MAY 2004 SOAPBOX ARCHIVES

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SECOND ROUND NEWS AND NOTES.

MAY 3rd UPDATE: VANCOUVER CANUCKS ANNOUNCED THEY WOULD NOT RE-SIGN GENERAL MANAGER BRIAN BURKE TO A NEW CONTRACT!

That's right, folks, the man responsible to turning the Canucks from a late-90s laughingstock into a future Cup contender has been given the boot!

Canucks owner John McCaw acknowledged all that Burke achieved - dumping overpaid veterans and streamlining the club's payroll, hiring Marc Crawford, trading for the Sedin Twins, Brendan Morrison, Ed Jovanovski, Sami Salo, Marek Malik and bringing back fan favourite Trevor Linden, re-signing top players like Jovanovski, Marcus Naslund and Todd Bertuzzi for less than market value, and overall turning the club into a playoff team with a bright future, which in turn brought back the hockey fans to GM Place - but McCaw never said why he was letting Burke go.

Was he asking for too much money? Was it the club's inability over the past three seasons to advance into true Stanley Cup contention? Or was it, as some suspect, Burke's personality grated McCaw's nerves?

Burke denied he was seeking a contract worth over $2 million per season. Given the fine job he's done with the Canucks since 1998, he' d probably be worth that much, but if Burke wasn't seeking that much, and McCaw probably could've afforded to pay him if he really wanted to retain him, then he couldn't have been cut for financial reasons. If he was, then McCaw 's not as shrewd a businessman as he's made out to be, for he's forgetting the reason there are more fans in the stands and more money in McCaw's bank account is because of Burke.

If Burke was let go because of this season's disappointing playoff finish, that's simply unfair. The Canucks battled hard against a very determined Calgary Flames team, one that is presently on the verge of eliminating the Detroit Red Wings in second-round action.

The Canucks did this with their best goalie sidelined by injury(although more cynical Canucks fans probably think it's a good thing Dan Cloutier was injured, given his woeful playoff record), team captain Naslund hampered by injury and linemate Bertuzzi suspended indefinitely following his thuggish attack on Colorado's Steve Moore in early March. I

It certainly wasn't Burke's fault these things happened to those key players, so why is he being forced to walk the plank because of it? With a full and healthier roster next season, one predominantly built by Burke, the Canucks will likely make a strong run toward the Cup.

Burke has accomplished much more than contemporaries like Glen Sather of the New York Rangers or Mike Milbury of the New York Islanders, yet those two keep their jobs while Burke loses his?

If it comes down to personality clashes, then it's a lack of professionalism on the part of Canucks ownership.

Yes, Burke was outspoken, but is that any reason to fire the guy? In most cases, he was sticking up for his players and his team. Mike Milbury and Philadelphia's Bob Clarke have been as bad if not worse, but nobody's kicking their butts to the curb.

Here's a guy who took over a money-losing franchise, one that was stocked with overpaid underachievers, which was losing it's fanbase, and turned it in a matter of five short years into a money-maker, one that was built not with big bucks but with shrewed trades and draft picks, which turned the club into a perennial playoff team and in turn brought back the fans.

If I were a team owner, I might not like my general manager on a personal level, but if the guy could accomplish what Burke did, I'd be able to sustain a professional relationship with him.

Sorry, folks, but this move makes absolutely no sense to me. The Canucks, and particularly Mr. McCaw, owe a lot to Brian Burke. To dump him in this fashion is not only a slap in the face, but is one of the stupidest moves a team can make. And if his successor should fail to duplicate Burke's accomplishments, it'll be even stupider.

But don't feel bad for Burke. The good job he did in Vancouver will surely land him another management job somewhere else in this league.

Given the Canucks history, I can see them rueing the day they let Brian Burke get away.

- One of the topics discussed in a recent meeting between the league front office and the NHLPA was the possible elimination of inter-conference play as part of a plan to reduce the number of games played in the regular season.

I've received several e-mails on this topic, all of them decrying the loss of inter-conference play. The big beef against it is that it would take away the opportunity for fans in the Eastern Conference to watch the top teams or star players from the Western Conference play live in their home arenas and vice versa.

I can certainly understand this complaint, and I wouldn't advocate doing away entirely with inter-conference play. That being said, it would make more sense to increase the number of games played between divisional and conference rivals and reduce the amount of inter-conference games.

It all comes down to what's best for the NHL game. Right now, television ratings are dropping annually and there are more and more empty seats in NHL arenas as fans become bored with the way the current NHL game is played

What would be a better selling point for the fans during the regular season: the opportunity to see maybe eight or nine of the top teams from another Conference coming to town to play their local team once a year, or the chance for your favourite team to square off more often against a long-time or hated rival?

I believe the latter would be a stronger selling point. Fans in New York, for example, would love to see more games between their Rangers and their hated rivals, the Islanders and Devils.

Canadiens fans would turn out in droves to watch more games against the Maple Leafs and Bruins. Fans in Toronto would be thrilled to see more games between the Leafs and the Habs, Ottawa Senators and Buffalo Sabres. And can you imagine the fan intensity in Alberta if the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames were to clash more frequently?

