Do three fallen stars have what it takes to return to their
Most established players regard the preseason as little more than
a jog before the marathon. For a trio of former franchise-caliber
performers, however, these are pivotal times. All three have
slipped precipitously in the past year or two, yet all are young
enough to return to their all-star form. SI talked to a
half-dozen scouts about what has gone wrong for these players and
what they need to do to get back on track.
Keith Tkachuk, 28, Coyotes After averaging 47 goals and 177
penalty minutes a season from 1995-96 through '97-98, the 6'2",
225-pound left wing was considered the NHL's preeminent power
forward. Since then, he has averaged only 29 points and 117
Scout: "For the last couple seasons Keith has been slithering
around the outside, playing cute. He has to get to the front of
the net, intimidate people and get tip-ins. He's a strong guy
with a big ass and great balance, and he belongs in front, where
he used to go."
Scout: "Two things happened to Keith--he had an injured left
ankle, and he lost confidence when [teammate] Jeremy Roenick [was
acquired and] took some of the spotlight. Keith needs to be
stroked. There were rumors he would get traded last season, and
going to work wasn't fun for him."
Prognosis: Tkachuk appears healthy after off-season surgery
removed scar tissue from his ankle. If incoming owner Wayne
Gretzky and second-year coach Bob Francis dote on him, we should
see the big-ass, bad-ass Tkachuk of old.
Theo Fleury, 32, Rangers In 11 seasons with the Flames the pesky
5'6", 180-pound right wing averaged 34 goals per year. After the
Rangers signed him as a free agent last summer, Fleury scored
just 15 times.
Scout: "He's miscast. He's a Western Conference scorer playing
for an Eastern Conference team. He doesn't get as much space in
the East, and he has to learn to create chances in traffic and
not off the rush. It will be difficult for him to get back to the
level he was at."
Scout: "He hasn't lost a step, so there's no reason he can't
rebound. Playing with [New York's off-season acquisition] Mark
Messier will help."
Prognosis: Messier's presence should allow Fleury to regain
confidence. Expect him to approach, but not reach, his
Peter Bondra, 32, Capitals The swift right wing was the league's
most underrated scorer from 1995-96 through '97-98, when he
averaged 50 goals per season. He has scored a total of 52 the
past two years and bickered so much with coach Ron Wilson over
ice time that he asked to be traded.
Scout: "He needs to get back to skating, to working hard all the
time. He's got to skate to make things happen. He's a guy who can
Scout: "He may have lost something, but he's still in the top 10
percent of the league in speed, and he's got a tremendous shot.
He can regain his touch, but he's lost his enthusiasm in
Washington. Getting him out of there will help."
Prognosis: If the Caps deal him to an offensive-minded team,
Bondra will close in on 50.
Lessons Before Flying
Yujiro Nakajimaya, a standout stay-at-home defenseman in the
Japanese Hockey League for 10 years, has roamed far from his own
zone. The 29-year-old captain of the Kokudo Bunnies is getting a
tryout with Nashville during the NHL preseason, largely as a
goodwill gesture by the Predators before they travel to Tokyo to
play their first two regular-season games, against the Penguins
on Oct. 7 and 8. "Yujiro's good," says Nashville captain Tom
Fitzgerald. "He's not flashy, but he's strong on the puck, and he
doesn't get beat. The most impressive thing is that he works so
hard even though he knows he's probably not going to make this
Nakajimaya has a remote chance to earn a roster spot, but he will
most likely return to Japan--and with some reluctance. "I like all
the friendly people who say 'Hi, y'all,'" he says in English.
"Nashville is a place I could live." When he hasn't been taking
his Predators teammates out for a Sapporo and sushi ("He eats
this very crunchy fish that no one else likes," says center
Sebastien Bordeleau), Nakajimaya has eagerly exposed himself to
indigenous elements. One night last week he donned boots and a
Stetson and strode into a country and western juke joint. "He's
not shy," says center Mark Mowers, Nakajimaya's roommate. "They
introduced him to the crowd at the bar, and he put both arms up
and started waving."
At 5'11" and 187 pounds, Nakajimaya is unimposing by NHL
standards. For a Bunny, however, he cuts a formidable figure.
He's one of the more aggressive players in the generally gentle
Japanese league, which is why he says he "really likes all the
checking over here." Nakajimaya has also enjoyed the speed and
explosiveness of NHL players. "If I make a little play, guys turn
it into something big," he said, after an intrasquad scrimmage in
which he pushed a short pass to left wing Sean Haggerty, who
carried the puck ahead and scored.
The Tokyo-bound Predators have been peppering Nakajimaya with
questions about such things as sumo wrestling, Japanese movies
and what to wear in his homeland. Says Bordeleau, who got a
lesson he'll soon be putting to use, "Yujiro taught me how to
hold my chopsticks right."
Death of a Dumb Idea
Hockey fans were spared another season of unnecessary confusion
when the league announced last week that it has eliminated the
inane RT column from its standings. RT stands for regulation tie
and was implemented last season along with the NHL's current
overtime format, in which teams are guaranteed at least a point
simply for reaching the extra session. Last year whenever a team
lost in overtime the total in both the L and the RT columns
increased by one. (The winning team in overtime got only a W and
the customary two points.)
That practice was befuddling, because with overtime losses being
credited in both the L and RT columns of the standings, it was
difficult to determine how many games a team had played by
looking at its overall record. "With the games not adding up,"
says NHL spokesman Gary Meagher, "people were lost."
This year each game will be counted once in a team's record. A
win will go down as a W, a loss in regulation as an L and a tie
as a T. An overtime loss will go into a new column, OTL, an
acronym that makes sense. If your team loses its season opener in
overtime, its record will be 0-0-0-1.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Fleury, a former 50-goal man with Calgary, scored only 15 times in his first season in New York.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: B. BENNETT/B. BENNETT STUDIOS (2)
WHOM WOULD YOU RATHER HAVE?
Since taking over, the soft-spoken coach has gone 160-146-60-2
and transformed the Senators into a top team. He favors a
conservative defensive style and was named coach of the year in
Since taking over, the soft-spoken Quenneville has gone
151-96-39-1 and transformed the Blues into an elite team. He
favors a conservative defensive style and was named coach of the
year last season.
The Verdict: We'd be happy with either of these guys at the helm,
but Coach Q gets the nod for one reason: We love that mustache.