MARCH 2003 SOAPBOX ARCHIVES.

MARCH MUSINGS.

- I see the NY Rangers are back in the playoff hunt. Attribute that to the combination of Glen Sather firing Bryan Trottier and taking over the coaching reins himself, the purchase of Alexei Kovalev from the cash-strapped Pittsburgh Penguins, the return of Brian Leetch and Pavel Bure from injury, and the continued self-destruction of the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens. Nice to see some of their overpaid players finally earning their keep! Now let's see if they can sustain it...

- Speaking of the Bruins and Canadiens, their respective free-falls in the standings couldn't come at a worse time, and serve to highlight the very real problems facing them. Injuries have undoubtedly contributed to the Bruins horrific second-half slide after a red-hot first half, but a lack of a strong two-way blueliner and a quality starting goalie continues to hurt them. The latter is moreso painful for Jeff Hackett, whom the Bruins brought in to improve their netminding. He's got a golden chance now to not only be a starter again, but to boost his value on the UFA market. Instead, he's making the Habs look like geniuses for dealing him.

The return for the Hackett trade, however, is one of the few things the Canadiens have had to cheer about this season. Despite strong performances from Saku Koivu and rising young stars like Richard Zednik, Jan Bulis and Andrei Markov, plus the addition of Nicklas Sundstrom from the Hackett deal, the Habs are dying in the standings. The poor play this season of last year's Hart-Vezina winner Jose Theodore highlights the fact this club can only go as far as their goaltending can carry them. Bringing in overpaid, underachieving vets like Mariusz Czerkawkski and Randy McKay did nothing to improve the Canadiens offensive or defensive games. With his club having it's healthiest season in five years, GM Andre Savard cannot point to injuries as an excuse. Passing over an opportunity to hire a proven NHL coach in Bob Hartley to bring in "his own man, Claude Julien, has also failed to improve the moribund Habs.

Bottom line: look for major changes in Boston and Montreal during the off-season!

- With all the complaining about the goaltending in Calgary, I'm wondering if Flames GM Craig Button has any regrets about dealing away JS Giguere to the Anaheim Mighty Ducks a couple of years ago?

- While on the topic of the Ducks, GM Bryan Murray and head coach Mike Babcock must be considered short-list nominees for NHL Executive and Coach of the year honours respectively. Their efforts have turned the Ducks in one season from also-rans to playoff contenders and are indeed laudable.

Still, I can't help but wonder what the Ducks playoff chances would be if their two California rivals, the Kings and Sharks, hadn't gone into the tank this season? Nobody expected the Kings to lead the league in injuries, while the Sharks collapse, after being considered Cup contenders going into this season, is as puzzling as it is amazing.

- An Ottawa-Vancouver final? Possible. I'm going to err on the side of caution, however, and suggest there will be at least one Canadian team in the Cup finals this spring.

- Will the Leafs get in? That's possible, too, but that's going to depend on Eddie Belfour. If "the Eagle" brings his "A" game for the post-season, the Leafs have as good a shot as the Senators and Canucks.

- Speaking of the Canucks, they, along with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Minnesota Wild, are poster children for the benefits of building patiently with youth.

Two years ago, the Wild were a first year expansion club. The Lightning were a perennial laughingstock, while the Canucks had to fight to the last week of the season to squeak into the playoffs and earn the right to be swept in the first round by the eventual Cup champion Colorado Avalanche.

Today, thanks to smart drafting and shrewd trades to obtain quality youth, these three teams are the most improved in hockey. The Bolts have been carried in large part by Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards, Martin St Louis, Dan Boyle and Vaclav Prospal; the Wild by Marion Gaborik, Pascal Dupuis, Filip Kuba, Nick Schultz, and Manny Fernandez; and the Canucks by Markus Naslund, Todd Bertuzzi, Brendan Morrison, Ed Jovanovski and Dan Cloutier.

And yes, we can also make the case for the Ottawa Senators, although they've been among the top teams in the league over that same period. They, too, have used the same techniques to get where they are today. Their core consists of Daniel Alfredsson, Marian Hossa, Martin Havlat, Wade Redden, Zdeno Chara and Patrick Lalime, guy who either came up through their system, or were obtained from other clubs not smart enough to keep them.

Morale of the story is the same as always, folks: build with youth for the long haul and be patient. Sure, free agents can help, as does obtaining experienced leadership, but your core must be built with quality young talent. Don't sacrifice your kids for a quick fix.

So for fans of the Predators, Thrashers, Panthers and Blue Jackets, take heart. Your respective clubs are loaded with quality youth. Give 'em time and within the next three to five years, they - along with the Canucks, Lightning, Wild and yes, the Senators - will be the dominant clubs in the NHL.

- So the league is going to fine "divers" $1,000.00, compile a list of them and distribute it around the league, eh? Yeah, that rule will probably last about as long as the never-ending "crackdown on obstruction".

- Rod Bryden's finally lost out on his attempt to re-acquire the Senators? Or has he? He says he won't make any more bids for the club, but like a vampire, he seems to rise back from the dead with another scheme. This time, however, he's probably finished, as the tax deal he was seeking was what killed his attempt. Don't expect the Senators to relocate, though, as Toronto billionaire Eugene Melnyk is on record as citing strong interest in purchasing the Sens and keeping them in Ottawa. If he does, he won't make like Daddy Warbucks and go on wild spending sprees for UFAs, but his money might be able to do something Bryden probably wouldn't have been able to do: keep the core players of the Senators with the team for years to come.

- Those obituaries we were writing about the Colorado Avalanche certainly appear to be premature heading into the final month of the regular season. After floundering in the first half, the Avs have caught fire and are climbing up the standings in the Western Conference. Thank a combination of a coaching change, the return to form of Patrick Roy, the improved play of forward Alex Tanguay and of course, the otherworldly performance of Peter Forsberg. If they continue this hot streak into the post-season, don't expect these guys to be pushovers.

- And hey, how about those Nashville Predators? Back on New Year's Day, only the most fanatical of Preds fans would've predicted their team would climb from dead last in the West to within striking distance of a playoff berth within two month. Yet there they are, nipping at the Edmonton Oilers heels for the final playoff berth in the West.

A combination of good health, strong goaltending from Tomas Vokoun, and the improved play of kids like David Legwand, Scott Hartnell and Andy Delmore could have the Predators into the post-season for the first time in their history, in turn saving their ownership the embarrassment of handing out those refunds to season-ticket holders after they promised a berth in the playoffs to their fans last summer. However, there is a dark cloud: top forward Legwand broke his collarbone and is gone for the season. Battling back in the standings was one thing, the loss of Legwand will be a true test for the plucky Preds.

