KELLEY: Penniless Sens keep winning

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Jim Kelley

AROUND THE BOARDS: Kelley's look at the NHL

Winning on a budget

OK, here's the joke of the day. Question: With first place in the Northeast Division and first place in the Eastern Conference all but assured, why are the Ottawa still going pucks-out for first place overall? Answer: They need the money. Hey, quit the heckling, I'm here all week. Besides, it's not a cheap joke. The winner of the NHL's President's Trophy — the award that comes from finishing first overall — does get some $350,000 (in something called NHL dollars) and when you're a franchise in bankruptcy, every little bit helps. Besides, the irony of having a bankrupt team finish first overall in the standings can't be lost on anyone. Not the New York , who continue on a course toward missing the playoffs for a sixth straight season despite a payroll that really could allow them to pave the streets around Madison Square Garden with gold. Not the New Jersey , Detroit or Dallas , the three teams still pursuing the . Certainly not the NHL Players Association, a group that has long maintained that a team can win on a budget if it drafts well, develops well and has a good hockey department, all of which the have done and do have. The Ottawa payroll ranges between $29 million and $31 million (U.S.) depending upon when you take your financial snapshot, but no matter what the bottom line, it will be overwhelmingly less than the money spent by the , or and much, much less than two other close contenders, the Philadelphia and the Colorado , who have just recently fallen off the pace. In fact the only team that comes close to the in budget and hung close in the race for first overall right up until this week is another Canadian-based, every-dollar-counts team, the Vancouver . The aren't in bankruptcy, but they do have a payroll of about $32.8 million, proving once again that you can build a team on a budget if you know how. Though there is much light made of the President's Trophy, it should be noted that the winner has gone on to win the Stanley Cup in three of the last four seasons. That would be Detroit last season, Colorado in 2001 and Dallas in 1999. The miss was the 2000 St. Louis , who had a league-high 114 points but lost in the first round. Oddly enough, the last time the had a shot at first overall they finished third in the final days of the season. They then lost to the Buffalo in a shocking first-round upset in which then scoring-star was held without a point. Stranger still, the would likely meet the New York in the first round next week. Yashin now plays for the .

At the other end of the spectrum

The are also in bankruptcy, but they're playing hard to avoid last overall. They won four in a row before losing to the Monday evening and have picked up enough points since the first of the year to likely miss having their name imprinted on the most number of balls in the upcoming draft lottery. Last overall isn't what it used to be what with the lottery. In an effort to end some shameless win-to-lose efforts last seen most obviously when the Pittsburgh and the New Jersey competed in a throw it all away race for , the league instituted a weighted balls formula that gives 25 percent of the lottery balls to the worst team overall. Then it's a sliding scale through all the teams that didn't make the playoffs based on a reverse points order. In the end, the team that finishes worst overall can place no lower than second in the draft order and no team can move up more than four spots from its final rankings. All in all, it's a fair process that has worked well most of the time. What makes it interesting this time around is there are so many teams vying for last overall — some eight within single digits of each other. Even next-to-last isn't exactly the losers bracket in this year' draft in that though there certainly isn't the second coming of Lemieux out there, there are about five or six players (some say as many as eight) all rated as worthy of first-overall consideration. You could even argue that this upcoming draft is so deep that many teams positioned themselves to be players in it, knowing that they would benefit from the trip to the lower echelon (Carolina being an obvious example going from Stanley Cup finalist last spring to worst team in the league at this writing). An added sidelight is the battle between Columbus and Florida. Both are in contention for last overall, but even if the don't make it, they have a hole card to play. If Columbus gets there, the can exercise an option to take Columbus's position in the draft. It comes via a trade last draft day for . Columbus gave up players and the option of switching the pick with the to get Nash. That fortified the and still allowed them to take defenseman with the No. 3 pick. Bouwmeester was rated No.1 overall, but the ' Rick Dudley got him, some bonus points and the option for this draft and didn't even have to pay the kid No. 1 overall money. Columbus bet that this wouldn't be an issue because it would finish ahead of the , but now that may not be the case. Stay tuned, the end game could be just as interesting as the one at the top. On Friday, Carolina plays Florida and it may well be in both team's interest to try to lose. Carolina, in order to get the No. 1 overall. Florida, in order to get points to Carolina so that Columbus finishes lower and secures a higher pick, which could then go to Florida should Dudley execute his option.

