Muckler familiar with risky move

Updated: July 6, 2004, 11:00 AM ET
By Jim Kelley | ESPN.com

During the 1992-93 season, when John Muckler was getting his feet wet as the new director of hockey operations for the Buffalo Sabres, he persuaded upper management to trade for aging goaltender Grant Fuhr.

At the time, the Sabres hadn't won a playoff series in a decade. But with the eventual Hall of Fame goaltender in net, they ended the drought and swept the Boston Bruins.

Some people wanted to hold a parade.

It was a gutsy move. Fuhr, who had won five Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers, had wonky knees and a less-than-dedicated pursuit of physical fitness. But Muckler, who was one of Fuhr's coaches for all five championships, was confident Fuhr still had what mattered most -- the experience of winning.

Fast forward to today. The stakes are much higher, but Muckler, the GM of the Ottawa Senators, hasn't changed. He's a believer in the theory that without great risk, there can't be great reward. It's why he traded his starting goaltender, Patrick Lalime, to the St. Louis Blues on Sunday for a conditional fourth-round draft pick. It's why he was ready to sign Dominik Hasek to a contract as soon as the two-time Hart and six-time Vezina Trophy winner was officially classified as an unrestricted free agent on July 1.

It is a great risk, but it could bring a great reward.

Hasek is damaged goods mentally and physically. He has been torn between staying in the game and quitting it for years, retiring twice in recent seasons only to make somewhat expected returns to the Sabres and the Detroit Red Wings. He also has had recurring abdominal and groin problems, once missing nearly half a season with the Sabres after undergoing an unannounced surgery in Europe. After winning the 2002 Stanley Cup with Detroit, he retired for a season only to return a year later, creating a goaltending controversy for the Wings, who had signed Curtis Joseph to replace him. After taking over the No. 1 job, Hasek played only 14 games because of groin problems.

After his commitment was questioned, Hasek left Detroit and eventually agreed to return half of his $6 million salary.

But Hasek also knows how to win, and if he can recapture just a portion of his physical game ... well, it might be all the Senators need.

The Senators are a good team. They could have -- and perhaps should have -- beaten the Devils and advanced to the Stanley Cup finals in 2003. They also should have beaten the older, slower and defensively challenged Toronto Maple Leafs team this spring. The difference in both series was goaltending. New Jersey's Martin Brodeur, arguably the best in the game today, was better than Lalime when it mattered. The same could be said of Toronto's Ed Belfour.

Not surprisingly both men already had won a Stanley Cup.

So, too, has Hasek. He wasn't able to win one after replacing Fuhr in Buffalo -- although he came tantalizingly close in 1999, reaching the Stanley Cup finals with a Sabres team that wasn't nearly as good as this edition of the Senators. He finally won one with the Red Wings, who were so good Hasek only needed to be good enough to get the job done.

Muckler is betting that Hasek can be good again -- not good enough to win the Hart Trophy or the Conn Smythe, but physically sound enough and mentally strong enough to show his new teammates that if they play their best, they can win.

"At this point, goaltending is largely a mental thing," said new Senators coach Bryan Murray. "The mental part is a major part of the game. You simply can't give up a bad goal anymore and expect to win. Things are so tight out there that you give up any goal and you lessen your chances of winning. You give up a bad one at the wrong time and you can't win the game. It's so much harder."

Murray, who was referring to Lalime when he made those statements, joined the Senators only recently, but there is little doubt he's aware that Hasek is coming. He said he talked to Muckler about personnel changes and agreed that bringing Lalime back was simply too difficult.

"It's too much pressure on him, too much pressure on the team," he said. "It would probably be OK in the regular season, but once the playoffs started, the pressure from the media and the fans, it would be all anyone would be talking about. That's difficult for a player, and it's difficult for an organization."

Now it's something the Senators no longer have to deal with.

Still, Hasek doesn't come with any guarantees. He could be 40 years old when he steps out onto the ice again, depending upon when the season starts. He hasn't played a meaningful game (read: playoff game) since 2002. And his ability to return to playing condition after his most recent surgery is unknown.

Muckler knows all of this and is still willing to take the chance.

Why?

Well, Hasek comes cheap (a reported $2.5 million for the season). And with Martin Prusek in the fold, Hasek won't have to play a lot during the regular season.

In addition, Hasek's pride was hurt by his unceremonious departure from Detroit and Hasek is, above all else, a proud man. If he comes to Ottawa with something to prove, the Senators will be a better team.

If he doesn't, well, Muckler replaced a goalie who couldn't win with one who at least knows how.

And that's not as big a risk as it seems.

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

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