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Original Issue

Inside The NHL

Back in Business
Coach Mike Keenan's latest enterprise is trying to turn around
the woeful Panthers

Clad in a turtleneck, jogging pants and flip-flops with white
socks, Mike Keenan looks anything but Wall Street. Yet when
asked to explain why he has changed jobs so often--he's coaching
his seventh NHL team--the 52-year-old Keenan, who was hired on
Dec. 3 to replace Duane Sutter behind the bench of the Panthers,
turns to business-speak. "In this industry there's turnover,"
Keenan says. "It's not always about what happens on the ice;
it's sometimes the context of the situation. In New York, the
team was sold and the ownership changed. In St. Louis, the team
was sold and the ownership changed. In Boston and Vancouver, the
management changed. It's like corporate takeovers--when a new
owner comes in, most often the CEO is out."

Keenan jumps from one gig to the next with the facility of a
practiced turnaround specialist. His seven-city resume
(Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, St. Louis, Vancouver, Boston,
Sunrise, Fla.) reads like an airport DEPARTURES monitor. Despite
his intense style, which inevitably causes friction with general
managers and players, and has frequently led to his
dismissal--whether he admits it or not--he usually makes teams
better, as he did in taking the Flyers (1985 and '87) and the
Blackhawks ('92) to the Stanley Cup finals before winning the
trophy with the Rangers ('94).

The Panthers, who through Sunday had the league's second-worst
record (7-16-2-3), seem ready-made for Keenan. To rebuild
Florida, which hasn't won a playoff series since its trip to the
Cup finals in 1996, Keenan will rely on a combination of proven
stock (wingers Pavel and Valeri Bure, who between them had 179
goals in the past two seasons) and intriguing futures
(22-year-old goaltender Roberto Luongo, who at week's end had a
.918 save percentage this season, and explosive 23-year-old
forward Kristian Huselius, who led the Panthers with 13 goals).
Keenan will also have to massage Pavel, who chafed under Sutter
and was criticized for his poor defensive play, and coexist with
interim G.M. Chuck Fletcher by keeping in check his tendency to
appropriate management duties.

Keenan has already stamped his mark on the Panthers by running
his trademark up-tempo practices ("Much harder than they were,
always balls-out," says Luongo), instituting an 11:30 p.m.
curfew on nights before games and requiring players to work out
on stationary bikes after games. The ever-confident Keenan is
talking playoffs, although Florida trailed the Penguins, the
eighth-place team in the conference, by 12 points. "For us to
make the postseason from this position," says Keenan, "would be

In CEO lingo, that's an ambitious fourth-quarter projection from
the master of the turnaround.

Slovakia's Olympic Setback
Having to Play Shorthanded

Pity Peter Stastny, the Hall of Fame forward who's general
manager of Slovakia's Olympic team. He has enough NHL talent to
field a medal contender in Salt Lake City--envision a top line
of the Blues' Pavol Demitra, the Bruins' Jozef Stumpel and the
Sabres' Miroslav Satan--but may not reach the medal round.
Although the NHL will stop play for 12 days in mid-February to
accommodate that round, eight countries, including Slovakia,
must play three qualifying matches in Salt Lake City for two
open berths in the medal round, and those matches are to be
played before the break. (Six teams, including the U.S. and
Canada, have already qualified for the eight-team medal round by
virtue of the results from the Nagano Games.)

The difficulty of flying players to Utah on off days to play
qualifying games, plus the NHL's insistence on enforcing Bylaw
21, which mandates that teams use their best lineups in league
games, means that most Slovaks on NHL rosters are likely to miss
playing in qualifying. "Players get time for personal reasons,
family reasons, drugs or alcohol," Stastny says. "To have [all
the best Slovakian] players for even one game would do so much."

As of Sunday only three NHL Slovaks, Coyotes forwards Michal
Handzus and Ladislav Nagy and defenseman Radoslav Suchy, were
scheduled to play in qualifying, and for only one game (Feb. 9
against Germany). "We had two choices," says Phoenix G.M.
Michael Barnett. "One, make them watch the game on television
and have them come to the rink the next day to play Edmonton
very likely disgruntled. Or two, let them go, have them come
back possibly fatigued but happy for having contributed to their
national team, with the idea that we'd gone out of our way for
them and that we expect the same from them in the future."

Part of the blame falls on the International Ice Hockey
Federation, which devised the format, but more blame goes to the
NHL, which touts diversity and the game's international flavor
yet refuses to extend its break. In addition to Slovakia, seven
other nations among the eight in the qualifying field have
national team players on NHL rosters.

Here's hoping that by 2006, the NHL excuses players for all
Olympic rounds, even if it requires a shortened league schedule.
That concession would allow the world's top skaters to compete
for the gold on an equal footing.

Scoring Dips Again
The Reason for The Plunge

Commissioner Gary Bettman is fond of saying that 70% of NHL
games are decided by two goals or fewer, but a number that's
less adduced is 5.17--the average number of goals per game
through Sunday. If this stat were to hold up for the season, it
would be the lowest since 5.07 goals per game were scored in
1955-56. This year's figure is curious because scoring, which
had been decreasing at an alarming rate for most of the 1990s,
rose in each of the previous two seasons, reaching 5.51 in

Explanations for this year's dip are a dime a dozen--familiar
cries ranging from improvements in goalie equipment to
conservative coaching systems to the dilution of talent wrought
by expansion are heard--but one of the best theories comes from
Avalanche center Joe Sakic. "Because of the compact schedule
necessitated by the Olympics, guys are tired," he says. "Every
year is long, but you have breaks, time to recuperate. In an
Olympic year, you play every other day, a lot of back-to-backs."

Sakic's analysis makes sense. In 1997-98, a season in which the
league's 17-day Olympic break necessitated a similarly compressed
schedule, goals per game declined precipitously, by .55 compared
with the year before.

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Keenan fully intends for Luongo, Jason Wiemer (28) and their mates to make a postseason run.



Whom Would You Rather Have?

Brian Savage

The 171st choice in the 1991 draft, the 6'1", 192-pounder had 10
goals this year through Sunday and 151 in his career. He hasn't
played more than 64 games in a season since '96-97.

Brian Rolston

The 11th choice in the 1991 draft, the 6'2", 205-pounder had 14
goals this year through Sunday and 127 in his career. He hasn't
played fewer than 76 games in a season since '95-96.

THE VERDICT: Savage is a pure goal scorer, but the speedy Rolston
is well-rounded, durable and consistent, so we'll go with

--Mark Beech