MARCH 2002 SOAPBOX ARCHIVES.

WHAT HAVE YOU DONE FOR US LATELY?

In the wake of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, a rash of injuries has struck several players from Team Canada and Team USA.

Colorado's top two defencemen, Rob Blake and Adam Foote, have been sidelined, as has New Jersey Devils blueliner Scott Niedermayer. St. Louis Blues forwards and Teams USA teammates Keith Tkachuk and Doug Weight are both out with leg injuries. Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Curtis Joseph broke his hand, and Detroit Red Wings forward Brendan Shanahan is playing with a broken thumb.

And then there are the injuries suffered by Pittsburgh's Mario Lemieux and Detroit's Steve Yzerman. Both re-aggravated previous injuries during Team Canada's Gold Medal drive; Lemieux his hip, Yzerman his knee.

Unlike the others, however, both players have been taking some heat from their respective fans.

Lemieux's has been the most notable, ever since he stated prior to the start of the Salt Lake City games that his focus on the Olympics had been his priority for this season, rather than helping the Penguins make the playoffs.

The remarks were unfortunate, and some in the Pittsburgh media used them to whip up negative publicity against the Penguins owner and captain. Lemieux responded following the Games by saying he's always put the franchise first, and that he was only going to get one chance to play in the Olympics and wanted to make the most of it. Given all that Lemieux has done for the Penguins since he was drafted by them in 1984, it would be folly to dispute his statements.

However, the news that his participation in the Olympics re-aggravated his hip and has forced him to the sidelines for the rest of the season hasn't gone down well with some Penguins fans. On team message boards, he's been vilified for selfishly putting his health at risk to achieve Olympic glory at the expense of the Penguins, who are in real danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since 1990.

While Lemieux's Olympic participation has been an ongoing debate for Penguins fans for months, the recent report in the Detroit News regarding the venom being launched at Yzerman came as a surprise. While the Wings are in no danger of missing the playoffs without Yzerman, there are Red Wings fans who believed he shouldn't have competed in the Olympics so soon after having knee surgery, and are attacking him for letting down the Detroit club to chase Olympic gold.

I've commented twice before on Lemieux's decision to risk further injury to his hip by playing for Team Canada, in December and on the eve of Canada's first game in Salt Lake City. I was against Mario doing this, believing it was not a wise decision for him to pursue a Gold Medal if he were not completely healthy, when his Penguins needed him for the stretch run.

Obviously, my worst fears, and those of Penguins fans, have come true. Lemieux's hip flared up again, and now he's gone for the season, when his team needs him the most. Although Lemieux was triumphant at the Olympics, his absence could seal the Pens fate this season.

In Yzerman's case, the scenario is different. His nomination to Team Canada came before his knee injury and subsequent surgery. While his knee became inflamed and swollen playing in the Olympics, thus forcing him to the sidelines, it's not going to end the Detroit captain's season. Neither will it jeopardize the Wings playoff hopes. Detroit has been comfortably esconced atop the NHL standings for months, and are in no danger of missing the post-season. Indeed, so deep are the Wings in talent, they want Yzerman to take his time returning, as they want him at 100 percent for the playoffs.

Was it selfish of Lemieux and Yzerman to risk worsening their injuries for Olympic gold? Perhaps it was, but both felt the desire to compete with the very best against the very best for a prize that they knew would mean so much to not only fans of their native country, but to themselves as well. Yzerman had to watch in frustration as Team Canada blew it's chance to win gold in 1998. Lemieux had never competed at the Olympic level and it was the one prize that remained to be had in a Hall of Fame career where he'd won the Stanley Cup and just about every individual accolade an NHL forward could win.

Something obviously motivated these two great players to risk worsening their injuries for Olympic Gold. For American commentators, they don't buy into the concept that Yzerman and Lemieux wanted to win it for their country. They noted the two haven't lived in Canada in years, and live in American with US citizenship, with nothing except their parents to tie them to their former country.

So why did they play for Team Canada? Some may say it was greed for personal glory, others claim it was a chance for them to play on a winner one last time. If that's the case,then why didn't they play for their adopted country? After all, the Americans had as great a chance as Canada, or Russia, or Sweden, or the Czech Republic, to win it all. Indeed, they proved it by getting to the Gold Medal Game. Surely the chance to play with future Hall-of-Famers like Modano, Hull, Richter, Leetch and Chelios would've been enough to convince Lemieux and Yzerman to play for Team USA and win gold. What good would it be to play for Canada, whose style of play was derided in America and Europe as stupid, boring, unimaginative and lacking in skill?

Perhaps it was something more than a personal quest for glory. Perhaps, deep down, underneath those American exteriors, still beat the hearts of proud Canadians. They weren't going to return to Canada to experience the thrill of ending a fifty-year drought in Olympic hockey competition. They wouldn't see first-hand the throngs that poured into the streets in every Canadian town and city, cheering Team Canada's victory. How else to explain risking injury, and in Lemieux's case, the Penguins playoff hopes, to win a medal that meant so much to a country they'd both left behind?

And that raises another interesting question. If Lemieux and Yzerman had aggravated their injuries helping Team USA win gold, rather than Team Canada, would their critics in Pittsburgh and Detroit still be throwing darts at them? Or would they be lauding them for their gritty patriotism for the Red, White and Blue, playing through pain to win it all for the good old USA? Methinks if the latter were the case, we wouldn't be hearing as much grumbling as we are now.

I sympathize with Penguins fans and understand their disappointment. But what I don't understand is the level of bitterness and anger being levelled at Lemieux. The possibility of missing the playoffs for the first time in twelve years is annoying and frustrating, as well as having consequences for the club's revenue this season, but it's not worth raking over the coals the man who has saved the Penguins franchise three times in 18 years.

Penguins fans have the right to be disappointed, and they have the right to question Mario's decision. But to heap angry abuse upon him, to demand an apology from him, to claim he'd insulted them by putting Team Canada first, after everything he's done for hockey in Pittsburgh, is wrong.

Without Lemieux, Pittsburgh hockey fans would have no NHL franchise to worry about. Without Lemieux, the Penguins would've waddled out of Pittsburgh sometime in the 1980s at the earliest, or in 1999 at the latest, probably to Oregon, where Microsoft co-founder and billionaire Paul Allen still waits for an NHL franchise to go belly-up so he can snap it up and move it to Portland. Without Lemieux, there would be no Cup parades in Steeltown, no Ron Francis, no Jaromir Jagr, and no twelve year consecutive playoff streak. There certainly wouldn't have been a berth in the Eastern Conference finals in 2001. Question him all you want, but stow the empty anger and threats about cancelling your season tickets and burning your Penguins jerseys.

Penguins fans at least have a justifiable basis to question Lemieux's participation in the Olympics. Those Red Wings fans questioning Yzerman's participation have nothing to base their anger upon.

For those who are screaming that Yzerman is "sitting on his butt collecting $8 million rather than helping the Red Wings", here's a little history lesson they should heed before they stick their other feet in their collective mouths.

When "Stevie Y" was drafted by the Detroit Red Wings in 1983, the franchise, which had once been a powerhouse in the days of the "Original Six", had fallen on hard times, thanks to decades of mismanagement. They were, like the Penguins prior to Lemieux's arrival in 1984, a joke, one of the league doormats, a club that was considered an "easy two points" by opponents.

