Buccigross: How the West plays out

Updated: September 29, 2005, 4:22 PM ET
By John Buccigross | Special to ESPN.com

Well, here goes nothing.

The annual Bucci NHL-musical-new zoo review column. This is my favorite column of the year. Although this year, it's probably the stupidest column to write. Let's face it, it is an entirely different sport now: the rules have radically changed, players have retired, rosters have dramatically changed and goaltenders have had their equipment reduced.

Hockey Night

The game will be faster then it has ever been. Let me say that again: the game will be faster than it has ever been. The best players will be the young players, which is how it should be. There hasn't been this much of a makeover on something since Sally Jessy Raphael's dreadful facelift. It makes it nearly impossible to predict and forecast each team, but we'll try our best and do it anyway.

Remember, I love all 30 teams equally. There are no haters in this house. How the West will be won will be covered this week. Next week, we'll rank the East. As usual, we count down from 15-1:

15. St. Louis Blues

"I'm half the man I used to me
This I feel as the dawn
It fades to gray."
-- "Creep" by Stone Temple Pilots

The parity in the West is substantial, but the Blues are clearly in the lower tier. The Blues were a 91-point team two seasons ago, despite giving up more goals than they scored (191-198). Now, Chris Pronger and Pavel Demitra are both gone. That's a lot of D and a lot of O. The Blues will have a hard time scoring and are still waiting for league approval to allow a Jet Ski to tow Keith Tkachuk around the ice. If I were the Blues, I would tell Tkachuk to keep eating and make him a goalie like that gigantic goalie in the Amstel Light commercial. The Blues' streak of making the playoffs for 25 consecutive years will end this year.

14. Columbus Blue Jackets

"Here it comes again
That feeling again
I can't sleep
Sit and watch the rain
Again watch the rain
Again."
-- "Feel" by Stereophonics

Who are the Blue Jackets? Adam Foote was brought on to give this team some identity. Columbus won eight road games two years ago. Also, the CBJ were a dreadful defensive team and scored fewer goals than the Washington Capitals. Now, Rick Nash has a high ankle sprain. Those things can linger. Hopefully it won't, because this man will be even better in the new NHL. He plays fast and goes to the net without fear, and that is how you score goals in the NHL in 2005. How will the Blue Jackets make a run for the playoffs? Foote is healthy and productive as the new NHL rules demand mobility and a quick first step from defensemen. Will Rostislav Klesla emerge as a star? Will Bryan Berard have a career year? Will the Jackets get outstanding goaltending? This is all possible, but the odds are not in the Jackets' favor. When your greatest concerns are goal scoring and goaltending, the playoffs are remote.

13. Minnesota Wild

"Stand in the place where you live, now face north
Think about direction, wonder why you haven't."
-- "Stand" by REM

REM lead singer Michael Stipe once called "Stand" a stupid pop song, but I usually like stupid pop songs, and the imagery in "Stand" probably applies to Wild fans. Wild fans were hoping the front office would take some of the HUGE windfalls of cash that have been pouring into St. Paul and make a run at some free agents. That's understandable, but I believe the Wild are doing the right thing by building depth. They are not ready to win now, anyway. When they are ready, they will max out. By building depth, they also will be in position to trade some of that talent to a young team strapped by cap issues. Brian Rolston should have a good season, and if Marian Gaborik is healthy, he will score 30-40 goals. But overall, you wonder whether they can score enough goals and whether goaltending will suddenly become a major issue.

12. Chicago Blackhawks

"Someone get me to the doctor, someone get me to a church
Where they can pump this venom gaping hole
And you must keep your soul like a secret in your throat
And if they come and get me
You put the spike in my heart."
-- "Vampires Will Never Hurt You" by My Chemical Romance

It is very important for the NHL to have a good team in Chicago. There are many Blackhawks fans around the country, and countless numbers of dormant fans in Chicago and its suburbs. They have the coolest uniforms, play in a bangin' city and have a rich history. They had to upgrade the goalie position and they delivered, overpaying for Nikolai Khabibulin. He will play 70-plus games this year, health willing. I think Martin Lapointe was a bad signing. They had enough of a veteran presence, and I don't see Lapointe being a factor.