Of course the main thing here is to stoke interest in the areas where the NHL expanded since the early 1990s.

Wouldn't fans in Tampa Bay turn out more if their club battled their inter-state rivals, the Florida Panthers, and their inter-division rivals from Atlanta, the Thrashers? Surely it would help boost interest in California if the San Jose Sharks, LA Kings and Anaheim Mighty Ducks were to clash more frequently?

The league doesn't necessarily have to do away with all inter-conference games. Some of my readers advocate going to a rotational system akin to the NFL, which isn't a bad idea, as long as it doesn't take away from the league and PA's hope to reduce the number of games played by the players.

The NHL desperately needs to bolster their sagging popularity. Increasing the amount of games played between divisional and Conference rivals sounds like a good idea.

- In 2002, the Montreal Canadiens surprised the hockey experts by not only making the playoffs but eliminating the Boston Bruins in the first round before being themselves eliminated in the second round by the Carolina Hurricanes.

This year, the Habs pulled off the same trick, confounding the experts who picked them to finish no higher than 12th in the Eastern Conference and who also expected them to fall to the Bruins in the opening round of the playoffs.

The Canadiens and their fans are talking optimistically about their club's chances for improvement next season, but their detractors quickly point out the Habs fell to earth and out of postseason competition in 2003 thus they could likely do so again in 2004-05.

However, there are several reasons why that won't happen.

One is the management of Bob Gainey, one of the shrewdest and most respected hockey men in the NHL. He brought stability to the Habs that had been lacking for years, and stood by goalie Jose Theodore when members of his family were arrested last summer on loan-sharking charges and defenceman Patrice Brisebois when he was being unfairly booed by the local fans.

He also identified where the Canadiens needed to make improvements, cutting over-priced underachieving players and replacing them with several smart free agent signings and trades. He was a big reason why the Dallas Stars rose to become legitimate Stanley Cup contenders in the late 1990s and obviously has the Habs on the same path.

Improved coaching is another reason. Two years ago the Habs were led by the tempermental Michel Therrien, whose lack of a quality defensive system meant the Habs were outshot by wide margins on a regular basis. This time around, they're coached by the unflappable Claude Julien, who introduced a defensive system that not only reduced the number of shots against but also allowed for a quick transition game.

Finally, there's the improved depth of the Canadiens. Two years ago, the Habs rode the otherworldly goaltending of Jose Theodore and the emotional high of team captain Saku Koivu's successful battle against cancer into the playoffs and a first round upset before crashing back to earth against the Hurricanes.

While Theodore and Koivu were factors again for Montreal, this time around they had plenty of help from their teammates. Sheldon Souray emerged as a legitimate All-Star defenceman, while young hard-hitting blueliner Mike Komisarek showed a lot of promise.

Up front, the emergence of young forwards Michael Ryder and Mike Ribeiro and the late-season addition of veteran Alex Kovalev gave the Habs offensive depth they'd been lacking for years.

The Habs also have plenty of depth in their system, from which several more promising youngsters could make their roster next season and further bolster the lineup.

Having exceeded expectations this season, it's no wonder the Habs and their fans are looking forward to what should be a bright future.

- One promising Canadiens forward who has likely put his future in jeopardy is forward Alexander Perezhogin, who's been suspended indefinitely by the AHL after he levelled Cleveland Barons defenceman Garrett Stafford with a baseball style swing to Stafford's head in a recent playoff game between the Barons and Perezhogin's Hamilton Bulldogs.

Stafford suffered serious head and facial injuries and lay for several minutes on the ice in convulsions while trainers frantically attended to him before he was rushed to hospital, where he was treated for the loss of several teeth, sewn up for over twenty stitches and sustained a concussion.

Perezhogin will obviously be suspended for the remainder of the playoffs, and could face a lengthy one next season as well. If he's suspended for most or all of next season, he won't be allowed to attend the Canadiens training camp or even have a shot at making their roster next season.

Considering he might've killed Stafford with that blow (and came awfully close), Perezhogin will be getting off lucky by the AHL, compared to the potential criminal charges he's going to face for his actions.

What Perezhogin did was indefensible, and coming in the wake of the ugly hit by Vancouver's Todd Bertuzzi against Colorado's Steve Moore, was another blow the game of hockey didn't need.

- Regardless of who emerges victorious in the series between the Philadelphia Flyers and Toronto Maple Leafs, they're going to face a very tough opponent in the Eastern Conference Finals in the Tampa Bay Lightning.

It's tempting to compare the Lightning to one-hit wonder clubs of recent history, like the 2003 Anaheim Mighty Ducks and the 2002 Carolina Hurricanes, teams that overachieved and then promptly sank back to the bottom of the NHL standings the following year.

That, however, would be a mistake.

The Bolts are no "one-hit wonders". For anyone watching closely, they've been slowly building toward this for some time. They're a very deep hockey team, well-coached and exciting to watch.

Ah, but that's what I said about the Carolina Hurricanes two years ago, and look what happened to them, right?

The 'Canes fallout was due to unfulfilled expectations and inconsistent goaltending, something the Lightning aren't cursed with.

For one thing, their best players are among the top players in the league. Forward Martin St. Louis won the Art Ross as the league's leading point-getter and should win the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player. Fellow forwards Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards are always dangerous offensively and are legitimate stars in their own right.

