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By giving up only a 1998 second-round draft choice and future
considerations to the Sabres on Monday for elite center Pat
LaFontaine, Rangers general manager Neil Smith wasn't exactly
sticking out his neck, even if LaFontaine was. With that deal
New York went from a team that had a gaping hole the size of
Mark Messier to a club that just might be better than the
Rangers who advanced to the Eastern Conference finals last
season. LaFontaine, a 13-year NHL veteran who had 951 career
points entering this season, had two other numbers that made him
expendable in Buffalo's eyes--a $4.8 million salary and five
concussions. The Sabres' doctor, in fact, refused to allow him
to suit up in the preseason because of the two concussions that
sidelined LaFontaine for most of last year. LaFontaine, however,
got clearance from his personal doctors. "When he's healthy, Pat
can, with his speed and skill, set defenses on their heels the
way few players in this league can," says Smith. Those qualities
were the ones the Rangers were missing after Messier signed as a
free agent with the Canucks in July.

Smith had already done plenty in the off-season to compensate
for losing Messier's grit, leadership and penalty-killing
ability. He signed as free agents right wing Mike Keane and
center Brian Skrudland, both of whom are former NHL captains.
Together, with left wing Bill Berg, they form what could be the
league's best checking line. Keane and Skrudland are two of
eight Rangers who have won Stanley Cups on other teams.

With LaFontaine joining Wayne Gretzky at center, coach Colin
Campbell need not move wings Niklas Sundstrom, Adam Graves and
Alexei Kovalev from their natural positions. At 22, Sundstrom is
an astute player who does everything well. Graves scored 33
goals in 1996-97, but his chronically sore back needs more rest.
He has missed only one game in the last six years. The talented
Kovalev underwent season-ending knee surgery last January, but
it's a recurring brain cramp that keeps him from becoming a star.

The talented forwards complement money goaltender Mike Richter
and an above-average defense anchored by Norris Trophy winner
Brian Leetch. "I'm a lot happier with the team than I was at
this time last year," Smith says. "We have the pieces