The Hawks' thuggery gives the league (and their coach) a black eye
Capitals general manager George McPhee admits that he was wrong
when, on Sept. 25, he stomped down to the Blackhawks' dressing
room in a fit of postgame pique and belted Chicago coach Lorne
Molleken, giving him a black eye. "I deserved to be suspended,"
McPhee says. The NHL banned him for 30 days and fined him
$20,000. (A more immediate consequence was that McPhee's face
was bloodied and his suit torn when Blackhawks players went to
McPhee resorted to fisticuffs at Value City Arena in Columbus,
Ohio, to protest Molleken's persistent use of goon tactics,
which the Blackhawks employed freely during the Capitals game.
While no one around the league condones McPhee's actions, many
sympathize with him. "We see what the Hawks are doing," says one
NHL coach. "It's uncalled for. It's dangerous, and it's bad for
Molleken, who replaced the fired Dirk Graham behind Chicago's
bench seven months ago, established his propensity for
gratuitous bloodshed on March 12 in his seventh game as coach.
In the last minute of a game against the Predators, Molleken
sent a band of barbarians--forwards Bob Probert and Reid Simpson
and defensemen Dave Manson and Brad Brown--onto the ice in an
unsuccessful effort to goad Nashville players into a brawl.
(Chicago led the NHL in penalty minutes in 1998-99.) Then, in
the Hawks' preseason opener, against the Blues, Molleken dressed
eight players who have built their careers primarily by beating
people up. Five of them got into fights during that game.
Deploying bruisers in exhibition matches is especially
troublesome, because less experienced, more vulnerable players
tend to be on the ice. In a Sept. 19 game against the Stars, for
example, Chicago's thuggish forward Ryan VandenBussche pounded
Mark Wotton, a minor league defenseman who doesn't often fight.
McPhee says he phoned Blackhawks general manager Bob Murray
before that Sept. 25 match to say he hoped the teams would play
a skill-oriented game. (Chicago refused to confirm or deny
this.) The NHL had scheduled preseason games in Columbus to whet
local appetite for the expansion Blue Jackets, who begin play
next season. Against the Caps, Molleken dressed seven tough
guys, leading Washington to remove high-scoring forwards Petr
Bondra and Adam Oates--the team's best, most entertaining
players--from the lineup for fear that one of them would be
injured. Columbus fans saw five fights and also watched Manson
viciously cross-check forward Steve Konowalchuk in the head.
Manson was suspended one game for this assault. "We want to play
to our strengths," Molleken said after the game. "Sure, we'll
use our toughness."
The league can't tell the Blackhawks whom to dress. But while
McPhee had to be disciplined, the NHL should have gone easier on
him. He's not nearly as dangerous to the game as Molleken and
the Blackhawks are.
A Sign of the Times
He has scored 225 goals in his nine-year NHL career and 29 in
each of the past two seasons, with Boston. He can play right
wing and center, and in 1998-99 his 71 points were second on the
Bruins and 22nd among the roughly 230 full-time forwards in the
league. He is 30 years old and has stayed relatively healthy
throughout his career. Yet for the past seven weeks Dmitri
Khristich has been without a job.
On Aug. 16 an arbitrator awarded Khristich $2.8 million for this
season. In an unprecedented maneuver, the Bruins declined to
pay--as is their prerogative under the collective bargaining
agreement--thus rendering Khristich a free agent. If another
team wants to sign him for at least $2.24 million (80% of the
arbitrator's award), it can have him. Should someone sign him
for less than that, Boston has the right to match the offer.
Larry Kelly, Khristich's agent, says his client's asking price
begins at $2.24 million. "Khristich interests us," says one
Eastern Conference general manager, "but not at that price."
Based solely on stats, Khristich is worth the money. Forty-six
forwards will earn $2.5 million or more this season; Valeri
Kamensky, a 33-year-old left wing who has scored more than 29
goals only once in his career, will make $6 million after
signing with the Rangers in July.
Khristich's situation has led some players and agents to ask
whether clubs are in collusion. But remember that Khristich is
an inconsistent, one-dimensional player. "He sure isn't going to
check for you," says one Western Conference general manager.
Khristich has good but unspectacular skills and can be
controlled in the tighter-checking playoffs. (He has just 14
goals in 60 postseason games.) He is also less than gregarious
off the ice, and when he played for the Kings from 1995 through
'97, some of his teammates found him aloof and selfish. Bruins
coach Pat Burns says that Khristich "needs that extra push to
Khristich will probably catch on with a team soon, but he'll
most likely have to settle for less money than he was awarded in
arbitration. Even if teams are not colluding, they're certainly
showing common sense.
Unsigned Free Agents
A Warning from One Who Knows
The restricted free agents who missed training camp and were
still unsigned at week's end--including forwards Keith Primeau
of the Hurricanes, Bill Guerin of the Oilers and Patrik Elias of
the Devils--will probably have a hard time getting up to speed
when they return. Edmonton winger Ryan Smyth sat out camp last
year and then scored just 13 goals in 71 games. He had averaged
30 goals in his two previous seasons. "I got behind the 8 ball
by missing camp, and I never caught up," Smyth says.
This year Smyth attended camp even though he didn't have a
contract. He signed before last Friday's opening game and scored
the Oilers' goal in a 1-1 tie with the Rangers. Smyth believes
it doesn't matter if you spend your time away from camp working
out, loafing in Cockaigne or playing in Europe, as some holdouts
do. "There's a big-time NHL tempo that's different from any
other league's," says Smyth. "You can't get the speed and
physical play anywhere else."
WHOM WOULD YOU RATHER HAVE?
At 5'10" and 189 pounds, the 28-year-old Bure is a blur on
skates and an expert at getting behind defenses. Through Sunday
he had 268 goals in 440 NHL games, and though he had
reconstructive surgery on his right knee last March, he was fit
enough to score in Florida's opener last Saturday.
MIGHTY DUCKS LW
At 5'10" and 180 pounds, the 24-year-old Kariya is a blur on
skates and is not averse to coursing through traffic to make
plays. He had 378 points (168 goals, 210 assists) in 303 games
at week's end, and he seems fully recovered from the four
concussions he has suffered in his career.
The Verdict: No one fills the net the way Bure does, but if we
were starting a team, we would want Kariya.