Tuomo Ruutu needs to step up and score 30 goals. Hawks fans are talking big about Rene Bourque and they need someone to unexpectedly step up, because there is not a lot of proven offense here. The Blackhawks will be a much better defensive team with the addition of an All-Star goalie, and Adrian Aucoin and Jason Cullimore. Things are getting better in Chicago. But while GM Dale Tallon did a good job improving the team, I still think they are a little thin.

11. Edmonton Oilers

"We hate it when our friends become successful
And if they're Northern, that makes it even worse
And if we can destroy them
You bet your life we will."
-- "We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful" by Morrissey

The success of the Calgary Flames certainly got GM Kevin Lowe worked up. He wasted no time acquiring Michael Peca and Chris Pronger. The pair eat up more than $10 million of the Oilers' cap space. Personally, I don't think they fit in the Edmonton locker room, and they need the Oilers more than the Oilers need them. If they assimilate, then they will be fine. Peca has lost a bit of his edge. In his last 20 playoff games, he has one goal and one assist.

Pronger has been a crosscheck connoisseur over his career, and it will be interesting to watch him operate in the new NHL. He moves well enough and has such a long reach that he should still be an imposing force. The big question for the Oilers is their goaltending. If it is very good, they should score enough goals to make the playoffs. They also have cap room to add talent at the deadline. Like every team, it's about injuries and young players improving and not taking a step backward.

10. Los Angeles Kings

"There is a fine line, between recklessness and courage
It's about time, you understood which road to take
It's a fine line, your decision makes a difference
Get it wrong, you'll be making a big mistake."
-- "Fine Line" by Paul McCartney

Jeremy Roenick is in L.A. That is a dangerous combination, one that could cause Roenick to become more parody than player. It will be fun to watch. He has great hands and plays the game hard. He is worth a SoCal season ticket. I love all 30 teams equally, but there are a couple of teams that I like to see win, and for whatever reason, I'd like to see the Kings make the playoffs. They have dynamic offensive players and will be fun to watch.

But the West is so deep and the race for the playoffs will be so tight, you can look at the Kings' goaltending and say that might be the difference. Maybe Mathieu Garon can step up and have a great year, and Jason Labarbera could continue his growth that led to a record-breaking performance in the AHL. That could happen and the Kings could make the playoffs. But until we see it, and I hope it happens, you have to think the Kings will just miss the playoffs.

9. Colorado Avalanche

"I always knew that one day
They'd try to bring me down
Wooow, one day, they tried to bring me down
Always knew that one day, they'd try to bring me down
Dooown, way down."
-- "Bring Me Down" by Kanye West

Everything says this is an asinine prediction, but … The Avalanche have a smart GM, a great coach and Joe Sakic. They also have defensive depth. Call it a hunch. Sakic turns 37 next July, Rob Blake turns 36 in December, Milan Hejduk is hurt. They are capped out. They don't have a young stud to rely on to carry the team for a stretch, to provide energy. Are they a great skating team, if skating is even more important this season? The positives? Alex Tanguay was an elite scorer two seasons ago (79 points in 69 games). Goalie David Aebischer was solid two seasons ago and has a solid corps of defensemen in front of him. But it's a long season. I think age and a prospect hole will have the Avs going right down to the wire to make the playoffs.

8. Phoenix Coyotes

"When I was younger and thought of myself
I never dreamed I'd become like this."
-- "Ramona" by Guster

The team Wayne Gretzky begins his coaching career with lacks someone like himself: a star. The Coyotes also seem to lack offense. Will Shane Doan break out and score 35-40, or will he be the same 20-something goal guy? I know the Coyotes like to trumpet him as one the game's better young players, but he has yet to back it up. Still, the Coyotes can roll four lines and have a capable blue-line corps in front of Curtis Joseph and Brian Boucher. The Coyotes have depth, cap room and The Great One. They make the playoffs.

7. Dallas Stars

"And so I raise my glass to symmetry
To the second hand and its accuracy
To the actual size of everything."
-- "I Believe In Symmetry" by Bright Eyes

If Conor Oberst were a hockey fan, then he'd appreciate the symmetry of the Stars. In Big D, the song, and its characters, largely remains the same. The Stars have two very good lines, and they hope some young players can emerge to give them depth. I love the Mike Modano-Bill Guerin-Brendan Morrow line. It represents just about every key component and skill in hockey. The defense is certainly a question. If Trevor Daley and Shawn Belle can step up as the season goes on, Dallas could be a force come playoff time. It's no secret I'm a big fan of goalie Marty Turco and have great faith in him.