For another, goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, a strong regular season netminder, is finally putting the years of playoff inconsistency behind him.

Factor in a strong support core of forwards that includes Fredrik Modin, Cory Stillman and Ruslan Fedotenko and an underrated blueline led by Daryl Sydor, Dan Boyle and Pavel Kubina, and the leadership of veteran captain Dave Andreychuk, who's been an inspiration to many of his young teammates, and you've got a club that has the parts to be a serious contender.

Most importantly, however, is that this club is learning what it takes to go all the way. They routed a strong Islanders defence corps with their speed, and then did the hard work in the trenches to create opportunities and overcome a more physical Canadiens team in the second round. That's attributable to the coaching of John Tortorella, who preaches a style based on speed and forechecking, but is capable of making adjustments when facing teams that play different styles.

The only area of concern for the Bolts is they haven't faced a truly physical opponent yet in this year's playoffs, something they're going to face in the next round, whether it's the Maple Leafs or the Flyers.

However, one thing both those clubs had trouble with in the regular season was defending against young, fast clubs like the Lightning, which could bode well for the Bolts chances. The fact their Conference Finals opponent is also going to be pretty beaten up by the time they face the Lightning, who'll have the benefit of at least a week of rest, won't hurt either.

The days of the Tampa Bay Lightning being a league laughingstock are long gone, folks. As always with young teams who take the time to retain and develop their players and hire the right coaching staff to mold them, it's the Bolts who have the last laugh.

SECOND ROUND FALLOUT.

LEAFS CUP DROUGHT CONTINUES.

Make it 38 years and counting for the media-dubbed "Canada's Team".

The Philadelphia Flyers rang down the curtain on the 2004 playoff run of the Toronto Maple Leafs, eliminating them thanks to an overtime goal by Jeremy Roenick in six games.

But this loss could be the most painful for the Maple Leafs, for it was perhaps the last best chance for this current Leafs roster to end the second-longest active Stanley Cup drought.

Which leads to the most obvious question: what does the future hold for the Leafs?

The obvious answer is change, and lots of it.

The Leafs have 11 players eligible for unrestricted free agent status, plus they'll have to consider re-signing restricted free agent notables like Darcy Tucker, Tomas Kaberle, Bryan McCabe, and Nik Antropov.

It'll be easy enough for the Leafs to retain the rights of the aforementioned RFAs, but the status of their impending UFAs is another matter.

Leafs management tried to re-sign Ed Belfour to a contract extension for less money before the playoffs but the "Eagle" declined, setting up speculation he might be off for the UFA market if the Leafs opt not to pick up the option year worth $8 million for next season.

Ron Francis will likely retire, and it's unlikely Drake Berehowsky, Trevor Kidd, Robert Reichel and Mikael Renberg will be back.

The Leafs will have to make hard decisions regarding Gary Roberts, Joe Nieuwendyk, Bryan Marchment and Tom Fitzgerald. The Leafs may try to bring back Roberts and Nieuwendyk, but injuries kept them out of the lineup at times and clearly limited their effectiveness. If next season is lost to a lockout, they may end up retiring. About the only Leaf UFA who seems likely to return is Ken Klee.

And then there's the real possibility forward Alexander Mogilny could retire, regardless of the outcome of the next CBA. Mogilny hasn't been the same since he had hip surgery back in November and he may decide his body can no longer handle the wear and tear.

One shouldn't rule out the possibility of the Leafs looking to bolster their ranks via the UFA market again, particularly if it's stock with unsigned RFA players from other clubs.

However, it's obvious the Leafs roster will look a lot different next season...if there is a next season.

THE END OF AN ERA.

The recent elimination from the playoffs by the Calgary Flames of the Detroit Red Wings signals more strongly than ever that the times are a-changin' in "Hockeytown".

Actually, the seeds were sown last spring, when the Wings were shocked in a first round upset by the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. But that was considered an aberration, one that would be overcome by keeping most of the veteran roster together and adding high-priced help like Derian Hatcher, Ray Whitney, and later in the season, Robert Lang.

That talent carried them to a President's trophy season, despite a rash of injuries to key players, including Hatcher and Lang, and the circus sideshow that was the Dominik Hasek-Curtis Joseph-Manny Legace goaltending triangle.

But it was obvious in the first round series against an overmatched Nashville Predators team that the Wings were struggling. At times they appeared to be in slow-motion against the fast-skating, hard-working Preds, particularly when they blew a 2-0 series lead which saw the plucky Nashville club tie the series.

The Wings depth and experience eventually overcame the Preds in six games, but it also masked the fact some of the Wings once-reliable veterans weren't playing the dominant type of post-season game they were known for.

That became very apparent against the Calgary Flames, who out-skated, out-hit and out-lasted the Red Wings to pull off yet another upset.

Yes, the excuses will come up again - key players like Yzerman and Chelios were sidelined with injuries, others like Brett Hull played in pain - but the fact remains that some of these players were also running out of gas.

That'll likely mean many of these veterans, like Chris Chelios, Hull, Brendan Shanahan and Mathieu Schneider could end up chopped. It's even possibly long-time and beloved captain Steve Yzerman might not be back, although given what he's meant to the team and the city of Detroit, they'll probably bring him back for another season if he wants to.

