Some Original Six teams fall hard this season
Pick three of the league's most dysfunctional, out-of-touch franchises, and you might be surprised to discover they happen to be three of the revered Original Six franchises.
If you lined up the years without a Stanley Cup in Boston, Chicago and Toronto, it would stretch 118 years. The messes in these cities reflect an almost pathological rejection of progress, business savvy and, even worse, a complete disregard for the needs of the teams' fans.
In different ways, the approaching end of the regular season highlights this separation of storied franchise and reality.
In Boston, Bruins president Harry Sinden announced Saturday evening that GM Mike O'Connell had been shown the door. And to think there'd been talk of a Stanley Cup back in September.
But what did anyone expect? O'Connell, a former Bruin (aren't they all?), had been living under owner Jeremy Jacobs' restrictive economic thumb in the years leading up to the lockout. Then, when handed the keys to the Bruins vault and asked to build a winner overnight, O'Connell could not answer the bell. The team's strategy of hitting the post-lockout landscape with only a handful of players under contract turned out to be a gross miscalculation, illustrating the ignorance of many owners who believe the act of team building is not synonymous with check writing.
Strangely, the decision that will define O'Connell's tenure in Boston -- the dealing of captain Joe Thornton to San Jose for Wayne Primeau, Marco Sturm and Brad Stuart -- actually might have been one of his better deals. Thornton seemed ill-suited for his role as team leader and top earner, but Sturm has been terrific and is a key part of the team's only bona fide NHL line along with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Boyes (another quality prospect acquired by O'Connell).
In Chicago ... look up "dinosaur" in the dictionary and there's a picture of Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz. (Memo to Mr. Wirtz: There's this thing called television. Blackhawks fans might actually want to see their team on it. Just a thought.)
With the NHL trumpeting remarkable attendance gains throughout most of the league, the moribund Blackhawks operate many nights with less than 50 percent of the seats occupied in the United Center. Why? Because with the lockout looming and a chance to chart a new course for the future, Wirtz and right-hand man Bob Pulford managed to search only as far as their broadcast booth when they handed Dale Tallon the keys to the faltering franchise.
Tallon, an aspiring pro golfer, overpaid for aging, brittle players such as Nikolai Khabibulin, Jassen Cullimore, Martin Lapointe and Curtis Brown en route to an embarrassing finish among the league's bottom-feeders. Why did Tallon overpay? Because quality players will not come to Chicago otherwise. Is this likely to change any time soon? Ha, ha, ha. Next question.
In Toronto, ownership has described the Leafs as the NHL's most important franchise. Strange, then, that such a prestigious property would be treated so shabbily by those entrusted with its care.
That the Leafs qualified for the playoffs for six straight seasons, advancing to the Eastern Conference final twice in that period, is more a testament to Pat Quinn's coaching than to any kind of long-term plan. The string of playoff appearances will end in a couple of weeks, as will Quinn's tenure in Toronto. Late last week, Quinn apparently did not know No. 1 goalie Ed Belfour was done for the season. GM John Ferguson Jr.'s decision to shelve Belfour for the season made sense financially, but that he chose not to tell Quinn speaks volumes about the general lack of accountability at the top.
From the moment Quinn arrived there in summer 1998, there has been a bizarre and ever-changing series of sour and twisted relationships at the top involving, but not exclusively limited to, Mike Smith, Ken Dryden, Larry Tanenbaum, Anders Hedberg, Bill Watters, Richard Peddie, Quinn and Ferguson.
With Quinn on the way out, Ferguson's reputation in tatters and a team with myriad holes to fill, the best Leafs fans can hope for is a bang-up celebration next spring to mark the 40th anniversary of the team's last Stanley Cup win.
There are two main questions that will confront any team thinking of taking a flier on the mercurial goalie next season. First, is the status of Belfour's wonky back. If the problems cannot be treated during a long offseason, any discussion of his future is moot. But if Belfour is healthy, the question becomes whether he ever could be happy accepting the role of backup and mentor somewhere else. Most will suggest the prickly veteran is incapable of such a transition, but we say here Belfour actually might turn into a surprisingly good support player. It was so when he was the third netminder in Salt Lake City when Canada won gold in 2002.
What about a reunion with Ken Hitchcock in Philadelphia, where Belfour could back up Olympic star Antero Niittymaki? Or how about rejoining former coach Mike Keenan, now the GM in Florida? One thing's for sure, the big paydays are over for Belfour. Now, it's a question of whether the Eagle's career is over, as well. -- S.B.
This week, I'm going to keep a close eye on the Kings, who responded to Tuesday's coaching change with a 6-4 win over the visiting Preds on Saturday night. Fresh off the disabled list, Alexander Frolov scored a pair of goals to pace the Kings. Interim coach John Torchetti hopes his new team will have the same jump during a three-game swing through Western Canada. L.A. opens its critical trip in Vancouver on Monday. The Kings enter the game only a single point behind the Canucks in a wild Western Conference playoff chase. Los Angeles completes the trip with stops in Calgary (Wednesday) and Edmonton (Thursday). After this trip, the Kings finish the season with five of their final eight games at home.
Anaheim at Colorado (Tuesday): The Mighty Ducks' assault on the upper regions of the Western Conference standings continues. Less than a month ago, the Ducks were an afterthought. This week, they begin play tied with Colorado for fifth in the West, having won six in a row and 10 of 12. The Avalanche, meanwhile, continue to make do with Peter Budaj between the pipes despite Sunday's shootout loss to Edmonton. It sets up an interesting dilemma for coach Joel Quenneville when/if trade deadline acquisition Jose Theodore is healthy enough to play.
Who to start: Another unknown Canuck is making a name for himself of late, 21-year-old center Ryan Kesler. He has replaced Brendan Morrison on the top line with Todd Bertuzzi and Markus Naslund. Kesler has two goals and three assists in five games and could give you some points down the stretch.
Who to drop: Mark Recchi has yet to feel at home with his new team, the Carolina Hurricanes. The right wing hasn't notched a point since joining the team at the trade deadline.
The playoff races are heating up, and one hot team likely is going to be left out of the postseason dance! "It Just Ain't Right," as Ne-Yo would sing. Los Angeles, San Jose and Atlanta are all pushing for a spot.
"If I would be 20, maybe I would put the skates on and try to get one."
-- Wild coach Jacques Lemaire as Minnesota has had only eight players score since the Olympic break.
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