Signing free agent Mark Messier could cure what ails the Rangers
It seems like an odd courtship. Do the Rangers, who on Monday
were on the verge of signing 39-year-old free-agent center Mark
Messier, need another high-priced veteran in a lineup that is
already top-heavy with aging, expensive players? Last season New
York, whose $60 million payroll was the highest in hockey, got
less bang for the buck than any other team in NHL history. But by
adding Messier, who departed New York bitterly in 1997, the
Rangers will be spending wisely for a change. His return, on a
two-year, $11 million contract that should be made official early
this week, could help resurrect three important Rangers, all of
whom need to bounce back from forgettable seasons if the team is
to make the playoffs for the first time in four years.
No Ranger requires Messier's playmaking skills more than
32-year-old right wing Theo Fleury, who was a major
disappointment in his first season in New York after signing a
three-year, $21 million free-agent deal last summer. Without a
deft-passing center to set him up, Fleury scored only 15 goals,
his lowest full-season total.
Messier's presence will also help revitalize left wing Adam
Graves, whose respect for Messier borders on hero worship. The
chance to be reunited with his former center should pump up
Graves's goal-scoring, which fell to 23 last season.
Perhaps no one felt the sting of Messier's departure three years
ago more than defenseman Brian Leetch, a close friend of his and
the man who inherited the burden of the Rangers' captaincy in the
post-Messier era. New York will have to sort out who wears the C,
but Messier's leadership would remove the responsibility of
running the dressing room from Leetch, who buckled under its
weight. A quiet, introspective man, Leetch would be able to
concentrate fully on playing. He missed 32 games with a broken
right arm in 1999-2000 and had a career-low 26 points.
"One thing Mark does is take the pressure off the other top
players in the locker room," says Flames defenseman Steve Smith,
who played seven seasons with Messier in Edmonton. "He doesn't
mind adversity or pressure."
Messier is not a long-term solution for the Rangers. His return
will, however, bridge the gap until top center-ice prospect Jamie
Lundmark, 19, is ready for prime time. Messier's return may also
be a godsend for 19-year-old right wing Pavel Brendl, a talented
but lazy prospect who will be a big part of New York's future if
he can make the commitment required of a good pro.
"Everyone understands the respect Mark has throughout the
league," says Rangers general manager Glen Sather, who held that
job with the Oilers last season. "He's a terrific leader, a good
guy, and he's played very well. We played him a lot last year in
Edmonton, and he didn't look like a 39-year-old when I saw him,
I'll tell you that."
Eric Lindros's Condition
A Year Off Might Help
As Flyers center Eric Lindros contemplates his future, it's
becoming increasingly clear that his best course of action would
be to take a full year off to clear his head after suffering four
concussions last season and a total of six since he turned pro in
1992-93. Lindros, 27, doesn't want to follow his younger brother
Brett into early retirement. Brett played for the Islanders from
1994-95 to May 1996 but quit the game at 20 after suffering three
concussions in 10 months.
According to Dr. Willem Meeuwisse, chairman of the NHL injury
committee, the conundrum with this type of injury is that while a
doctor can analyze the severity (or grade) of a concussion, it is
the thing he cannot measure--how an athlete feels--that should
determine treatment, and that is difficult for the athlete to
evaluate. "As a player, you're gauging yourself," says Meeuwisse,
"but the part of you that's doing the gauging, your brain, isn't
Aside from making him a little rusty, a year on the sidelines
would not hurt Lindros. Critics have characterized him as
selfish, but just about everything Lindros did in the past two
seasons was with the team's fortunes in mind. He nearly died of
internal bleeding in April 1999 after puncturing a lung in a game
against the Predators and not telling team doctors about the
severity of his chest pain. His decision to play four
regular-season games in March despite obvious post-concussion
syndrome may have been foolish, but his motivation was to shed
his reputation as a complainer. If, after Lindros sits out a
year, doctors give him the green light to play, he still has time
and opportunity to win that elusive Stanley Cup.
Roger Neilson's Future
Memo to League: Hire Him Now
Roger Neilson desperately wants to coach again, but if no team is
willing to put a 66-year-old who is recovering from multiple
myeloma behind the bench, then the league should add him to its
hockey department. Unlike other major corporations, the NHL
invests little in research and development, an effort that
Neilson would be uniquely qualified to lead.
Neilson, who coached the Flyers until last February, was always
an innovator. Once, as a juniors coach in Peterborough, Ont., he
substituted a defenseman for his goaltender to face a penalty
shot. As soon as the bewildered shooter skated toward the net,
the defenseman rushed out of the crease and stripped him of the
puck. Neilson's ploy forced a rule change at three levels of
Neilson still has a lot to offer, even if NHL teams are reluctant
to hire him as a coach. Instead of working for just one team, he
should be working for all 30.
COLOR PHOTO: D. MACMILLAN/B. BENNETT STUDIOS Messier (in black) is a leader in the locker room and, even at 39, a deft playmaker on the ice.
COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA
WHOM WOULD YOU RATHER HAVE?
Fired as Panthers coach in November 1997, MacLean has also
worked in numerous front-office jobs for four franchises (St.
Louis, Washington, Detroit and Florida) in his 14-year NHL
career. Innovative and aggressive, MacLean, 46, has the tools to
sell hockey in a nontraditional market.
Fired as the Flames' G.M. in November 1995 after the disastrous
trade of Doug Gilmour, Risebrough spent the next three years
getting a better handle on the management side as Glen Sather's
right-hand man in Edmonton. Bright and experienced, Risebrough
is better prepared to be a G.M. now.
The Verdict: Risebrough may have won four Cups as a player, but
we'll take MacLean, who acquired budding star goalie Marc Denis
for a No. 2 pick.