That doesn't mean the Wings will be heading for the league basement next season if they end up chopping veteran salaries. As more than one Detroit hockey writer noted, the Wings were caught in a period of flux in this year's playoffs, where some of their veterans were too old while some of their younger players were old enough.

Given the core of players still in their prime (Lidstrom, Hatcher, Lang) and those youngsters on the rise (Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Fischer), the Wings will still be a playoff club next season even if they decide to cut loose UFA veterans.

It's also possible they could dip into this year's UFA market if it becomes flooded with younger, affordable RFAs cut loose by other clubs seeking to cut payroll, which could further boost their roster and fill in the gaps.

But landing players with the experience of Hull, Chelios and Shanahan still intheir prime it'll likely take two, three, even four seasons before they'll be considered Cup contenders again.

END OF AN ERA II.

Wrapping up the second round was the San Jose Sharks upsetting the heavily favoured Colorado Avalanche in six games.

Give the proud Avs some credit, they did make it interesting after falling behind 3 games to none to the Sharks by winning the next two games to force a sixth one. In the end, however, the Sharks regained their composure and defeated the Avalanche in convincing fashion.

And like their big-market peers in Detroit and Toronto, the Avs will go into this off-season facing an uncertain future.

The biggest question is, what will Peter Forsberg do? His contract is up after this season and it's been rumoured he'll return to Sweden to play for MoDo, regardless of whether or not there is a lockout next fall.

That would be seemingly a huge blow for the Avs, but Forsberg has been hampered both by nagging injuries and a lack of desire over continuing to waste his skills and sacrifice his body in the meatgrinder of the NHL.

Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne made big news last summer when they agreed to sign for less money with the Avs to, as they claim, have a good chance to win the Stanley Cup.

Instead, injuries on the part of Kariya and declining skills on the part of Selanne made their season in Colorado one they'd like to forget. It could also mean neither guy will be re-signed and will likely become unrestricted free agents in July.

It's doubtful former Edmonton Oilers starter and Avalanche backup Tommy Salo will be back, and it's debateable if Bob Boughner, Darby Hendrickson and Andrei Nikolishin will be back.

Sparkplug Matthew Barnaby might get an offer, but it's also believed he'd like to return to the New York Rangers. That might change, however, if he feels he has a good chance to win a Cup with the Avs. Steve Konowalchuk did a fine job on their checking lines and could also be re-signed.

As for their RFA players, David Aebischer, Alex Tanguay, Milan Hejduk, Karlis Skrastins, and Dan Hinote will all be retained, but the futures of Chris Gratton and Peter Worrell appears to be up in the air.

Veterans who are signed through next season, like Joe Sakic, Rob Blake and Adam Foote, are all getting older. They still have plenty left in the tank, but their shelf-life is starting to get shorter.

GM Pierre Lacroix doesn't have as much depth in his system as he used to, so it's unlikely he'll swing any big trades to bolster his depth. Like the Leafs and Wings, he could cast an eye on the UFA market if there is any good, young, affordable talent to be had.

The Avs will have to go goalie shopping, but for a backup, not a starter. Aebischer played very well in his first full season as the Avalanche starter and couldn't be faulted for his club's early playoff exit. There shouldn't be any more talk of Olaf Kolzig coming to Colorado.

And it's possible they could be in the market for a new coaching staff. Tony Granato was under the gun throughout the season but staved off his critics by coaching his club past the Dallas Stars in the first round.

But with former Adams winners like Jacques Martin, Joel Quenneville, Bob Francis and Mike Keenan all available, the temptation to go with a more experience bench boss could be too much for management to resist.

MUSICAL COACHES.

Yes folks, it's time to play everyone's favourite game, "Who will be hired to coach the Senators, Panthers and Coyotes"!

First up, the Ottawa Senators, whom as we all know fired long-time head coach Jacques Martin after yet another spring of post-season disappointment.

The Sens have a rather lengthy list of potential replacements, which according to the Ottawa Sun includes former Blues coach Joel Quenneville, former Devils coach Larry Robinson, Leafs assistant Keith Acton, Lightning assistant Craig Ramsey...and Mike Keenan.

Yes, turns out "Iron Mike" has told the Sens he'd be very interested in coaching the club next season, and hopes to hear back from them soon.

Some Sens fans are probably hoping for Keenan to be hired, feeling he'll give the roster that much-needed collective kick in the pants they've been lacking in post-season play.

Sorry, but I don't believe Keenan is the answer.

Consider the fact that his record since winning the Stanley Cup with the New York Rangers in 1994 has been rather spotty. He was unable to lift the St. Louis Blues beyond the second round, and wasn't able to turn the Vancouver Canucks, Boston Bruins or Florida Panthers into playoff clubs.

Granted, the latter two were at the time younger, developing teams, and Keenan was rather unfairly considered the scapegoat by Bruins management at the time of his dismissal.

And yes, it's well known that Keenan has been able to elevate the games of promising youngsters like Joe Thornton and Olli Jokinen.