Although it was the off-ice improvement in management and scouting that helped rebuild the Wings in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was built around Yzerman, who became Detroit's franchise player and was the key ingredient in turning the Red Wings around.

It was Yzerman who had to painfully learn how to change his game from offence-only to a stronger two-way style. He had to grow as a leader, and develop the mental toughness against critics who said he was an ineffective team captain.

It was thanks to Yzerman the Wings had the strong on-ice leadership needed to bring the Stanley Cup back to Detroit after 42 long years. It was Yzerman who helped bring the team together after the tragic accident that ended the playing career of Vladimir Konstantinov. It was Yzerman who led the Wings to repeat as champions in 1998. It was Yzerman who helped make Detroit "Hockeytown".

The attitude of those fans who are heaping abuse on Lemieux and Yzerman is that of, "what have you done for me lately"? They don't take into account all that these players have done over their long careers. The fact neither player demanded early in their careers to be traded when the Penguins and Red Wings were doing so badly is lost on these whiners. The fact they've stayed with their teams for all these years means nothing. All the pain and doubt they had to battle through, all the growth they did to become better players and leaders and champions is being conveniently overlooked by these bandwagoneers.

Not every fan in Pittsburgh and Detroit is dumping on Lemieux and Yzerman. Indeed, the majority of Penguins and Red Wings fans are very knowledgable about the game, and while they understand these players are not perfect, they're still grateful for all they've done for their respective clubs.

I think these complaints are coming from a minority of fans who are "johnny-come-latelys", whose inflammatory statements are being fanned by some in the local media keen to stir up trouble. Those fans are either too young to remember what life was like before Lemieux and Yzerman came on the scene, or are the type who conveniently hopped aboard the Penguins and Red Wings bandwagon during the good years. Either that, or they're just plain morons who, as Lemieux said a few weeks ago, have nothing better to do than bitch.

In the end, they're guilty of committing the same sin they're accusing Lemieux and Yzerman of.

Selfishness.

NHL BLIND TO REALITY.

In the aftermath of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, there was much amongst fans and reporters about the fast pace and high quality of men's Olympic hockey, compared to what the National Hockey League had to offer.

The fact the ice surface was larger and only the best players in the world competed was duly noted as something that couldn't be carried over into the NHL game. The league missed it's chance to expand ice surfaces during their arena-building boom of the 1990s, while expansion during the same period had noticeably diluted the talent pool.

However, such notable Olympic innovations as the "hurry-up" faceoff, the absence of the centre red line, and no-touch icing earned rave reviews, and were seen as innovations that could be easily adopted by the NHL. Speculation abounded as to whether the National Hockey League hierarchy would take these points into consideration during the annual March meeting of general managers.

Predictably, the GMs emerged from their meetings fiercely opposed to considering such "radical" changes. There was vague talk about possibly adopting a modified version of the hurry-up faceoff, and re-introducing the "tag-up" offsides plus they trotted out the old chestnut of wanting to clamp down on neutral-zone obstruction.

Indeed, apart from these and a proposed consideration of Flyer GM Bob Clarke's suggestion to go to one faceoff circle in each zone directly in front of the net, the general managers emerged proclaiming there was nothing wrong with the NHL game.

"Basically, we all recognized one thing," said Islanders GM Mike Milbury. "We like the game a lot the way it is." Echoed his counterpart, Boston Bruins GM Mike O'Connell, "I don't think we need to change anything".

In other words, the general managers, as well as NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and the Board of Governors, have no intention of doing anything that could improve the game. Essentially, they've told hockey fans who are disgusted with the dull, plodding, defensive-oriented, clutch-and-grab style of today's NHL that they aren't interested in our opinion.

Why is the league so blind to reality? Why can't they see that many of their big, shiny, cookie-cutter arenas are rarely filled to capacity,and in some places, only half-full? Why do they turn a blind eye to faltering television ratings in the United States, the country where they hoped to grow the game? Why are they blithely dismissing the obvious fact the Olympic style is far better than the current NHL version? How can these GMs, who are supposedly experienced, knowledgeable hockey men, insist they prefer their inferior product?

I believe there are three key reasons. First, the GMs of the lesser-talented teams don't want to see anything instituted that will open up the game. They realize their respective clubs are stocked with players who wouldn't be considered NHL-calibre ten years ago, when there was 22 teams instead of the 30 currently in the league. There's no secret to why obstruction, disguised as a "trapping defensive style", has been on the rise since the late 1990's. It's the only way sub-par clubs can compete against more clearly superior teams. The logic here is, why would our fans come out to see us get run out of the building every night? No, it's far better they believe our clubs have a chance of competing. It may be boring, but at least it's competitive, at least in their eyes.

Another reason is a lack of original thinking among the league hierarchy. Ten years ago, in the wake of the players strike that spelled the demise of NHL president John Ziegler and NHLPA honcho Alan Eagleson, much was made of the so-called "changing of the guard" amongst league governors and GMs. Supposedly, guys with energy and fresh ideas were coming in to fill the void, and would push the NHL into exciting new directions.

Instead, to paraphrase The Who: meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Gary Bettman, brought in as commissioner in 1993, is becoming more like his predecessor Ziegler with each passing season. Bettman chants his "don't worry, be happy" mantra, much like Ziegler used to go on with his "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" state of the league addresses.

The scary thing here is that, as much as the players were being hosed out of their fair share during Ziegler's reign, the quality of hockey during his tenure was in some ways better than it is today under Bettman. But I digress...

The new owners and general managers who were supposed to improve the NHL product instead have turned into almost carbon-copies of their do-little predecessors. They talk of making the game better, but while they've implemented some changes, they've done hardly anything to improve the quality of the game. Every season, they speak of cracking down on obstruction, yet every season, nothing changes. They harrumph at radical changes like eliminating the red line, plucking hypothetical scenarios out of the air why such a change wouldn't work.

Some speak of being "traditionalists" who don't want to see the game tampered with. Funny, but that sounds a lot like what was being said by their forebears, who were chided as dinosaurs ten years ago!

The third reason, and perhaps the one that cuts to the heart of the matter, is that implementing these changes would be an admission the International Ice Hockey Federation ices a better game than the National Hockey League.

The NHL hierarchy was caught off-guard by the positive feedback amongst fans and media concerning the Olympic style of play. Commissioner Bettman's points about the larger ice surface and the quality of players participating were well-taken, but they weren't the only reasons why there was so much excitement over the Olympic style.

The facts were there for all to see. The absence of the red line opened up the neutral zone, allowing for long, break-out passes by defencemen and giving forwards more room to maneouvre. The "hurry-up" faceoffs eliminated time-consuming line changes and the "sticks-up scrums" so prevalent in stoppages of play around the net in NHL contests. The "no-touch" icings meant defenceman wouldn't have to worry about potentially dangerous foot-races toward the end-boards with hard-charging opponents.

As a result, the Olympic men's hockey games were fast-paced, exciting and over within two hours, a far cry from the sometimes three-hour snooze-fest marathons of slow-paced, obstruction-filled hockey the NHL has been fobbing on its fans for years.