- Finally, a moment of silence for the passing of Theo Fleury's NHL career. He's been given more opportunities from the Rangers and Blackhawks over the last two years to come to grips with his alcohol abuse, but Fleury simply isn't willing to help himself. His little fiasco at a Columbus nightclub not only further dirtied his already soiled reputation, but contributed to tearing apart the Blackhawks team chemistry. The club has slid out of the playoff race, and Fleury's poor play has earned himself a seat in the press box. Wouldn't surprise me at all to read during the off-season of the 'Hawks cutting their losses and buying Fleury out. An ignominious end to a once-great playing career.

Then again, maybe losing his career is what Fleury needs to finally come to grips with his demons. Who knows. Only Theo can answer that question. So far he's losing friends, family and respect, yet he continues to act a fool. Maybe losing his career will wake him up...

DEADLINE TRADE-BAIT.

With the March 11th trade deadline 48 hours away (as of this writing), here's a look at who could be on the move:

ATLANTA THRASHERS: Slava Kozlov. He's an unrestricted free agent this summer, although he has said he'd be willing to stay for the right price. GM Don Waddell claims he wants to keep Kozlov, but for the right offer, he could shop him for a "rugged blueliner". San Jose's Bryan Marchment could be a possibility, although Marchment is also a UFA this summer. A better choice could be Chicago's Lyle Odelein, who still has one year left on his contract.

BOSTON BRUINS: Martin Lapointe. They'll shop him, but don't expect too much interest, due to his injury-plagued season and big contract, Still, if the Bruins can be convinced to pick up part of that salary, a Cup contender might show some interest.

BUFFALO SABRES: Alexei Zhitnik. There is plenty of talk of moving Chris Gratton, Curtis Brown and Miro Satan, but Zhitnik appears to be the guy who'll probably get dealt. He's tied with Satan as the club's top salary, which the Sabres might want to move. The Maple Leafs, Red Wings and Flyers are looking for blueline help and could use him as a rental. The Flyers would offer one or two of their 17 picks in this year's draft, but the Leafs and Wings could offer something more worthwhile: a promising young prospect.

CALGARY FLAMES: Bob Boughner. There's a very good possibility Craig Conroy could be moved, but the Flames would like to keep him around. Boughner, on the other hand, would be very valuable to a playoff club seeking blueline depth. The NY Islanders could be interested in him.

CAROLINA HURRICANES: Glen Wesley. This one's a no-brainer, as he's a UFA who's waived his "no-trade" clause and is being actively shopped. He's got decent two-way skills and could have some value to the Wings, Leafs, Islanders or Flyers.

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS: Phil Housley. Yeah, the 'Hawks are looking to dump a lot of veterans, and Lyle Odelein could also get moved, but "Phil the Thrill" is the only one who still has some value left. His defensive skills have never been great, but his offensive game makes him valuable on the powerplay. Expect the Flyers to be very interested in Housley.

DETROIT RED WINGS: Prospects. Take your pick from the following: Jason Williams, Sean Avery, Maxim Kuznetsov, Jesse Wallin. One or two of these guys, and possibly Mathieu Dandenault could be dealt to get that blueline depth the Wings are seeking. Picking the one to move for certain is tough.

EDMONTON OILERS: Prospects. Yeah, Anson Carter's name has popped up a lot this season and he is a Group II free agent this summer, but with all the injuries to his forwards, Kevin Lowe can't afford to part with him now. Lowe says he might consider a playoff rental, but if his team keeps slumping, he'll be fighting just to make the playoffs. Choose from Jason Chimera, Ales Hemsky, or Alexei Semonov.

FLORIDA PANTHERS: Valeri Bure. The Panthers want to chop their payroll further, and while Bure is nursing a sore knee, he may still have some value on the trade market. The Panthers would love to get Brad Isbister from the Islanders, but can the Isles afford Bure's salary? Forget that stuff about Kristian Huselius getting traded.

LOS ANGELES KINGS: Bryan Smolinski. The Kings won't be moving Ziggy Palffy, Mathieu Schneider or Aaron Miller, but they will have to dump a salary before the deadline in hopes of getting something back. Felix Potvin is still out with an injury and probably wouldn't have much value anyway. That leaves Smolinski, who might still have some value to a playoff contender. The New Jersey Devils could be seeking depth at center and may come calling.

MONTREAL CANADIENS: Patrice Brisebois. Everyone else the Habs wanna dump are too expensive (Czerkawski, Audette, McKay), too old (Gilmour), or not valuable enough (Kilger, Dackell). Despite "Breezy's" woeful defensive game, he possesses good offensive skills which would be valuable to a club looking to boost their powerplay. The Flyers and Red Wings could be interested, especially the latter, who have scouted Brisebois recently.

NEW JERSEY DEVILS: Oleg Tverdovsky. Sure, there's speculation centre Scott Gomez is being shopped, but with Joe Nieuwendyk probably gone to free agency this summer, trading away "Gomer" would leave the Devils thin at centre. The Devils depth is on the blueliner and Tverdovsky seems the most expendable, although teams might be leery about his health after a recent concussion sidelined him for nearly three months.

NEW YORK ISLANDERS: Brad Isbister. Isles fans have been patiently waiting for this guy to blossom into the next great power forward, but he's failed to live up to expectations, fuelling rumours of GM Mike Milbury's patience running out. Look for the the Florida Panthers and Calgary Flames to have interest in the big guy.

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS: Draft picks. The Flyers have 17 of 'em in this year's entry draft, including two in the first round, the most prized of which will be the pick they got from the Phoenix Coyotes. The further down the Western Conference standing the 'Yotes finish, the higher that pick will be in what is believed to be a deep draft. The Flyers are believed seeking a powerplay quarter and/or a "sniper", although the latter could be less of a requirement should injured forwards like Simon Gagne and John LeClair return to action soon.

PHOENIX COYOTES: Brad May. I realize all the talk is about Sean Burke and Teppo Numminen. However, the 'Yotes are finding the market for goalies thin, without many buyers, especially those willing to pony up an expensive price for Burke's services. Numminen has a no-trade clause, and with his pregnant wife's history of miscarriages, as well as his loyalty to the Coyotes, he's not sounding like someone who wants to waive the clause to play for a Cup contender. That leaves May, an unrestricted free agent winger whose gritty style is bound to attract interest from playoff teams seeking toughness for their forward lines.

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS: Ville Nieminen. Speculation hangs heavy over the Pens in the wake of their sale of Alexei Kovalev to the Rangers that other talents like Martin Straka and Jan Hrdina could also be dumped, but I suspect the more likely to move is Nieminen, who apparently hasn't been happy in Steeltown this season. GM Craig Patrick says he's received no offer for Nieminen, but the memory of his energetic play during the Colorado Avalanche's 2001 Cup run remains strong. He could be had for a prospect or an inexpensive young player.

