Inside The NHL

January 15, 2001

Triple Threat
The Thrashers' top line has developed into one of the league's
best

Here's a riddle worthy of the Sphinx: What's short on the right
side, aging in the middle and slow on the left? Hint: It has six
legs and lives in Atlanta.

Don't fret if you didn't answer, This season's most valuable NHL
line. Even Oedipus might have developed a complex trying to
explain how the Thrashers' trio of right wing Donald Audette
(who's 5'8" with his helmet on), center Ray Ferraro (who's 36 and
weighing retirement) and left wing Andrew Brunette (who's slower
than a mid-1990s download) has dominated larger, younger and
swifter opponents.

Through Sunday that trio had combined to score 43% of Atlanta's
total of goals and assists--a figure that dwarfs the production of
any other line in the league. "The classic lines have a sniper, a
playmaker and a grinder," says Ferraro, who had 15 goals and 27
assists. "We're three guys who see the game the same way."

Their M.O. is to get to the front of the net and keep the puck
deep in the zone at whatever bodily cost. "They're a junkyard-dog
type of line," says Capitals coach Ron Wilson. "They've got such
passion and determination--it looks to me as if the whole line has
taken on the persona of Ray Ferraro."

The Thrashers are lucky they still have the emotional Ferraro to
lead them. Following surgery on his right knee in January 1999,
Ferraro played 81 games for Atlanta last season but needed to
train intensely just to stay in game shape. The expansion
Thrashers' prodigious losing (they finished 14-61-7-4) made him
wonder if the effort was worthwhile. "Coming to the rink got to
be such drudgery that I didn't know if I wanted to come back,"
Ferraro says. "As the summer went on, I decided I wasn't ready to
quit. Will I play next year? I don't know."

The 31-year-old Audette (21 goals and 30 assists) might not be in
Atlanta at the end of this season. The most gifted of the three,
he can become an unrestricted free agent this summer, which makes
him a prime candidate to be traded. Only the Thrashers'
flirtation with a postseason berth--they were tied for the eighth
and final playoff spot in the East--could give Atlanta reason to
keep Audette. As G.M. Don Waddell says, "If we have a shot at the
playoffs, how do we trade our best scorer?"

One player who hopes Audette remains is Brunette (nine goals and
29 assists), who says that when in doubt, he "gets the puck to
Donald." The three linemates don't spend much time together away
from the rink--"They have families, and I have a dog," says
Brunette, a 27-year-old bachelor--but they're tight in the
dressing room, where they needle one another about their
individual shortcomings. "We give it to each other pretty good,"
says Audette, "but that's because we're having fun."

Phoenix Ownership Update
It's Getting Coyote Ugly

When NHL owners rubber-stamped the sale of the Coyotes to Steve
Ellman and Wayne Gretzky on Dec. 11--the owners weren't about to
reject a transfer that commissioner Gary Bettman desperately
wants--they delivered the false impression of good news. Since
then Ellman, who is to provide the vast majority of the financing
for the purchase, has missed a Dec. 31 deadline that would have
made him the Phoenix owner. That failure jeopardizes his chances
of receiving the public funding he needs to build a new arena in
suburban Scottsdale and reduces the Coyotes' hope for success on
the ice this season. "It's hard to play with confidence, not
knowing what's going to happen," says center Jeremy Roenick, one
of several high-priced Phoenix players who could be traded if the
new owners ever take over.

Ellman, a real estate developer in Arizona, says his most recent
failure to pay (he had missed several previous deadlines) came
about because one of his financial backers, Sumitomo Bank, has
lowered its commitment from $60 million to $40 million. Even if
Ellman acquires the Coyotes by the new deadline (Feb. 15), he
might resell them if he can't build the arena he wants. "For 18
months Mr. Ellman has missed deadline after deadline and has
failed to provide any financial statements," says Scottsdale
councilman George Zraket. "We've granted him extensions that keep
open the possibility that he could get public funding for an
arena. That doesn't mean he'll get it."

Bettman so wants to stabilize the Coyotes franchise that he has
appealed to lending institutions and to Scottsdale politicians on
Ellman's behalf. Bettman has also tried in vain to broker peace
between Ellman and current owner Richard Burke, who's unloading
the team because it's bleeding red ink. Phoenix can make trades
only if both Burke and Ellman-Gretzky agree on the deal, but
given the contentiousness of the relationship between the two
ownership factions, getting such agreement may be impossible.
That means the Coyotes are operating without a management team
that's empowered to make trades.

Instead of kowtowing to Bettman, the owners should have denied
Ellman and Gretzky last month. The gutsy move might have created
dissension because of Gretzky's involvement, but at least the
Coyotes would have one owner in place, even if Burke was still
intent on finding a buyer.

Oft-Traded Chad Kilger
One Way to See The World

There are still two months until the trade deadline, which means
that the Canadiens' Chad Kilger won't be buying a house in
Montreal anytime soon. A 24-year-old center whom the Ducks made
the fourth pick in the 1995 draft, Kilger last month changed
teams for the fifth time, in a trade from the Oilers to the
Canadiens. He has also worn the uniforms of the Ducks, Jets,
Coyotes and Hawks.

Kilger, who through Sunday had only 80 points in 290 games, has
never translated his skills into NHL success, but he has
discovered something about the league. "This kind of thing," he
says of being traded, "is a side of the business I'm not in
control of."

COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA Ferraro (21), Brunette (15) and Audette have accounted for 43% of Atlanta's scoring this year. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: M. BUCKNER/B. BENNETT STUDIOS (2)

WHOM WOULD YOU RATHER HAVE?

KEITH TKACHUK
LW COYOTES
The Winnipeg Jets kept him as the centerpiece of the franchise
when they moved to Phoenix. Since then he has averaged 38 goals a
season and led the Coyotes into the postseason four times, though
never past the first round. Through Sunday he had 17 goals and 18
assists.

OR

TEEMU SELANNE
RW MIGHTY DUCKS
Winnipeg traded him to Anaheim in 1996, just before the Jets
moved to Phoenix. Since then he has averaged 46 goals a season
and twice led the Mighty Ducks to the playoffs, including one
trip to the second round. Through Sunday he had 14 goals and 17
assists.

The Verdict: Though Selanne, 30, is a model employee and Tkachuk,
28, sometimes sulks, we'll take the more physical Tkachuk.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)