Rest assured, Bettman, the league governors and the general managers were fully aware of this. Privately, each of them must know the Olympic product is superior to their own. But to admit this, and to implement the necessary changes, would be admitting these supposedly knowledgeable hockey men have been wrong for all these years.

After experimenting in moving the nets further out from the boards, changing the crease size and the rules governing it, and feeble attempts at cracking down on obstruction calls and out-sized goalie equipment, implementing rules the IIHF have used for years would make the NHL look like bumblers. Why did they waste all that time with dumb ideas, they hear their naysayers crowing, when the IIHF had the simple answers all along?

Rest assured, there's also a bit of prejudice involved in the NHL's unwillingness to adopt these changes. The IIHF is governed by Europeans, some of whom have been saying for years the NHL's (read: North American) product is inferior to the international version. To actually implement rules the IIHF have had for years would be an admission the Euros have been right all along. Don't think that wouldn't stick in a few craws!

Sound far-fetched? How else to explain dumb-ass statements as "we like the game the way it is?"

Surely there would be no harm in at least trying some of the IIHF rules? What harm could there be? "It won't change the way the game is played"? Oh yeah, like the NHL we've been suffering through since the mid-1990's is much better!

The arguments against these rules are weak, to say the least. "Removing the red line will merely encourage more obstruction, in that teams will simply line up on the blueline". " The timing for the IIHF face-off rule is too short, as it doesn't allow for proper line changes, and some coaches could exploit the rule to their advantage". " We see nothing that convinces us no-tag icings make the game faster than it is now".

Working against those arguments is the fact those who watched the Olympics believe what their eyes saw. While weaker teams, like Germany and Belarus, employed the "blueline lineup" strategy, it had limited effectiveness, particularly against stronger opponents. When employed properly, the "hurry-up" face-off rule kept the flow of the game going, eliminating time-consuming delays. Ditto the no-touch icing rule, which also was safer for the players.

But rather than swallow their pride, rather than admit what they've done in the past was ineffective, rather than at least give these changes a chance, for the good of the game, the NHL GMs closed ranks around their commissioner and, to a man, insisted there was nothing wrong with the NHL style of play.

That is unfortunate, both for the game and for it's fans. It means we'll continue to see the same old boring crappy style we've been stuck with for the past six or seven years. Dull, unimaginative obstruction hockey with endless stoppages, no flow and no life.

It means the only games worth tuning in to see will be those in the final ten games of the regular season, when marginal teams are battling for the final playoff spots in their respective conferences. It means the playoffs are the only time we'll see the quality of play improve at all. It means people who were attracted to hockey by the Olympic Games will quickly lose interest in the NHL games, thus killing off any chance of increasing the league's fan base and visibility, particularly in the United States.

It means there continues to be a lack of fresh ideas among those who run the National Hockey League.

Finally, it means long-time hockey fans will continue to lose out, forced to suffer through a boring product pushed on them by unimaginative men who are missing a real opportunity to improve it.

COMING DOWN THE STRETCH.

ANAHEIM MIGHTY DUCKS: The Ducks improved a bit in the second half, but not enough to make the playoffs. They go into the off-season with many questions hanging over them. Will Disney finally find a buyer to take the struggling club off their hands? Will GM Pierre Gauthier still have his job by summer's end, and if so, can he regain the Midas touch he had with the Ottawa Senators that failed to follow him to Anaheim? Can they re-sign restricted free agent Paul Kariya? Will he request a trade? With all the uncertainty, it's not a fun time to be a Ducks fan.

ATLANTA THRASHERS: The Thrashers took a step backward in the standings compared to last season and once again have no hope of making the playoffs. However, there are two reasons that give hope to Atlanta fans: forwards Dany Heatley and Ilja Kovalchuk. The hot-shot rookies were the only good thing about this moribund club, displaying skills and maturity beyond their youth. These prime candidates for the Calder Trophy cannot carry this club by themselves.

BOSTON BRUINS: My regular readers know I don't normally make predictions, but in this case, I'll make an exception. Barring a rash of injuries to key players, the Bruins are my favourite to win the Eastern Conference championship. This is a team that is finally playing like the Cup contenders they were projected to be two years ago. There are several reasons for the Bruins success: the return to form of goalie Byron Dafoe, the steady play of veteran blueliner Sean O'Donnell, the veteran experience of Bill Guerin, the career seasons of Brian Rolston and Glen Murray, and the continued development of Sergei Samsonov. Perhaps the biggest reason is forward Joe Thornton, who has finally emerged as the star player the Bruins believed he would be when they took him first overall in 1997.

BUFFALO SABRES: It's been a difficult season for the Sabres, who face the prospect of missing the playoffs for the first time since 1995-96. Some point to the loss of Dominik Hasek in an off-season trade for this, but the real reason is the Sabres forwards, notably Miro Satan, JP Dumont, Tim Connolly and Maxim Afinogenov, have struggled to put the puck in the net. The lack of offence is puzzling and has led to speculation this club may be growing weary of head coach Lindy Ruff. A late-season surge has put them back in the playoff race, but they'll have to battle hard the rest of the way to avoid elimination.

CALGARY FLAMES: Last October may only be six months ago, but it feels like a lifetime for the Flames and their fans. The rosy glow from their hot start has long faded, and this team is in real danger of missing the playoffs. Olympic hockey hero and current NHL scoring leader Jarome Iginla has been on a tear of late, seemingly carrying the Flames and refusing to say die. However, this emerging new superstar cannot do it alone. It'll take a team effort to get the Flames into the playoffs. They'll need that post-season revenue, as Iginla is a restricted free agent after the season and will be seeking a huge raise.

CAROLINA HURRICANES: Barring an unexpected slump, the Hurricanes have the Southeast Division, and post-season home-ice advantage, sewn up. Still, outside the Carolinas, the 'Canes still can't get any respect from other NHL fans. Anyone who assumes this team will be a playoff pushover could be in for a nasty shock. With two strong scoring lines and depth in goal, the Hurricanes are a hard-working team that will make a worthy opponent for their first round opposition.

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS: The 'Hawks will be returning to the playoffs for the first time in five years, which was reason enough for GM Mike Smith not to shop impending free agent forward Tony Amonte. But while there's rejoicing in the Windy City about the Blackhawks success this season, there are three areas of concern. First is the loss of defenceman Boris Mironov, possibly lost for the season with an injury. The smooth-skating Mironov will be difficult to replace. Next will be the stamina of goalie Jocelyn Thibault, the league's most over-worked netminder. Will he have enough left in the tank for the playoffs? Finally, after a strong first half, the Blackhawks have struggled since the Olympic break. They should still make the playoffs, but should their recent performances carry over into the post-season, their run will be short.

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS: The only noise the Jackets are making is in the trade rumour columns, where GM Doug MacLean insists he's not going to trade away veterans like goalie Ron Tugnutt, defenceman Lyle Odelein and forward Geoff Sanderson for picks and/or prospects. Thankfully for the Jackets, their fan support has remained strong, selling out every game in their home arena. However, they won't keep coming out if the Jackets have many more seasons like this one. MacLean has a long road ahead to give the Columbus faithful something to cheer about.