SAN JOSE SHARKS: Bryan Marchment. Yes, there's lots of talk about Teemu Selanne, Mike Ricci, Scott Thornton and Vinny Damphousse getting dealt, and possibly one or them will, but Marchment is an unrestricted free agent this summer and the Sharks apparently have no plans to re-sign him. He's a mean SOB with a reputation for dirty play, but his toughness will be enticing to playoff bound clubs looking to add grit to their bluelines.

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING: Fredrik Modin. GM Jay Feaster wants to land a quality two-way blueliner to his defence corps as the Bolts gear up for their first playoff appearance in seven years. He doesn't want to touch his core guys, and may be reluctant to move Modin, but it takes quality to land quality, and Modin, a former 30-goal scorer, could be just the bait to get what this club wants.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS: They're looking for blueline depth, but GM Pat Quinn doesn't want to touch anyone from his roster. The Leafs are loaded with quality prospects, notably Carlo Colaiacovo and Alexander Steen. In the wake of their recent acquisition of Owen Nolan, it's possible the other part of the package could include a forward. Jona Hoglund, anyone? No? Darcy Tucker, then? Hmmmm.....

VANCOUVER CANUCKS. Jarkko Ruutu. This guy's been available for months, but there were no takers as he saw little icetime. The Canucks would like to add some scoring depth, and there's concern over their goaltending with Dan Cloutier nursing a knee injury, but they don't want to deal from their key players. If GM Brian Burke does decide to go shopping at the deadline, Ruutu is the most expendable.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS: Maxime Ouellet. The Caps want to shore up their blueline, but like some other club, don't want to deal from their roster. Struggling forward Dainius Zubrus could be shopped, but his value has been dropping. Ouellet is a promising goaltending prospect, but with the Caps set in goal with Olli Kolzig and Sebastien Charpentier, Ouellet might not be able to crack their lineup, thus mking him a valuable trade chip.

HEY, SPECTOR! WHAT ABOUT THE ANAHEIM MIGHTY DUCKS, COLORADO AVALANCE, DALLAS STARS, MINNESOTA WILD, NASHVILLE PREDATORS, NEW YORK RANGERS, OTTAWA SENATORS, AND ST. LOUIS BLUES?

I've excluded them because I don't think they're going to be too busy at the deadline. Indeed, they may not make any moves at all.

The Mighty Ducks are having the strongest second-half in team history. They're cruising along nicely and, barring a major collapse, appear a lock for a playoff berth. While GM Byran Murray said he'd like to add more scoring depth, I'm betting he won't risk tinkering with team chemistry.

The Dallas Stars have had some injury woes of late, most notably goalie Marty Turco and winger Bill Guerin. However, I don't expect this club to panic. Backup goalie Ron Tugnutt has done a good job filling in for Turco, so forget those silly rumours of their interest in Sean Burke. Guerin's injury is a serious one, but he should return in time for the playoffs. The Stars have plenty of depth to make do while Guerin recuperates.

Minnesota Wild GM Doug Risebrough has stated on more than one occasion he's not in the market for anything. Most inquiries are for his young players, which Risebrough has no intention of moving. Given how surprisingly well his club has played this season, I don't blame him for his unwillingness to tinker.

The Nashville Predators would've been in firesale mode by now if their lousy first half of the season had carried over into the second half. However, they've been on fire since the Christmas holidays, and are snapping at the heels of the Edmonton Oilers for the last playoff berth in the West. Having picked up veteran forward Oleg Petrov, I think GM David Poile will now sit tight and let the kids finish what they've started.

The Rangers are another team that might've been desperate to land another big-name player if their moribund play of a month ago had continued. Since GM Glen Sather acquired Alexei Kovalev and took over for Bryan Trottier as head coach, the Rangers have fought back into playoff contention. Geting Brian Leetch and Pavel Bure back from injury was a big plus, too. One shouldn't totally rule out a Sather move to boost his club's playoff hopes, but given how well they've done thus far, he may be less inclinded to do so.

The Ottawa Senators might still be shopping for more grit to their forward lines as they prepare for what appears to be a serious Cup run, but I don't see them dealing off much more of their prospect to do it as they did to obtain Vaclav Varada.. I'm sure GM John Muckler is probably still fishing for a bargain pickup, but it wouldn't surprise me if he stands pat.

Finally there's the Blues and their much-talked-about goalie situation. Look, if the Coyotes were willing to dump Sean Burke's salary and accept a light return, I'm sure GM Larry Pleau would go for it. But giving up a future Norris contender in Barrett Jackman is just plain stupid for a quick fix like Burke. Arturs Irbe isn't an upgrade either, and neither is the still-injured Felix Potvin of the Kings. Given this situation, and the surprising performance of call-up Curtis Sanford, Pleau might gamble on this kid and hope the time cooling their heels will benefit his regular tandem of Brent Johnson and Fred Brathwaite.

Finally, there's the Avalanche, who are noted for making huge deals at this time of year. They could very likely swing a trade at the deadline, but it remains to be seen if they'll make the big splash as they've done in years past.

Hey, I could be wrong about all this, and it's certainly not an exact science. I'm sure we'll see deals on deadline day that nobody expected. But it's fun to speculate at this time of year.

Besides, my track record for guessing who'll be dealt during the season has turned out pretty good so far. Back in October in my Foxsports.com column, I listed 30 players (one from each club) who could be traded before season's end. Thus far, 13 of 'em have moved. With a batting average like that, I like my chances with these picks... 

2002-03 TRADES IN REVIEW.

With the 2003 trade deadline now past, let's take a look back at what was newsworthy from this year's rumour mill:

BEST TRADES BY ONE TEAM: Washington Capitals deal forwards Chris Simon and Andrei Nikolishin to the Chicago Blackhawks for centre Michael Nylander, and obtain rugged winger Mike Grier from the Edmonton Oilers for a draft pick. These two deals, made on the same day, gave a huge boost to the Capitals forward depth. Nylander fit in nicely playing on the top two lines, while Grier gave their checking lines an additional boost of grit. Simon and Nikolishin, meanwhile, did nothing to help the Blackhawks.

The Ottawa Senators added much needed grit to their talent roster by obtaining wingers Vaclav Varada and Rob Ray in the days leading up to the deadline, and brought in more offensive punch by dealing away highly touted blueline prospect Tim Gleason to the LA Kings for centre Bryan Smolinski.

The Toronto Maple Leafs, however, may have trumped everyone with their plethora of moves leading up to and including the trade deadline. By obtaining Owen Nolan from San Jose, Phil Housley from Chicago, Glen Wesley from Carolina and Doug Gilmour from Montreal, the Leafs brought in valuable experience and talent, which could put them over the top in the Eastern Conference.