6. Anaheim Mighty Ducks

"By the harbour I harbor
The strangest memories
Older than I could ever be
Stranded in nostalgia
So tonight I'll try harder
But it's hard to fix this spotlight on me."
-- "El Captain" by Idlewild

Brian Burke sailed into SoCal from Vancouver to revive and stabilize a team that was in the Stanley Cup finals three years ago. It is always Burke's show -- he provides such great copy and great TV. He is smart, aggressive and confident, a formula that landed him Scott Niedermayer. This team has a nice mix of veterans and youth. Burke is no dummy; the Ducks have a nice batch of prospects and play in a place which has proven it can attract players. They should be good for a long time.

I am so curious about what is going through Burke's mind concerning Sergei Fedorov. Does he trust him? Did he offer him to teams like Chicago and Boston, who had cap space? Did he, or is he, offering him to the Rangers? Did he offer him to Atlanta? Or is the public-kissing game authentic? I think the more Burke sees Fedorov play in person, the more he will like him. There is nothing Fedorov can't do. To watch Fedorov and Niedermayer skate every night is about as close to hockey heaven as one can get. Ducks season-ticket holders should realize how lucky they are. This pick is a gamble because there is some unproven youth, but I like the vibe I'm feeling.

5. Detroit Red Wings

"And the secrets that we shared
The mountains that we moved
Caught like a wildfire out of control
Till there was nothing left to burn and nothing left to prove."
-- "Against The Wind" by Bob Seger

Slowly, the big red hockey machine is losing its steam. They still have some pieces, but age, inevitability and a new CBA have temporarily knocked the wind out of Hockeytown. They have three very good defensemen in Nicklas Lidstrom, Jiri Fischer and Mathieu Schneider. Chris Chelios still has a presence. They are pretty strong up the middle. The question is, can the Wings' wings score enough goals? Can Brendan Shanahan score 30? Can Henrik Zetterberg pop in 30? Jiri Hudler is a big key. The better he plays, the easier this transition will be. The pride and eyes of Stevie Y can still burn a hole through a Buick, and though his game has slowed, one more year is good for everyone. There are obvious questions in goal -- the Wings are not immune to the dilemma facing nearly every NHL team. A rash of injuries to a couple of key people and missing the playoffs is not out of the question, especially considering they are capped out.

4. Vancouver Canucks

"Everybody in town now will probably all agree
I'm lying in the bed I made
See when it starts to fall apart
It really falls apart
Like boots or hearts when they starts it really falls apart.
-- "Boots or Hearts" by Tragically Hip

For a time, Todd Bertuzzi will overshadow every move the Canucks make. He will be cheered at home and booed on the road. For a man who historically has thin skin and a short, undisciplined temper -- even before the Moore incident -- it will be interesting to see how he handles all the adversity. Training camps are one thing, NHL games in enemy rinks are another. I suspect he plays well and will be a force. The Canucks are once again a good team with the perfect mix of veterans, prime-time players and budding youth. Dan Cloutier has improved every year and needs to make one more leap before the Canucks can win the conference. Maybe this is the year.

3. Nashville Predators

"But I eat and sleep and breathe and bleed and feel
Sorry to disappoint you
But I'm real."

-- "Real" by William Shatner and Brad Paisley

Yeah, that's right. I'm picking the Nashville Predators to win the Central Division. They were a playoff team two years ago, and had their roster not changed, one would think they would have been better. Then, they add Paul Kariya, who fits in well with what they do. Danny Markov was also a nice addition to a blue line in front of a really good goalie in Tomas Vokoun. Ryan Suter will be a good NHL defenseman for the next 15 years. Nashville also has plenty of cap room and could be the star of the trade deadline. They have young drafted players and have future No. 1 draft picks that could land another good player in 2006. Some teams remain the same, some are slowly falling and some are inching forward. Nashville is inching forward. The new CBA should make them the kind of team that can get better quickly by taking advantage of the new economic rules.

2. San Jose Sharks

"It's so hard to get old without a cause
I don't want to perish like a fading horse
Youth is like diamonds in the sun
And diamonds are forever."