COLORADO AVALANCHE: The defending Cup champions played their way out of their early season doldrums and claim to be ready for the playoffs. The fact they've improved despite the loss of key players throughout the season to injury can be attributed to their depth, but the biggest reason is the play of goalie Patrick Roy, who's having a Vezina-and-Hart nominee season. "St. Patrick" is still carrying teams in his late-30s, and should he carry his strong regular season performance into the playoffs, it won't be easy to pry the Stanley Cup from the Avalanche.

DALLAS STARS: It certainly hasn't been a normal season in Dallas, with high player turnovers, coaching and management changes, and inconsistent play. Despite this, the Stars are clinging to the final playoff berth in the West, with a record that would have them a cinch to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. GM Doug Armstrong is on the look out to boost his roster, discreetly shopping goalie Ed Belfour and discussing a deal with Florida to land Pavel Bure. It will be interesting to see what moves Armstrong finally makes and if they'll be enough to give his club the lift it badly needs.

DETROIT RED WINGS: With the Wings dominating the regular season, some observers seem willing to award them the Stanley Cup by default. That, however, is fatal thinking, something that several members of the current Red Wings roster experienced back in 1995-96, when they also dominated the regular season, only to be eliminated in the Conference finals. Detroit is a very powerful club, with as many as nine potential Hall of Famers on their roster. But there will be concerns about this team's age and how well they'll handle the tougher physical grind of the post-season. They're the favourites to win it all, but it's not going to be an easy road.

EDMONTON OILERS: It's puzzling why this team, with so much quality talent on it's roster, has been struggling so badly in the second half. The Oilers, like their Alberta counterparts the Flames, have fallen out of playoff contention and are in desperate need of a shake-up. Blueliner Tom Poti, the favourite whipping boy of the Edmonton fans, is being shopped for an offensive forward, but some Oilers faithful wonder if the return will come in time to save the season.

FLORIDA PANTHERS: With the playoffs far out of reach, Panthers management are already looking ahead to making changes to improve the club next season. Veteran goalie Trevor Kidd is a goner, and there's speculation over Viktor Kozlov's continued future with the club. The biggest story thus far has been reports the Panthers are considering dealing superstar forward Pavel Bure to free up the cash in the payroll to pursue impending UFA Bill Guerin. Don't expect the Panthers to deal off their promising youngsters like Roberto Luongo and Kristian Huselius. The Cats may engage in some house-cleaning, but their kids won't be part of it.

LOS ANGELES KINGS: After a woeful start that threatened to scuttle their season, the Kings have turned thing around nicely. They've been one of the better teams in the second half and should make the playoffs if they continue their strong play. Kings management and coaching must be credited for not panicking and staying patient with their players. Jason Allison has settled in since coming over to LA from Boston in a trade last fall. Key players such as Zigmund Palffy and Mathieu Schneider returned from injuries to aid in the Kings turnaround. Best of all, they've received great goaltender from Felix Potvin and Jamie Storr. This resurgent club will be a real pain to play against in the post-season.

MINNESOTA WILD: Year two of their existence saw the Wild miss the playoffs again, but the future is looking bright for this team. They're on pace to finish with more than 70 points, which represents an improvement over last season. Free agent pickups Andrew Brunette and Sergei Zholtok have made strong contributions to their offensive game, while defenceman Filip Kuba is an emerging talent on the blueline. The biggest hope for their future is forward Marian Gaborik, who improved noticeably in only his second NHL season, and should finish the year with 60-65 points. GM Doug Risebrough and head coach Jacques Lemaire are doing a great job building this club, and should they keep this pace of improvement, we could see them make their first post-season appearance within the next two years.

MONTREAL CANADIENS: Give the Habs credit, they've stayed in the hunt for a playoff berth for longer than most observers believed they would. However, there are signs this club is stumbling. Since the Olympic break, they've been out-shot by a 2 to 1 margin in most games, struggled to hold leads, played poorly in their own zone, and relied too much on emerging superstar goalie Jose Theodore to bail them out. If this trend continues much longer, the Canadiens will set a franchise record for the most consecutive seasons without making the playoffs (4).

NASHVILLE PREDATORS: The one word to sum up this season for the Predators is: disappointing. After finishing last season 10th overall in the Western Conference with 80 points, it was believed this would be the break-out season for Nashville. Instead, the Predators struggled this season, and barring a miracle, have no hope of making their first playoff appearance. While playing a good defensive game, the Predators continue to struggle offensively. They'll need kids like David Legwand to rebound, and Denis Arkhipov to continue to improve, if they want to create a balanced attack. A free agent pickup this summer may not be a bad move, but don't expect the Preds to get into the bidding for big-money stars.

NEW JERSEY DEVILS: Last season's Cup finalists have been teetering on the brink of missing the playoffs all season, but they're still grimly hanging on to one of the final berths in the East. Firing Larry Robinson as head coach and replacing him with Kevin Constantine provided an slight boost, but soon the Devils were struggling again. Although they've picked up their play over the last three games, a playoff berth isn't a lock and this team will have to pull together if they're to get in. If they do make the post-season, don't expect them to go far.

NEW YORK ISLANDERS: Like the Calgary Flames and Chicago Blackhawks, the Islanders were one of the surprise teams in the league, and had one of the best records in the first month or so. But inconsistent play, injuries and a lack of blueline depth sent them plummetting down the standings, to where, like their rivals, the Rangers, they're barely hanging on to a playoff spot. GM Mike Milbury is trying to land help, both for his blueline and for Alexei Yashin's line. Whether he's successful or not, the Isles will have to battle hard the rest of the way if they're to make the post-season for the first time in six years.

NEW YORK RANGERS: Like their rivals, the Islanders, the Rangers at one point this season were among the top four clubs in the Eastern Conference. Like the Isles, injuries to key players, inconsistent play, and a lack of blueline depth far worse than what their rival is experiencing has them barely clinging to one of the last playoff berths. The biggest reason for the Rangers faltering second half has been the performance of Eric Lindros, who hasn't played nearly as well as he did in the second half, thanks to suffering his seventh concussion at mid-season. An ankle injury has waylaid him in recent games. If the Rangers hope to end their playoff drought, they'll need Lindros back healthy and playing hard.

OTTAWA SENATORS: The playoffs are a lock once again for the Senators, but they'll be going into the playoffs trying to shake a monkey off their backs. A team accused of playing too soft in the post-season, they haven't progressed past the first round since 1998. The recent trading away of popular tough-guy Andre Roy didn't sit well with Senators fans, who are wondering if this will be the year they finally shake the label of "playoff choke-artists".

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS: After a slow start, the result of many new faces trying to fit in with the roster, the Flyers regained their footing in November and never looked back. Presently they sit atop the Eastern Conference, and some observers pick them to go to the Finals this season. However, as in past years, there is concern over the quality of the Flyers goaltending. Roman Cechmanek has been hobbled with an ankle injury, but there were concerns about him before he got hurt. Backup Brian Boucher hasn't exactly stepped up to steal away the starter's role from Cechmanek. GM Bob Clarke denies he's shopping for a goaltender, but that won't stop critics from saying the Flyers achilles heel is between the pipes. There is also concern over their troubling inability to connect on the powerplay in the second half.

