Hockey talk for the locked-out soul

Updated: October 23, 2004, 2:24 PM ET
By Damien Cox | Special to ESPN.com

Surely, every NHL story these days doesn't have to be about the lockout.

Actually, there's lots going on. All we need is a season.

Here are the top 10 non-lockout stories at the moment:

CURSE OF PIEFACE: Did you know that since Johnny (Pieface) McKenzie bolted the Boston Bruins for the World Hockey Association's Philadelphia Blazers in 1972, Boston has never defeated the New York Rangers in a Stanley Cup playoff series?

'Course, they've only played once since.

The fact that the Bruins and Rangers haven't met even once in the postseason since the Blueshirts rinsed the B's in five quick ones in the '73 playoffs is symptomatic of the big-market malaise that has made it so difficult for the NHL to make an impact in key U.S. cities over the past decade.

As the Red Sox and Yankees have demonstrated once more, clashes between big burgs makes for all kinds of good ink. The NHL, however, has seen its franchises in L.A., Chicago, New York and Boston droop drastically, with none having been to the Cup final since the Rangers won it all in 1994 and all having missed the playoffs entirely on several occasions.

Getting Manhattan back in the playoff mix for the first time since 1998 would be a start.

CAPS PLOTTING MOVE TO HOCKEY EAST: OK, Boston College looks a little tough right now ...

Just kidding, of course. But the Washington Capitals gutted their roster prior to the trade deadline in unprecedented fashion. Even Bowie Kuhn winced as Ted Leonsis' franchise dumped expensive contract after contract, including Jaromir Jagr, Petr Bondra and Sergei Gonchar.

What's left, as of today, would have trouble competing in the French league. Of experienced NHLers left, there is only Jeff Halpern, Olaf Kolzig, Brendan Witt, Danius Zubrus and Jason Doig. In the entire Caps system there are only 11 players born before 1980.

How this team went from flamboyantly courting Jagr three years ago to cutting to the bone is one of the great, unhappy turnaround stories in the history of the industry.

Mike Commodore
Commodore
THE NHL'S MAN OF MANY DISGUISES: Honest to Rudy, you'd never, ever recognize Mike Commodore these days.

You remember Commodore, don't you? The lean Calgary defenseman who became one of the darlings of the Stanley Cup final because of his sunny, approachable demeanor and unusual, striking reputation.

OK, the wild red sponge hairdo and matching mountain man beard made the young blueliner from Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, look like a mix between Johnny Damon and Ronald McDonald. It was all quite cool, actually.

Well, the hair is gone, and so is the beard. After becoming instantly recognizable throughout the U.S. and Canada during the playoffs, you'd never spot Commodore these days unless he was wearing a name tag as he battles for work on the talented Calgary defense corps.

Mark Recchi
Recchi
SURVIVORUS REX: The hockey world remains slightly puzzled why Mark Recchi voluntarily returned as a free agent to the Pittsburgh Penguins last summer after a solid 75-point season that put him 14th on the NHL's scoring charts.

He left the Pens partway through the 1991-92 season in a deal with Philadelphia that sent Rick Tocchet, Kjell Samuelsson and Ken Wregget to Pittsburgh and helped Mario Lemieux and Co. win a second straight Stanley Cup. Twelve years later, with the Pens barely out of bankruptcy and coming off 29th- and 30th-place finishes the last two years, Recchi went back. And for a relatively modest $3 million.

Give that man a star for courage. He'll recognize Mario, but not much else with the NHL's most desperate franchise.

GUNNING FOR 50: Such is the dreadful state of hockey in the Windy City that it's time to start calculating whether the Blackhawks can break the Rangers' record of going the longest of any club without winning a Stanley Cup.

If the Hawks can't get it done this season, it'll be 44 years since Rudy Pilous guided them to victory in the 1961 Cup final over Detroit. Since then, they're 0-4 in appearances in the final, and the Rangers' mark of 54 years without a Cup is clearly in sight given the rather mediocre state of the Chicago talent pool at the moment.

It's not 1918, but closing in on a half-century is hardly flattering for Bill Wirtz.

If you're scoring at home, the NHL team suffering through the next longest Cup drought would be the Maple Leafs, currently at 37 years ... and counting.