-- "Forever Young" by Alphaville

The Pacific and Northeast Divisions are the two deepest divisions in the NHL. I give the edge to the Pacific because I believe all five teams have a chance to win, depending on injuries and breakout seasons from young players. I have four teams from the Pacific making the postseason. That might be highly unlikely with the weighted schedule, but there is no denying the division's depth.

The Sharks are the best team in hockey … with a $25 million payroll. Coach Ron Wilson can roll out four lines of youngsters for 40 games and then GM Doug Wilson can go get any help he needs with all that cap space. Milan Michalek has really impressed the Sharks' staff and he could provide some much-needed scoring depth. Their defense is a question and they will miss Mike Rathje. But like I said, they have the flexibility to add to their team come trade-deadline time. That's why I pick them for the division. By the way, the trade deadline has been moved from the 26th day to the 40th day immediately preceding the final day of the regular season.

1. Calgary Flames

"I'm sorry, but I'm just thinking of the right words to say.
I know they don't sound the way I planned them to be.
But if you wait around a while, I'll make you fall for me,
I promise, I promise you I will."

-- "The Promise" by When in Rome

They have the best player in hockey. They have the best young blue line in the NHL. They have a coach who is fast becoming, perhaps, the biggest force behind the bench in the NHL, considering the huge GM stick he wields. If only Darryl Sutter would spend some of the millions he has on some killer suits. He needs to complete the presence and aura he has by getting himself a suit deal in Calgary.

There are no perfect NHL teams, and the Flames are not infallible. There will be stretches when Jarome Iginla is human and the Flames will have trouble scoring. But they are so gritty, fast and tough on D that they will be a hard team to play against every night. They also have a little cap room to play with. Vancouver and Calgary will be a great Northwest Division race, and either team could win it. It might come down to which goalie plays better. Considering how much better the Flames defense should be, I'll take them. The NHL will still be a defensive league this season. They will slowly allow a little more contact, the net is the same size and the goalies keep getting better. Of all the teams in the West right now, the Flames are best-equipped to earn the most regular-season points.

The Mailbag

John,

Is it just me, or should there be a disclaimer at the beginning of the new NHL ad: "Warning: May Cause Nausea." While I like the grand "Hollywood" idea, the imagery was not something that makes me say "Wow! I really need to watch the new NHL this season!"

Why can't the NHL get John Woo or the Wachowski Brothers to direct an obscenely choreographed commercial featuring Crosby, Lecavalier and Kovalchuk pulling some absolutely sick moves and using the Matrix cameras?

The NHL needs to realize that it's considered the uncle no one talks about of pro sports. Embrace it. Swim in it. Make people who don't watch hockey think that they've been missing the punch line of a great inside joke. Make them want in.

Get Will Farrell. Lying on his back at center ice. Making snow angels. Laughing. "Don't know hockey? Oh well...your loss." That's it. Every kid under 15 will beg to go see an NHL game. Instead it's "Crouching Tiger" without the cool wire tricks. And it just doesn't work.

Kevin
Gaithersburg, Md.


Dear John,

Please tell them to stop. I have just watched the new NHL ads, and I can say I am humiliated and embarrassed. I love the game of hockey, but the league constantly puts me in situations where I cannot defend it. The Todd Bertuzzi incident was despicable. The decision to reinstate him after such a short suspension is a sad and infuriating statement that amounts to tacit approval of players maiming and injuring one another for life.

And now the new ad compares players to some class of sacred warriors. Not only does it glorify war, violence and patriarchal attitudes toward women, it is insipid. For years, the NHL promoted the Stanley Cup -- rightly -- as the most difficult trophy to win. Now, we learn from the opening quote that NHL players win with ease.

I thought with the war in Iraq and the horrible price paid by American men and women and their families, we had gotten past the insulting metaphor of athletic contests as wars. But now the NHL has the poor taste to try to capitalize on images of war, and even goes so far to "sacralize" them by situating it in a dressing room that looks like some sort of candle-lit temple.

War and death are serious things. Hockey is a great game, but it is a game. And there is nothing holy about killing. I can't threaten not to watch the NHL this year, though, since I cannot afford tickets and wouldn't know where to look for it on the television anyway.