PHOENIX COYOTES: How about them Desert Dawgs? The team that was gutted of their star players last season, which no one believed would make the playoffs, has risen quickly in the standings, going unbeaten in their last ten game (as of this writing), and appear likely to make the playoffs. Smart trades by former GM Cliff Fletcher and present GM Michael Barnett that were written off as mere salary dumps instead brought in promising young talents who are shining for the Coyotes. Credit must also got to head coach Bobby Francis, who has this team believing in his system, and to the stellar goaltending of veteran netminder Sean Burke, who has found a home in Phoenix. Of all the success stories thus far in the desert, the best one has to be little Daniel Briere, who finally earned a full-time spot by leading the Coyotes in goalscoring. Potential first round opponents should beware of these Dawgs, as they possess a mean bite.

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS: Despite coaching turmoil, the loss of one of their best players in a trade, and a rash of serious injuries to their best forwards, the Penguins refuse to die, gamely trying to fight their way into playoff contention. Those hopes may be dimming, for as of this writing, they sit six points out of a spot in the big dance. I cannot help but believe the Pens would be playoff shoo-ins this season if Mario Lemieux, Alexei Kovalev and Martin Straka hadn't been plagued with serious injuries. As disappointing as this season has been for Penguins fans, they can take comfort in three things. First, Lemeiux and company should be healthier next season. Two, some of their youngsters, notably Jan Hrdina, Aleksey Morozov and Kris Beech, stepped up their play this season, which bodes well for the future. Third, this club has demonstrated a lot of heart and character this season, which is to be applauded regardless of where they finish the season.

ST. LOUIS BLUES: They're singing the blues in St. Louis over the Blues. Despite possessing top talents like Keith Tkachuk, Doug Weight, Al MacInnis and Chris Pronger, the Blues are not the dominant club most expected them to be. Indeed, they've struggled of late and have slid down in the standings in the West. A combination of injuries, poor play and average goaltending has Blues fans clamouring for GM Larry Pleau to swing a deal to boost the club's fortunes. Unfortunately, Pleau doesn't have the spare assets he possessed in the past to make a major trade. The Blues should make the playoffs, but their chances of progressing to the Finals aren't good.

SAN JOSE SHARKS: Could this be the year the Sharks finally reach their potential? If the second half is any indication, it may very well be. Although offensive stalwarts Owen Nolan and Vincent Damphousse aren't posting the same numbers as last season, others in the lineup, such as Patrick Marleau, Marco Sturm and Alexander Korolyuk, have stepped up. Most importantly, winger Teemu Selanne has been lighting the lamp on a regular basis. The Finnish Flash may not return to San Jose next season, as he's an unrestricted free agent, but if he carries his recent strong play into the playoffs, it could make the Sharks a "dark horse" in the Western Conference.

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING: Yes, they're going to miss the playoffs once again, but the Lightning have made significant improvement this season. Much of the credit goes to goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, whose outstanding performance may garner him a Vezina nod. The Lightning have more depth than in previous years, thanks to former GM Rick Dudley and his replacement, Jay Feaster. Injuries to key players such as Vincent Lecavalier, Fredrik Modin and Martin St. Louis contributed to dampening their playoff hopes, but the continued improvement of 2001 Calder runner-up Brad Richards, and the hope of a healthier roster next season, should give Lightning fans hope for the future for the first time in years.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS: The anticipated collapse of the Leafs when Curtis Joseph was injured never materialized, as the Leafs played a stronger all-round game to battle the Bruins and Flyers for first overall in the Eastern Conference. Picking up veteran goalie Tom Barrasso gives the Leafs depth in goal for the first time in years, providing insurance in case Cujo struggles to return to form. It appears unlikely top blueliner Dmitry Yushkevich will return from being sidelined with a blood clot in his leg, but getting forward Alexander Mogilny back from injury will provide a much-needed bolster to their offence.

VANCOUVER CANUCKS: What a difference a couple of months can make! Before January, the Canucks were wallowing near the basement of the Western Conference and looked out of it. However, in the second half the Canucks have been one of the better teams in the NHL, playing their way back into playoff contention. Goaltender Dan Cloutier has shaken off early season criticism to provide Vancouver with strong goaltending, as has pickup Peter Skudra as Cloutier's backup. Captain Markus Naslund was slow off the mark earlier in the season, still recovering from a serious leg injury sustained last March, but has since regained his high-scoring form. Canucks fans who had written this club off at Christmas now believe their club will make the playoffs.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS: It took longer than usual for the Caps to make their strong second half push, but since the Olympic break, the Capitals have been one of the better teams in the league. Indeed, they've improved so much, they're now back in the thick of the hunt for a playoff berth, something that seemed a long-shot a couple of months ago. Forwards Jaromir Jagr and Adam Oates and offensive blueliner Sergei Gonchar have stepped up their play, while the return from injury of Steve Konowalchuk provided much-needed depth up front. A recent winless skid, however, is threatening to undo their improvement, which could mean the difference between making the playoffs, or giving up on the season and doing a trade deadline housecleaning.

ANALYSIS OF THE MAJOR TRADES OF THE 2002 DEADLINE.

THE DALLAS STARS TRADE JAMIE LANGENBRUNNER AND JOE NIEUWENDYK TO THE NEW JERSEY DEVILS, IN EXCHANGE FOR JASON ARNOTT, RANDY McKAY AND A FIRST ROUND PICK.

The blockbuster move of the deadline. Nieuwendyk is a proven leader and remains one of the better centres in the NHL. He could be the shot in the arm the struggling Devils need this season. At 26, Lagenbrunner could be ready to enter his prime, and his physical style should mesh well with the Devils. Arnott has struggled at times this season, and he was rumoured to be one of the players responsible for Larry Robinson's getting fired as Devils head coach. McKay has had a good career as a checking forward, but age and injuries may be catching up to him. This deal only builds on Devils GM Lou Lamoriello's reputation as a savvy dealer, while the Stars puzzling season of turmoil continues.

THE FLORIDA PANTHERS TRADE FORWARD PAVEL BURE TO THE NEW YORK RANGERS IN EXCHANGE FOR DEFENCEMAN IGOR ULANOV, PROSPECT FILIP NOVAK, A FIRST ROUND PICK IN 2002, A FOURTH ROUND PICK IN 2003 AND A SWITCH OF SECOND ROUND PICKS IN 2003.

Technically not a deadline day trade, it is noteworthy nonetheless. The Panthers obviously wanted to dump Bure's big salary ($20 million US over the next two seasons) to free up cash in the payroll to pursue "character" free agents this summer like Bill Guerin and Tony Amonte. However, the return will be questioned for a long time by Panthers fans, who believe Florida GM Chuck Fletcher could've gotten more if he'd held out until deadline day. If the Panthers cannot bring in noteworthy free agents this summer, and the return of prospect Novak and the draft picks don't pan out down the road, this has the potential to be viewed as one of the most lopsided deals in NHL history. As for the Rangers, they gave up surprisingly little to pick up the most exciting goalscoring in the league. The struggling Blueshirts are in danger of missing the playoffs, and need the offensive injection Bure brings them. For GM Glen Sather, it was a move easily worth doing. The Rangers win this one big time.