However, for every player who claims they owe Keenan for improving their careers, you'll find just as many, if not more, who feel he hindered theirs. Most recent case in point is Florida centre Stephen Weiss, who was perpetually in Keenan's doghouse, but shone after "Iron Mike" was shown the door.

Keenan is very much an old-school, demanding coach, and once upon a time, his act worked well in Philadelphia, Chicago and New York. However, he wore out his welcome in the first two cities, and didn't do well by his reputation when he bolted the Blueshirts soon after their Cup win for the St. Louis Blues.

But as his record over the last ten years have shown, Keenan's act doesn't play well in today's NHL. He's far too demanding, and would likely ruffle more feather amongst the Senators than he would in improving them.

The Sens are a team that would likely benefit more from Robinson or Quenneville than from the perpetual iron fist of Mike Keenan. The Senators aren't undisciplined, they just need motivation from a coach they'll respect, not from one whose guts they'll collectively hate.

- As for Martin, the Florida Panthers management admitted meeting with him to discuss the possibility of his taking over as head coach next season.

GM Rick Dudley, who knows Martin well from when he was the Sens GM in the late-90s, also said that he still consider interim head coach John Torchetti the front-runner to take over the job.

No offence to Torchetti, who did a good job replacing the deposed Keenan this season, but here's a chance for the Panthers to take the next step toward becoming a legitimate playoff club.

Martin took a Senators team that was a league doormat, filled with promising if relatively unknown talent, and turned it into a perennial playoff club.

While the Panthers aren't in the same dire straits as those Sens were way back when, they are a team filled with promising youth that needs direction, a strong system, and somebody who can help them develop.

I can think of no one better who's available right now than Martin.

If the Panthers don't snap him up, I think they'll eventually come to regret it.

And if I were a fan of the Columbus Blue Jackets or Phoenix Coyotes, two other young teams that need a coach like Martin, I'd be wondering why the hell my team hasn't hired him already!

MAY 3rd UPDATE: VANCOUVER CANUCKS ANNOUNCED THEY WOULD NOT RE-SIGN GENERAL MANAGER BRIAN BURKE TO A NEW CONTRACT!

That's right, folks, the man responsible to turning the Canucks from a late-90s laughingstock into a future Cup contender has been given the boot!

Canucks owner John McCaw acknowledged all that Burke achieved - dumping overpaid veterans and streamlining the club's payroll, hiring Marc Crawford, trading for the Sedin Twins, Brendan Morrison, Ed Jovanovski, Sami Salo, Marek Malik and bringing back fan favourite Trevor Linden, re-signing top players like Jovanovski, Marcus Naslund and Todd Bertuzzi for less than market value, and overall turning the club into a playoff team with a bright future, which in turn brought back the hockey fans to GM Place - but McCaw never said why he was letting Burke go.

Was he asking for too much money? Was it the club's inability over the past three seasons to advance into true Stanley Cup contention? Or was it, as some suspect, Burke's personality grated McCaw's nerves?

Burke denied he was seeking a contract worth over $2 million per season. Given the fine job he's done with the Canucks since 1998, he' d probably be worth that much, but if Burke wasn't seeking that much, and McCaw probably could've afforded to pay him if he really wanted to retain him, then he couldn't have been cut for financial reasons. If he was, then McCaw 's not as shrewd a businessman as he's made out to be, for he's forgetting the reason there are more fans in the stands and more money in McCaw's bank account is because of Burke.

If Burke was let go because of this season's disappointing playoff finish, that's simply unfair. The Canucks battled hard against a very determined Calgary Flames team, one that is presently on the verge of eliminating the Detroit Red Wings in second-round action.

The Canucks did this with their best goalie sidelined by injury(although more cynical Canucks fans probably think it's a good thing Dan Cloutier was injured, given his woeful playoff record), team captain Naslund hampered by injury and linemate Bertuzzi suspended indefinitely following his thuggish attack on Colorado's Steve Moore in early March. I

It certainly wasn't Burke's fault these things happened to those key players, so why is he being forced to walk the plank because of it? With a full and healthier roster next season, one predominantly built by Burke, the Canucks will likely make a strong run toward the Cup.

Burke has accomplished much more than contemporaries like Glen Sather of the New York Rangers or Mike Milbury of the New York Islanders, yet those two keep their jobs while Burke loses his?

If it comes down to personality clashes, then it's a lack of professionalism on the part of Canucks ownership.

Yes, Burke was outspoken, but is that any reason to fire the guy? In most cases, he was sticking up for his players and his team. Mike Milbury and Philadelphia's Bob Clarke have been as bad if not worse, but nobody's kicking their butts to the curb.

Here's a guy who took over a money-losing franchise, one that was stocked with overpaid underachievers, which was losing it's fanbase, and turned it in a matter of five short years into a money-maker, one that was built not with big bucks but with shrewed trades and draft picks, which turned the club into a perennial playoff team and in turn brought back the fans.

If I were a team owner, I might not like my general manager on a personal level, but if the guy could accomplish what Burke did, I'd be able to sustain a professional relationship with him.

Sorry, folks, but this move makes absolutely no sense to me. The Canucks, and particularly Mr. McCaw, owe a lot to Brian Burke. To dump him in this fashion is not only a slap in the face, but is one of the stupidest moves a team can make. And if his successor should fail to duplicate Burke's accomplishments, it'll be even stupider.

