves some much-needed depth on their blueliner. However, if they're hoping his size (6-3, 210 lbs) will make him a tough crease-clearer, guess again. Timander is more of a steady performer who makes few mistakes and plays a smart, rather than physical game. Not that this is a bad thing, but don't expect Timander to strike fear into any crease-crashers or slot-dwellers.

THE BUFFALO SABRES DEAL FORWARD SLAVA KOZLOV AND THE 41st PICK OVERALL TO THE ATLANTA THRASHERS IN EXCHANGE FOR THE 31st AND 82nd PICKS OVERALL.

Hate to say I told you so, Sabres fans, but I told you so. The Sabres were looking to rid themselves of Kozlov's salary, and obviously believe they made a mistake when they acquired him from the Wings in the Hasek trade a year ago.

Despite the serious Achilles tendon injury that limited Kozlov's season, his offensive production had been dropping steadily prior to coming to Buffalo. The Sabres gambled that a change of venue would spark a resurgence. Now, it's the Thrashers turn. What's interesting is the Thrashers decided to go for a second-line winger in Kozlov, rather than shop around for a first-line centre. Could it be they're hoping to attract UFAs like Bobby Holik, Robert Lang or Adam Oates to play between Dany Heatley and Ilja Kovalchuk?

THE TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING ACQUIRED DEFENCEMAN BRAD LUKOWICH AND A SEVENTH ROUND PICK IN THE 2003 DRAFT FROM THE DALLAS STARS, IN EXCHANGE FOR A SECOND ROUND PICK IN THE 2002 DRAFT.

Feaster was happy with this deal, believing Lukowich will step up and be a strong top-four blueliner his club desperately needs. Given the lack of depth on the Bolts blueline, he should have no problems. Lukowich plays a conserative, "stay-at-home" style, and at 26 is still young enough to continue improving. Again, Feaster took a lot of heat for what was perceived as a "misguided" belief in Lukowich's abilities, but like the gamble he took in shopping the fourth overall pick for Fedotenko, if it pans out, the Lightning will be a better club for it, and Feaster will gain a lot more respect around the league from his critics.

THE EDMONTON OILERS TRADE FORWARD JOCHEN HECHT TO THE BUFFALO SABRES IN EXCHANGE FOR THE 31st AND 36th PICKS OVERALL IN THE 2002 DRAFT.

It's official: the Edmonton Oilers lost the Doug Weight trade. Hecht, along with underachieving centre Marty Reasoner, came to Edmonton last summer in the deal that saw the former Oilers captain dealt to the St. Louis Blues.

At the time, it appeared to be yet another in a series of good moves by Oilers GM Kevin Lowe, given that Weight would've been a UFA this summer, and there was no way Lowe could've re-signed him. But Hecht and Reasoner both struggled this season, and were two of several factors as to why Edmonton missed the playoffs this season.

Still, it wasn't a total loss for the Oilers as they used one of the picks to land former Flames draft pick Jarrett Stoll. This youngster could one day step up and be an important part of the Oilers. Or at worst, it's a none-too-subtle kick at their inter-provincial rivals from Calgary!

For the Sabres, this deal fills the gap left by Kozlov, whom they had dealt to Atlanta. As the Buffalo News pointed out, Hecht is younger, bigger, stronger and cheaper than Kozlov. He's also a better all-around player, and could thrive playing in the defensive system of Sabres coach Lindy Ruff.

THE CALGARY FLAMES HAVE DEALTH THEIR NINTH ROUND PICK TO THE MINNESOTA WILD IN EXCHANGE FOR GOALTENDER JAMIE McLENNAN.

With their decison not to bring back Mike Vernon as Roman Turek's backup, the Flames needed an experienced and inexpensive goalie behind Turek. McLennan, who ironically lost his job last season as part of the goaltending tandem in Minnesota to former Flames backup Dwayne Roloson, should be a good fit.

THE MINNESOTA WILD HAVE DEALT THEIR FOURTH ROUND PICK TO THE LA KINGS IN EXCHANGE FOR THE RIGHTS TO FORWARD CLIFF RONNING. THE WILD WILL GET A COMPENSATORY PICK NEXT YEAR IF THEY CANNOT SIGN RONNING, AN UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENT, PRIOR TO JULY 1st.