MOST SURPRISING TRADES: The Sharks shipping Owen Nolan to Toronto... the three-way deal involving the Sharks, Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins that saw goalie Jeff Hackett go from Montreal to the Habs arch-rivals in Beantown... the Edmonton Oilers dealing both Anson Carter and Janne Niinimaa away... the Ottawa Senators parting with a highly touted prospect in Tim Gleason to land essentially a playoff rental in Bryan Smolinski... The St. Louis Blues trading for an injury-hobbled, expensive forward in Valeri Bure... The Phoenix Coyotes shipping out Daniel Briere to Buffalo for the enigmatic Chris Gratton... The Washington Capitals dealing for a streaky goalscorer in Sergei Berezin rather than dealing for blueline depth.

MOST SURPRISING NON-PARTICIPANTS. The New Jersey Devils dealt for a grinding winger and a stay-at-home blueliner, but failed to make any noise on deadline day for a scorer as anticipated. The Philadelphia Flyers inability to bring in the offensive defenceman they need to anchor their powerplay caught a lot of folks off guard.

PLAYERS EXPECTED TO MOVE AT THE DEADLINE WHO DIDN'T: Teemu Selanne and Vincent Damphousse, Sharks. Alexei Zhitnik, Sabres. Bob Boughner, Flames. Oleg Tverdovsky, Devils. Sean Burke, Coyotes. Darcy Tucker, Maple Leafs.

NO SURPRISE THEY WEREN'T MOVED: Arturs Irbe, Carolina. Archie's stock is in free fall and the Hurricanes are stuck with him unless they buy him out... Theo Fleury, Chicago. Enough's been said about Theo's troubles that you shouldn't have to ask why... Patrice Brisebois, Montreal. When you're a $4 million per season defenceman whose nickname is "Breeze-by", it's no shock when nobody is willing to trade for you... Scott Gomez, New Jersey. Trading him would've adversely affected the Devils depth at center... Martin Straka, Pittsburgh. Hey, the Pens had to retain somebody...Jarome Iginla, Calgary and Miro Satan, Buffalo. Hate to say I told you so....

WHAT DO THESE NON-MOVES MEAN? In the case of the Sabres and Flames, they obviously want to retain their key players in hopes of building for next season. In the case of the Sharks, they dumped some salary, but whether they kept guys like Selanne and Damphousse because they couldn't or wouldn't shop them is up for debate.There was probably no market for Tverdovsky because of his concussion injury. Ditto Scott Thornton of the Sharks. Tucker probably wasn't being shopped, for give the little devil his due, he's the type of pest every Cup contender covets. Finally, the Coyotes obviously couldn't find anyone to pay their steep asking price to move Burke, their franchise player. If he's healthy next season, they stand a great chance of making the playoffs.

WHICH CONTENDERS IMPROVED? The four players the Leafs got could make them the team to beat in the East. The Senators have toughened up and won't be pushovers, but if they go head-to-head with the Leafs again, it could come down to goaltending. The Flyers landing Tony Amonte certainly helps their struggling offence. The Red Wings undoubtedly feel better about their blueline depth with Mathieu Schneider now a part of it. Landing Stu Barnes and Lyle Odelein make the Stars an even tougher club to face in the post-season. If Chris Osgood regains his form in St. Louis, the Blues should be in better shape for the post-season.

I wouldn't consider the Rangers potential Cup contenders, but they definitely bolstered their hopes of making the playoffs by obtaining Anson Carter from the Edmonton Oilers. However, they failed to upgrade their blueline and that, ultimately, is where the Blueshirts playoff hopes rest.

WHICH POTENTIAL PLAYOFF TEAMS WERE WEAKENED: If the Oilers were out of the playoffs, I could've understood the rationale for trading away both Carter and Niinimaa. These deals may help the club in the future, and will undoubtedly save the club money, but they do nothing to boost their playoff hopes and could in fact jeopardize them. Maybe new guys like Brad Isbister and Raffi Torres will help the Oilers down the road, but I don't foresee them doing it now, and they don't cover off the huge gap in the Oilers blueline left by Niinimaa's departure.

TRADE THAT FAVOURED BOTH TEAMS: Chris Drury-for-Derek Morris. Yeah, I know there were other players involved, but boil this trade down to it's essentials. The Colorado Avalanche got valuable talented depth for their blueline in Morris, while Drury provided offensive depth for the Calgary Flames, despite their moribund season.

MOST ONE-SIDED DEAL: The Alexei Kovalev sale. Don't ever call this a trade. The Penguins sold Kovalev to the Rangers in exchange for a third line forward and two players who've yet to prove they can earn regular minutes in the NHL. This sale was done because the Penguins were - and still are - in deep financial doo-doo, and badly needed the money from the Rangers ($4 million US, plus the Blueshirts agreement to pick up the salaries for the rest of this season of the marginal talent they shipped to the Pens)to stay afloat this season. Don't try to justify the "fairness" of this deal. If the Pens weren't so bad off financially, they would've received a more fair return. Then again, if they were in better financial straits, they wouldn't have dealt Kovalev in the first place!

MOST SIGNIFICANT TRADE IMPACT: Dumping high-priced veterans for picks or prospects. We've seen this before but the trend was never more apparent than it was leading up to this year's deadline. Don't think teams aren't concerned over the upcoming labour negotiations next year? Teams who can afford short-term acquisitions to boost their Cup aspirations are doing it now, because after the 2003-04 season, the fallout from the upcoming labour negotiations could have serious impact on the payrolls of the free-spending clubs.

TEAM LEFT HOLDING THE BAG: Montreal Canadiens. Stuck with the bloated salaries of overpaid underachievers like Patrice Brisebois, Mariusz Czerkawski, Randy McKay and Donald Audette, the best the Canadiens could do was trade Oleg Petrov and Doug Gilmour for low picks. Ouch!

LAMORIELLO NO MAN OF HIS WORD? For months, disgruntled centre Mike Danton was promised a trade by New Jersey Devils GM Lou Lamoriello. Danton doubted Lamoriello would come through, and sure enough, as of the deadline, he's still Devils property. "Lou Lam" will claim there's no market for Danton, and he's probably right, but expect the Danton camp to milk this for all it's worth, including filing a grievance against the Devils GM.

BEST TRADE PREDICTIONS: I know I slam the Ottawa Sun's Bruce Garrioch for his lousy track record regarding trade speculations, but I have to give him his due. He claimed the Anaheim Mighty Ducks were interested in Sandis Ozolinsh before anyone else did, and sure enough, later that day, "Ozo" was a Duck.

A tip of the hat to the Raleigh News & Observer's Luke Decock, who called the "Sami Kapanen-for-Pavel Brendl" deal between the Carolina Hurricanes and Philadelphia Flyers long before it went down.