But don't feel bad for Burke. The good job he did in Vancouver will surely land him another management job somewhere else in this league.

Given the Canucks history, I can see them rueing the day they let Brian Burke get away.

ERAS ENDING FOR ONCE-DOMINANT CLUBS.

If this year's Stanley Cup playoffs have proven anything, it's that we're seeing the end of an era in the NHL.

Since the 1994-95 lockout-shortened season, the NHL has been dominated by the Detroit Red Wings (Stanley Cup champs in 1997, 98 and 2002), New Jersey Devils (champions in 1995, 2000 and 2003), Colorado Avalanche (Cup winners in 1996 and 2001) and the Dallas Stars (1999 Cup champs).

But as we've seen this spring, their domination of the league is coming to an end.

For all but the Devils, the first cracks in their respective foundations were apparent in last year's playoffs, when the Red Wings and Avalanche were eliminated in the first round and the Stars eliminated in the second.

The Devils went on to win the Stanley Cup in 2003, but management weakened the roster by failing to adequately fill the gaps led by the departures of Joe Nieuwendyk, Oleg Tverdovsky, Pascal Rheaume and Jim McKenzie to free agency and Ken Daneyko to retirement. All but Nieuwendyk were roleplayers but they were key to the Devils Cup victory.

The loss of team captain Scott Stevens to post-concussion symptoms also harmed the Devils hopes for a Cup repeat as his leadership was missing in the playoffs.

Worse, general manager Lou Lamoriello was unable to swing the kind of roster-bolstering deadline deals as he'd done in the past. There is now real concern that the Devils may be lacking depth of quality talent in their system, long a strength for the club whether as trade bait or for bringing up replacements.

As for the Red Wings, Avalanche and Stars, the consecutive years of early playoff exits have clearly rattled their respective front offices, as well as their local media and fans.

Boasting rosters filled with expensive veteran talent, it was believed that last spring's early demises were merely an aberration, one of those upset years that ocassionally occur when teams loaded with talent take lesser opponents for granted.

The Wings certainly appeared on the right track this season to avenging last year's embarrassing upset, winning the President's Trophy as the top regular season club. It was all the more noteworthy when one considers the injuries to several key players throughout the season and the distraction of the goaltending controversy involving Dominik Hasek and Curtis Joseph.

They had loaded up with top flight talent throughout the year, bringing in Derian Hatcher, Ray Whitney, and Robert Lang. Going into this year's playoffs, they were on many experts lists for Cup contention.

Alas, many of the veterans who had led them to glory in the past were struggling with injury, age or both. They had their hands full against a plucky young Nashville Predators team in the first round before succumbing to a young, hard-working and hard-hitting Calgary Flames club in the second round.

Put simply, the usual "go-to" guys for the Wings, like Brendan Shanahan, Steve Yzerman, Chris Chelios, Brett Hull and Darren McCarty, couldn't get the job done for the second straight year.

Meanwhile, in Denver, the local media was shocked by the sight of the once-mighty Avalanche "seemingly growing old before our eyes."

They shouldn't have been quite so surprised, for it was apparent throughout the regular season that the Avs were no longer the once dominant club they had been in the past.

Usually one of the fastest and most lethal offensive clubs in the league, the Avs came up short against a young, speedy, defensive-minded San Jose Sharks team. The Sharks took a three games to none lead and eventually dispatched the Avs in six games.

The Avs showed heart in battling back to twice stave off elimination but in the end seemed to lack the wheels they once had to put them over the top.

It's not surprising. Peter Forsberg, while still in his prime, has been nevertheless worn down by the NHL's demanding physical game. Joe Sakic will turn 35 this summer and while he came through in two overtime games against the Sharks is reaching the point where in the near future he'll no longer be as reliable in those situations.

Teemu Selanne at 34 is a spent force. Rob Blake also turned 34 and struggled with injuries this season, while Adam Foote at 33 appears to be showing the wear and tear of years in the NHL trenches.

That doesn't mean these players, long the cornerstone of the Avs success over the years (Selanne the exception), should consider retirement, but it's obvious that these players cannot carry the load like they used to.

In Dallas, it took a strong rally in the second half of the season to get the Stars into the playoffs after they stumbled in the first half.

The club had taken a blow in the leadership department when they lost former captain Derian Hatcher to free agency, and there were several players (Pierre Turgeon, Scott Young) drawing big salaries they could no longer justify. Still, there was plenty of experienced depth on the roster, and they had one of the league's best young goalies in Marty Turco, who was a Vezina nominee in 2003 and had set a NHL regular season record for the lowest goals-against average.

But facing the Colorado Avalanche in the first round of the 2004 playoffs, the Stars stumbled badly, falling in five games. Their once-vaunted defensive game was in shambles, and Turco for the second straight post-season looking ordinary.

Team captain Mike Modano, distracted by financial problems, was a shell of his once-dominant self. Leading scorer Bill Guerin came up small in the postseason. Turgeon and Young, in their mid-thirties, continued to fade. Smooth-skating blueliner Sergei Zubov appeared uncertain and Richard Matvichuk appeared more concerned about his future as a UFA.