Not a bad decision by the Wild, who've done a fine job building their club thus far. It's a gamble, but one worth taking. If they can get Ronning to agree to a contract, he'll obviously have the first line centre spot between Andrew Brunette and rising superstar Marian Gaborik. But will Ronning want to be part of yet another building expansion team? Maybe not, but then again, the Wild do have a lot of positives: a savvy front office, a respected head coach in Jacque Lemaire, a budding superstar in Gaborik, plus a strong fan base in a state that's hockey-mad.

Then again, Ronning could opt for free agency, and the Wild get a compensatory pick next year. Not as good a return a having an experienced leader like Ronning on the roster, but no worse off than they were if they'd retained the pick. Besides, next year's draft is supposed to be deeper. A "win-win" gamble by GM Doug Risebrough.

Given the lack of blockbuster deals in this year's draft, the talk amongst many observers turned to speculation of potential trades and free agent signings in the coming weeks.

The Calgary Flames are believed to be shopping blueliner Derek Morris. GM Craig Button laughed this off as merely a rumour, but the consensus amongst reporters is he's going to shop Morris to bring in a much-needed second line winger. His blueline corps is the one area where Button has an embarrassment of riches, and Morris is the most likely to depart, given both his contract status and his name value.

The Boston Bruins are another team believed to be shopping, with the name of winger Sergei Samsonov as the likely "trade-bait" to bring in either a goaltender to replace the departing Byron Dafoe, or the offensive blueliner they so obviously lacked last season.

Chicago owner Bill Wirtz created a stir with his comments to the Chicago Tribune of his belief his soon-to-be former captain, Tony Amonte, will be signed by the Dallas Stars next week when he's eligible for UFA status. This brought about talk of "tampering" as under NHL rules, no team can talk to another team's impending unrestricted free agents until July 1st, when they become eligible. However, it doesn't appear as though there will be any fallout from this. Besides, no one can convince me there isn't discussions at some level between the agents of impending free agent players and teams that are interested in signing them prior to July 1. Why do you think so many deals go down so fast in the first week of the UFA market? Coincidence?

The main topic of conversation, being that the draft was based in Toronto, was "what will happen to Cujo". As the entire hockey world knows by now, there is growing speculation the Leafs will not re-sign Curtis Joseph, the man who has been perhaps the most responsible for the level of success the Maple Leafs have enjoyed over the past four seasons.

Joseph is seeking a four-year deal worth over $9 mil per season. Back in the fall, the Leafs made a lesser offer that was flatly rejected by Joseph. Over a week ago, the Leafs made another offer, worth $9 mil per season, but for only three years, not four. Since then, there's been nothing but silence from the Joseph camp, except for statements by agent Don Meehan he'll meet with GM Pat Quinn on Monday, June 24th to discuss the Leafs offer.

The thinking here is Joseph may be a little put-out that the Leafs now believe he's worth $9 mil per season when back in autumn they thought otherwise, as well as the club's desire to cut a year off the deal. There is also talk Joseph could easily get what he's looking for in the free agent market.

It's been talked about for weeks that the Detroit Red Wings will sign Joseph if Dominik Hasek retires. However, stories are now popping up of the Wings apparently not interested at all in handing Joseph that kind of money, citing the lesser salaries of proven winners like Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur.

Still, there are other clubs who'd be willing to pay Cujo that kind of cash. The NY Rangers would be more than willing to pony up that kind of dough. There's even some speculation the Philadelphia Flyers might package up Roman Cechmanek and ship him to the Leafs with another player for Joseph's rights, then sign him to the deal he's seeking.

Adding further to the intrigue are reports out of Toronto of Quinn telling Meehan he's "too busy" to meet with him on Monday. If that's true, that's perhaps the clearest sign the Leafs are fully prepared to cut Cujo loose.

Finally, the Buffalo News reported two sources from within the Red Wings organization claim goaltender Dominik Hasek has told GM Ken Holland he will retire as many speculated he would, with an official announcement to come on Monday. If the report is correct, it'll only further stoke the "Wings want Cujo" rumours.

