Not So Mighty
For the dismal Ducks, the Paul Kariya-Teemu Selanne era has ended
On Feb. 7, 1996, when the Mighty Ducks were only 3 1/2 seasons old
and possessed little more than preternaturally talented left wing
Paul Kariya, they acquired star right wing Teemu Selanne from the
Winnipeg Jets. General manager Jack Ferreira crowed, "I knew we'd
do it! We stepped up!" Coach Ron Wilson exulted, "Our players are
excited as anything, and I just became about 20 percent smarter
as a coach." Selanne fantasized about "playing in a sold-out
building with Kariya and living where the sun shines."
The next season Anaheim advanced to the second round of the
playoffs as Selanne (51 regular-season goals) and Kariya (44)
each scored four times in a seven-game upset of the Coyotes.
That was the last time the Ducks were mighty. Though Selanne and
Kariya continued to rack up goals and points over the next few
seasons, Anaheim reached the playoffs only once more--in 1999,
when it was swept by the Red Wings.
These are especially dark days for the Ducks, and through Sunday
they were 21-35-8-5 and had played before thousands of empty
seats at home. On March 5, when the 30-year-old Selanne was
traded to the Sharks for speedy left wing Jeff Friesen, 24, and
backup goaltender Steve Shields, an era ended. "We came to a
crossroads; we had to decide whether to keep an older player at
a high price," says Anaheim president Pierre Gauthier, who also
replaced Ferreira as general manager in the summer of 1998.
"Having Kariya and Selanne so early in the club's history
created unrealistic expectations."
Those expectations were heightened by the huge sums Anaheim paid
them. Kariya ($10 million) and Selanne ($8 million) accounted for
nearly half the Ducks' 2000-01 payroll, a budgeting strategy that
Gauthier concedes "made no sense." What has made even less sense
were many of Anaheim's personnel moves since that one taste of
playoff success. Wilson, a first-rate coach, was fired after the
1996-97 season because he clashed with Ducks governor Tony
Tavares. Plus, neither Ferreira nor Gauthier could assemble a
strong cast around their stars. Anaheim's lack of depth was
exposed by the injuries that limited Kariya to 22 games in
1997-98 (concussion) and sidelined him for 16 this season (broken
Gauthier, who built a superb team when he was the Senators' G.M.
from 1995-96 through 1997-98, has turned over more than two
thirds of the roster during his Anaheim reign, but to little
benefit. His prized free-agent signing last summer, center German
Titov, had only seven goals and nine assists in 58 games.
While some observers close to the front office say Tavares's
meddling creates instability, Gauthier insists that he has
autonomy in making personnel decisions and that he and Tavares
are "the best of friends." Of course, Gauthier's office could be
known as the home of the whopper. In June 1998 he swore he wasn't
leaving the Senators and then departed for Anaheim 2 1/2 weeks
later. In July 1998 he said he wouldn't replace Ferreira and then
did so within five weeks. Early this season Gauthier said he
wouldn't fire coach Craig Hartsburg and then fired him on Dec.
14. He also said he wouldn't deal Selanne.
"Things change and you have to change too," says Gauthier.
"Teemu's gone, but we're building something. We've just got to
Hlinka-Suhonen Report Card
Assessing Their Rookie Seasons
The Penguins' Ivan Hlinka and the Blackhawks' Alpo Suhonen made
history together this season as the first European head coaches
in the NHL, but aside from that link their debuts have had little
in common. Hlinka, a Czech whose only NHL experience had been as
a Pittsburgh assistant for the final 24 games of last season, has
left most tactical decisions to his players, while Suhonen, a
Finn who had spent a total of four seasons as an assistant with
the Winnipeg Jets and the Maple Leafs, has gently imposed his
puck-moving style on his rebuilding team.
The Penguins (34-24-7-2 through Sunday) were on target to
slightly surpass last year's 88-point total, yet Hlinka has had a
rough ride. The coach of the Czech national team that won the
gold medal at the 1998 Olympics, he was hired largely in
deference to Jaromir Jagr, Pittsburgh's Czech superstar. It
wasn't long, however, before Jagr undermined Hlinka by calling a
players-only meeting and implementing a checking scheme before
Hlinka approved it. Since then, Hlinka has ceded much authority
to Jagr and Mario Lemieux, who has ordered the Penguins into a
defensive mode during several games. "Ivan lets the players
play," says defenseman Jeff Norton, who was traded to the Sharks
Hlinka, who speaks halting English, is well liked but has drawn
criticism from some Penguins for his failure to match lines and
his slowness to adjust assignments during games. Because those
skills are particularly essential in the playoffs, the verdict
on Hlinka's first-year performance is still pending.
Suhonen, meanwhile, has coaxed the Blackhawks into adopting his
creative system--"He likes a lot of skating and passing," says
center Michael Nylander--without resorting to the tongue-lashing
many coaches use to get their players to listen. Suhonen says he
believes "you can't get mad at somebody as a person" and "you
can't say somebody's lazy or dumb," swearing off two words that
have poisoned many coach-player relationships. He also eschews
punitive methods, and after a bad loss he tends to hold short,
sometimes optional, practices. "Alpo's not going to show anger or
threaten players," says G.M. Mike Smith. "It took them a while to
get used to that."
Not surprisingly, Chicago began slowly (2-7-0-1), but since then
the Blackhawks had gone 26-23-7-2 through Sunday and were on pace
to finish with roughly the same record as last year. For Suhonen,
whose team will likely miss the postseason, this history-making
season has been a clear, though not resounding, success.
Injury-Plagued Byron Dafoe
Playoff Hopes Are Hurt Too
Bruins goalie Byron Dafoe isn't a candidate for the Vezina
Trophy, let alone for the league's MVP award, yet he could be a
key figure in the season's stretch run. As of Sunday, Boston
(28-28-6-7) trailed the Hurricanes by two points for the Eastern
Conference's final playoff spot, and Dafoe (14-11-5 with a solid
2.38 goals-against average) was listed as day-to-day with a
strained right hamstring that had sidelined him since Feb. 10.
That strain was the latest in a string of leg injuries that has
left both Dafoe and the Bruins wobbly.
"This is the last time I'm going to talk about Dafoe's injury,"
snapped Boston coach Mike Keenan last Friday. "He has to
strengthen his leg more to play." Twenty-four hours later the
Thrashers blasted the Bruins' backup goalies, John Grahame and
Peter Skudra, 7-5.
Last season, after Dafoe underwent right knee surgery and missed
the final 23 games, Boston skidded to a 6-14-3-0 finish and
failed to make the playoffs. This season Dafoe has missed 11
games with a left hamstring pull, 11 after his right knee flared
up and 13 with his current ailment. During his absences the
Bruins were 12-19-1-3. "The confidence of the team is reflected
in the goaltending," says Keenan.
That's why the Bruins hope Dafoe will heal in time to bear the
weight of their playoff hopes.
For the latest scores and stats, plus more news and analysis from
Michael Farber and Kostya Kennedy, go to cnnsi.com/hockey.
COLOR PHOTO Even with Selanne, Kariya (in white) and the Ducks hadn't won a postseason series since 1997.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO The Bruins' playoff hopes may hang on Dafoe's ability to rebound from his hamstring injury.