Finally, Ted Kulfan of the Detroit News gets an "atta-boy" for his reporting the Nashville Predators might shop Mike Dunham because Tomas Vokoun was nudging him out of the starter's role. Days later, Dunham was a Ranger.

WORST TRADE PREDICTIONS: For every rumour reported by the media that turns into gold, one hundred get churned out that are grade-A, 100% prime BS. And we saw our share of roadapples this season.

How about all those reports of the Colorado Avalanche offering Alex Tanguay and Martin Skoula to Boston for Kyle McLaren and Martin Lapointe? Rule of thumb here, guys: if you're reporting it, that usually means Lacroix isn't even considering it. Of course, that didn't stop the NY Post from claiming the Avs were shopping the same package to the New Jersey Devils for Patrik Elias.

Or how about the one that had Kyle McLaren all but dealt to the New York Islanders for Brad Isbister? Or those that claimed as gospel the NY Islanders were going to ship defenceman Roman Hamrlik back to the Tampa Bay Lightning as part of a three-way deal between the Bolts, Isles and Bruins involving McLaren?

For years, a certain Ottawa Sun reporter claimed the Senators were shopping, or about to move, forwards Radek Bonk and Magnus Arvedson. Now I know he'll probably defend himself by claiming "just because a deal doesn't happen doesn't mean it wasn't discussed". But seriously, if Bonk and Arvedson were on the block as much as this reporter claimed over the past two seasons, surely to God they'd have been traded by now? Come on now, their trade value isn't that terrible. Indeed, I'm willing to wager if Bonk was available last summer, as the Sun reporter claimed back in August, coming off a career year and finally shaking off his reputation as a playoff underachiever, someone would've dealt for him. Can you say, "personal vendetta clouding a journalist's judgement", boys and girls? I knew you could...

The topper for worst trade prediction, however, goes to all those reporters who insisted throughout the season the Philadelphia Flyers were going to obtain Jarome Iginla from the Calgary Flames for a package of Simon Gagne, Justin Williams, and prospect Jeff Woywitka. Hey, I'm sure Clarke probably made some inquiries, but I still doubt he'd part with that much for Iginla. In fact, I doubt he even made that offer in the first place. Regardless, Iggy stayed in Calgary , where he belongs.

WORST DENIAL BY A GENERAL MANAGER: We all know how this game is played. The press gets wind of a juicy rumour; they quiz the GM who denies everything, and usually that's the end of it.

However, some GMs have mastered the art of saying one thing and doing the exact opposite, and none are better than the Philadelphia Flyers Bob Clarke. He didn't disappoint us again this season, when he stated he had no interest in Carolina winger Sami Kapanen, based on the winger's lousy performance this season, only to turn around a couple of weeks later and obtain the fleet Finn in exchange for a fading Pavel Brendl.

And Bobby wonders why the press doesn't believe a word he says...

WACKIEST TRADE RUMOUR: There were so many to choose from this season. The continued claims by the Ottawa Sun and NY Post that the Washington Capitals were trying to dump Jaromir Jagr incurred the wrath of the Caps owner, who called one of the Sun reporters an idiot and took him to task for reporting unsubstantiated rumours as fact.

The one that claimed the Dallas Stars were interested in landing Mark Messier from the NY Rangers to use as their third line center was ridiculous even to casual fans, but that didn't stop several papers from reporting it.

The NY Post's claiming the NY Rangers would want either Marian Hossa or Martin Havlat in exchange for career grinder Matthew Barnaby was good for a laugh.

One favourite appeared in the Dallas Morning News back in January, claiming the Tampa Bay Lightning were unhappy with goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin and wanted to move him. Yeah, those Bolts really looked sad to be saddled with Khabibulin, don't they?

Another wacky one had the Philadelphia Flyers supposedly interested in overpaid underachiever Mariusz Czerkawski. "The Polish Prince" sure plays like Bob Clarke's type of player, doesn't he?

CBC's Hockey Night in Canada usually stellar reputation got some mud in it's eye by claiming Owen Nolan was being dealt to the Colorado Avalanche for Adam Foote back in January. Their proof? Nolan was a late scratch, and Adam Foote model hockey sticks were seen in the Sharks stick rack. Only problem was, those sticks were being tested out by a Sharks blueliner. Ouch!

Or how about those breathless rumours from the NY Post the weekend before the deadline, claiming the Washington Capitals were trying to dump Jaromir Jagr, Robert Lang and Peter Bondra? To rebuild with kids, no less? I mean, if you're going to dream up rumours, at least try to make them plausible...

The best one, however, was what the Toronto Sun reported back in November 2002. It claimed the Boston Bruins might be interested in obtaining Eric Lindros from the NY Rangers because...pause for effect...they wanted a marquee name and figured Lindros would help bring the fans back to the Fleetcenter. Well, if a great young superstar like Joe Thornton, who's going to be twice the player Lindros could never be, couldn't bring the fans back, why would an injury-prone guy with the baggage of Lindros do the trick?

The best part of this rumour was the return. Martin Lapointe...straight up... for Lindros. Why? Because the Rangers believed Lapointe, a career third line checking forward, would boost their powerplay.

And some of these reporters wonder why they have no credibility with hockey fans...

HURTLING DOWN THE HOME STRETCH.

With the trade deadline now blessedly past, we're now well into the final month of the interminably long NHL regular season. With little more than 10 games remaining on the schedule for all 30 clubs, here's how they look as they hurtle down the home stretch:

ANAHEIM MIGHTY DUCKS: After three years on the outside, the Ducks are indeed mighty again and are bound for the playoffs. The thanks for this rests squarely with general manager Bryan Murray, who should be in the running for NHL Executive of the Year. From hiring rookie coach Mike Babcock, to his deft acquisitions of Adam Oates, Petr Sykora, Sandis Ozolinsh, Fredrick Olausson and Steve Thomas, the Ducks are poised to make some noise in this year's post-season.

ATLANTA THRASHERS:The playoffs are out of the question for another year, but Thrashers fans have every reason to be optimistic about the future. Sophomores Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk continue to be among the best young stars in the game, and GM Don Waddell's lineup for next season looks promising with veterans Slava Kozlov and Marc Savard. Goaltender Byron Dafoe failed to pan out, but if he rebounds from injury next season, they should be in good shape. The one person that should make the Thrashers better next season, however, is head coach Bob Hartley, who's had the team playing .500 hockey since taking over the reins in January. For a perennial basement dweller, that's an outstanding achievement.