THE EDMONTON OILERS TRADE DEFENCEMAN TOM POTI AND FORWARD REM MURRAY TO THE NEW YORK RANGERS IN EXCHANGE FOR CENTRE MIKE YORK.

The Rangers desperately needed defensive upgrades on both their blueline and their checking lines. Poti and Murray fill the bill quite nicely. The Oilers desperately needed a centre for their second line to boost their struggling offence. In York, they've got exactly what they wanted. Rangers fans should be thrilled with the way Sather addressed both offensive and defensive needs of his club with his deadline moves, while Oilers fans will probably make the hard-working, skilled York a fan favourite.

THE WASHINGTON CAPITALS TRADE CENTRE ADAM OATES TO THE PHILADELPHIA FLYERS FOR A FIRST ROUND PICK, A SECOND ROUND PICK, AND A THIRD ROUND PICK IN THE 2002 DRAFT, PLUS GOALTENDING PROSPECT MAXIME OUELLET.

The Flyers felt an increased urgency to boost their depth at center with recent injuries to Keith Primeau and Jeremy Roenick. Already deep in goal and with a wealth of riches in picks in the 2002 draft, it didn't hurt them at all to shop a few, plus prospect Ouellet, to bring in a veteran centre who is among the top ten point-getters in the league in Oates. While the return could turn out to be of significant long-term value for Washington, Capitals fans will interpret this move as GM George McPhee giving up on making the playoffs this season. Give the short-term nod to the Flyers.

THE PITTSBURGH PENGUINS TRADED DEFENCEMAN DARIUS KASPARAITIS TO THE COLORADO AVALANCHE IN EXCHANGE FOR FORWARD VILLE NIEMINEN AND DEFENCEMAN RICK BERRY.

What we saw here was two savvy GMs quietly swinging a deal to the mutual benefit of each. There was no way Kasparaitis was coming back to Pittsburgh after this season, and Penguins GM Craig Patrick needed to get a quality return for him, whilst keeping his team's fragile playoff hopes alive. For Avalanche GM Pierre Lacroix, he wanted an experienced, high-tempo physical presence to add depth to his blueline going into the playoffs and his team's defence of the Stanley Cup. Nieminen has displayed a lot of potential and could become a quality second line forward for the Pens, while Berry should make up for some of the toughness lost by dealing Kasparaitis. It could also make possible a potential re-signing of impending UFA Robert Lang, who expressed his desire to remain a Penguin. This deal addressed the respective needs of both teams.

THE ATLANTA THRASHERS TRADE CENTRE RAY FERRARO TO THE ST. LOUIS BLUES IN EXCHANGE FOR A FOURTH ROUND PICK IN THE 2002 ENTRY DRAFT.

The Blues didn't make as big a splash as they did last season, but to be blunt, GM Larry Pleau didn't have much to offer up as in past years. He didn't want to deal anyone from his present roster, nor did he want to part with the prospects he had left. Ferraro's final NHL season hasn't been a memorable one, but perhaps playing for a potential Cup contender and a deeper roster could spark a return to the 29 goal form he displayed last season. For the Thrashers, this deal signalled the start of their fire-sale of veterans on deadline day, as they stockpiled draft picks and prospects as they continue their building process.

THE ATLANTA THRASHERS TRADE DEFENCEMAN JIRI SLEGR TO THE DETROIT RED WINGS IN EXCHANGE FOR WINGER YURI BUTSAYEV AND A THIRD ROUND PICK IN THE 2002 DRAFT.

The Thrashers let it be known earlier this month they wouldn't be re-signing Slegr, so it was no surprise the impending UFA blueliner was dealt on deadline day. The Red Wings would've preferred Darius Kasparaitis, but lost out in the bidding war to Colorado. In Slegr, they don't get a lot of grit but they do get a decent puckmoving defenceman who'll bring depth to their blueline in the playoffs. The Thrashers continued their deadline day trend of dealing for prospects and picks.

THE PITTSBURGH PENGUINS TRADE FORWARD STEPHANE RICHER TO THE NEW JERSEY DEVILS IN EXCHANGE FOR A SEVENTH ROUND PICK IN THE 2003 DRAFT.

The acquisition of Ville Nieminen from Colorado in the Darius Kasparaitis trade probably meant the Penguins had to move someone to make space in the roster for him. Richer goes back to New Jersey, where he won a Stanley Cup in 1995. He's no longer the offensive threat he was back then, but will give the Devils more depth on their forward lines going into the post-season.

THE FLORIDA PANTHERS TRADE DEFENCEMAN JEFF NORTON TO THE BOSTON BRUINS IN EXCHANGE FOR A SIXTH ROUND PICK IN THE 2002 DRAFT.

The Bruins would've preferred to land an offensive blueliner like Tom Poti, but settled instead on shoring up their depth going into the playoffs. Norton isn't the player he was earlier in his career, but he does move the puck well. The Panthers, meanwhile, continued their rebuilding process by stockpiling draft picks.

THE COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS TRADE DEFENCEMAN LYLE ODELEIN TO THE CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS IN EXCHANGE FOR JAROSLAV SPACEK AND A SECOND ROUND PICK IN THE 2002 DRAFT.

Blue Jackets GM Doug MacLean said he wouldn't trade any of his veterans unless he got a player of equal value in return, and was true to his word. Spacek didn't play as well as he did in Chicago as earlier in his career in Florida, but MacLean knows this kid from his coaching days with the Panthers and believes Spacek will get back on track with the Jackets. The Blackhawks needed to get some defensive depth following a recent injury to Boris Mironov, and while Odelein doesn't play the same style as Mironov, his physical, "stay-at-home" style will be welcome in Chicago.

THE ATLANTA THRASHERS TRADED FORWARD BOB CORKUM TO THE BUFFALO SABRES IN EXCHANGE FOR A FIFTH ROUND PICK IN THE 2002 DRAFT.

If Sabres fans were expecting an offensive upgrade at the deadline, they're sorely disappointed. Indeed, Buffalo GM Darcy Regier's pickup of Corkum, a checking forward, is curious, particularly when he had several players, including defencemen Jason Woolley and Richard Smehlik and centre Chris Gratton on the block. Perhaps it's says something about the quality of those players, or perhaps how much Regier expected to gain in return, that kept those players in Buffalo.

THE EDMONTON OILERS TRADED DEFENCEMAN SEAN BROWN TO THE BOSTON BRUINS IN EXCHANGE FOR DEFENCEMAN BOBBY ALLEN.

This trade was the first upgrade made by the Bruins on deadline day to the blueliner, the other being the aforementioned acquisition of Jeff Norton. Brown wasn't finding much playing time in Edmonton, and his physical style should make him a welcome addition to the aggressive Bruins. As for the Oilers, their deep blueline gave them the option of taking a chance on a prospect like Allen.

THE CALGARY FLAMES TRADED DEFENCEMAN JAMIE ALLISON TO THE COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS IN EXCHANGE FOR FORWARD BLAKE SLOAN.