Martin St. Louis
St. Louis
Brad Richards
Richards
Vincent Lecavalier
Lecavalier
THE TERRIFIC TRIO ... FOR NOW: No team in the NHL boasts of a better threesome of young forwards than the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning. In World Cup MVP Vincent Lecavalier (24), Conn Smythe winner Brad Richards (24) and Hart Trophy winner Martin St. Louis (29), Tampa has a team for now and the future.

You could argue that Colorado's group of Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg and Milan Hedjuk are better, but the Bolts trio is younger with lots of upside.

Keeping them all at a reasonable price, however, will be a chore for the financially challenged Bolts. Getting all three under contract for less than $20 million won't be easy. Keeping them all happy might be tricky as well, particularly if one of them gets the Kobe I'm-Tired-Of-Being-Second-Fiddle Syndrome and looks to get out.

Still, they had 239 points between them in the regular season. If the NHL really is intent on opening up the game, how many might they get then?

Todd Bertuzzi
Bertuzzi
Dany Heatley
Heatley
GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, GET YOUR ENGINE STARTED: The NHL escaped the Mike Danton trial without much embarrassment, but such might not be the case when Dany Heatley and Todd Bertuzzi go to trial in the coming months.

Heatley is one of the league's brightest and marketable young talents, but his world changed forever when the sports car he was driving crashed in an Atlanta suburb, causing the death of Thrashers teammate Dan Snyder. For months, it appeared Heatley might escape without being charged, but ultimately Atlanta area authorities decided to put him on trial for his role in the accident.

Bertuzzi, meanwhile, will go on trial in mid-January for assault after he fractured the neck of Colorado's Steve Moore in a vicious on-ice attack last season. There is much pretrial speculation over whether key NHL officials will be called to the witness stand to discuss violence in the NHL, or whether Bertuzzi's coach, Marc Crawford, will be asked about what he did to prevent the ugly incident.

In the worst-case scenario for Gary Bettman, hockey goes on trial along with Bertuzzi.

Paul Kariya
Kariya
PAUL KARIYA IN 'A LEFT WINGER AND A GENTLEMAN': If you recall Richard Gere howling "I got no place else to go" in the film "An Officer and a Gentleman," perhaps you'll see Paul Kariya's predicament these days.

Once seen as among the top two or three players in the game, Kariya has seen his value plummet in recent years. Last year he skated for the Avalanche for the nominal sum of $1 million, and by the end of an 11-goal, injury-scarred season, that seemed about right.

At 30, Kariya will never again ascend the salary heights that once saw him earn $10 million per season with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. Right now, he'd settle for a job. Somebody will surely sign him when the NHL resumes competition, but given that Kariya wasn't even asked to play for Canada at the 2004 World Cup, his choices may be far more limited than once would have been the case.

ONLY TWO WALL FLOWERS LEFT: With the playoff berth earned by the Nashville Predators last spring, the Columbus Blue Jackets and Atlanta Thrashers are now the only two NHL franchises yet to compete in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

For both teams, the future is bright. The Thrashers have the aforementioned Heatley, Ilya Kovalchuk and Finnish goalie Kari Lehtonen on the way, while the Jackets have a bona fide shooting star in Rick Nash to go with future stalwarts like Rostislav Klesla and Nikolai Zherdev.

So which one of the two gets there first? The Thrashers were 16 points better than Columbus last season under Bob Hartley's coaching, finishing nine points behind the Islanders for the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff berth.

Bet on the boys from Georgia.

HOW LOW CAN THEY GO?: Only 27 goals were scored by Tampa and Calgary in the 2004 Stanley Cup final, an average of less than four a game, that took a league mired in a swamp of obstruction and interference to a new low of punchlessness.

Baseball lowered the mound. Football freed up receivers and protected quarterbacks. In an era of sports when offense sells, what will the NHL do to open up the game? More tinkering?

Or, after a year in which no player got anywhere close to the magical 50-goal mark, will the Bettman administration simply let the Dead Puck Era continue?

It got so bad last spring that a hockey fan had to tune into the European soccer championships to see a few goals.

There were encouraging signs last winter when the league's GMs OK'd a variety of innovative notions designed to address the balance between offense and defense. Nothing has been implemented, however, and even the inability of the NHL to achieve growth in the U.S. television market hasn't stopped many traditionalists from arguing the game needs no alterations at all.

This may yet get worse before it gets better.

Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is a regular hockey contributor to ESPN.com. In this role, he writes numerous columns on the NHL.

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