Thaddeus M. Ostrowski

The ads are, in the final analysis, everything the NHL is not. Slick with no substance. The little boy's face at the end of the spot is the best thing about it. I would have had 30 seconds of that. Hockey is speed, collisions, sacrifice, laughter, blood and effort. Not some Spice Girl padding up a greasy, shiny model. But the ads are not for you and me. They're for everybody else. If THEY liked them, they worked. You and I don't need ads. We need games.


Hi John!

I don't know if you've heard, but there is a new trophy in the Swedish Elitserien -- the Håkan Loob Trophy, awarded to the top goal scorer during the regular season. Håkan's record 42 goals (42-34-76) in 36 games has stood for 22 years now, even though the regular season is 50 games nowadays. He is second on the all-time list with 262 goals in 406 games, averaging 23.8 goals per season, so he's not a bad choice for naming the trophy!

Thanks,
Daniel Elmå
Umeå, Sweden

I would name Oscars, Loobs. I would name the Heisman Trophy after Hakan Loob. I would name the capital of Sweden, Loob. I would change the name shoulder to Loob. "Hey, nice Loobs."


John,

So, Keith "The Dude" Tkachuk rolls (literally) into camp at 260 pounds and that's AFTER trying to get into shape for six months! Remember when Thornton, Murray and Knuble formed "The 700-pound Line" in Boston? Well, the Blues can form that line with just two players now, Doug Weight Plus OverWeight.

Going forward, I think any line with Tkachuk should just be called "The Buffet Line!"

Taranjeet Athwal
Seattle


Hey John,

I was reading your weekly column (which I read religiously every week), and came across the Tommy Thompson snippet. Just letting you know that you forgot about Tommy Thompson of the Minnesota Wild. He is the Assistant GM of Player Personnel and Thompson is responsible for overseeing all aspects of the club's scouting department. He also plays a large role in the organization's preparation for, and the selection of players, the NHL Entry Draft. His expertise and evaluating skills have led to the selection of young players such as Marian Gaborik, Nick Schultz, Marc Cavosie, Mikko Koivu, Kyle Wanvig, Stephane Veilleux, Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Benoit Pouliot. Clearly he has the "eye" for top notch talent.

On a completely different and random note. Do you have an iPod? If so, what's getting the most air time on it? And if you do have an iPod, when or where can I find Bucci and Ken the Otter Podcasts?

Aaron
Edina, Minn.

I have a Dell, not an iPod. I'm a Dell guy. Getting the most time right now on my MP3 player is David Gray's new CD and all the U2 CDs as I prepare for the Oct. 3 concert in Boston.


John,
1. Why would the NHL switch the uniform policy so now the road teams have to wear white? I enjoyed seeing the visitor's colorful jerseys when they came to town, now I'm stuck with white against the green on the Minny Wild.

2. What's your favorite U2 song?

I took your advice and purchased The Stereophonics' latest CD and it is very good. Thanks for the advice!

Roy in Minnesota

The NHL switched sweaters to sell more sweaters. Favorite U2 song? That's like trying to name the favorite supermodel I've dated, or the best Mercedes I've owned, or my favorite Kentucky Derby-winning horse I've owned. Very difficult. "Red Hill Mining Town" wins, "Bad" places and "Running to Stand Still" shows.


John,
What are the ramifications of a team being over or under the salary cap? The Devils, for instance, appear to have several million more than $39M on their books. It's my understanding that they'll be able to get away with this temporarily while Elias is stashed away on injured reserve. However, what would happen to the Devils if Elias was ready to play again and they hadn't shed enough salary to get back under the cap? Would he simply be ineligible to play until they did get back under the cap, or would some form of penalization be handed down to the Devils? Also, what do you think New Jersey will do in order to get back below $39M?

Arian Durst
Eugene, Ore.

If they don't have cap room for a player, they have to make some through a trade, waivers, buyout, whatever. It's that simple.


John,

First of all, how SWEET is it that the NHL season is just around the corner? I'm getting teary eyed just thinking about a six pack of Moosehead and the Center Ice package. Anyway, I usually agree with your musical preferences, except maybe for your fondness of U2. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I feel as though you often leave out my choice for greatest band of all time when citing some of your favorite tunes. Albeit they aren't being played in too many locker rooms around the world, but I was wondering what your five favorite Pink Floyd songs are?