BOSTON BRUINS: The Beantowners have rallied in recent weeks from the horrific swoon (9 wins over three months) that threatened their season, but they're not out of the woods yet. Sitting seventh overall, the Bruins comfort zone could still use more padding. GM Mike O'Connell is gambling on deadline acquisitions Dan McGillis and Ian Moran to bolster his struggling blueline, but the Bruins post-season hopes rests on the goaltending tandem of Steve Shields and Jeff Hackett, who've shown only marginal signs of improvement. Bruins fans could be chewing their nails in this last month of the season.

BUFFALO SABRES: The only good news to come out of this season from hell is the club finally appears to have new ownership. Billionaire Tom Golisano's bid for the Sabres appears destined for approval by the league, although he gets them for the "bargain-basement" price of $92 million. Once the sale goes through, Sabres fans can expect serious changes to their team, as it appears GM Darcy Regier and head coach Lindy Ruff are goners. Don't be surprised if defenceman Alexei Zhitnik ends up moved in the off-season, too. The only other bright spot: dumping the inconsistent Chris Gratton at the deadline for exciting scorer Daniel Briere. At least the Sabres won something this season!

CALGARY FLAMES: The Flames will miss the playoffs for a seventh-straight season, but there's reason for optimism for next year. The club retained their key players, and there appears a determination on the part of ownership to give this bunch one more shot at making the post-season. Jarome Iginla rebounded strongly in the second half from various injuries and is once again lighting the lamp, while his teammates appear to be responding positively to the coaching of Darryl Sutter, who joined the team in December. However, their goaltending remains their achilles heel and will undoubtedly affect their playoff hopes for next season.

CAROLINA HURRICANES: Enough has been written about the Hurricanes fall from grace that there is no point in repeating it. Suffice to say, 'Canes GM Jim Rutherford will be in a rebuilding mode this off-season. Head coach Paul Maurice's job appears safe for next season, but one has to wonder if the damage between him and the players is done. One bright spot for the Hurricanes was their steal of promising winger Radim Vrbata from the Colorado Avalanche at the trade deadline. This kid could go on to lead a 'Canes renaissance in the coming seasons.

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS: Does the ugliness ever stop in the Windy City? After showing so much promise last season, the Blackhawks have fallen so far out of playoff contention they'll need a miracle to get back in. Injuries to key players had an effect, but they're not the only stories dogging the 'Hawks. From owner Bill Wirtz's stone-age tactics to speculation GM Mike Smith and head coach Brian Sutter could be fired to the disastrous Theo Fleury situation, there simply hasn't been much to cheer about in Chicago since January.

COLORADO AVALANCHE:They're ba-a-a-ck! The second-half recovery of the Avalanche shows no signs of abating, and they're now threatening the Vancouver Canucks for the division title. Thanks to the return to form of Patrick Roy, the continuing dominance of Peter Forsberg, the return from injury of team captain Joe Sakic, the career season of Milan Hejduk and a strong second half by Alex Tanguay, the Avs are considered Cup contenders again.

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS: Although they won't make the playoffs, this team showed notable improvement this season. If they can retain Ray Whitney, Geoff Sanderson and Andrew Cassels, this club stands a great chance for making the playoffs next year. And how about rookie Rick Nash? This kid is bound to be a star one day and can only benefit from having those aforementioned veterans around.

DALLAS STARS: Landing winger Stu Barnes and defenceman Lyle Odelein at the trade deadline, the Stars added depth to an already strong blueline and found a temporary replacement for the sidelined Bill Guerin. This club is scary deep , and barring a rash of injuries by season's end, have to be considered the favourite to win the Western Conference.

DETROIT RED WINGS: Adding Mathieu Schneider at the trade deadline bolsters their blueline depth, and Steve Yzerman returning from off-season knee surgery provides an emotional lift. They are pressing the Stars for the lead in the West, but in my opinion, their hopes of successfully defending the Stanley Cup don't look good. Goaltender Curtis Joseph continues to be average, Chris Chelios is hurting and Jiri Fischer probably won't be back for the playoffs. The rest of the club is looking older and, at times, playing like it. One shouldn't take them lightly, but this year's Wings aren't the dominant force they were at this time a year ago.

EDMONTON OILERS: After trading away their leading scorer and best defenceman at the trade deadline in obvious salary dumps, Oilers fans can only pray their club can retain their hold of the final playoff berth in the West. Getting Ryan Smyth, Mike Comrie, Jason Smith and Mike York back from injury will help, but the departed Anson Carter and Janne Niinimaa were popular with their teammates and their absence leaves an obvious void. They may make the post-season, but will probably be first-round road-kill. Worse, the dealings of Carter and Niinimaa have upset the Oilers fanbase, which could make stumping for season-ticket renewals this summer a more arduous chore.

FLORIDA PANTHERS: While most attention is on the speculations of Mike Keenan leaving the club for the Rangers this summer or his suspected clashings with management, those who are paying attention are noticing a young Panthers team showing a lot of promise. Indeed, they're still in the race for a playoff berth, although only mathematically at this point. Regardless of what happens with "Iron Mike" in the off-season, it cannot be denied this is a team that, with patience, should become a rising force in the East in a couple of years.

LOS ANGELES KINGS: The dealing away of centre Bryan Smolinski and defenceman Mathieu Schneider was the white flag of surrender for this club, however, the returns of promising kids and high picks could be the silver lining for this team's future. Still, one is left to ponder if the Kings would've made these moves had they not suffered 400 man-games lost to injury. Expect plenty of speculation regarding winger Ziggy Palffy's future with the club as he and the team head into negotiations over a new deal in the off-season.

MINNESOTA WILD: It's great to see NHL playoff hockey is heading back to Minnesota! While the Wild are still a long way from Cup contention, just making the playoffs in only their third year of existence is a remarkable achievement. Don't expect this team to be playoff pushovers, either. If taken lightly by a first-round opponent, they're capable of pulling off an upset. The only concern worth noting is the drop-off of goalscoring by young phenom Marian Gaborik. While his overall game has improved, he's not lighting the lamp as much as he was in the first half. The Wild will need him to find his scoring touch in the playoffs if they're to make any noise.

MONTREAL CANADIENS: Just when it looks like they're out of the playoff picture, the Habs recover from a nine-game winless skid to put themselves back in the running for the last playoff berth in the East. Credit the recent return to form of goaltender Jose Theodore, as well as the strong play of youngsters Mike Ribeiro, Marcel Hossa and Jason Ward, who've re-energized struggling veterans like Yannic Perreault and Richard Zednik. Still, for the Canadiens to make a return trip to the post-season, they'll need Theodore to stay strong between the pipes. Otherwise, they'll be golfing in April.

NASHVILLE PREDATORS: The Preds shocked a lot of folks with their strong second-half performance, which put them within striking distance of the final playoff berth in the West. However, they have struggled recently, and could be running out of gas at the wrong time. With the Oilers apparently weakened by the loss of their best forward and defenceman, eighth overall in the West is there for the taking, but can the young Predators find it in themselves to make one more push?