Flames fans were howling for GM Craig Button to do something, anything, to add depth to his offense, which essentially now consists of the Jarome Iginla line. Many expected Button to perhaps move a player from his deep defence corps to do this, but instead, he made a middling trade for a checking forward. If Button expects this deal to silence his critics in Calgary, guess again!

THE FLORIDA PANTHERS TRADED DEFENCEMAN DARREN VAN IMPE TO THE NY ISLANDERS IN EXCHANGE FOR A FIFTH ROUND PICK IN THE 2003 DRAFT.

The Islanders were expected to be a major player for either Darius Kasparaitis, Tom Poti or Jiri Slegr, but instead went for a minor deal to add depth to the blueline. Van Impe's stock has dropped noticeably in recent years, and he's now on his fourth team this season. This could be his last chance to get his once-promising career back on track. The Islanders something to boost them out of their recent slump, but I don't think Van Impe is it.

THE LOS ANGELES KINGS TRADED GOALTENDER STEPHANE FISET TO THE MONTREAL CANADIENS IN EXCHANGE FOR A CONDITIONAL DRAFT PICK.

When goaltender Jeff Hackett went down to a season-ending shoulder injury two weeks ago, it took the only bargaining chip Canadiens GM Andre Savard had to potentially bring in some help for his anemic offence. While starter and potential Vezina candidate Jose Theodore will carry the load for the Habs in goal the rest of the season, Savard obviously felt the need to bring in an experienced backup. In this way, it allows goalie prospect Mathieu Garon the chance to continue his development with the Habs farm team, rather than warming the bench as Theodore's backup.

WHY DO THE RANGERS STRUGGLE?

No NHL team made a bigger splash around the March 2002 trade deadline than the New York Rangers. The evening before the March 19th deadline, they obtained Pavel Bure, the most explosive offensive player in the NHL, from the Florida Panthers. The following day - deadline day - they acquired promising offensive blueliner Tom Poti and checking forward Rem Murray from the Edmonton Oilers.

Much was made of these deals by Rangers GM Glen Sather. Most pundits agreed Poti would give the Rangers much-needed blueline depth, Murray would provide a boost to the checking lines, while Bure would ignite the struggling Rangers blueline. These acquisitions, said the media, would halt the Blueshirts slide in the standings, and would boost them back into a playoff berth.

As of this writing, the jury is still out on the Rangers playoffs hopes, but there is no denying Sather has provided his club with a much-needed upgrade. If his club does fail to make the post-season, it won't be for lack of effort on his part to get the best help he could for his roster.

That being said, an impartial observer might wonder why the 2001-02 version of the Rangers, given their depth of marquee talent, were even struggling to make the post-season prior to the trade deadline, and why their GM would make such desperations deals at the deadline to save his season?

After all, this is a team that possessed All-Star talents such as forwards Eric Lindros, Theo Fleury and Petr Nedved, defenceman Brian Leetch and goaltender Mike Richter. This was a club whose captain, Mark Messier, is considered one of the greatest team leaders in NHL history, and a shoo-in for the Hockey Hall of Fame.

This was a team that, as March 19th dawned, possessed such promising young talents as Mike York and Radek Dvorak. This was a club who began the season with highly touted prospects in forward Manny Malholtra, defenceman Tomas Kloucek and goaltender Daniel Blackburn. This was a franchise that has supposedly up-and-coming youth in their system in Jamie Lundmark and Mike Mottau.

This season certainly began with promise for the Rangers, who by late-December were sitting near the top of the Eastern Conference, at one point actually challenging for first overall. Yet by the March trade deadline, the Rangers had slid into 9th overall, four points out of the final playoff berth, a team seemingly in disarray.

The reasons given for the decline were two-fold. Lindros, who had been dominant in November and December, suffered a series of injuries, including his seventh career concussion, which limited his effectiveness in the second half of the season. The Rangers overall defensive game, average at best at mid-season, had declined to the point where, by the March trade deadline, it was second-worst in the league.

Why would a team filled with big-name talent, players who have, or may one day have, all-star careers, find themselves in so a dire situation that it would motivate their general manager to make desperation trades?

It's sadly been the running theme of the New York Rangers since their last appearance in the Stanley Cup playoffs, in 1997. Every year, they pillage their small-market opponents, plucking away talent via trades or unrestricted free agency those clubs could no longer afford to pay. Every season since 1997, their roster has been stacked with talent that should make them stronger than their small-market opposition, and a perennial lock for post-season berths.

Since 1997, the New York Rangers roster has included other notables such as Wayne Gretzky, Pat Lafontaine, Alexei Kovalev, Adam Graves, and Mathieu Schneider. Yet, like those on today's Rangers roster, none of these players could help put the Blueshirts back into playoff contention. This season, with arguably a deeper roster than they've had in years, they were - and indeed, still remain - in danger of missing the playoffs.

And what of the vaunted youth that Rangers fans have predicted for years were only a season or two away from becoming big stars and reversing their club's woeful fortunes? Ten years ago, the Rangers could point with pride to Richter, Leetch, and Kovalev as players who came up through their system to become stars. Their prospect depth was so deep, they could afford to deal off promising youth like Doug Weight and Tony Amonte for veterans to bolster their Cup aspirations.

But what happened to Christian Dube? Marc Savard? Dan Cloutier? Maxim Galanov? Burke Henry? Jan Hlavac? Pavel Brendl? Malholtra? Mottau? Kloucek? Lundmark? The sad fact is most of these players either aren't yet good enough to play in the NHL, or never will be. And those that were wound up dealt away as part of deals to land either high-priced "quick-fix" help, or to secure higher draft picks that - to date - haven't panned out.

A couple of years ago, in an article lamenting yet another Rangers season going horribly wrong, New York Post hockey reporter Larry Brooks stated his belief the main reason for the Blueshirts inability to rise above mediocrity, despite the obvious talent in their lineup, was the fact the roster hadn't been allowed to grow together as a team. While Brooks tends to be reviled by knowledgeable hockey fans as a Rangers "homer" and a weaver of outrageous trade rumours, in this instance, he made an excellent point that still holds up two years later.

The sad fact of the matter is, no matter how many players the Rangers brought in via free agency and trades since 1997, they simply don't play well as a team. For whatever reason, the roster simply doesn't gel.

It's difficult to believe a team that has players of the calibre found on the Rangers roster could have such problems. Many of the big name guys are no strangers to big game competition. Players such as Messier, Fleury, Leetch and Lindros have all been team captains, either in New York or elsewhere. Surely they could rally their teammates, lead by example, force them to play better, to play harder, to be more responsible.

But that hasn't happened. In a couple of exceptions, most of the big names on the roster in recent years have played like individuals, not like team men. There has been little character on these Rangers lineups. There have been few cases where any of them have stepped up their game, have led by example, have provided leadership to the kids. There hasn't been much chemistry seen among the "name" players, while the youngsters get shuffled down to the third or fourth lines, losing out on valuable playing time, and hampering their development.

Other clubs, notably the Colorado Avalanche and Philadelphia Flyers, have been able to successfully use free agency over the past several years as a tool for building their franchises, but they use it in combination with shrewd trades and development of young talent within their system. The Rangers, on the other hand, have been guilty of using free agency as the main building block for the team for several years. They've had some success with trades, but their drafting and player development is nowhere near as strong as it was over ten years ago.

