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Original Issue

Inside The NHL

Devil Dogs
New Jersey's underachieving players were to blame for Larry
Robinson's dismissal

Minutes after winning his debut as coach of the Devils, 3-1 over
the Islanders on Jan. 29, Kevin Constantine was asked what he
thought of New Jersey's A Line, which had contributed two goals.
"Sorry," Constantine said with a smile, "but what's the A Line?"

Forgive the new guy if he didn't know that the Devils' top unit,
comprising Jason Arnott, Patrick Elias and Peter Sykora, is
nicknamed the A Line. Not only was Constantine learning on the
job, but also the team he inherited from the fired Larry
Robinson bore little resemblance to the club that represented
the Eastern Conference in the last two Stanley Cups. Despite a
talented roster, New Jersey this season had stumbled to
21-20-7-3 and was in ninth place in the conference at the time
of Robinson's dismissal.

"Maybe we all had our own agendas," says defenseman Ken Daneyko.
"We got pulled in different directions and weren't playing as a
unit. Larry did a terrific job for a couple of years, but this
season we weren't responding."

That the Devils played like gangbusters in Constantine's first
two games (they also beat the Blackhawks 3-1) reflected their
sheepishness at having cost the easygoing Robinson his job. By
hiring the 43-year-old Constantine, a disciplinarian who had been
out of the NHL since being fired in December 1999 as Penguins
coach, G.M. Lou Lamoriello showed he believes New Jersey needs
only a wakeup call.

As of Sunday, Constantine hadn't made major changes. He'd moved
center Scott Gomez to left wing on the second line with Bobby
Holik and Sergei Brylin, and he'd stressed defense--finishing
checks, clearing the front of the net and, his point of emphasis,
blocking shots. In Constantine's first two games the Devils
blocked 44, compared with an average of 10.5 per game before his

Perhaps Constantine's most significant move was assuring the A
Line players, who through Sunday had combined for 51 of New
Jersey's 132 goals, that they'll play together for the rest of
the season. To shake up the Devils, Robinson several times this
year had separated the trio for short periods. "Larry was trying
to help the team by breaking us up, but it's good to know we'll
be together," Elias says.

Although Lamoriello says New Jersey has the talent to contend for
the Cup, the team is thin up front. With Gomez and Holik playing
together, the scoring will likely come from only two lines, and
goaltender Martin Brodeur (.902 save percentage) was laboring
under the NHL's heaviest workload: Through Sunday he'd played
2,890 of a possible 3,203 minutes, a higher percentage than any
other netminder in the league had played.

What's more, the Devils, who had moved one point in front of the
Canadiens for the conference's last playoff berth, are uneasy in
that low-rent district. "We're desperate," Arnott says. "When
you're playing for that eighth spot, you have to play with
desperation every night. That's hard for us because we've been at
the top for a while."

Second Coming Of Lemieux?
Thrashers Rookie Kovalchuk

At the conclusion of a press conference following last Friday's
YoungStars Game, Thrashers rookie wing Ilya Kovalchuk, who had
scored six goals in the NHL All-Star weekend exhibition for
players 25 and under, left his MVP trophy behind as he strolled
from the podium at L.A.'s Staples Center. When a league official
caught up to him and explained that the chalice would be engraved
with his name and returned to him, the 18-year-old Kovalchuk
shrugged and walked on. This occurred after Kovalchuk had said,
"I can't say I took the game very seriously. I only showed what I
wanted to."

There's a whiff of arrogance about Kovalchuk, but he backs it up
with a wealth of talent. His standout performance on Friday
confirmed his status as the favorite to win the Calder Trophy.
(At the All-Star break he led NHL rookies with 26 goals and 46
points.) Should he get the hardware, Kovalchuk, who hails from
Tver, Russia, would become the second youngest winner in the
award's 69-year history and the first No. 1 pick to take the
Calder in the season after being drafted since Mario Lemieux in

"His skill level is incredible," Lemieux says. "He's got all the
tools to be a great one in this league. From talking to some of
the guys, he's also got the attitude that he wants to be the
best, and that's a big part of it."

The Picture Isn't Very Clear
National TV Contract

The six-year, $4.6 billion television deal struck two weeks ago
between the NBA and ABC, ESPN and AOL Time Warner won't only
raise pro basketball's small-screen profile but also may lower
the visibility of the NHL. Since 1999 ESPN has been the
principal carrier of NHL games in the U.S., but the addition to
the ESPN lineup of the NBA, which draws higher ratings and,
thus, generates more revenue than the NHL, next season will
force hockey onto the back burner. For the duration of its
contract with the NHL (a $600 million deal that expires
following the 2003-04 season), ESPN will scrap its Wednesday
Night Hockey regular-season telecasts--unopposed by another
major sport, it had become the league's showcase in the U.S.--in
favor of an NBA game that night. (ABC's Saturday-afternoon
hockey telecasts should not be affected.)

The NHL and ESPN are negotiating a replacement night for next
season, but Thursday, the probable candidate, would put hockey
opposite the NBA on TNT (owned by AOL Time Warner, SI's parent
company), a mismatch of Tyson-McNeeley proportions. Last year's
ratings for NBA regular-season games tripled those of the NHL.
(Plus, Disney, which owns ABC and ESPN, may be less inclined to
renew its hockey deal.)

Not surprisingly, the NHL and its TV partners have voiced
optimism about the future of their relationship. According to
league commissioner Gary Bettman, "ESPN has been consistently
telling me during the process that a) there's great opportunity
for cross-promotion between the sports, and b) that the network's
commitment to the NHL is as steadfast as it's ever been, and it's
looking forward to a long-term relationship with us."

COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA After going to the Cup finals the last two years, Sykora and the Devils have fallen on hard times.



Whom Would You Rather Have?

Ray Whitney
In his 10th NHL season the 5'10", 175-pound Alberta native led
Columbus in scoring with 13 goals and 23 assists as of the
All-Star break. The 23rd pick in the 1991 draft, he'd had 159
goals for four teams in 526 games.

Mike Comrie
In his second NHL season the 5'9", 172-pound Alberta native was
Edmonton's second-leading scorer with 20 goals and 20 assists.
The 91st pick in the 1999 draft, he had 28 goals for the Oilers
in 97 games.

THE VERDICT: In a choice between two of the NHL's smallest
players, we'll take Comrie, who has become Edmonton's top center.

--Mark Beech