All the best,
Matt, New York

1. "Learning to Fly"
2. "On The Turning Away"
3. "Wish You Were Here"
4. "Another Brick In The Wall"
5. "Comfortably Numb"


John,
First things first, tell Ken I said hello. Secondly, I have a concern. I am happy for the NHL getting a solid contract with OLN. It looks great for the game. I also realize that Comcast owns OLN, which is at least not a bad thing. But I would feel much more comfortable about the long-term growth of the game if it were contracted with ESPN. So basically I have a few questions.

The NHL was already slighted on ESPN when they were partners, will it be any worse now that ESPN lost the contract? Will ESPN hold a grudge? Also, any chance ESPN regrets not matching OLN's price? Once the NHL is up for bid again, do you think ESPN would bring it back?

On a musical side note, I just got done listening to this CD "Innocent Minds" from a band called Sara Drive. They reminded me of a mix between Coldplay and Guster, and I loved it. Since you were the one that got me into Guster, I figured I'd return the favor. Enjoy.

Dan
Newark, Del.

Answers to your questions: (1) If anything, ESPN amps up its coverage of a sport when it is not a rights holder. See NASCAR. (2) ESPN signed Barry Melrose as a full-time hockey analyst. ESPNEWS will devote a lot of its Thursday nights to the NHL. Barry will be on-set throughout the night, going over highlights and issues. (3) I don't think ESPN regrets not matching OLN's price. Maybe they regret not picking up the option it held, or asking for a 15-percent discount they might have gotten them hockey for another year. (4) There is always a chance they could get it back, but I think it will be a long time. And thanks for the music tip.


John,
To celebrate the return of the NHL, I've decided to buy a new jersey. I'd like the jersey of one of the league's younger (or future) stars. Which one has the best combination of visual appeal and player talent? I'm leaning towards a home Kovalchuk sweater.

P.S. -- I'm from Detroit, so no Avs jersey.

Thanks,
Jeff

My Top 5 Young Star Sweaters:
I would buy combining the player and the uniform:
Sidney Crosby -- Penguins black
Ilya Kovalchuk -- Thrashers white
Rick Nash -- Blue Jackets white
Jeff Carter -- Flyers white
Tuomo Ruutu -- Blackhawks red


John,

I'm so psyched that hockey is back! I've been biting my nails while reading newspaper articles about the Rangers' training camp, trying to find any drop of insight into how their season might play out. I probably won't get to see any of there games from over here in Iraq, but I suppose I can live vicariously through the reporter types till I'm home in January. I am curious to know how you feel about the comments Steve Rucchin made concerning his new-look Ranger team and how they remind him of the Ducks of '02. Is that just one of those nice things he's obligated to say about his new team? Or could there actually be something to this? Probably not without new coaching!

Thanks for the insight,
JACK M. BROWN, SSGT, USAF
Contracting Officer
332 ECONS, Balad AB, Iraq

Be safe, Jack. I see the Rangers looking like the 1995-96 Ducks. 78 points.


Mr. Buccigross,

I am a student at RIT. For one of my classes, I've decided to give a persuasive speech trying to convince my peers that they should attend at least one NHL game this season.

Keeping in mind that the class is made up of some students who have never seen a hockey game in their lives, and therefore, don't know the first thing about the sport, can you give me the main points that I should discuss in order to accomplish this goal? I really want to spark as much interest and excitement as possible.

Thanks so much! Any help at all is greatly appreciated!

Bryan Jones

The speed and toughness of the players.
The humility and youth they have to offer.
The comforts and care of family nearly every player has experienced throughout his entire life.
A hockey game is comprised of hockey people who arrived at the place they did because, largely, of the sacrifice of others: Parents, coaches, and officials.
Sacrifice is a word one doesn't hear much these days.
But it is the middle name of NHL Hockey.
Sacrifice.
Sacrifice.
Sacrifice.
It's the great value of the game.
And it starts the first time a 4-year-old laces up his first pair of Bauer's.

John Buccigross' e-mail address -- for questions, comments or cross-checks -- is john.buccigross@espn.com.

John Buccigross | email

SportsCenter anchor
John Buccigross joined ESPN as an anchor in October 1996. He currently can be seen as an anchor on "SportsCenter." Buccigross frequently contributes to ESPN.com during the season.

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