Some fans of these teams will point out that this isn't the first time in recent years we've seen these clubs stumble only to bolster their rosters and make another strong charge for the Cup.

True enough, but there's a difference now compared to, say, the Red Wings four year gap between their 1998 and 2002 Cup wins, or the two year gap between the Devils 2001 Cup Finals appearance and their 2003 Cup victory.

Age is taking it's toll on many of the core players of the Wings, Avs and Stars, while lack of depth hamstrung the Devils.

But does this mean these four clubs will be plummeting to the league basement next year?

No.

The Devils still possess one of the best goalies in the league in Martin Brodeur, three quality blueliners in Scott Niedermayer, Brian Rafalski and Colin White, and talented forwards in Patrik Elias, Scott Gomez, Jamie Langenbrunner, John Madden and Brian Gionta.

What they're lacking is talented size at center and additional scoring depth. Rookie Zach Parise could help with the scoring next season and in forwards Ivan Khomutov and Petr Vrana the Devils still have some prospects for the future. Their defence will also benefit when young blueliners Paul Martin and David Hale get more NHL experience under their belts.

The Avs will still be a team to respect. Forsberg (if he decides to return) and Sakic are still very talented, plus they've got two excellent younger forwards in Milan Hejduk and Alex Tanguay. They might even get the benefit of a healthier Paul Kariya next year if management decides to keep him around.

Blake and Foote may be feeling the wear and tear but they're still two defencemen every team would like to have. Kurt Sauer might round out into a "Foote clone" and one shouldn't underestimate the ability of wily GM Pierre Lacroix to shore up his club's roster weaknesses. Finally, young netminder David Aebischer proved he could handle the duties of their starting goalie very well.

The Stars still have enough talent on their roster to bounce back from this forgettable season. Modano, Guerin and Jere Lehtinen will still have their place in the roster, and management will give younger forwards like Brenden Morrow and Steve Ott more playing time and responsibity.

Turco's playoff performances should improve with time, and he'll provide them top-notch regular season goaltending. It's their defence corps that needs to be improved to give Turco more help , and that could take time if they go to their farm system. Don't rule out the possibility of them dabbling in the free agent market if there is younger, affordable talent available this summer.

As for the Wings, they're probably in the best shape of the four in terms of veterans still in their prime and young talent on the way up. Thirty-somethings like Hatcher, Robert Lang, Nicklas Lidstrom, Tomas Holmstrom and Kris Draper are still in their prime, which can help ease the transition for young players like Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and Jiri Fischer as they get more playing time and responsibilities. That should also ease the transition of promising youth like Jiri Hudler, Niklas Kronwall and Tomas Kopecky and hopefully Igor Grigorenko if he fully recovers from last year's near-fatal car crash.

These clubs will still be shoo-ins to make the playoffs, but they are obviously in a state of transition. That means they're no longer the dominant teams they once were and can no longer be considered "sure things" when it comes to predicting Stanley Cup contenders next season.

Not too long ago, these clubs could swagger into the arenas of lesser teams and usually beat them handily. If the lesser club did pull off an upset win, it was generally perceived as luck or an off-night.

But the Wings, Devils, Avs and Stars are beatable now, the aura of invincibility and supremacy now fading. They're must still be respected, but they no longer strike fear into the hearts of their lesser opponents.

How long they remain out of the realm of superiority and how far they may fall will ultimately depend on their owners and general managers. Decisions they make now will have serious impact on whether their respective clubs return to domination in a few years or if they fall into the realm of the also-rans, teams that can make the playoffs but have no realistic chance of winning the Stanley Cup.

 MID-MAY MUSINGS.

- I have no problem with the overall look of Team Canada 2004, but I'm still scraching my head over Simon Gagne getting selected over his teammate, Philadelphia Flyers captain Keith Primeau.

Yes, Gagne had better regular season stats than Primeau, who was banged up throughout the year, but the big guy has been a force for the Flyers when it counts most: the playoffs.

As for Rick Nash being left off the team, he'll get his chance down the road, but I think the decision may have been different if he'd been able to put in a strong showing in the recent World Championships. Nash was sidelined by a severe throat infection that required minor surgery.

- With the impending announcement that Ken Dryden will be leaving the Toronto Maple Leafs for Canadian federal politics, some of the more narrow-minded in the Canadian hockey press are thrilled that they won't have to put up with Dryden's long-winded speeches.

It's their loss, for if they could get past their short attention spans, they might actually learn something from Dryden.

True, not everything that happened during Dryden's tenure in the Leafs front office was golden. The Leafs still haven't broken their Cup drought, the second-longest in the NHL. He could've handled the replacement of Mike Murphy as general manager better.

But Dryden was also responsible for returning the Leafs to the Eastern Conference, improved their civic status in Toronto and for the rise of the fan phenomenon known as "Leafs Nation".

Maple Leafs fans owe a debt of gratitude to Dryden for making them passionate about their hockey team again.

- The NHL won't consider because it's too much of a cash cow, but wouldn't it also make sense to shorten the playoffs by a round?

- Still more word from the NHLPA camp that we should all expect a lengthy lockout because the NHL won't budge from it's insistence on a hard salary cap.