While many of Hasek's Detroit teammates were desperately trying to convince "the Dominator" to return for one more season, the Czech superstar had dropped hints dating back to his trade to Detroit last summer that his final goal in his stellar career was to play for a Cup winner. With that now accomplished, and with a shelf full of individual accolades, and the hero status he has in his home country thanks to his backstopping the Czechs to a surprise gold medal in the 1998 Winter Olympics, there is nothing left for Hasek to prove. When you've achieved all you've ever wanted out of your career, there's no where left to go but down. Better for Hasek to go out on top, as a winner, than to make the fatal mistake too many athletes have made in hanging on for too long, when their skills and desire have eroded.

And so, another draft weekend has come and gone. Not a lot of big trades. Not a lot of big names on the move. It'll be several years before we find out for certain if this year's draft was as weak as the experts claimed it was.

Up next: the annual summer greedfest known as the unrestricted free agent market!

FREE AGENT MADNESS.

We've all heard the old saying that money is the root of all evil. When it comes to the National Hockey League, however, it's clearly the root of pure madness.

Nowhere is that more in evident than the summer, when players who qualify for unrestricted free agent status shop themselves like high-priced prostitutes to the highest bidders, while those who are restricted free agents more often than not act like petulant schoolchildren when they don't get the kind of contract offer they feel they deserve.

Meanwhile, free-spending big-market teams cut a swath throw the UFA market, throwing money at the marquee names in hopes they can land the final piece of the puzzle to bring them a championship season, while the poor cousin small-market clubs settle for whatever scraps remain, if they can afford them.

In Toronto, perhaps the most attractive unrestricted free agent in this year's market, if we go by the screechings of the Toronto press, is goaltender Curtis Joseph. As the July first UFA deadline approaches, he has his employers, the Maple Leafs, scrambling desperately to come up with some kind of deal that'll keep him with the club . Cujo wants a four-year deal worth over $9 million US per season, roughly the same deal the Leafs gave team captain Mats Sundin last summer.

And therein lies the problem. Joseph's demands would put his salary above that of Colorado's Patrick Roy and New Jersey's Martin Brodeur, both of whom are proven playoff performers who've won Stanley Cups plus individual accolades. Joseph has never won a Cup or any individual hardware during his NHL career, but that's not why he wants $9 mil per season.

No, this comes down to what he considers his value to the Maple Leafs. As important as Sundin is to the Leafs, Cujo believes he's just as important, perhaps more so. It's no coincidence the Leafs rose from also-rans to Cup contender, at least in the eyes of the Toronto media, when Joseph signed with the club as UFA back in 1998.

But the Leafs don't want to give him that kind of deal, because of the consequences it'll have on the market value of other goaltenders in the future. Give Cujo more than Brodeur and Roy, and suddenly you'll have other, over-rated netminders citing him as an example as to why they're worth the same kind of dough. Not to mention guaranteeing the marquee name netminders who are superior to Joseph will also use that contract as a reason why they're worth more.

There's speculation other clubs, such as the Detroit Red Wings, New York Rangers, or Philadelphia Flyers, might be willing to pony up that kind of dough if the Leafs aren't. There seems, however, to be a growing belief these teams might pass on Cujo if he insists on that pricetag once he enters the UFA market. Still, don't discount what desperation can do to a team lacking a quality starting netminder.

Meanwhile, in Boston, Bruins winger Bill Guerin is quietly counting down the days until July first, when he'll set himself up for a huge payday. Guerin, a forty-goal scorer in a league where goals are hard to come by, is rumoured to be seeking a four-to-five year deal worth around $45 million US. Although, like Joseph, Guerin has never won any individual accolades, he's basing his salary on that of the aging, lame-backed Flyers power forward John LeClair, who signed roughly the same type of deal last summer with Philly. Injuries kept LeClair from racking up the type of offensive production worthy of such a salary, but Guerin, who's considerably healthier, will point to what he did, on less pay, as justification he's worth as much as LeClair.

The tight-fisted Bruins would love to retain him, and Guerin claims he'd loved to remain in Boston, but given the Bruins reputation for frugality, that's not going to happen. So Billy will go on the market, where he'll be courted by the Rangers, Stars, Flyers, and Red Wings.That'll leave the Bruins looking to find a replacement, which of course, they won't be able to do in the short-term. Once again, another notable Bruin will leave town, leaving Bruins fans to ponder just how good their team could've been if only they'd been able to keep it together.

