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AROUND THE BOARDS: Jim Kelley's look at the NHL

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Jim Kelley

 
   
 
AROUND THE BOARDS: Jim Kelley's look at the NHL

Iron Mike's iron grip

It's getting ugly real quick in Florida. Sources have told FOXSports.com that head coach Mike Keenan and general manager Rick Dudley were not on the same page when it came to sending back to junior hockey this past weekend. Now it's common knowledge that Keenan is not above serious head games with both players and management and it's also not unusual to have management go along with a few of them. That said, Dudley is known to have cut short a scouting trip to get behind closed doors with Keenan about this matter and it comes about only after Weiss' agent, Pat Morris, put a call in to both parties. There are a few people in hockey who believe the Keenan-Dudley arrangement will not work in Florida. For one thing, Dudley was brought in after Keenan and after Keenan is said to have had a strong hand in ousting Dudley's predecessor. Ownership hired Keenan to coach and seems to think the general manager's role is somehow subservient to the coach, given that it gave Keenan a long-term contract and Dudley a lesser term. It's clear the pecking order in Florida is reversed. Dudley has been cautious in his statements regarding the apparent over-his-head move by Keenan, but Dudley is not one to take a step back on a challenge of his authority. Sources tell FOXSports.com that this one will end up behind closed doors in the owner's office before the week is out. As for Weiss, for the moment at least he's got a six-game reprieve. So what's really going on? For the record, this isn't all about Dudley and Keenan. Be aware that Keenan hasn't just singled out a 19-year-old forward as the object of his criticism. He also named names of players — usually a coaching no-no — who failed to measure up to his expectations. Keenan recently blasted and , both of whom he benched during the 4-1 loss to the Minnesota . Keenan then went on to torch Dmitry Yushkevich, , , and others by name in a stinging indictment for all concerned. "This is harsh, but it's reality," Keenan said. "There's a reason why this team hasn't made the playoffs." Keenan knows he has a long-term deal that management can't afford to eat. That gives him license to come down hard on his players and no one does it better. If they don't respond, it's likely them, not Iron Mike, who ends up paying the price. Keenan believes he has a soft team, mentally as well as physically. He's convinced management of that and is now in the process of taking the gloves off with his players in an attempt to toughen them up to a standard Keenan first set years ago in Philadelphia and later duplicated in Chicago and New York. Keenan is a classic mind-games coach and when given a free hand, usually succeeds at making his team better. This is merely the first step in the process of Mike being Mike in Florida.

Where the fans at?

Crowds are down to near all-time lows in Buffalo, where the team is operating without an owner and fans seem more interested in anything the Bills do rather than what the might accomplish. However, Buffalo is not alone in the low-attendance column. In Ottawa, the announced attendance for last Tuesday's game against the was 13,816, but was actually a lot lower. Roy Mlakar, the club's president and chief executive, said that with about 2,000 ticket giveaways, mostly to local charities, there were just 11,862 paying customers in the building. The season-ticket base is at an all-time low of about 8,200. Crowds are said to be small in Phoenix as well. Calgary has yet to hit the season-ticket number that would give it a cash infusion under the Canadian Assistance plan. Atlanta is seeing smallish crowds despite the fact the Braves were out of the baseball playoffs much earlier than usual. Traditionally, the NHL always has smaller crowds when up against football and baseball, but this season the high price of tickets and a growing sense that teams in new markets don't seem to be getting all that much better appears to be having an impact.

As if the goaltending wasn't enough of a problem

In case it slipped through the cracks of what is now a full-blown goaltender controversy in Montreal, there's also the issue of whether or not winger is on the trade block. Audette was recently demoted to fourth-line status and rumors in both Montreal and Toronto maintain he is being shopped. But sources tell FOXSports.com that it's a little early in the game for that and that management is hoping that the threat of a trade gets Audette back on his game. It's more than possible that he will come around. The little winger has made a habit of proving people wrong. Unlike when he was with Buffalo, Atlanta and Dallas, Audette likes playing in his native Quebec. Look for this rumor to pass.