NEW JERSEY DEVILS: They'll make the playoffs, but there are disconcerting signs regarding the Devils hopes for a prolonged playoff run. They've conceded any hope of winning the East, and didn't find the offensive help they desperately need at the trade deadline. There's talk of disputes between head coach Pat Burns and forwards Scott Gomez and Patrik Elias, and if that wasn't bad enough, the Philadelphia Flyers are challenging them for the divisional title.

NY ISLANDERS: It's been an up-and-down season for the Isles, and their fans are hoping they're not heading into a down cycle. They've decided to gamble their goaltending hopes on Garth Snow and Rick DiPietro. Thankfully, they've added Janne Niinimaa to bolster their blueline. A more notable concern, however, remains the puzzling play of Alexei Yashin, who played so badly he was banished to the fourth line for several games. With the Canadiens and Rangers nipping at their heels for the final spot in the East, the Isles will need a strong finish to avoid sliding out of playoff contention.

NY RANGERS: Glen Sather continued to bolster his forward lines, acquiring Anson Carter from the Oilers on deadline day, as well as landing a promising young defenceman in Ales Pesa. The Rangers have made noticeable improvement over the past month and are in contention for the final playoff berth in the East. Several pundits believe the Rangers could be a scary playoff club if they can squeak in, and looking at that star-laden roster, there's justification for that opinion. However, as always, the Blueshirts playoff hopes will rest on the defensive game. They've never had problems putting the puck in the net during Sather's tenure as GM, but they have had problems keeping it out of their own. If it continues to dog them in their final games, it could prove lethal.

OTTAWA SENATORS: Barring a major collapse or a series of injuries, the Senators are poised to claim the Eastern Conference title, and are battling the Dallas Stars for the league lead. GM John Muckler's recent acquisitions of Vaclav Varada, Rob Ray and Bryan Smolinski bring in much needed grit as well as additional scoring punch at centre. They should be considered the favourites to win the East and contend for the Cup, but their woeful post-season history continues to hang over them like a dark cloud as they embark on perhaps the most important playoffs in their history.

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS: Their fans still decry the "boring style" of hockey they're playing under coach Ken Hitchcock, but there can be no denying the Flyers success this season, despite losing wingers Simon Gagne and Justin Williams to injury. The goaltending of Roman Cechmanek remains a question mark going into the playoffs, perhaps unfairly, given his strong play was the only bright spot in their woeful first-round exit last spring. GM Bob Clarke quietly added depth with small deals, then pulled the trigger on a major pickup in winger Tony Amonte at the deadline. With John LeClair returning from injury and joing Amonte and Jeremy Roenick, the Flyers could see an upswing in their offensive production over the final weeks of the season, which would bode well for the playoffs

PHOENIX COYOTES: The bad news is they won't make the playoffs. The good new is, they kept goalie Sean Burke, dumped Tony Amonte's hefty salary, and got a good playmaking forward in Jan Hrdina at the deadline. Most of the roster remains intact, other than the puzzling move of Daniel Briere to Buffalo at the deadline for enigmatic centre Chris Gratton. A combination of injuries and inconsistency plagued the Desert Dawgs this season, but expect a rebound next year, particularly if Burke can stay healthy.

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS: The only positive the Penguins fans can point to is their club didn't deal off goalie Johan Hedberg and forward Martin Straka at the deadline. That's cold comfort for a team that's been in free-fall since they sold away Alexei Kovalev for the equivilant of a bag of pucks in February. Now GM Craig Patrick says his team can no longer afford to compete. Get the feeling the nightmare is only going to get worse in Pittsburgh?

ST. LOUIS BLUES:They couldn't afford the pricetag for Sean Burke, but getting a proven playoff goalie in Chris Osgood wasn't too bad. Some Blues fans are whining about that, but having "Ozzie" between the pipes is a damn sight better than what they had prior to his acquisition. Blues fans should be more concerned over losing Keith Tkachuk for the rest of the regular season with a sprained wrist. They'll make the playoffs, but it's going to be interesting to see how far they'll go, and whether or not Osgood can shake the sometimes unfair stigma of lacking clutch in the playoff .

SAN JOSE SHARKS: The fire-sale of veterans wasn't nearly as bad as many fans believed it would, but make no mistake, this team is destined for a serious overhaul in the off-season. As the Sharks play out the string, the question still remains: what brought about the downfall of a club that was earmarked for Cup contention when the season began? And who else could be on the move before next season?

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING: Are you getting excited yet, Lightning fans? You should. After six long seasons as a laughingstock, the Bolts are poised to make the playoffs. Unlike the club of 1996, they stand a good chance of advancing beyond the first round. This team provides a mix of exciting offence and outstanding goaltending. Granted, their blueline depth is still a question mark, but as long as the offence and goaltending remain as they've been over the past month, the Lightning could be a pleasant surprise in this year's playoffs.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS: After years of being called "Stand Pat" Quinn at the trade deadline, the Leafs GM went whole-hog this season and loaded up his team with notable veteran talent. Indeed, this is perhaps the deepest Leafs team since, well, since their last Cup victory back in '67. That doesn't mean they're a lock to go all the way, but with the sheer volume of depth, the Leafs have improved their chances. Still, their propensity to rack up the penalty minutes has grown over the past month, and it could jeopardize their hopes if it carries over into the playoffs. It could come down to the goaltending of Eddie Belfour and the discipline of his teammates.

VANCOUVER CANUCKS: A month ago, this team appeared a lock to take over the Western Conference lead from the Dallas Stars. While they remain a serious Cup contender, however, they haven't looked quite as dominant in recent games. Chalk that up to a nagging knee injury that has sidelined goaltender Dan Cloutier. If the Canucks want to challenge the Stars, Avs and Wings in the post-season, they'll need "Cloots" back healthy between the pipes.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS: Stocked with offensive firepower and outstanding goaltending, the Caps are cursed by an average blueline. The fact they obtained a streaky sniper in Sergei Berezin, rather than obtaining additional depth at the blueline, which was affordably available on deadline day, remains puzzling. Ultimately, it will cost the Caps any real shot of making the Cup finals. They should make it to the second round, but it'll take tremendous goaltending by Olie Kolzig to get them further.

THE AX FALLS IN SAN JOSE AND BOSTON.

As is bound to happen with struggling clubs at this time of year, the ax came down hard on two teams this past week. One was not much of a surprise, while the other caught a lot of observers off guard.

In San Jose, Sharks ownership fired general manager Dean Lombardi as their club, touted as a Cup contender at the start of the season, has languished near the bottom of the Western Conference standings with no chance of making the playoffs.

Meanwhile, in Boston, the Bruins fired head coach Robbie Ftorek, replacing him in the interim with general manager Mike O'Connell.