And the list keeps growing

Eight coaches were fired this season (the NHL in-season record is nine) and the Florida kept their head man, Mike Keenan, but fired his two assistants. Now the second season of firings will soon be upon us and the list of candidates is growing. In Buffalo, head coach Lindy Ruff is playing out his contract and is free to leave or await an offer from new owners who should soon have control of the club. The early thinking is that he'll move on. Columbus is holding the door open (possibly for Ruff) as general manager Doug MacLean is doing both jobs there at least until the end of the season. In New York, Glen Sather is doing the same and likely will fire himself just to try and keep his general manager's hat. Keenan likely won't be fired but he'll certainly be encouraged to take the job should it be offered to him. may well be looking for a new bench boss in Pittsburgh. For the record, the Montreal are no better with Claude Julien then they were when they fired Michel Therrien. Everyone else appears relatively safe, though there have been rumblings in Toronto that Pat Quinn will have to decide on coaching or the GM's job, but he can no longer have both. Paul Maurice appears safe in Carolina because they have injuries as an excuse and because they never fire the coach there. Andy Murray appears safe in Los Angeles because of the injuries there. On the outside, but hearing the whisper will be Phoenix's Bob Francis. True, the have also had injury problems and the front office hasn't helped much by just spinning wheels and adding and then cutting costs in whipsaw fashion. With three years left on his deal after this one, it would appear Francis would be safe, but then that's what Dean Lombardi had on his GM pact in San Jose and he got whacked already. Where Francis runs into trouble is with the fact that the pretty much quit the moment they were out of real playoff contention. He's also considered to be a holdover from previous GM Bobby Smith's era and not really a Wayne Gretzky, Mike Barnett, Cliff Fletcher hire. Sitting in the minors is longtime Gretzky friend and teammate and one-time Barnett client Marty McSorley. McSorley is coaching Phoenix's AHL affiliate largely because of Gretzky and Barnett and since Gretzky is the managing partner and Barnett is the general manager, well, stranger things have happened in the NHL. Besides, when a team is short on talent and low on cash, nothing sells like hope. To the fans, a coaching change represents hope. To management, a cheap fix. That's why there are so many of them in the league each year.