The Chicago Blackhawks washed their hands of team captain Tony Amonte, citing the fact he's not worth the $7 - $8 million US per season he's seeking. When one looks at how Amonte's stats fell off considerably last season, while most of his teammates appeared to show improvement, the 'Hawks hierarchy seems to have a point.

However, one has to wonder if Amonte is truly a player heading rapidly past his prime, or if the mutual dislike between himself and Blackhawks GM Mike Smith was the cause for his drop-off in production. Smith has loathed Amonte's demands for higher wages since he signed on as GM, and spent the past two years quietly trying to shop him. Apparently, the NY Islanders and Dallas Stars believe it's this problem, not a deterioration of Amonte's skills, that contributed to his slumping statistics, and if media reports are to be believed, they're poised to offer him exactly what he wants.

But it's in New Jersey where the free agent madness takes it's weirdest turn. In the view of the New York press, Devils centre Bobby Holik is the most-prized of the impending UFAs, and could end up with perhaps the largest UFA contract ever signed before the first week of the market has ended.

Holik has gained in stature over the past three years, thanks in no small part to his strong all-around play in the 2000 and 2001 playoffs. Big, strong, nasty and loaded with what's called "good hockey sense", Holik is just the kind of warrior all teams would want to have in their lineups come post-season. Naturally, only a handful of clubs can afford him. The Flyers, Stars, Avalanche and Red Wings are all believed interested in him, but it's the Rangers who apparently have put Holik at the top of their free agent wish-list.

But here's the weird part: the Devils are said to be willing to match any offer Holik gets from other teams. It was Devils GM Lou Lamoriello's refusal to pony up the $5 mil per season Holik was seeking last summer as an RFA that sent his case toward an arbitrator, where Lamoriello put a slug in his other foot by arguing Holik simply wasn't worth that kind of money. In the end, all Lamoriello succeeded in doing was pissing off the one player who could be said to be the epitome of what the New Jersey Devils were all about over the past 8 years.

Thus, an angry Holik bitterly announced he would test the UFA market in 2002. His stance never changed throughout the 2001-02 season, despite the obvious change of heart in Lamoriello as the season went by. It was almost comical, as Lamoriello appeared to act toward Holik like someone who busted up with their spouse, only to realize the very person he jilted was the one he couldn't live without and was now trying desperately to win them back.

All of this, of course, begs the question of why Lamoriello didn't re-sign Holik to the long-term deal, for less money, that he was seeking last summer, rather than risk losing him, or getting him back for considerably more. Lamoriello was once considered one of the savviest GMs in the game, but this was a huge blunder on his part, and his supposed attempts at wooing Holik back make him look pathetic.

But if it's king-hell pure free agent madness you're looking for, nothing tops the New York Rangers. Now I know I'm going to catch it in the ear from some Rangers fans, as I always seem to do whenever I dare criticize the Blueshirts, but there is no two-ways about it: lunacy runs amok in the Rangers front office.

When Glen Sather was hired as general manager of the Rangers back in the spring of 2000, it was thought that this club, which until then had been the posterboys for irresponsibility when it came to free agency, would practice some fiscal restraint. After all, the wild spending on high-priced UFAs had brought the Rangers nothing but down. There was talk instead of Sather rebuilding the Rangers via trades and the draft, rather than using free agency as the principal building weapon.

And over the past two years, Sather took that route. He didn't make a giant splash in the UFA pool like his predecessor, Neil Smith. Instead, he went predominantly through the trade route, dealing to land notable talent as Eric Lindros and Pavel Bure. Yes, they came with hefty salaries, but they were simply picking up the tab of what the Flyers and Panthers had been paying out to these guys.

However, none of this succeeded in pushing the Rangers back into the playoffs. For whatever reason, Sather built up his offence while pratically neglecting his defence. The result after two seasons with "Slats" at the helm was a Blueshirts team that had no trouble scoring, but couldn't keep the puck out of their own net.

And so it now appears, in the view of the breathless New York press, that Sather and the Rangers are poised to cast a large net upon the UFA waters in hopes of scooping up the depth required to finally end the five-year playoff drought embarrassment of what NY Post writer Larry Brooks calls "the most important team in the NHL".

