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One gem in an underwhelming Hall crop, Devils' new hire, more notes

Back when I was President of the Professional Hockey Writers Association (a time that corresponds roughly to when mankind was learning to master the use of fire), there was an annual obligation to select an Elmer Ferguson Award winner (contributions to journalism) and present the name to the Hockey Hall of Fame for inclusion in the annual festivities.

It is the highest honor the PHWA could award to what was then limited to the print media and there was a time, or two, when we didn't put forth a candidate. We didn't exactly agonize over it. Some years, no one mustered the necessary number of votes, but when that happened the Hall folks made it clear they weren't happy. I never got a reason why, but it seemed to have the smell of money around it, something about having to host a luncheon for the broadcaster winner of the Foster Hewitt Award and not having a print guy. Well, it just didn't add up or something to that effect.

I mention this only because it made me wonder what the Hall would do if it didn't have an annual candidate for greatness. Would it cancel its annual gala in Toronto, one that, for the record, is a major component regarding fundraising for its annual budget and the feting of corporate sponsors? Would it relegate itself to a "B" pool and inform sponsors and other buyers of the highly coveted (and highly priced) tickets that the chance to rub shoulders with hockey greats would be "slightly different" this year, something akin to mingling with the "celebrities" lined up for the NHL Awards Presentation on June 23 in Las Vegas? (Jay Mohr is hosting a cavalcade of folks, some of whom wouldn't make Kathy Griffin's D list.) Would the Hall leave a spot on the wall that read: "This Plaque Intentionally Left Blank"?

It won't happen this year and the Hall should be so grateful for Joe Nieuwendyk's availability that the electors vote him in on a unanimous first ballot. The former Cornell University standout is in his first year of eligibility and proved himself to be a superb two-way center who won Stanley Cups with three different teams -- Calgary, Dallas and New Jersey -- and was the driving force for each of them.

Nieuwendyk, the freshly-minted general manager in Dallas, is a salvation for the Hall. It's a fair bet that electors this summer will likely admit other candidates in a field that showed talent or perseverance (or in some cases both), but aren't exactly the likes of last year's class -- Brett Hull, Steve Yzerman, Luc Robitaille and Brian Leetch -- or the all-world group of Mark Messier, Ron Francis, Scott Stevens and Al MacInnis who graced the podium in 2007.

Not all years are great years for talent. Drafts prove that, as do careers. What follows is a capsule look at this year's top Hall-eligible candidates and an opinion regarding their joining Nieuwendyk in enshrinement:

Few players were ever more hyped, and as complete packages go, Lindros often lived up to the hype. He won the Hart Trophy in the 1994-95 (a lockout-shortened season) and was among the league's best through much of his time with the Philadelphia Flyers. The "Big E" scored 372 goals and 865 points in an injury-plagued career. He also averaged better than a point per game in the playoffs (57 in 53 games) and was perhaps the most imposing physical force the game has ever known. But there are downsides.

Lindros was never a part of the solution in Philadelphia, Toronto or Dallas and he, among others, was singled out by his own coach as "a choker" in a Stanley Cup Final vs. Detroit in which the Flyers were dominated while Lindros refused to accept any leadership mantle. While winning a Hart Trophy is a noteworthy accomplishment, that too was controversial. Lindros that year was up against Dominik Hasek, who had become the first goalie in decades to post a goals-against average under 2.00 (1.95 in 58 games). Hasek had his supporters, but there was talk of a rush to judgment in favor of Lindros due, some would argue, to a bias toward Europeans by those who still thought that foreigners were "taking jobs away" from North Americans.

Ultimately, Lindros' career was shortened by injuries that were inevitable, given his style of play. He may also lose votes because he snubbed the Quebec Nordiques at the draft table and had many high-profile battles with the Flyers as well as some behind the scenes actions with the players association. But he's also likely to draw some votes just for having played in Toronto where the Hall is located and where most of the gala tickets are sold. On a scale of 1 to 5, his chances for induction this year are likely at 3 with the Toronto connection carrying real weight.