The end result is an ever-changing roster of individualistic veterans with big contracts and a shrinking talent pool of promising young talent within their system, missing the playoffs in successive seasons to lesser teams with smaller budgets and far fewer marquee names.

When Glen Sather was brought in as general manager, it was believed he would change the Rangers direction, that he would get away from dealing for big name talent and seek to develop the Blueshirts with promising youngsters, either from within their system, or via trades. Instead, he's carried on the tradition of his predecessor, Neil Smith, by continuing to pursue marquee names at the expense of youth. As a result, it appears unlikely the Rangers struggles of the past five season will be ending anytime soon.

Meanwhile, to the west, in the Arizona desert, Sather protege Wayne Gretzky has adopted the approach of building with talented character youth, due primarily to budget restraints. The result is a Phoenix Coyotes team that is devoid of marquee talent, yet has emerged as a promising, exciting young team, one that should have no problem making the 2002 playoffs. Many say Gretzky has taken a page from Sather's book on how to build and maintain a competitive hockey team with limited financial resources.

Perhaps it's time the teacher got a lesson from his former star pupil.

WHAT LIES AHEAD FOR NON-PLAYOFF CLUBS?

With all NHL teams having less than ten games remaining in the 2001-02 regular season, the focus is on those clubs that are either jockeying for playoff position and home ice advantage, or battling to lay claim to the final post-season berth in their respective conferences.

Overlooked is the plight of those clubs who will be on the outside looking in when the NHL regular season schedule ends on April 14th. Here, then, is my look at what could be in store for those teams who will be preparing for the golf course, rather than the playoffs:

EASTERN CONFERENCE:

ATLANTA THRASHERS: No one expected the Thrashers to make the playoffs in this, their third season of existence. Yet there was hope going into this season the Atlanta franchise would make their first big step toward respectability. Sadly, that didn't happen, as the Thrashers will finish with a worse record than last season. GM Don Waddell will have a busy off-season, as he has several big holes in his roster to fill. Atlanta needs a strong starting goaltender, and more depth throughout the roster. Thanks to rookie sensations Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk, the Thrashers have hope for their future, but Waddell must build a strong supporting cast around them.

FLORIDA PANTHERS: Everyone on this team, and their fans, won't be sorry to see this season from hell come to an end. Injuries, inconsistent play, and a lack of depth combined to scuttle any hopes the Panthers had for improvement this season. GM Chuck Fletcher decided to dump several veterans, including scoring forward Pavel Bure, at the deadline, signalling another rebuilding phase for the Panthers. There is a core of good young talent on this team, notably goaltender Roberto Luongo and forwards Kristian Huselius and Niklas Hagman, but the Panthers are going to need talented leadership to bring the kids along. There's talks of their pursuing Boston's Bill Guerin when he become eligible for UFA status, but the main area the Panthers must shore up is their blueline.

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING: Yes, they'll miss the playoffs again, but for the first time since their first and last post-season appearance in 1996, Lightning fans have reason for optimism next season. Goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin has been one of the top five goalies in the league this season, which has been the main reason why the Bolts were even within striking distance of a playoff berth this season. While all eyes were on a disgruntled Vincent Lecavalier and his struggles this season, it should be noted that young talent such as Brad Richards and Pavel Kubina are developing into quality players, while veteran forward Dave Andreychuk brought character and leadership to the young Lightning dressing room. Injuries to Lecavalier, Fredrik Modin and Martin St. Louis were the main reasons the Bolts didn't end their playoff drought this season. If this team can be healthier next season, a berth in the 2003 post-season isn't out of the question.

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS: At this time last season, the Penguins were poised for a playoff run that took them to the Eastern Conference finals. This season, barring a miracle, they'll miss the playoffs for the first time in twelve years. Citing the trade of Jaromir Jagr as the reason for the Pens woes is an easy answer, but it would be the wrong one. The reason for Pittsburgh's demise this season was due to a rash of serious injuries that cut down their best players, including Mario Lemieux and Martin Straka, taking them out of the lineup for most of the season. With a healthier roster, the Penguins would've easily made the post-season. Some in Pittsburgh are still sour over Lemieux's decision to chase Olympic gold, rather than help the Penguins make the playoffs, but they should take solace in the character and heart their injury-ravaged club displayed this season in staying close to a playoff berth. With a heathier roster, the Penguins should be back in the hunt next season. Look for GM Craig Patrick to attempt to re-sign centre Robert Lang, as well as hunt for some much-needed, inexpensive depth for his blueline.

NEW YORK RANGERS: As of this writing, the Rangers are still within striking distance of the final playoff spot in the East, but given their woeful play in the second half of the season, it doesn't appear as though they'll rebound from the horrid freefall they've been in since January. Give GM Glen Sather credit for swinging the deals to bring in Pavel Bure, Tom Poti and Rem Murray. At least he tried to get his club the players needed to put them back in the hunt. However, it's done nothing thus far to reverse the Blueshirts slide. A season ending skull fracture to starting goalie Mike Richter has all but sealed the Rangers fate. Look for another summer of major changes in the Big Apple. Head coach Ron Low will probably not be re-hired when his contract ends after this season. Richter will probably be lost to free agency, meaning Sather will bid like crazy to land Curtis Joseph. And kiss Theo Fleury bye-byes, as Slats and company have tired of his crazed on-ice antics and won't pick up the option year in "Little Big Man's" contract. Expect Slats to also bid heavily for UFAs like Bill Guerin, Tony Amonte, Bobby Holik and Darius Kasparaitis. Hey, isn't that how Sather's predecessor, Neil Smith, used to do thing? Meet the new boss, same as the old boss...

TEAMS ON THE BUBBLE: Montreal Canadiens, Washington Capitals, Buffalo Sabres. If it weren't for the hot goaltending of emerging superstar Jose Theodore, the Canadiens would've been toast a month ago. Regardless of whether they make it in or not, expect GM Andre Savard to continue to build depth this summer. They may get into the bidding for one of the top free agents, plus Savard has a knack of dealing for decent talent without giving up much in return in trades. And he'll be hoping forwards Saku Koivu and Donald Audette can finally stay healthy next season to give his club the offensive boost they sorely lack. Everyone thought Washington had given up on making the playoffs when they dealt leading scorer Adam Oates to Philadelphia at the deadline. But $11 million dollar man Jaromir Jagr has stepped up at the right time, and the Capitals are playing their best hockey of the season. Like the Penguins, injuries ravaged the Capitals roster this season, which is the primary reason the Caps finds themselves battling for a playoff spot. If they're healthier next season, they shouldn't have any problems making the playoffs. Critics of the Sabres point to the loss of goaltender Dominik Hasek via trade last summer as the reason for that team's decline this season, but the real reason has been Buffalo's inability to score. Given the decent scoring talent on the Sabres (Miro Satan, Tim Connolly, JP Dumont, Maxim Afinogenov and Stu Barnes), their offensive woes have been puzzling this season. Don't expect Sabres GM Darcy Regier to get involved in bidding for pricey free agents this summer. Instead, he'll build from within and perhaps swing a trade (Chris Gratton and Jason Woolley, anyone?) to add more depth to his offensive lines.