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Same Hawks front office, different season

10/25/2003

There's nothing stunning about the Chicago Blackhawks firing general manager Mike Smith on Friday afternoon.

Nothing except the timing.

Smith had been known to be at odds with ownership and head coach Brian Sutter pretty much all last season. It erupted into a full-fledged controversy late last spring after Theo Fleury's strip club incident rocked the team and took it from playoff contender to also-ran in a span of six weeks.

Ownership wasn't particularly happy with the way Smith handled the controversy and clearly threw its collective weight behind Sutter in several pointed public statements regarding the team, its chemistry and how it should be run. Ownership also wasn't very happy about the direction the team had taken on the ice, particularly Smith's emphasis on drafting European players.

That set the stage for Smith's departure.

Smith, who was in Los Angeles with the team for a four-game, five-night West Coast swing that began Thursday with a 3-3 tie at San Jose, was summoned back to Chicago to get the ax.

Then again, looking back at the way the Blackhawks do business, even the timing shouldn't come as a surprise.

The Blackhawks -- during the past two decades at least -- have always done things differently than most clubs. They raised eyebrows when Mike Keenan was hired as coach/general manager and then fired after he led them to the Stanley Cup finals in 1992; when they hired unproven ex-Hawk Dirk Graham; when they hired (then fired, reportedly for health reasons) Alpo Suhonen; and when they hired Sutter.

They raised eyebrows in the way they treated star players like Ed Belfour and Jeremy Roenick (eventually losing both).

They raised eyebrows in pretty much giving away an All-Rookie Team goalie named Dominik Hasek for next to nothing and trading captain Tony Amonte, their only true goal scorer.

It's been that way in Chicago for a long time now. It's part of the reason the Blackhawks don't win, have lost huge chunks of their once hugely loyal fan base and are next to last in the Western Conference with no immediate hope in sight.

Smith was fired even though it was clear that the Blackhawks were in a rebuilding mode that finally seemed to have elements of a plan.

The veterans on this team aren't particularly good, nor are they particularly good at staying healthy. But the thinking expressed by more than a few general managers around the league was that Smith had managed to collect some impressive young talent and that, if given time, players like highly regarded rookie center Tuomo Ruutu would probably bring some star power to the Hawks.

Smith also got high marks for tabbing prospects like forwards Igor Radulov, Pavel Vorobiev and Mikhail Yakubov and defenseman Anton Babchuk.

On the flip side, Smith never seemed to center on what would be the core of his team right now. He also clashed repeatedly (though privately) with Sutter, who seems to favor having a more hard-nosed team rather than the free-skating, free-flowing team that Smith envisioned. Couple that with the current rash of injuries -- top center Alexei Zhamov underwent back surgery and power forward Eric Daze is out with a cranky back -- and the Hawks were quickly off to a poor start without much hope of getting better.

That seemed to be too much for the fans, who started staying away in droves. When that happens, it's usually too much for owner William Wirtz, as well.

Logic dictates that senior vice president and interim general manger Bob Pulford (who has done this many times before) will soon hire his son-in-law Dean Lombardi to replace Smith. Lombardi, fired late last season by the San Jose Sharks, is a competent hockey man, has those family ties and has been biding his time working as a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers.

Then again, logic doesn't always hold sway over what the Blackhawks do. Fans there will pretty much have to wait and see what direction Wirtz wants to go. Rest assured, Pulford, who has been with the Blackhawks in various capacities since the mid-1960s, will have a hand in pointing out the path.

The Hawks have long been lurching from one forced-upon situation to another. This move -- and the one that is sure to follow -- leave little hope that this time things might be different.

Will one breakup lead to another?
It's no secret that Washington Capitals forward Jaromir Jagr isn't overly fond of his coach, Bruce Cassidy. During recent games, Jagr has been seen openly arguing with Cassidy on the bench, and shirking shifts when he doesn't agree with the choice of linemates. Cassidy has been calling for his top players to contribute more, as coaches are known to do.

It should be noted -- although everyone goes through this, so we're not sure why -- that Jagr and his longtime girlfriend broke up recently. The event made national news in the Czech Republic and has done nothing to enhance Jagr's moods.

The dissention had been kept in-house until Friday, when Jagr slammed his coach during their first trip to Toronto.

Jagr said it was perhaps time the team made changes, many changes, seemingly an open invitation to management to renew its quest to trade him. That almost happened during the offseason, but a deal with the Rangers went south, reportedly when the Capitals asked for too much.

Jagr also said he didn't think it was up to him to go to the coach and communicate how the team might correct its scoring problems. Instead, Jagr stated, perhaps Cassidy should approach him.

That pretty much sets the stage for a major blow-up; one that won't be resolved until Jagr is traded or Cassidy is fired. It won't be easy to trade Jagr, not with his $11 million-a-season price tag, but it will have to be done soon if the Capitals hope to salvage the season.

Firing Cassidy, well, it may not be right, but it sure is a lot easier.

No more passive Predators
The Nashville Predators, considered one of the least aggressive teams pretty much from the day the club entered the NHL, went into Thursday night's game in Atlanta averaging 23.6 penalty minutes per game. That's the fourth highest total in the league in this still-early season, but interesting in light of the fact that the Preds have never finished higher than 23rd in total penalty minutes.