That may well be, but as noted in the fine book "Money Players" by Bruce Dowbiggin, NHLPA chief Bob Goodenow prefers to negotiate "at the eleventh hour", so don't be surprised when talks heat up in the month leading up to the September 15th expiry date of the current CBA.

- Speaking of a potential lockout, wouldn't it make sense for both sides to gauge fan reaction to that possibility?

After all, we're the ones who fork out the money that earned the NHL over $2 billion US last season.

A long lockout won't turn off the majority of fans, but it will cost the league some of their fanbase, who'll be disgusted with the entire situation and look elsewhere for their hockey fix.

- Now that Detroit Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman plans on wearing a visor in the wake of that scary eye injury he suffered in the Detroit-Calgary Flames series, will HNIC's Don Cherry now consider him a wimp?

- Seems some of my readers are upset over the quality of the officiating in this year's playoffs.

Can't say I blame them, but heck, I've been railing about the same thing for years. Despite all the supposed crackdowns on obstruction, by playoff time it's back to hookin' and holdin' as legitimate forms of defensive hockey.

And as John Saquella noted in his recent article, it follows the same pattern. Call everything in the first and then cut back on the calls until by overtime you have to practically decapitate somebody.

The rationale for this, in my opinion, is the on-ice officials wish to let the players decide the course of the game, especially in the third period and overtime of close games.

Which of course makes a farce out of NHL officiating.

It's been this way for years now, folks, and unfortunately it isn't going to get any better.

- One of my readers suggested the officials may be biased toward the Canadians teams with their calls, but that were so, we'd be seeing a Leafs-Habs Eastern Conference final.

- Finally, kudos to Hockey Night in Canada for their opening game sequences where they show the teams preparing in the entranceway to come out onto the ice before each game. It's like warriors preparing for battle...

FINALS NEWS AND NOTES.

- Admit it, hockey fans, you never expected to see the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Calgary Flames in the Stanley Cup Finals.

For those who may have tuned out of this series after your team got eliminated, shame on you, because you're missing some entertaining hockey.

Thus far the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals has had plenty of everything for hockey fans: stellar goaltending, hard-hitting defence and fast-paced offence.

It's shaping up to be the most entertaining Cup Finals in some time.

- This series will also be remembered as the one where the Lightning's Vincent Lecavalier became a complete player, one who is finally tapping into his full potential.

While Lecavalier is known for his dazzling offensive skills, he's always had a reputation for shying away from the rougher aspects of the defensive game.

In the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals, Lecavalier continues to dazzle with his offence, but he's now playing a much better defensive game. He also hasn't been shy about throwing his body around, or as Calgary's Jarome Iginla found out, about dropping the gloves.

When your coach is seen behind the bench applauding your efforts, you know you're playing to your full potental.

- Take a good look at Flames defencemen Jordon Leopold and Robyn Regehr, because you're watching two young blueliners blossoming into big stars.

Leopold, a former Hobey Baker winner, has come into his own in this year's playoffs, while Regehr's play this season not only contributed to the Flames amazing playoff run, but also earned him a spot on Team Canada in the upcoming World Cup of Hockey.

These two will anchor the Flames blueline for years to come.

- Remember the flak Tampa Bay Lightning GM Jay Feaster got for trading away his first round pick, fourth overall, in the 2002 draft to Philadelphia for gritty winger Ruslan Fedotenko?

The Flyers used that pick to select Joni Pitkanen, who is one of the most promising young defencemen in the game. Fedotenko provided the Bolts with depth on the checking lines but it was almost universally agreed that Feaster had goofed.

Fast forward to the 2004 playoffs, where Fedotenko has been a clutch forward for the Bolts during their playoff run.

Over the long run this trade will probably still work in the Flyers favour, but Fedotenko has been one of the key reasons the Lightning not only made it to the Stanley Cup Finals but also helped the Bolts to bury the Flyers on their way there.

- The Flames first line of Jarome Iginla, Craig Conroy and Martin Gelinas garner the most attention of the Flames forwards, but the supporting cast has been making their presence felt, both in this series and in the previous three.

Chris Clark, Ville Nimminen, Marcus Nilson and Chris Simon are playing an up-tempo defensive game, which in turn has created offensive chances that have led to timely goals.

Three of them - Nimminen, Nilson and Simon - were all late-season additions by GM Daryl Sutter, and they're panning out big time.

- Hockey fans in Tampa Bay have been exuberant in their support of the Lightning, but that city doesn't match Calgary for wild fan support.

I recently spent a week in Calgary, arriving there on the day the Flames eliminated the San Jose Sharks to advance to the Finals. It was sheer bedlam in that town, and support of the Flames has been nothing short of amazing.

Flames flags are everywhere, especially on automobiles. They've garnered pages of coverage in the local papers, and hundreds of hours of radio and television coverage. They're the topic of conversation throughout the city. Signs of "Go Flames Go!" are everywhere. When the Flames eliminated the Sharks, 35,000 fans turned out on 17th Ave (now known as the "Red Mile" for the sea of Flames shirts) to celebrate the occasion.

Support for the Flames is widespread and all-consuming in the Stampede City.