The Rangers' plan for getting back to the top may have a fatal
NHL team executives are watching the woeful Rangers (6-12-3
through Sunday) with great interest. Some relish the fact that
New York is foundering despite a payroll of $59.4 million, 18%
higher than any other club's. Others have a morbid curiosity in
the fates of general manager Neil Smith and coach John Muckler,
both of whom are rumored to be on thin ice. Most, however, are
intrigued by the Rangers' unprecedented attempt to use the
free-agent market to win while simultaneously trying to rebuild.
"Anything can work," says Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello,
"but we haven't seen this before."
Since the advent of free agency in 1995, several good teams,
including the defending Stanley Cup champion Stars, have
augmented already strong lineups by signing a few key free
agents. But no lousy team--and the Rangers, who missed the
playoffs each of the last two years, are lousy by any
measure--has revamped via free agency as New York did last
summer by signing six players to multiyear, multimillion-dollar
deals, including prized winger Theo Fleury, who will earn $8.5
million this season but through Sunday had zero game-winning or
game-tying goals. "We want to rebuild to where we can contend
for the Cup," says Smith. "In the meantime we felt we could take
advantage of our [financial] resources to sign guys who can help
us be competitive today."
With so many new faces it should come as no surprise that New
York has "had a hard time getting in sync," in the words of left
wing Kevin Stevens. More troublesome is the possibility that
management's attempt at a short-term fix is impeding their
team's long-term development. With so many high-priced veterans
on hand (NHL free agents must be at least 31), the growth of New
York's young players could be stunted.
Free agent signee Tim Taylor, for example, has played well at
center, but his presence has limited the ice time of 19-year-old
Manny Malhotra, a cornerstone for the future. Similarly, the
signing of defensemen Sylvain Lefebvre and Stephane Quintal has
cut into the time of blueliner Jason Doig, 22. Nine of the
Rangers' top 11 in minutes per game through Sunday were more
than 30 years old.
New York's rebuilding effort has focused on three rookies,
center Mike York, 21, defenseman Kim Johnsson, 23, and left wing
Jan Hlavac, 23, who are being ushered into the league under the
leadership of wealthy players 10 years their senior, some of
whom seem uninterested in playing. The most alarming aspect of
New York's plan is that the Rangers have been left with a
paucity of quality players between the ages of 24 and 29--the
young veterans who form the core of many NHL teams on the rise.
"I don't blame the Rangers for trying this," says Oilers general
manager Glen Sather. "They should improve as the year goes on.
Is this a way to build for the long term? We'll have to wait and
Crease Rule Change
A Net Gain For Everyone
The NHL's decision to repeal the 1991 rule that forbade would-be
scorers from entering the crease--a bad rule made worse last
year by the league's policy of reviewing every goal that may
have been facilitated by such an infraction--is a winner. This
year a goal can be disallowed only when a referee determines
that an opposing player interfered with the goalie. While
scoring hasn't increased significantly, there's welcome
anecdotal evidence of more spirited and high-skilled play around
the net. "You're not always looking down, worried that your toe
might be in the crease," says Kings sniper Luc Robitaille.
"You're going to the net, playing hockey. It's not just better
this way, it's a lot better."
Even the victims of the rule change agree. "Edmonton got a goal
against me with a guy in the crease," says Coyotes goaltender
Bob Essensa, "but I still like the change. It's better than
having to go upstairs to review every single goal." Adds Flames
goalie Grant Fuhr, "It makes it harder for us, but you're seeing
exciting goaltending. With more guys around the net, it's hard
to get good positioning, so goalies have to use their reactions
to make spectacular saves."
The crease rule was implemented to protect goalies from injury,
and there's some fear that with crease-crashing back in vogue
netminders are once again imperiled. However, NHL rules prohibit
anyone from initiating contact with a goalie, and with most
games now officiated by two referees, transgressors are more
easily spotted. Besides, the goalie's protective equipment is
better than ever, and, thanks to his outsized stick, he isn't
without recourse if jostled. "You'll get a cross-check, or your
face gets run into the post," says Flames winger Valeri Bure.
"You pay a price to go in there."
Songs in the Key of Eh
The Zambonis, a thriving rock-and-roll band from Bridgeport,
Conn., are best defined by the title of their newly released
third album, More Songs About Hockey...and Buildings and Food,
and by the fact that, when they play nightclub gigs, they wear
hockey gear. "Sometimes Tarquin, our bassist, even plays with
his gloves on," says guitarist and singer Dave Zamboni (his real
name is Dave Schneider). "This sounds different but not good."
More often, though, the band, whose four members all use the
surname Zamboni on stage and whose records sell throughout
Canada and the U.S., play music that's reasonably pleasing to
the ear. The eclectic mix on their latest release includes the
poppish Bob Marley and the Hartford Whalers and the incantatory
Hextall, in which the Zambonis mimic the serenade that NHL fans
used to sing to the recently retired goalie Ron Hextall. "We
believe that all life experience and the essence of the human
condition can be seen through the hockey metaphor," says
33-year-old guitarist Peter (Katis) Zamboni.
The Zambonis perform in clubs and in NHL and minor league
arenas, and once worked a wedding during which the bride's and
groom's families played a pickup game. About the only thing they
avoid is their namesake. "I never want to drive a Zamboni, and I
never want to meet Bob Dylan," says Dave. "Some things are
COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA The myriad new faces in New York have left veterans like Stevens out of sync.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO
WHOM WOULD YOU RATHER HAVE?
He led Carolina with 62 points in 1998-99, but this season, as a
restricted free agent unable to come to contract terms, he's
sitting out. A 6'4", 210-pound bruiser, Primeau, 28, soon may be
traded to a team willing to pay his price.
He also led his team, Ottawa, in scoring last season, with 94
points, and has one year remaining on his contract but has
chosen to sit out this year rather than honor it. At 26, the
6'3", 225-pound Yashin is also trade bait.
The Verdict: Even though Yashin is the bigger headache, he's a
better player and gets the nod.