One final thought

Whichever team does finish last overall, it's possible that team will set a record for being the best worst team in NHL history. The record is shared by the 1986-87 Buffalo and New Jersey , each of whom finished that campaign with 64 points. Columbus and Florida are already past that mark, Pittsburgh, still a player in this, has 63 and Carolina has 61. For the record, Buffalo edged New Jersey on a tiebreaker that season, tying the New York on the final game of the season to avoid finishing with as many wins as the , even though the two teams had the same number of points. The that season took and the selected . Hard to say that either team "lost". There's something to be said for commissioner Gary Bettman's claim that the on-ice season has been a very good one. Maybe good is too strong a word, but the league certainly has been competitive this season.
Who's he?
The goalies, head coach Jacques Lemaire, general manager Doug Risebrough and scoring star Marion Gaborik get most of the headlines for the surprising Minnesota this season. But we would be remiss in not pointing out the contributions of one . The numbers aren't overwhelming, seven goals and 11 assists, but they are pretty decent for an 18-year-old center in the NHL. Bouchard wasn't thought to be a "keeper" even though he scored 140 points for Chicoutimi in the Quebec Major Junior League last season, but he made enough of an impression on management to stick around after training camp. The have brought him along slowly, playing him in just 48 games so far this season, but he's responded well. His plus-minus is at zero, an acceptable number for a first-year player with an offensive bent. He's also been a contributor on the power play (five power-play goals) and even has a game-winner to his credit. The thought long and hard about sending this kid back to juniors, where he still has eligibility, but the thinking was that he couldn't learn a whole lot more at that level, and he couldn't go to the American Hockey League as long as he had junior eligibility remaining, so the decision was to keep him on board. While the emphasis was on developing a hockey player, the didn't neglect the fact that they also had a boy who still needed to grow into a man. They placed him with a family in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, so instead of spending his off hours with men who knew a thing or two about down time and money and the temptations therein, he spent his off hours with a mom and dad surrogate complete with a boy just a few years younger then Bouchard himself and a girl who was away at college long enough to consider giving up her room in the family house. It's all worked out for both sides as the billeting family has enjoyed the encounter with a budding star and Bouchard's real parents have a lot less concern about their still-developing boy.
Five things you should know
1. The Phoenix this week tied one of those records that can never be broken. This was not a good thing as the were outshot 15-0 during a period of their recent 2-0 loss to the Calgary . No shots on goal for 20 minutes is a difficult accomplishment, but those who were there insist that if they kept track of effort, the would have been awarded a negative number so that they might have the record for all time. The 'Yotes have been shut out nine times this season, most in franchise history unless you count the 13 times the franchise forerunner, the Winnipeg Jets, were blanked in one season. Even worse, all nine have come since Dec. 22, surely a team record for such a compacted space. 2. New York general manager Mike Milbury is on record as saying the team should have clinched a playoff spot "three weeks ago" and blames a 5-11-1 start on poor goaltending, but the have been in free fall down the stretch and the quality of the goaltending and the character of some of his players is being questioned from within. Recently, captain went on a very public tirade about his mates. If they fail to qualify now, look for Peca to agitate for change and Milbury to accommodate him. The put their playoff goal at risk by going 5-8-2 in March, capped off with an embarrassing 6-0 loss to the New Jersey on Sunday. 3. There are those who well tell you that Carolina goalie has delayed scheduled surgery on his wrist so that he might help his mates avoid the embarrassment of finishing last overall after going to the Stanley Cup final last spring. That may be true, but others contend that Weekes, who had the surgery scheduled for last week and then canceled it, was listening to his agent who informed him that he's within reach of $300,000 in bonus money including $100,000 for playing in 50 games (now a lock) and $100,000 for getting 15 wins (he's been stuck on 14 for weeks, no pun intended). There are also two $50,000 triggers for goals-against numbers and save percentage. To be fair, the 'Canes are short of competent goaltenders throughout the organization. But they do have under contract and on the bench. Irbe is struggling, but he played in the finals last spring. 4. of New Jersey has already hit the 40-win mark for a fourth time (remarkable for any goalie in any era) and Ottawa's (a career-best 37 wins through the weekend) has an outside chance to join him for the first time. Still, those guys are playing for two of the best teams in the league. We here at FOXSports.com are willing to give it up for two at-the-bottom clubs, the Columbus and the Chicago , neither of which will come within breathing distance of making the playoffs but each of which have a goalie (Marc Denis and respectively) with 26 wins this season. A nod goes to Nashville's who has 25 and could match or better those two. Same for the much maligned of Calgary. All three could still slip past Thibault, who played like a champion until going out of the lineup with post-concussion syndrome. 5. In further tribute to Denis, it should be noted that he also leads the league in losses (39) yet has a .904 save percentage and has faced more shots (2,290 through Monday night) than any goalie in the game this season. The kid is doing a job that nobody outside of Columbus has noticed.
Thug watch
There's been a rash of ugly incidents around the NHL in recent days. We can understand a little bad blood between traditional division rivals Detroit and St. Louis (though we can't understand blaming the referees for a game that the players and coaches allowed to get out of hand), but what's up with 98 minutes in penalties between the Calgary and the Minnesota ? This send-a-message-for-the-future thing is starting to grow to ridiculous proportions in the NHL today. Maybe someone could hand the crackdown on diving back to the on-ice officials and deal more with the more pressing matters at hand. And while we're on the subject of dumb penalties, can there be any worse than the high-sticking infraction, in overtime no less, by New York forward , Monday against Atlanta. The infraction set up Yanic Tremblay for the game-winning goal in a contest the simply could not afford to lose. New York has now lost all four meetings with the this season. If the do miss the playoffs they only need to look there — and to Lindros' near-constant lapses in judgment — as a reason for their missing the postseason for a sixth consecutive year. Looks like Columbus' Jody Shelly is a lock to win the penalty minutes crown this season. He has 249 so far.
In the next 48 hours
  • Look for the NHL and the NHLPA to announce agreement on plans to play a World Cup of Hockey in 2004. The announcement will be made Thursday in Toronto. It's an interesting agreement in that many believe the World Cup is a chance for players to supplement their income in a year in which there might not be hockey unless the two sides come to terms on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement.
  • Boston's 's next goal will be a personal-best 42 for the season.
  • Look for the to improve on their second-best goals-against total in the league this season. They are allowing 2.03 per game and have allowed two goals or less in 60 of the 79 games they've played, including the last seven straight going into Tuesday's encounter with Columbus, a team to which they have never lost.
  • Should Florida's score a goal in the remaining games of the season he will have 36 on the season. That's one more than he's scored in his entire career before this season (314 games).
  • FYI
  • The Washington are three points behind the Tampa Bay in the race for first place in the Southeast Division. Odd, but Washington has spent more than twice as many days as the division leader than the have this season, but it only matters after the 82nd game. No matter how it finishes, the and the are locked into a first-round meeting in the playoffs. For that matter, so are the Toronto and the Philadelphia
  • Despite all the near-hysterical reaction, there's not much chance that Buffalo's and have been exposed to the dreaded SARS virus. A relative of Campbell was exposed but shows no signs of symptoms. Campbell visited the relative recently, but he shows no signs nor does Warrner. Campbell and Warriner room together on the road hence both were quarantined but only as a precaution
  • Jim Kelley can be reached at his e-mail address: jkelley@foxsports.com.
    Tagged: Bruins, Sabres, Flames, Blackhawks, Red Wings, Hurricanes, Canadiens, Devils, Islanders, Rangers, Senators, Flyers, Penguins, Avalanche, Blues, Lightning, Canucks, Capitals, Coyotes, Ducks, Panthers, Predators, Jets, Blue Jackets, Wild, Brian Campbell, Jocelyn Thibault, Brendan Shanahan, Brett Hull, Martin Brodeur, Patrik Elias, Alexei Yashin, Patrick Lalime, Kevin Weekes, Mike Dunham, Tomas Vokoun, Rick Nash, Michael Peca, Olli Jokinen

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