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Original Issue

Inside the NHL

Jeepers, Keepers!
Teams are too impatient to wait for their first-round goaltending
picks to develop

Moments after the Thrashers selected him with the second pick in
last Saturday's draft, Kari Lehtonen, an 18-year-old goaltender
for Jokerit Helsinki in Finland's Division 1, was asked to
evaluate his chances of cracking Atlanta's roster next fall. "I
think I have a chance," Lehtonen said. "That's my goal, to play
next year in the NHL." Rosy views of the future are de rigueur
for high draftees. However, if history is a guide, not only will
Lehtonen not become an NHL regular next season, but he also
won't be with the Thrashers when (and if) he ever does.

Even as netminders' draft-day prominence has increased
recently--over the last six drafts four times goalies have been
among the first six selections; the only other time a goalie had
been picked that high was in 1983--the likelihood of a keeper's
standing in the crease for the club that chose him has declined.
The combination of a goalie's lengthy developmental process and
teams' win-now approach has made homegrown netminders rare. Last
season only seven of the league's 32 starters (two teams had
goalies share the No. 1 job) had been a regular with the club
that drafted them, and goalies playing for their draft teams
accounted for just 29% of all minutes in net.

"If you don't come around fast, general managers grow impatient
because they're not sure if they're going to be around
themselves," says Canucks G.M. Brian Burke, whose four goalies
last season--Dan Cloutier, Peter Skudra, Alexander Auld and
Martin Brochu--were acquired from other teams. "It becomes,
'We've got to win today.' Everybody talks about rebuilding and
giving guys a chance, but most teams [don't have the time] to

Because the NHL readiness of keepers depends largely on
technical mastery, their development is slow. Raw attributes
such as size and speed, which can provide shortcuts for position
players, aren't as helpful to netminders, who need exposure to
different shots and shooters and to work with pro goalie
coaches. What's more, because players are rarely eligible to
join NHL-affiliated minor league teams until they're 20, the two
years following the draft are usually spent in junior leagues,
where honing keepers' skills is not a priority.

The average age at which last season's NHL starters in goal
became regular roster members (that is, played at least 25 games
in a season) was 23 years, eight months. Typically, only teams
that already possess goaltending depth can wait those five-plus
years for a netminder to mature. If Atlanta can wait, the highly
touted Lehtonen may evolve into an All-Star, but circumstances
could force the Thrashers (19-47-11-5 last season) to move their
prize. As with many teams trying to develop goalies, time isn't
on their side.

First-Round Draft Picks
Not Even a 50-50 Proposition

Team executives are downplaying the importance of a first-round
draft choice--"The value of a pick has gone the way of the stock
market," says Islanders G.M. Mike Milbury--and not without
justification. Even given at least a five-year window for
development, recent first-round picks have more often than not
failed to become NHL regulars (by our definition, position
players who appeared in 65 games last season and goalies who
were in 25), let alone stars. Of the 154 first-round picks from
1992 through '97, just 71, or 46.1%, were regulars in 2001-02.

Hurry-up Face-off Rule
Good Fourth Line More Important

The league's decision last Thursday to institute hurry-up
face-offs, similar to those used at the Salt Lake City Olympics,
was made to decrease the length of games and pick up the flow of
action. Under the new protocol, dead time during stoppages (save
for the final two minutes of regulation and overtime) will last
no longer than 18 seconds--five seconds for the visiting team to
change lines, eight for the home team to change and five for the
linesman to drop the puck--which should shorten matches by eight
to 14 minutes.

Until now no time limit had been imposed. Henceforth, stoppage
time will be kept by linesmen, who have been instructed to drop
the puck after 18 seconds whether both teams are ready for the
face-off or not.

The modified procedure will have another effect on the game: It
will benefit deeper, more talented teams, because it places a
premium on having four solid lines. With face-off downtime
curtailed, the stalling tactics that allow precious moments for
a club's top lines to rest will be eliminated. A middling team
with only three good lines won't be able to hide its fourth
unit. Upper-echelon clubs will capitalize on the mismatch
generated by their superior talent, an advantage that is often
more pronounced at the bottom of the depth chart.

"I don't think our games are too long, but if we can reduce the
length of stoppages, that's a plus for the flow of the game,"
commissioner Gary Bettman said last week. The plus for flow may
be a minus for competitive balance. Still, the hurry-up face-off
is an idea whose time has come.

Unrestricted Free Agents
Top Buys for Bargain Hunters

Free agency begins on July 1, but not every team comes to the
marketplace with the money to sign prime Group III players such
as Maple Leafs goalie Curtis Joseph, who is expected to get a
contract worth at least $36 million over four years. For
cost-conscious clubs, here are three second-tier unrestricted
free agents who can provide immediate help.

--D Luke Richardson, Flyers. This big bruiser (6'4", 210 pounds)
is a model of consistency: single-digit points and triple-digit
penalty minutes in each of the last five seasons. Still, the
33-year-old would be a top four defenseman on many teams.

--D Bret Hedican, Hurricanes. This speedy 31-year-old showed
valuable versatility during Carolina's surprise run to the Cup
finals. He played opposite Aaron Ward on the No. 2 defensive
pairing, killed penalties and quarterbacked the power play.

--RW Scott Young, Blues. He's coming off a down year (19 goals
and 22 assists), but the well-traveled 34-year-old has won two
Stanley Cups (Penguins in 1991, Avalanche in '96) and was a
40-goal scorer two seasons ago.

COLOR PHOTO: J. KOLIS/B. BENNETT STUDIOS Lehtonen was drafted No. 2 by Atlanta, but will he ever be a Thrashers regular?



Which Team Would You Rather Own?

Buffalo Sabres
Under the control of the NHL since last week, after owner John
Rigas's mismanagement drove the team about $150 million into
debt, the fan-rich, talent-poor club is looking for a local buyer
to keep it in town.

Montreal Expos
Under the control of Major League Baseball since last winter,
when former owner Jeffrey Loria was given a $120 million bailout,
the talent-rich, fan-poor team is hoping it doesn't become a
victim of contraction.

THE VERDICT: Give us Vladimir Guerrero, Jose Vidro and a fleet of
moving vans bound for warmer climes. The Expos are our
pick. --D.G.H.