Ten up-and-comers with a bullet

Last week we gave you our second group of 10 movers and shakers in the NHL, a follow-up to our Top 10 list. This week it's our 10 up-and-comers with a bullet. 1. Mike Barnett, former player agent and now GM of the Phoenix . Bright, innovative and respected. 2. Ted Leonsis, owner Washington . In tune with new age issues like technology and the driving force behind acquiring for the Caps. 3. Mike Liut, Brian Lawton and Larry Kelly (combined entry), driving force behind Octagon Hockey, a cutting edge agent group that will challenge Newport Sports for high-end hockey client list. 4. Tony Palma, CEO Easton Sports. A man making waves in the game with innovative new products such as the composite stick. 5. Bob McKenzie and Pierre McGuire (combined entry), former editor of Hockey News and former NHL coach respectively. Both have moved to broadcast media and have substantially raised the bar for insight and analysis in that medium. 6. John Shannon, former Hockey Night in Canada executive producer, now the driving force behind Leafs TV. If the all-Leafs, all-the-time concept works, Shannon will have opened the door to the concept of teams controlling their own media. 7. Donald Mattrick, President, Electronic Arts. Computer gaming is a huge market and growing, Mattrick has his company on the cutting edge with hockey games for all platforms. 8. Dave Dryden, consultant. Very much behind the scenes, but former goaltender earned universal respect for his work in researching goaltending equipment and league-wide injuries. 9. Doug Sellars, coordinating producer for hockey for FOX Sports Net. FSN produces nearly 1,000 hockey games per season in the U.S. 10. Doug Palazzari, Executive Director, USA Hockey. Driving force behind the amateur and Olympic hockey movement in the U S.

Net gain

Early returns show that scoring is edging toward 5.8 goals per game through games played last weekend. That's a marginal increase from 5.4, but it is an upward trend, something the league has been seeking for years. Some of the scoring can be attributed to the remarkable start of Pittsburgh forward , who netted 11 points in his first five games and who has combined with linemates and for 28 points over those games. There's been a noteworthy up-tick in power-play scoring as well, with the 30 teams hitting for 162 goals — a substantial increase over last season when 146 were scored over the same period. Power-play opportunities have increased noticeably in the early going due to a league-wide crackdown on obstruction fouls.

