Is Vancouver a dead end for the aging but still driven Mark
On April 14 in Vancouver, as anticipation of Wayne Gretzky's
imminent retirement gripped the league, the Canucks lost 5-4 to
the Flames, bringing a quiet end to Mark Messier's 20th NHL
season. When the debate over whether Gretzky should have played
one more year finally ends, another discussion will arise: Does
the 38-year-old Messier still have what it takes to be a vital
force on a Stanley Cup-winning team?
"His leadership skills are intact and he's strong and fit," says
Mike Keenan, who coached the Canucks this season before being
fired in January. "I don't know if Mark will finish his career
in Vancouver or whether he'll win there, but he can still play
Keenan's firing came in the middle of what proved to be a trying
season for Messier, the most revered team leader of his time.
Messier began the year in fine form, getting 33 points in 31
games, but on Dec. 22 against the Flames he crashed into a
goalpost and sustained a concussion that sidelined him for one
game. Then on Feb. 11 against the Penguins, he badly sprained
his right knee and missed 18 more matches. Messier finished with
48 points in 59 games, a meager total by his standards, and the
Canucks wound up 23-47-12.
Messier's fierce desire to add another Stanley Cup ring to the
six he already has could drive him to play several more seasons.
He remains an imposing figure, one who will still use his 6'1",
210-pound body in anger, but his production has declined in
recent years, and his consistency has faltered under the strain
of being the player Vancouver's opponents gear up to stop.
Though he says he's pleased with the moves the Canucks have been
making to build the team--such as their January trade of Pavel
Bure to the Panthers for Ed Jovanovski and several
prospects--and insists that winning the Cup in Vancouver is "the
goal," Messier would clearly benefit from playing behind a
young, powerful center who would not only lessen Messier's
workload but also be the guy opponents key on. "That would be
ideal for Mark," says Keenan, who believes Messier could adapt
his considerable ego to a slightly diminished role.
The Canucks have publicly stated that they have no plans to
trade Messier, who will earn $6 million in 1999-2000, the final
year of his contract. Yet if he's willing to accept a salary
reduction when he becomes a free agent next summer, Messier will
have plenty of suitors. Given the dearth of good centers in the
league, and considering Messier's physical condition and
determination to win, no one should be surprised to see him
drinking from the Cup once again.
Coach of the Year
AND THE WINNER IS...
In a season in which most of the major awards will be won going
away, any of five candidates would be a worthy coach of the
year. Start with the Maple Leafs' Pat Quinn, who last June took
over a boring, ineffective team that had just gone 30-43-9 and
missed the playoffs for the second straight season. Quinn
transformed Toronto into a winner (45-30-7) by implementing a
go-to-the-net style that also made the Leafs the most
entertaining team in the Eastern Conference. Penguins coach
Kevin Constantine kept his players focused even when they were
unsure whether their paychecks would arrive. Citing $37.5
million in losses, team ownership filed for bankruptcy last
October, and with the exception of scoring champion Jaromir
Jagr, Pittsburgh put an ordinary lineup on the ice. Thanks to
Constantine (and Jagr) the Penguins still went 38-30-14 and made
Brothers Brian and Darryl Sutter both deserve consideration.
Many picked the Flames to finish last in the Western Conference,
yet Brian kept his team of no-names in playoff contention into
the final week. He did that despite having to use six goalies
and suffering the loss of star winger and
unrestricted-free-agent-to-be Theo Fleury, who was traded to the
Avalanche on Feb. 28. San Jose coach Darryl guided the Sharks
through a demanding schedule that included opening the season
with two games in Japan and an exhausting NHL-record 10-game
road trip in February. The Sharks went 31-33-18 and easily
qualified for the postseason even though their best defenseman,
Gary Suter, played only one game because of a torn left triceps
This year's best performance by a coach, however, goes to the
Senators' Jacques Martin. Ottawa (44-23-15) improved by 20
points over last season's franchise-record total and finished
second to the Devils in the East. The Senators did it with the
league's 24th-highest payroll ($22.4) million, only one star
(center Alexei Yashin) and no clear-cut No. 1 goalie. (Ron
Tugnutt and Damian Rhodes shared the job.) Ottawa's calm,
efficient and disciplined style is an extension of the
46-year-old Martin's personality. Whether Ottawa hoists the
Stanley Cup or bows out in the first round, Martin has made this
an elite team, and for that he is SI's coach of the year.
UNFAIR, PERHAPS, BUT WISE
The NHL rewards each of its six division winners with home ice
advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Thus the
Hurricanes, who finished 34-30-18, earned the Eastern
Conference's No. 3 seed by winning the Southeast Division,
despite having the lowest point total (86) of any playoff team
in the conference. The Bruins, third in the Northeast Division
with 91 points, have to open the playoffs at Carolina.
Many observers have complained that this rule is unfair,
pointing out that the Southeast--which also includes the
Capitals, Lightning and Panthers--is by far the weakest division
in the league. That grumbling is shortsighted. The emphasis on
winning the division creates intradivision rivalries and adds
welcome fire to the endless and often bland regular season. In
the long run, establishing rivalries is the NHL's best hope for
boosting regular-season attendance and television ratings.
BUST AND BARGAIN
LW GEOFF SANDERSON
1998-99 salary: $1.5 million
With 12 goals this season, the 6-foot, 190-pound Sanderson
failed to be the scorer Buffalo was hoping for when it acquired
him from the Canucks last year.
RW MIROSLAV SATAN
1998-99 salary: $850,000
With 40 goals this season, the 6'1", 195-pound Satan proved to
be an even better scorer than Buffalo was hoping for when it
acquired him from the Oilers two years ago.