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Burning issues

It seems like an annual event now. A player says he doesn't want to leave Buffalo and then he's packing his bags and firing a head-high slap shot on the way out the door.

This year. the honor came early and fell to two-time All-Star defenseman Brian Campbell. The Sabres made it easy for him to go.

"I could have signed," he said of the last-days offer he received, an offer he clearly saw as woefully inadequate for a player of his stature. The Sabres were said to have offered a three-year deal at about $17.25 million, but Campbell, who grew up with the Sabres after they made him a sixth-round pick in 1997, had progressed to the point where he was looking for his first long-term deal. The Sabres weren't about to give it up.

"It could have been," he said. "But they did what they had to do and I did what I had to do. For me, I wanted to be here for the long term. I think I made that clear in a lot of ways and it didn't happen. The money was good and stuff, but I can't sign a deal like that. You see what happens in the NHL. A person (RichardZednik) almost lost his life here a couple of weeks ago. The time table is short and you have to look out for No.1."

The Sabres have been making the usual post-loss noise about getting more aggressive in their signings and coming to terms with requests for long-term deals, but they have a history of doing otherwise.

So much for the famed Minnesota Nice.

In acquiring eight-times-suspended Chris Simon from the New York Islanders, Wild GM Doug Risebrough picked up the wrath of media and a great many fans. He held his shaky ground, however, noting that Simon (whose last two suspensions were for 25 and 30 games for blatant attempts to injure an opponent) plays the kind of game that will suit the Wild well in the rugged Western Conference.

Translation: If those guys with Ducks on their sweaters try to push us around, we'll be ready.

Simon is a complex character, but also the kind of player and person you root for in that you hope he can solve his issues because he is genuinely liked by teammates and has a caring for and commitment to them. But his last two over- the-top actions had him cross-checking Ryan Hollweg in the face with a two-handed swing that A Rod would be proud to call his own and then skate-stomping Jarkko Ruutu in an act that could have earned him a role in Sweeny Todd, the Butcher of Fleet Street.

Simon says he's ready to move past all that. Commissioner Gary Bettman has stated that he'll be watching with interest. How much interest is debatable as Bettman has never permanently barred a player from the game -- not even Bryan Marchment. who racked up 13 suspensions in a career best known for knee on knee hits.

Firing a coach down the home stretch is nothing new in the NHL, but firing the bench boss of a perceived Cup contender deserves at least some attention. Clearly there is a problem in Ottawa and it's been going on for a lot longer than one lousy month of losing. But what drove the firing of John Paddock to a head was the idea that the Senators truly are a Cup contender that has fallen into a slump and needs a dramatic wake-up call.

The Sens have been struggling since they broke out to a 15-2 start. From that point on, they've drifted on a course seemingly charted by Hillary Clinton's former campaign manager. They are thought to be -- and think of themselves -- as good, but since losing their first-place mantle in the Eastern Conference, they haven't found a way to do anything right. The primary reasons are the collapse of their goaltending and the biggest non-move by GM Bryan Murray: his failure to get the help at the deadline that his team clearly needed.

So Murray got permission from owner Eugene Melnyk to go back behind the bench. Paddock, a good hockey man who became embroiled in a mess not entirely of his making, was gone faster than Bill Clinton's White House travel team. But the Sens' main problem dates back to when Melnyk fired then-GM John Muckler and elevated coach Murray, a former GM at numerous stops around the league. The move also promoted Paddock from assistant to head coach.

One could argue that the goaltending wasn't strong enough last season when the Sens made it to the Cup final before being taken apart in five games by the Ducks, but that wasn't the whole puzzle. Melnyk fired Muckler in part because he didn't win the Cup and because Muckler didn't always do what the owner wanted (not getting Gary Roberts at the deadline last season was a real issue between the two).

Still, in promoting Murray, the Sens bypassed their primary problems and sent a message that it wasn't the players who failed, it was management. That makes it extremely easy on the skaters who, according to several sources, griped openly about the play of their goaltenders -- Ray Emery and Martin Gerber -- and how Paddock assigned playing time. The most common refrain was that too much time was given to the big three of Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza and not enough to almost everyone else.

A legitimate scoring threat on the second line has been hard to come by and too few Senators have committed themselves to playing better team defense or doing whatever it takes to win close games. Those shortcomings have been mentioned from time to time, but generally they were lost in the dressing room shouts of, "What about me?"

Paddock did little to stem that selfish mindset, but he is clearly taking the fall for goaltending problems that he and Murray are responsible for, especially Emery's well-documented tardiness issues. Thus, instead of having a team that was focused on getting better on the ice and deeper and stronger via trades, the Sens ended up as directionless but secure in the knowledge that their problems were caused by the people above them.

It;s made for a magnificent mess, one that certainly wasn't solved simply by having Murray step behind the bench. That was clear in the 3-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday night. Were it not for Spezza's early power-play goal, the Senators would have suffered a third consecutive shutout.

Muckler had his flaws and he made his mistakes, but he got this team close. Normally, when that happens the well-managed teams keep things together, get the players focused on taking the next and final step, and maybe toss them a little help to give them the confidence that they can do it. Instead, Melnyk moved from the top down, letting his team embrace that most ancient of hockey excuses: "Not my fault."

It's one the Senators appear to have readily embraced.

So let's see, 25 deals involving 45 players. None of the pretenders appear to have moved to a position of security with regard tp a playoff spot and none of the true contenders could be said to have put a stranglehold on their chances of winning the Stanley Cup.

So was trade deadline day in the NHL anything to get excited about?

There was a fair amount of star power shifting through the ranks, but it's hard to imagine that goalie Mike Smith will help the Tampa Bay Lightning make the playoffs any more than Brad Richards will enable the Dallas Stars to win the Stanley Cup.

Usually, the little moves by the best teams make the biggest difference. So it appears that Detroit's Ken Holland helped himself the most. The veteran GM got a top-four defenseman in Brad Stuart, a player who can log tons of minutes, play both ways, and quarterback a power play. The Red Wings have an excellent power-play man in Nick Lidstrom, but he's been injured of late and though he's expected back, Stuart can easily slide between the first and second unit when called upon. He's also very good with the long first-strike pass, a play vital to a fast-moving, puck-control team like the Wings. Stuart also gives them nine defensemen with solid NHL experience.

Behind Holland, the next best depth pickup was Anaheim GM Brian Burke's acquisition of defenseman Marc-Andre Bergeron, who is smart and knows how to play a role. He's exactly what the Ducks needed in regard to slugging their way through a difficult Western Conference that features the Wings, Stars and Sharks.

The Sharks made a nice pickup for their power play by acquiring soon-to-be unrestricted free-agent defenseman Brian Campbell. He should boost the anemic power play, but the Sharks still have problems with secondary scoring and their inability to move Patrick Marleau for a more tenacious second-line center.

Burke's move was similar to the one he made last season at the deadline, acquiring veteran Brad May, a role player with the hunger to grab a championship ring before his career ran out. Bergeron is a player with the same kind of drive and attitude.

Around the Boards: One of the reasons the Montreal Canadiens failed to land Marian Hossa was that they refused to put forward Chris Higgins into the deal ... Habs GM Bob Gainey recognizes that rookie Carey Price might not be able to carry the team at this stage of his career, but he traded Cristobal Huet in part because Huet was unrestricted at the end of the season and Montreal has Jaroslav Halak in the minors. Halak has been the best goalie in the AHL for two straight seasons ... The Nashville Predators have pulled their starting goalie in three of their past seven games. The latest in a 8-4 loss in Buffalo. Not exactly confidence-inspiring for a team that is struggling to make the playoffs.

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