One final thought

The NHL has often been accused of bad timing with certain promotional issues. Still, we can't help feeling just a tad of compassion for the league's newest marketing ploy, the sniper's hat. The term sniper has long been a pet name for a hockey team's best shooter/scorer, a true marksman with the puck. But the word has taken on a negative connotation in the Washington D.C. area since the sniper attacks there. The Washington asked to have the item removed from its shops and the NHL on-line store because of the situation. The league was quick to comply and has now recalled all of the sniper hats in all 30 markets. Now that we're over that little brush with remorse, we might point out that this is one of the problems that goes hand in glove (or in the case of the NHL, stick in face) with the oft-times violent side of pro sports. We have long objected to hockey players, or any athletes for that matter, being called warriors or heroes and the like. In the wake of 9/11 and the D.C. incidents, the ongoing war against terror and the threat of war with Iraq, it might be wise if sports leagues and sports media took a giant step backward and refer to athletes as what they truly are, adults playing games. In the world scheme of things, they are nothing more and sometimes considerably less.
Who's he?
If you have a very good memory or are a certifiable St. Louis nut, you might recall that management cut early in training camp. They brought him back for the start of the season, however, and so far, the winger hasn't looked back. A former American Hockey League MVP, Boguniecki has earned himself regular ice-time on a line with center . He hits and he hustles and he's shown himself to be smart enough to know that when Weight gives him the puck, it's sometimes a good idea to give it back. The give-and-go-between the two has worked well, and with providing some thought to defensive play at times, the trio has become an effective second scoring line behind , and . Boguniecki averaged a point a game through his first four games with the this season and the contribution has eased some of the fears fans had of the team not being able to compete with the stronger Western Conference teams this season. He was a standout performer in a recent win over the Dallas . A pick in the 1993 Entry Draft (193rd overall), his career went nowhere early and he signed with the Florida in 1999 as a free agent. He made his NHL debut March 3, 2000 against the New York . That season, he played four games at the NHL level and was later traded back to the for Andrei Podkonicky.
Five things you should know
1. The St. Louis are contemplating making a pitch for holdout Boston defenseman , but only if they're certain they won't get All-Star defenseman back for this season. Pronger underwent another wrist surgery Monday and the setback could cause him to miss all of the 2002-03 season. The picked up seven of a possible 10 points in their first five games, easing the urgency to make major moves to fill in for Pronger and two injured goaltenders. 2. It may well become one of the lesser revelations in the NHL this season, but for the record, Dallas backup goalie became the first goaltender to play with and get wins with eight different franchises when he beat Phoenix 5-2 on Oct. 12. Trust us, because we're not going to list them all. 3. The Phoenix are all about risk-taking these days. The latest? Well, they signed former New Jersey Devil and Columbus Blue Jacket . He's on a 25-game tryout with the ' minor-league affiliate in Springfield. Quint is just 26 and loaded with talent, but he's had a string of personal problems, including time spent in rehabilitation for alcohol abuse. Both the and the gave up on him, but the need blueline help, especially in getting the puck out of their own end. 4. Tampa Bay general manager Jay Feaster was so upset that Sports Illustrated ranked his team and him last in the NHL that he vowed to give up his subscription to the venerable magazine. But not right away. Feaster didn't say he would quit the magazine, only that he will not renew when his current subscription expires. That, no doubt, is an indication of the "every-dollar-spent-matters" philosophy that has been the credo since it came into the league. 5. The Boston are beginning to wonder whether or not $20 million spent on then Detroit free agent was money well spent. Lapointe missed 14 games last season with a hamstring injury. Now he's expected to be lost for upward of six weeks with a broken foot. The are not noted for throwing money around, but they thought they were getting an extremely durable player in Lapointe. It hasn't worked out that way.
Thug Watch
Buffalo's seems intent on making a name for himself as a bruiser this season. Boulton has had five fights so far this season, four at home and one on the road. No other player has more than three fighting majors so far. Boulton showed up on the roster last season in a limited role, but now plays a regular shift with long-time team tough guy and newly acquired center . The trio is best described as a "disturber" line, a concept the brought to new heights a few seasons back when Ted Nolan was the team's coach and the unit featured , and among others.
In the next 48 hours
  • The Boston will retire the sweater of legendary No. 24, Terry O'Reilly, the epitome of a tough-as-nails hockey player.
  • Colorado goaltender will tie NHL legend Terry Sawchuk for most NHL appearances by a goaltender with his next start. It could come as soon as Tuesday night against Edmonton. Roy has 970 career regular-season starts. Sawchuk had 971. Roy already eclipsed Sawchuk's NHL mark for regular-season wins.
  • F.Y.I.
  • It was thought that Atlanta Thashers coach Curt Fraser had the first 10 games of the season to send his team and management a message. He might not last that long as rumors are starting to swirl about former Washington/Anaheim coach Ron Wilson. The are under pressure to succeed both on the ice and at the gate this season and they aren't doing it under Fraser. With Monday's late third-period collapse against Florida, the have slipped to 0-5-0-1, the worst start in the still-brief franchise history. General manager Don Waddell said before the season started that the coach would be watched and that he didn't want to see the team go 2-8 through the first 10 games. At his point, that would be an improvement of likely unreachable proportions. The biggest problem appears to be defensive-zone play. The have given up more goals than any team in the NHL to date. The next opponent is New Jersey and that could spell trouble for the coach.
  • Look for the New York to sign unrestricted free-agent forward to a contract. The are not happy with the play of young forward to date and want Rucinsky's scoring and veteran presence in the lineup.
  • Tagged: Bruins, Sabres, Stars, Canadiens, Devils, Rangers, Senators, Penguins, Avalanche, Blues, Lightning, Capitals, Coyotes, Panthers, Jets, Blue Jackets, Kyle McLaren, Martin Lapointe, Eric Boulton, Sandis Ozolinsh, Adam Mair, Keith Tkachuk, Chris Pronger, Cory Stillman, Doug Weight, Scott Mellanby, Matthew Barnaby, Jaromir Jagr, Brad May, Jamie Lundmark, Eric Boguniecki, Olli Jokinen, Viktor Kozlov

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