The firing of Lombardi really was not surprising, considering the high expectations of the Sharks ownership and their fans this season.

From the time he took over as GM of the Sharks in the late-90s, Lombardi had done a fine job of building the club up from a marginal playoff team into one that seemed poised to compete with the big boys in the West.

His draft record was particularly noteworthy, as he brought in Patrick Marleau, Scott Hannan, Brad Stuart, Jim Fahey, and Jeff Jillson. On the trade front, he swung deals that brought in Bryan Marchment, Vincent Damphousse, Teemu Selanne, Todd Harvey, Mike Ricci, and Adam Graves.

As talented a roster that he built, however, there were problems. He was particularly tough with this players during contract negotiations, which often saw the Sharks begin their seasons with key players absent from the roster due to holdouts. The blame was not entirely Lombardi's, given the budget constraints he had, but it must be noted that usually the holdouts would eventually be re-signed for what they were holding out for, or close to it.

This inevitably led to questioning as to why Lombardi simply didn't get the players under contract in the first place, rather than forcing them to hold out and handicapping the roster.

It was also believed Lombardi didn't get along with head coach Darryl Sutter, who in turn was rumoured to be butting heads with some of his players. Lombardi told the press the "seeds" for his club's woeful season were planted after their heartbreaking Game 7 defeat at the hands of the Colorado Avalanche last spring, which carried over into training camp and became a cancer that affected the season.

Whatever those seeds were, Lombardi wouldn't say, but one has to wonder if a combination of his hard-nosed approach to contract negotiations weren't instilling a feeling amongst his players that Lombardi didn't have their best interests at heart.

There's now speculation Lombardi could end up in Chicago, taking over the reins of the Blackhawks GM position, given his father-in-law is 'Hawks honcho Bob Pulford. That's been widely denied, but it will certainly keep attention focussed on the continuing soap-opera the Blackhawks have become.

As for Ftorek, it wasn't a case of why he was fired, but rather, the timing.

After bolting from the gate with a 19-4-1 record early in the season, the Bruins struggled mightily in the second half, at one point going almost a month without a win.

It was at that point, in late-February, when the death-watch on Ftorek's tenure as Bruins bench-boss went into high gear. Yet, the Bruins, who've never met a coach they didn't like to fire, stuck with Ftorek, and the team, which appeared destined to fall out of playoff contention, rallied in March to find themselves hanging onto seventh overall in the East.

Thus, the puzzling decision by the Bruins front-office to give Ftorek his walking papers. If they were planning on firing him, and since they obviously didn't have a replacement in hand, why not do it back in February? Why now, when the club has rallied somewhat and should make the playoffs?

Nobody said most of the decisions made by the Bruins front office over the past thirty years make sense.

For Ftorek, this continues the trend of his getting the ax within two years of being hired as a head coach. It's something that seemingly follows him during his NHL coaching tenures.

The reason for this is in Ftorek's approach to coaching. An intense individual, he seemingly gets terrific results in his first season, as witnessed by the Bruins first overall placement in the Eastern Conference standings last season, and by turning the same trick with the New Jersey Devils back in 1999.

However, that intensity seems to turn off his players in the following season. The Bruins with their second-half free-fall this season. The Devils with their near-disastrous second half in the '99-00 season.

His style draws comparisons to that of Devils head coach Pat Burns, himself an intense, demanding type. However, Burns usually tends to last an average of four years as a coach, thanks in no small part to the three Adams trophies he's won as NHL coach-of-the-year, as well as guiding the Montreal Canadiens to the Cup finals in his rookie season in 1989, and the hand he had in the Toronto Maple Leafs early-90s renaissance. Burns has the respect of his players in most cases, because of his reputation.

Ftorek, on the other hand, doesn't have Burns's credentials. That's why his act tends to run shorter.

MONTREAL FANS BOOING ANTHEM DISGRACEFUL.

By now many of you have read or heard about the Montreal fans booing the American national anthem during a recent Canadiens-NY Islanders game.

We all know what it stems from, given the US-led invasion of Iraq and the feelings this war has raised throughout the world.

Now, I'm all for freedom of speech and expression. I have no problem with folks protesting the war in Iraq, as that's the beauty of living in a democracy.

That being said, however, I don't believe a hockey game is the place to be doing that sort of thing.

What purpose does that serve? That Canadians, or at least the people of Montreal, are letting the Americans know they're against military action in Iraq? Uh, nice try, but I think the Canadian government made that point by opting out of participation.

Yes, it got some media attention, but did it change anything? Did it stop the war? Does this "message" have the American government quivering in their boots?

The only thing it did was draw attention to Canada in a negative light, by giving failed presidential candidates-turned-big-talking heads like Pat Buchanan more ammunition to pursue their latest passion: slamming Canadians.

The fans in Montreal should've saved their breath for booing the crappy efforts of their hockey team that night, rather than wasting them on a lame protest that had no place in the world of sports.

Regardless of one's feelings about the Iraq conflict, one should at least show some respect when the US anthem is being played before the beginning of a sporting event that features a team from the United States. If you don't wish to applaud, fine, just stand or sit and keep silent.

Does anyone remember the storm of controversy when the NY Islanders fans booed the Canadian national anthem during the Isles-Toronto Maple Leafs first round series last spring?

Editorials in the Canadian media flew like Tomahawk missiles over that one, many condemning the arrogant stupidity of those damn Yankees to the South. The Canadian public was indignant over this display.

So it's ok for Canadians to boo the Star Spangled Banner, but a crime against humanity and a blow against Canadians already pathetic sense of self-esteem when Americans do that to "O Canada"?

Back in the 1970s, when the Soviet Union regularly sent their Red Army hockey teams over to humiliate NHL clubs, their anthem was never booed. Indeed, it was received with polite, if sometimes muted, applause.

If there was ever a nation's government, whose anthem deserved to be booed for the decades of oppression, genocide and fear it had inflicted upon their own people and those of other nations, it was the Soviet Union. Yet Canadians never treated that anthem with the same contempt the fans in Montreal showed the American one this past Thursday.

Canadians like to take the moral high road when comparing themselves to Americans. "Yes, America is richer and stronger and flashier and glitzier and more entertaining, but by golly, we Canadians aren't arrogant and over-bearing and boorish like they are".

Whether this is true or not is debatable, but one thing is certain: booing the American anthem was a disgraceful, classless act and had no place in the realm of hockey.

Protest the war if you must, for that is your right, but please, let's keep it out of the sporting arenas. There's enough politics in the world, indeed, more than enough creeping into the game of hockey, without having to dump more into the mix.

Leave the political protests outside, and for a few hours, relax and enjoy the game. Even wide-eyed zealots need a break now and then.