Depending on what you read or hear, the Rangers are poised to land Curtis Joseph, Chris Chelios and Bobby Holik. If any team could pull that trifecta off, it's the Rangers.

Or can they? In these "post-9-11" days, there's talk of players, or at least, their families, not being comfortable with coming to the Big Apple to play. There's also no guarantee that a player desperate to play for a legit Cup contender, like Joseph, or players accustomed to playing for winners, like Chelios and Holik, will want to go to a team that, even with their presence, would still have problem areas to address.

Sure, Joseph would make a great number one netminder in New York, but would he be willing to act as a tutor for promising young Dan Blackburn? Even if Chelios were to pair up with old buddy Brian Leetch, that leaves your second defensive pairing as Tom Poti and Vladimir Malakhov, which has lots of offensive flash but little defensive substance. Which means Chelios and Leetch log a lot of ice time, while whoever the goalie is ends up facing a lot of rubber. And if they sign Holik, what happens to team captain Mark Messier? Does he retire? Does he willingly accept the role of third-line centre? Or does that push Petr Nedved out the door? Do you run the risk of buring out Holik by having him logging the lion's share of defensive special time duties?

Sather appears so desperate to make a huge noise in the free agent market that he's apparently willing to cast aside goaltender Mike Richter to free up salary to pursue a top name UFA netminder like Joseph. It's not Richter's fault the team in front of him were defensively inept, and he carried this team on two surgically repaired knees through stretches when it appeared they were poised to challenge for a playoff berth. Indeed, many Rangers fans appear more comfortable with keeping Richter, who may be willing to sign on for less.

But as I said before, Slats is desperate now, or at least, his employers are. Five straight seasons without the NHL playoffs in Madison Square Garden will do that to a club, especially one that now has a bad reputation as a "retirement home" for aging, overpaid veterans.

The UFA market isn't the only place where madness can run wild. Restricted free agents can also make life entertaining.

This summer, the two most prominant are Montreal goalie Jose Theodore and Calgary sniper Jarome Iginla. Theodore won the Vezina and Hart trophies as the top goalie and league MVP in 2001-02, while Iginla won the Richard and Ross trophies as the league's leading point-getter and goal-scorer respectively.

Both men are represented by agent Don Meehan, who must be thanking God he had the good sense to include these two young stars in his stable years ago. Theodore and Iginla now stand to make considerably more than the "pittance" they made last season, and if Meehan can sign them for what they're asking for, it'll cement him as the top player agent in the NHL.

Apparently, both players are seeking long-term deals worth between $6-$7 million US. Their respective teams want to re-sign them, and Theodore and Iginla make no bones of the fact they want to remain where they are. Theodore is a Quebec native who loves playing in Montreal, while Iginla, an Edmonton native, wants to stay in the Stampede City.

Both guys will get qualifying offers from their clubs, which will ensure their rights remain with Montreal and Calgary. Getting Theodore and Iginla to accept new contracts, however, is a different story. There will be plenty of haggling back and forth, as the Canadiens and Flames respectively will attempt to squeeze as much of a bargain as they can out of this.

The end result could see a prolonged holdout by one or both players if they're not happy with what they get by the time training camp rolls around. As we've all seen many times before, players who miss part of a season via a contract holdout rarely play up to their previous high standards over the remainder of the season when they come back to finish the year. Sometimes, players will even miss an entire season to get what they want.

It's doubtful the Flames and Canadiens will allow either guy to hold out for an entire season, or even beyond a month. Both teams are in delicate shape right now. The Flames came close to finally making it back into the playoffs after a six year absence, thanks largely to Iginla. The Canadiens, meanwhile, rode Theodore's outstanding goaltending to their first playoff appearance since 1998. Both teams want to build on their respective levels of success, thus, they need their marquee guys back in the lineup.

It would appear a lock both players return to their respective teams before next season, but to paraphrase what I said before, free agency is the root of all madness in the NHL.

Let's say the Rangers are unable to sign any of the big-name free agent forwards they're seeking this years. Or the Maple Leafs lose Cujo and cannot find a suitable replacement. There's nothing to stop the Rangers from making an offer sheet to Iginla equal to, or greater than, the contract he's seeking from the Flames. Ditto the Leafs with Theodore, and in this case, one has to believe they'd be very, very happy to offer the 25-year-old Theodore the four-year, $6.25 mil per season he's asking for.