"With a young and inexperienced team in the past, we've often felt our way into games," Preds GM David Poile said. "If you have the ability (to rumble), it's much better to set the tone than react. As a manager, I can only show how we like to play by getting players that will play that way."

Poile was talking about the acquisition of left wing Jeremy Stevenson off the waiver wire, but he was also sending a message to the rest of his team that he expects it to stand up for itself a little more often, especially on the road.

A place apart
This is what separates Colorado Avalanche GM Pierre Lacroix from a good many of his peers. Lacroix paid a better-than-fair price for winger Bates Battaglia when he shipped highly regarded young forward Radim Vrbarta to the Carolina Hurricanes last season. Battaglia, however, wasn't regaining the form he showed two seasons ago, and rather than wait on a return, Lacroix dumped him fast.

Many GMs hang on to players they acquire via trade for fear of a media backlash if the deal is viewed as a poor one for the team. Lacroix is not one of them. Of course, a bad deal looks sweeter when you turn it into a player the caliber of Steve Konowalchuk. Lacroix acquired the veteran, gritty, two-way player even though he is in the last year of his contract and is heading for unrestricted free agency. That too has never bothered Lacroix. Besides, Colorado didn't have enough of what Konowalchuk brings, which the Avalanche needed against the Minnesota Wild when they blew a 3-1 lead in last season's Western Conference semifinals.

But the Avs also threw the rights to winger Jonas Johansson into the deal, and that could come back to haunt them. Johansson was Colorado's first pick in the 2002 draft, but he was unsigned and the whisper is that Colorado management believes he's prone to injury. That may be, but if he stays healthy he's considered a definite NHL prospect.

Bow-wow house for Stefan

Thought to be finally rounding into the form expected of a first-ever franchise draft pick, Patrik Stefan is getting the doggie treatment from Thrashers head coach Bob Hartley.

His ice time has been cut to the lowest of the four centers on the roster, and in two recent games Hartley kept Stefan on the bench late in the third period and played blazing winger Ilya Kovalchuk with utility center Randy Robitaille. Hartley also keeps Stefan on the bench for key faceoffs.

Insiders say it was Hartley who pushed GM Don Waddell to pick up Serge Aubin and Ronald Petrovicky in the waiver draft because he felt his team needed more of an in-your-face presence. It's also perceived to be a message to Stefan and Kamil Piros that talent isn't the only thing a player needs to bring to the rink every day.

It's not just the money

If Ty Conklin is for real, the Edmonton Oilers want to know it now. Conklin is getting a ton of ice time lately and he's responding with top-10 numbers in goals-against average and save percentage. He also makes only $400,000 for this season.

The Oilers have had good regular seasons but tons of playoff disappointment with Tommy Salo as their No. 1 goalie. Since Salo's goals-against average is currently over 3.0 and his salary is currently nudging $4 million, well, you get the picture.

Cheaper is always a course the Oilers must examine. Cheaper and better? It doesn't take an accountant to figure that one out.

Do you really get what you pay for?

Rare is the third-line winger who makes $7.5 million in a season, but that's what the Dallas Stars are paying for 1987's first overall draft pick Pierre Turgeon -- and it hasn't been a complete waste of money.

Turgeon is no longer the play-making center of his youth, but he's been reasonably effective on the left wing with his old St. Louis running mate, Scott Young and center Niko Kapanen. The key is Kapanen, who has good playmaking skills, but is also sound defensively, which allows Turgeon to be effective down low, taking opportunities to go behind the net where he makes good passes that lead to scoring opportunities. That wasn't Turgeon's forte when he was a center as he had trouble getting back up ice fast enough to catch up with plays going the other way.

With the big line centered by Mike Modano not playing as well as expected, Turgeon's contributions, along with second-line center Stu Barnes, are driving the Dallas offense. Barnes, who had five goals through Friday and was flirting with the league goal-scoring lead, makes a more reasonable $2.8 million. Before they were shut out by Detroit, the Kapanen-Turgeon-Young line had six points in seven games and were reasonably responsible defensively. Turgeon and Young were even and Kapanen was a minus-1 before combining for a minus-4 against Detroit.

Killer B's
Boston completed another early Western road swing with a 4-1-1 record. It was the same record that the Bruins posted early last season en route to a red-hot start of 19-4-3-1, a mid-season collapse and a near-miss of the playoffs. Will history repeat itself?

Possibly, but not likely for the same reasons. There was tension between then-coach Robbie Ftorek and the team midway through last season and then Ftorek and general manager Mike O'Connell late last season. That cost Ftorek his job and nearly cost the Bruins a playoff spot.

So far the Bruins seem to like new coach Mike Sullivan (now there's a pattern, players liking and playing hard for a new coach after the one they didn't like or play for got fired. Where have we seen that before?). The other two big improvements? The ever-improving play of No.1 center Joe Thornton (he had a dominant game matched up against Peter Forsberg earlier this week in Colorado) and the surprisingly good play of (backup?) goalie Andrew Raycroft. Felix Potvin may be No.1 with the Bruins for now, but this kid is proving himself to be a real contender for the top job.

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.