In a much-traveled career that included stops in Buffalo (twice), Toronto, New Jersey, Boston, Colorado and Tampa Bay, Andreychuk became the game's all-time leader in power play goals (274). He was a feared player around the net and he earned his just reward with a Stanley Cup in Tampa Bay in the next-to-final season of his 23-year career. His 640 career goals rank 13th all time, are tops among players not in the Hall, and include a memorable six-tally game against the Bruins (while with Buffalo) in Boston Garden.

On the downside, Andreychuk was considered one-dimensional. He was good around the net, but too slow to get back on defense and he was easily neutralized in playoff competition where shadowing scorers was the norm. Andreychuk, however, likely will earn points for his commitment to the Lightning, a team that was a playoff also-ran but grew into a Cup contender in part because of his leadership. He'll also get votes for perseverance in refusing trades from Tampa to Cup contenders, choosing instead to help build a winner. On the 1-to-5 scale, he's a 4 and likely to go in this year or next.

One of the most talented offensive players to ever grace the game, Mogilny defected from his native Russia in order to play in the NHL. Blessed with speed, superb hand-eye coordination, and an innate ability to find openings and score from almost anywhere on the ice, he tallied a stunning 76 goals and 127 points when he teamed with Sabres center Pat LaFontaine in 1992-93. He also had stellar moments with Vancouver, Toronto and New Jersey, winning a Cup with the Devils in 2002.

However, Mogilny angered many in the hockey community with what was perceived as a rigged move (a stated fear of flying) to force his way out of Buffalo. He was also thought to have quit on the Sabres, posting by unofficial count 17 consecutive missed breakaways in his final year with Buffalo, including several in a first-round playoff loss to Philadelphia after which he refused to fly home with the team. He was eventually traded to the Canucks. Later in his career, Mogilny seemed to grow up and was an admired figure in Toronto and New Jersey, something that should offset those rocky Buffalo moments. He, too, should benefit from being in Toronto and rates a 4 regarding electability.

A three-time 50-goal scorer (and two-time 40-goal man), the American-born LeClair was an elite power forward with Montreal, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, winning a Cup with the Canadiens in 1993. His greatest years were with the Flyers on the famed Legion of Doom line with Lindros and Mikael Renberg. It was in Philadelphia that LeClair became the first American-born player to score 50 goals in three consecutive seasons. Critics will claim that he rode the coattails of Lindros and Renberg, but LeClair scored two overtime goals in Montreal's surprising run to the 1993 Cup and was considered clutch around the net when the game was on the line. His lack of speed limited his game somewhat and he was sometimes criticized for not using his size to the Flyers' physical advantage. In terms of perception, LeClair is considered to be a good-to-very good player, but shy of great in his overall numbers (406 goals in 967 regular season games and 89 points in 154 playoff games). That puts his chance this year at about a 3.

He's a two-time 50-goal scorer and one of 41 NHLers to enter the 500 goals club, but his overall lack of playoff success and leadership skills works against him. Likely a 2 this time around.

The first overall pick in 1987, Turgeon piled up points in Buffalo, Long Island, Montreal, St. Louis, Dallas and Colorado, but also constantly battled a reputation for not knowing how to win or even perform in big games. He scored 1,327 points in 1,294 regular season matches, but never won a Cup and he often struggled in the playoffs and with what was expected of him. Rating this year is a 2.

Pavel Bure: a prolific goal-scorer, but he never endeared himself to the NHL in part because of his me-first attitude and some dubious off-ice dealings.

Doug Gilmour:a former teammate of Andreychuk in Toronto where he won accolades as one of the all-time great Leafs because of his penchant for playing beyond his size.

Tom Barrasso: a two-time Cup winner with Pittsburgh and both the Calder and Vezina Trophy-winner as an 18-year-old netminder with the Sabres.

