The Blues' Chris Pronger should become the first defenseman
since Bobby Orr to be the league MVP
Not since Bobby Orr blazed end-to-end trails for the Bruins in
1971-72 has a defenseman won the Hart Trophy. The Blues' Chris
Pronger possesses little of Orr's otherworldly offensive
magnificence, yet if the hockey writers who vote for league MVP
take to heart the criterion for the Hart--"the player adjudged to
be the most valuable to his team"--the 25-year-old Pronger will
have to clear space on his mantel. "He's the most dominant player
in the league," says Flyers right wing Rick Tocchet. "He shuts
As the captain and defensive lifeblood of the NHL's best and
stingiest team--St. Louis was 50-18-11-0 through Sunday and had
allowed only 1.94 goals per game--Pronger was logging a
league-high 30:13 of ice time per game. His stamina allows the
rest of the Blues' defensemen to remain rested and has enabled
St. Louis to weather injuries that sidelined star blueliner Al
MacInnis for 21 games.
At 6'6" and 220 pounds, Pronger takes control of a game with his
formidable strength and reach. The puck may enter the Blues'
zone on an opponent's stick, but it most often comes out on
Pronger's. He had been on the ice for a minuscule 43
even-strength goals-against this season, and he has helped hold
the NHL's top five scorers--the Penguins' Jaromir Jagr, the
Panthers' Pavel Bure, the Flyers' Mark Recchi, the Sharks' Owen
Nolan and the Blackhawks' Tony Amonte--without an even-strength
point in 14 games.
Pronger also had 58 points and a +49 rating, both second among
league defensemen, and his Hart candidacy has added legs to what
would otherwise be a match race between Jagr and Bure. Jagr is
the NHL's most irrepressible offensive force (league-best 1.56
points per game, but he missed 14 games in the last six weeks
because of injuries), and Bure is its most explosive entertainer
(NHL-leading 55 goals). With the exception of Sabres goalie
Dominik Hasek, who won the Hart Trophy after the 1996-97 and
1997-98 seasons, the award has gone to a high-scoring forward
every year since Orr won it. "A defenseman is as important as a
star forward or a goalie," says Pronger. "A lot of times that
gets overlooked. Maybe we can change that."
The we includes premier blueliners such as the Kings'
hard-hitting Rob Blake and the Red Wings' silky Nicklas Lidstrom
and ferocious Chris Chelios. So fine is that back line batch
that even as we give Pronger our vote for the Hart, he's only
our runner-up for the Norris Trophy. The Norris goes to the
defenseman who demonstrates "the greatest all-around ability in
the position," and this season that has been Lidstrom. Less
imposing than Pronger but far smoother, Lidstrom led defensemen
with 20 goals and 73 points while also playing nearly perfect
positional defense. This is the year to rock the vote: Lidstrom
deserves the Norris; Pronger, the Hart.
Neil Smith's Firing
WHO TAKES OVER IN NEW YORK?
Neil Smith's prudent refusal to deal some of the Rangers' young
talent for veterans at last month's trading deadline may have
cost New York a playoff berth and Smith his job as general
manager. When he was dismissed, along with his handpicked coach,
John Muckler, on March 28, Smith was told it was because of the
Rangers' failure to make the postseason for the third year in a
row, which is a long time for any club, let alone one with the
NHL's highest payroll.
Smith had an excellent run during his 11 years in New York,
presiding over the Rangers' winning the Stanley Cup for the first
time in 54 years, in 1994; another appearance in the Eastern
Conference finals, in '97; and Presidents' Trophy-winning
performances in '92 and '94. Of late, he had brought in a handful
of solid prospects--including rookie forwards Mike York and Jan
Hlavac and junior sensations Pavel Brendl and Jamie Lundmark--and
his refusal to surrender them at the trade deadline will benefit
the new general manager.
The list of candidates for Smith's old job includes superb
general managers such as the Devils' Lou Lamoriello, the
Penguins' Craig Patrick and the Oilers' Glen Sather. Neither
Cablevision, which owns the Rangers, nor any of the putative
candidates would comment on the search for a successor, but SI
has learned that the Mighty Ducks' vice president of hockey
operations, Jack Ferreira, has already been contacted by New
York. A highly respected talent evaluator, Ferreira was the
Rangers' director of player development from 1986 through '88,
general manager of the Sharks from '90 to '92, director of
scouting for the Canadiens in '92-93 and the Mighty Ducks'
general manager from '93 through '98.
Then there's Scotty Bowman, who has won eight Cups and had
already been elected to the Hall of Fame as a builder in 1991,
even before he helped to assemble the Red Wings, who won the Cup
in '97 and '98. Bowman, 66, has been contemplating getting out of
coaching for the past few years, and he would love to run the
Bowman has the status and the strength of spirit to handle the
heat in New York. Ferreira's time at Disney, owner of the Mighty
Ducks, has conditioned him to working in a corporate environment
such as the one at Madison Square Garden. There's a good chance
one of those two men will be with the Rangers next year.
Hockey Video Game
TOO CLOSE TO THE REAL THING
In a newly released video game from EA Sports, NHL Rock the
Rink, cartoonish figures are used in a feature called "Wrestling
in the Rink," in which players are urged to do things like "hit
'em hard with the Clothesline." The game, billed as MADNESS ON
ICE!, has been sanctioned by the league and by the NHL Players'
Association, both of whose logos appear on the box.
The league signed off on the game's release last summer, and
spokeswoman Bernadette Mansur says the NHL feels comfortable
with the sanctioning because the game received an E rating from
the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, meaning its content
had been been deemed suitable for everyone and because the
game's cartoon nature divorces it from the actual sport. Whether
the league would sanction the game today--in the aftermath of
the Marty McSorley and Scott Niedermayer stick attacks last
month--she would not say.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO One opponent calls Pronger, who was +49 and had 58 points through Sunday, the league's most dominant player.
COLOR PHOTO: J. LEARY/B. BENNETT STUDIOS
COLOR PHOTO: J. MCISAAC/B. BENNETT STUDIOS
WHOM WOULD YOU RATHER HAVE?
An extraordinary passer, the 5'10" 180-pounder led Washington
with 67 points through Sunday. At 37 he has a strong presence as
A superb playmaker, the 5'11" 200-pounder led Edmonton with 69
points. At 29 he's growing commendably in his role as captain of
The Verdict: Weight is more dynamic, but Oates, our choice, is
better on face-offs and is a force on the penalty kill.