Picking between Mike Richter and Curtis Joseph is a close call
A few hours before the Flyers announced the signing of
free-agent goalie John Vanbiesbrouck to a two-year, $7.25
million contract last week, Philadelphia general manager Bob
Clarke made a courtesy call to his Rangers counterpart, Neil
Smith, to fill him in. According to a source Smith told Clarke,
"That's the best news I've had in five years."
Smith didn't have a No. 1 netminder at that moment, but he
finally had a hammer for negotiations with the two premier
free-agent goaltenders, Mike Richter and Curtis Joseph. When the
Flyers opted to sign the less-expensive Vanbiesbrouck, one of
the two high-priced chairs in a game of musical goalies had been
yanked. Though Smith faced a risk if he decided not to re-sign
nine-year New York veteran Richter--such a move might rupture
Smith's relationship with cornerstone defenseman Brian Leetch,
Richter's friend and a free agent after next season--the
Rangers' G.M. could at least choose a goalie based more on
talent than on salary demands. At press time Smith was on the
verge of signing Joseph to a four-year deal worth more than $22
In the view of many general managers, the 32-year-old Richter
entered last season as the NHL's second-best goalie, behind the
Sabres' Dominik Hasek. But in 1997-98, Richter ranked just 22nd
in the league in goals-against average (2.66), had a middling
.903 save per centage and was subpar for the U.S. at the
Olympics. Joseph, 31, burnished his postseason reputation by
playing superbly for the Oilers for two rounds, although his
regular-season goals-against average (2.63, the league's 20th
best) and save percentage (.905) were only slightly better than
Richter's. So we asked some NHL insiders the question, Whom
would you rather have, Richter or Joseph?
"I'd take Richter, although I'm not a big Richter fan," one
Eastern Conference coach says. "He plays too far out of his
crease, and if you can get him moving east-west, you beat him.
The only time I've ever seen Joseph play well is on TV in the
playoffs. He's all arms and legs."
One Western Conference general manager says he prefers Joseph,
who has thrived on so-so teams "because he's more consistent.
When everything's right for Richter, he can be unbelievable. But
when everything isn't perfect, he doesn't adapt well."
Says another G.M., whose staff was split on the Richter-Joseph
question, "If you look over the past 10 or 12 seasons, other
than Hasek, the dominant goalie seems to change from year to
year. If you base [your choice] on one year, you're guessing."
FISHING FOR A COACHING JOB
While Marc Crawford has been snaring perch and rock bass with
his two children from a dock at a rented cottage in upstate New
York, the former Avalanche coach has had his eye on a bigger and
far more elusive catch: the Mighty Ducks' coaching job.
Crawford quit as Colorado's coach in May after the team
performed poorly in the playoffs for the second straight year.
As a plethora of coaching positions opened around the NHL, the
leaguewide expectation was that Crawford would quickly land one
of them. But a month ago, in resolving a dispute between
Colorado and Crawford, commissioner Gary Bettman ruled that any
team hiring Crawford before the end of the 1998-99 season would
be forced to compensate the Avalanche with as much as $600,000
and a first-round draft choice, depending on how well that team
fared with Crawford at the helm. By last week every NHL coaching
vacancy except Anaheim's had been filled, and Crawford was still
fishing. "This is like any other vacation," he said last
Thursday from his cottage, "except this time I'm unemployed."
Crawford, 37, has been considered one of the NHL's smartest
young coaches since guiding Quebec to the best regular-season
record in the league in 1994-95, his first year as an NHL coach,
and then winning the Stanley Cup the following season, after the
franchise had moved to Colorado. But he's riding a personal
losing streak that began in the '96-97 semifinals, when the
Avalanche was thumped by the Red Wings and he suffered a
meltdown behind the bench in Game 4. That spell carried over to
Nagano, where his Canadian team failed to win an Olympic medal,
and continued with an ignominious first-round elimination by the
Oilers in May. As much as Crawford would like to end his run of
bad luck by getting the Mighty Ducks' job, he's not even on
general manager Jack Ferreira's list of six candidates, which is
headed by Butch Goring.
"He's still a young guy and still well thought of," a Western
Conference general manager says of Crawford. "I don't think his
star is that much on the wane. He had quick success, but he got
into situations where he didn't have the experience to pull him
"The way it played out has been a lesson for him," says Blues
coach Joel Quenneville, a former Avalanche assistant and a close
friend. "The process has been tough, but coaching is about
handling adversity. This is just one more bump in the road."
WHO'S GOT THE CAR KEYS?
The NHL, bent on speeding up the game in 1998-99 by shaving the
width of the crease, moving the goals two feet closer to center
ice and experimenting with two referees, clearly took a cue from
its general managers. Those guys can fly. "There we are,
discussing rule changes that will alter the face of the game,
and people are looking at their watches because they've got a
3:30 or 4 o'clock flight--it was ridiculous," says one general
manager who was at the meeting in Washington on June 16, the day
of Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals. That night, fewer than half
of the 27 G.M.'s stuck around to see Detroit clinch its second
straight Stanley Cup.
If general managers can't be bothered to watch what might be the
ultimate game of the season, why should anyone else?
COLOR PHOTO: J. MCISAAC/B. BENNETT STUDIOS SPLIT DECISION G.M.'s are divided over whether Richter (below) or Joseph is more reliable. [Mike Richter and teammate in game]