Guy Carbonneau: aCanadiens standout for his faceoff, penalty-killing skills, he won the Selke Trophy three times as the league's best defensive forward and was a mainstay on Montreal's 1986 and 1993 Cup teams. He later won a third Cup with Dallas in 1999.

Phil Housley: Like Barrasso, he was a teenage sensation when he broke in with Buffalo in 1982. Housley went on to play 21 seasons as one of the league's better offense-oriented defensemen, scoring 338 goals and 1,232 points (fourth all-time).

All are considered longshots, but Gilmour has a following among some voters, and though it's likely to be an emotional vote, former Canadiens, Maple Leafs, Bruins and Devils coach Pat Burns has a shot in the Builders category. Burns won a Cup with the Devils, improved every team he coached, and three times won the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year. Give him a 4.

It often takes awhile, but no one could ever accuse New Jersey Devils GM Lou Lamoriello of not taking care of one of his own. Lamoriello on Thursday named John MacLean his head coach for the 2010-11 season. The GM has passed over this loyal soldier numerous times, but it always seemed to be with MacLean's best interest in mind. In getting him the time he needed to become a functioning head coach, Lamoriello also gave MacLean a necessary opportunity to prepare for success. Time in the AHL (after years as an NHL assistant with the Devils) was likely time well-spent. MacLean led the Lowell Devils to a franchise-best 39-31-4-6 record last season, including its first playoff spot in four years. One could make the case that MacLean wasn't ready the first few times his name came up as a possible coach for the NHL Devils. It would be darnn near impossible to make that argument any longer...

A tip of the proverbial hat to Cam Neely, the former premier power forward who put time into learning how to be a hockey executive. This week, Neely was named President of the Bruins. To many, it's a title without a lot of clout, given how owner Jeremy Jacobs keeps a close hand on the tiller of the Bruins' operations not to mention their corporate wallet, but I expect Neely to be his own man and fight the battle of direction and budget with Jacobs and the hockey department. Neely was that way as a player and it's not likely he'll change...

And to that we'll add a heartfelt goodbye to Mike Ramsey who has stepped down as an assistant coach with his home state Minnesota Wild. Seems like only yesterday that he was a teenaged defenseman with the Team USA squad that won the historic Olympic gold medal at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics. His stellar career also included a stint as an outstanding NHL defenseman -- runs with Pittsburgh and Detroit just missed getting his name on the Stanley Cup -- and as an assistant coach with Buffalo. He left the Wild of his own accord in order to devote more time to family.

"I've been in the game for 30 years now, and I've been with the Wild for 10," Ramsey said. "It's been an awesome 10 years, and at the end of the year, you start reflecting on all the things you've done with the team and the time you spent at the rink, and the travel, and this and that. Going forward, I thought it was a good time for me to step down and pursue other things."

He will be missed.

It's a popular conclusion that newly-hired Columbus Blue Jackets coach Scott Arniel was a "second choice" behind Guy Boucher, who turned down an offer from the Jackets to sign with Steve Yzerman and the Tampa Bay Lightning. I won't add my voice to that chorus because it's possible that Arniel, a former NHL player and Manitoba Moose coach, was perhaps the third or even fourth choice on GM Scott Howson's list of candidates. But I can guarantee you that the perceived snub won't have an impact on Arniel or his newfound charges.

Arniel is a working man's coach, a teacher, and pretty much exactly what the seemingly directionless Jackets need in the wake Ken Hitchcock's firing and a disappointing season. There are pockets of talent on the team, but if there is one outstanding issue it is that outside of Columbus, the franchise lacks an identity. It will get one with Arniel, who is as demanding as Hitchcock but able to blend that with a clear understanding of what it's like to be a player, how players think and, perhaps most importantly, how they react to both good and bad things.

Hitchcock had his ways and rules and was a fundamentally sound teacher, but you could never characterize him as having a "connection" with his players. Arniel is different. He played 730 NHL games and, in what had to be one of his more humbling but defining moments, he accepted the fact that his NHL career was over yet still played another 555 games in the minor leagues.