These clubs would have to part with five first round picks as compensation to either the Flames or Canadiens, but given how poorly they've been drafting in recent years, neither the Rangers nor Leafs would think twice if such a move could land them the best offensive forward or top goalie in the NHL.

If the Canadiens or Flames were unwilling or unable to pay Theodore and Iginla their demanded salaries, there would be nothing they could do to stop what would be the nightmare scenarios of their respective fans. Sure, they have the right to match any offer in Canadian dollars, but if the offer was a huge one, even that could be a stretch to either club.

Some reporters note this scenario won't happen, as there have been very few offers sheets proffered to restricted free agents in what one called "the clubby NHL". But these are different times than in the late 1990s, when the last offer sheet was made to Detroit's Sergei Fedorov during his contract holdout. A work stoppage could take place within two years time, and teams like the Rangers and Leafs now have a whiff of desperation about them. The Blueshirts to end their prolonged playoff absence; the Leafs to end their 35-year Cup drought.

They'll want an additional incentive to bring the fans back if the work stoppage takes a long time to end. What better incentive than having a team that was a winner prior to the labour dispute? It would make sense to teams that are desperate to get their kicks in now, while the current rules of the Collective Bargaining Agreement are still in effect, rather than risk the possibility of those rules changing.

Another scenario would be the Habs and Flames acknowledging defeat before other clubs could tender bids by trading either guy prior to the July first free agent deadline. Sure, they'd put a positive spin on such a trade, claiming the return would add valuable, inexpensive depth, designed to keep them "competitive for years".

But the ugly truth would be they simply couldn't afford to retain them. The results would be devastating. For the Flames, already acknowledged as a small-market Canadian team barely hanging on, it could kill off interest in the club in the city of Calgary. The Flames are already in precarious shape. Their fans want some reason to keep coming back to watch them. They want some reason to hope their Flames can become a playoff club again. They want to believe their team can hold onto a big star like Iginla, rather than moving him in an admission the club is nothing more than a glorified "farm team" to the big-market rivals. Trading Iginla would sound the death knell of NHL hockey in Calgary.

For the Canadiens, it would be far worse. Trading Theodore would be an admission they have no hope of being even decent mid-market competitors. It would be the official announcement the Canadiens, the NHL's greatest franchise, as nothing more than another small-market Canadian team with little chance of ever returning to the Cup glory they once enjoyed. Habs fans are fiercely loyal to their club, but they're also very demanding, and such a move would seriously test that loyalty. Canadiens fans live in hope their beloved club is just going through a down cycle, and that they'll rebuild into a Cup winner again. That hope would be dashed if Theodore were dealt or allow to get away through an offer sheet from another team.

Meanwhile, as the potential free agent frenzies play themselves out in the coming weeks, the National Hockey League appears more likely to face a work stoppage at the end of the 2003-04 season. One of the reasons for his is free agency.

The League Board of Governors (the team owners) want a salary cap to keep player salaries from spiralling so high that only the big market teams can afford them, thus further widening the gulf between the half-dozen or so "have" teams and the rest of the league. The Players Association rejects the cap, claiming essentially it's simply a ploy by the owners to return to the bad old days when NHL players were the lowest paid of the major professional North American sports.

Neither side appears willing to compromise, seemingly content on killing the golden goose. Some of the big market teams cry crocodile tears for the plight of the small-market teams, while stripping their rivals rosters of their best talent via free agency. A certain former small market GM, who once considered himself "the voice of the small-market teams" appears poised to once and for all reject his former stance, all in the name of buying his club a playoff berth at seemingly any cost.

Meanwhile, players who are already very wealthy profess to love the teams they play for, but chuck their loyalty out the window when another club comes calling with even more millions. Less than a dozen teams grow fat on free agency, while the rest of the league scrambles to find ways to stay competitive and keep their fans coming back. Ticket prices keep getting jacked as teams payrolls, even the small-market ones, continue to rise, thus pushing the true fan base of the NHL, the lower-and-middle class hockey fan, away from the game they love.

Anyone still believe a new collective bargaining agreement can be hammered out by the league and the players association without a work stoppage?

Money is the root of all evil, and in it's disguise known as NHL free agency, is the root of all madness.