That's no small thing, but it gives insight into Arniel's love for the game and his willingness to keep playing simply because he loved to do so. He used that time in the minors to develop the mindset that few things in life go as planned, but a smart person can learn from setbacks and be a better hockey player and coach because of them.

Arniel has working man's roots. His father and mother both worked full-time jobs, but they put an effort into instilling in their four children a sense of right and wrong, the value of hard work, and never putting themselves above others even if they happened to be an NHL prospect drafted in the first round, 22nd overall.

He never measured up to the offensive expectations of even a low first-round draft pick, but Arniel never let that stop him from becoming a complete hockey player, one who could score the occasional goal, but also win faceoffs, be responsible in the defensive end, and contribute to a winning team even when he came away pointless on the scoresheet.

"Everyone is in a hurry to get where they are going in life," Craig Heisinger, the GM of the Moose told the Columbus Dispatch after Arniel completed his fourth season in Manitoba and was named to the Blue Jackets position. "Sometimes, the best lessons are learned because you're willing to take that extra time to learn them."

Arniel is 47 years old, and with seemingly two lifetimes (one in the NHL and the other in the AHL) under his hat, he's a classic example. He's a driven man, but with a sense of purpose to be good at what he does and help others do the same. That's a nice quality in a coach and the Jackets are likely to be better for it.

It's still up in the air as to which way the NHL Players Association will vote regarding accepting or rejecting the salary inflator that is open to them this offseason. If they vote yes, it will create a five percent bump in the salary cap, likely to just under $60 million a season while it eases the potential pain of teams that are already up against it and might need to reduce payroll to get under the line for next season.

If the players vote no, it will ease the pressure on their escrow issues, a growing source of discontent among those who are unhappy about returning money to the league at the end of the season because some teams overspent and the difference has to be made up by taxing the players. A no vote would also lower the cap from its current high of $57.8 million and that would put a real crimp on free agent salaries this offseason and likely impact contracts across the board as teams move to get to the newly-lowered high (a figure thought to be as low as $56 million should the players take that action).

The PA is also likely to vote to extend the current agreement through the end of the 2011-12 season. That's another option created when the Cap system went into place after the lockout gave the NHL what it wanted at the bargaining table and threw the PA into a leadership freefall that still hasn't been resolved. The players may not necessarily want the extension, but it's a given that they aren't yet ready for their next round of negotiations because they have yet to elect a new executive director. And even if they did that today, there wouldn't be enough time to assemble and execute a negotiation plan.

The current agreement has been reasonably good for the players and possibly far better for their bottom lines than what was imagined, and even declared, after the cap was put into place in what was described as a limitless win for management and ownership at the time.

The issue of the inflator shows that the PA hasn't yet put its collective house in order regarding formulating a plan and executing it under leadership that will position the players to obtain gains the next time they are at the negotiating table. One of the big issues still to be resolved is whether the cap works for all teams. Big markets seem to have many more options (including creating new cap space by putting highly-paid players into buyout or burying them and their salaries in the minors. It's basically a tactic that allows wealthy franchises to burn money. Small market teams generally can't afford to do that and hence are at a distinct disadvantage in terms of keeping their rosters intact.

That's hardly what the mid-market and small market teams had in mind when they banded together in an effort to get some control over the players as well as their large market brethren, several of whom had been driving the cap up simply because they could afford to and in so doing, financially bury their mistakes.

The high end of the cap allowed for teams like the Blackhawks and Flyers to reinvent themselves as Cup contenders simply by spending more than other teams could afford, but that doesn't sit well with franchises that, largely because of market conditions, have had to cut back.

Carolina Hurricanes general manger Jim Rutherford recently announced that his team would be at or close to the floor for next season. In so doing, the 'Canes will spend more on payroll (just over $40 million) than they spent when they won the Cup in 2005-06 ($27.2 million). Rest assured that ownership in Carolina and a great many other NHL cities is not happy with the floor position of the CBA and will want a change come negotiation time.

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