The surprisingly quiet rehabilitation of Mike Keenan began on
Oct. 25 when he replaced Pat Burns as Bruins coach, returning to
the NHL for the first time since the Canucks fired him in January
1999. It was no accident Keenan had been passed over for 17
coaching vacancies in the ensuing 21 months. Though he has been a
prolific winner in the league (525-393-122 at the All-Star
break), Keenan's clashes with management are legendary (fired
four times), and he went 47-51-17 with the Blues in 1995-96 and
'96-97 before his dismal 36-54-18 showing in Vancouver. General
managers wondered not only if they could abide Keenan but also if
he could still win.
He can. The Bruins have thrived--after a 3-4-1-0 start with Burns,
they were 19-16-5-5 under Keenan and on a 9-5-2-1 run at the
break--and they've embraced the thinking that Keenan espoused
while guiding the Flyers and the Blackhawks to the finals (twice
with Philly and once with Chicago) and the Rangers to the '94
Stanley Cup. "My fundamental beliefs as a coach haven't changed,"
Keenan says. "I have an extremely high expectation of each
athlete and of the group, and I make demands of them."
In classic Keenan style he has leaned heavily on one goalie
(Byron Dafoe had started 22 straight games this season),
implemented a rigorous fitness program (all the Bruins ride
stationary bikes before practices and after games) and conveyed
his winning-is-the-only-thing mind-set. "He carries around this
attitude that he hates to lose," says wing Bill Guerin. "That
rubs off. After we lose, our locker room is the worst place in
the world to be."
Keenan, 51, has brought an aggressive defensive style to Boston,
and his reliance on his top forwards is a big reason Guerin (48
points), center Jason Allison (53) and left wing Sergei Samsonov
(48) earned All-Star spots. Remarkably, the notoriously hotheaded
Keenan has kept his cool. While he has ridden some players
intensely, there have been none of the flip-outs that
distinguished his earlier years. "He gets upset, but no more than
other coaches," Allison says. "After all the stories, we haven't
seen him snap."
Some of those stories stem from the 1993-94 season, when Keenan
had a fractious relationship with Neil Smith, the Rangers'
president and general manager. Now it's Smith, dismissed by New
York last March, who's on the outside looking in. He wants
another president-general manager job, and no club would be a
better match for him than the 14-31-5-2 Islanders, who are last
in the league.
The Islanders' owners have cause to fire general manager Mike
Milbury, who before this season said, "If we don't win, it's off
with my head." Smith, who spent two years as an Islanders scout
in the early 1980s, hurt his reputation as a crack talent
evaluator with poor personnel decisions during his final seasons
with the high-priced Rangers, but he'd excelled as the Red Wings'
farm director in the late '80s, and he built the Rangers'
Cup-winning team. His background in player development is what
the rebuilding Islanders desperately need.
Smith is also a high-profile guy whose return to the New York
metropolitan area would inspire hot reactions from fans there and
give the fan-hungry Islanders much-needed publicity. The Bruins
were smart to bring Keenan back into the league. The Islanders
would be wise to bring back his old foil.
Watch Out for The Long Shot
Coming out of the All-Star break, the Panthers' Pavel Bure and
the Canucks' Markus Naslund led the NHL with 31 goals apiece.
Five other players had scored 30 or 29, and another six had 27,
all of which augurs an engaging horse race in the final two
months of the season. Of course, one of the favorites to win the
goal-scoring title is still well off the lead. Pittsburgh's Mario
Lemieux had 16 goals in 16 games, a pace that would give him 46
by season's end.
SI asked a score of players at the All-Star Game to handicap the
field, and the Penguins' Jaromir Jagr came up the narrow winner.
What about Lemieux? While a few players surveyed agreed with
Canucks defenseman Ed Jovanovski that "Mario's going to run out
of games," the vast majority believe that Lemieux has a chance to
wind up atop the goals list. His greatest obstacle may prove to
be his passing ability: Linemate Jagr had 29 goals, including 10
since Lemieux's return. Says Blackhawks winger Tony Amonte,
"Jagr's got Mario to push him over the hump."
Yet Lemieux seems to score at will, which led us to ask him if he
plans to lead the league. "You never know," he said. "If I get a
few hot games, maybe it will happen." We'd put it at even money.
A Hole That's Hard to Fill
Every team's playoff fortunes rest most heavily on the quality of
its goaltending, and this season many clubs--among them the
Canucks, Hurricanes, Kings, Penguins and Red Wings--would love to
upgrade between the pipes. Trading offers several options, all
fraught with uncertainty. Here are some veteran goalies who will
be bating their breath until the March 13 deadline passes.
Sean Burke, 34, Coyotes. He has played like an MVP and has a
league-best .928 save percentage. Snag: Phoenix can't make trades
because the sale of the team is in limbo. Even if the new owners
take over soon, they'll be wary of dealing Burke because the
Coyotes don't have a good backup on their roster.
Guy Hebert, 34, Mighty Ducks. General manager Pierre Gauthier has
received several inquiries about Hebert because teams realize his
weak numbers (3.09 goals-against average) stem from Anaheim's
lousy defense. Snag: Hebert would need to waive his no-trade
Nikolai Khabibulin, 28, Coyotes. He's young and talented and
could help a team for years. Snag (aside from Phoenix's uncertain
ownership): Because of a contract impasse Khabibulin hasn't
played in the NHL since 1998-99, and it's a gamble he'd be sharp
down the stretch.
Mike Richter, 34, Rangers. A former Cup winner and often the
team's best player during its current three-year-plus funk. Snag:
He's expensive (about $5.6 million this year and next), and
injuries have limited his effectiveness the past two seasons.
What's more, he hasn't played a postseason game since 1997.
John Vanbiesbrouck, 37, Islanders. He's performed well (.902 save
percentage), and in 1996 he carried the Panthers to the finals.
Snag: With the Flyers last year he didn't play a playoff minute
because Philadelphia deemed him unreliable.
For the latest scores and stats, plus more news and analysis from
Michael Farber and Kostya Kennedy, go to cnnsi.com/hockey.
WHOM WOULD YOU RATHER OWN?
Bought last week by Colorado businessman George Gillett, the
NHL's most storied franchise--a record 23 Stanley Cups--has a lousy
roster and struggles financially because most of its revenue
comes in weak Canadian dollars.
A group that includes Wayne Gretzky has been attempting to close
a deal to buy the team for nearly a year. The Coyotes have a
solid roster and could reap revenue gains from Phoenix's
continued population growth.
The Verdict: The desert air is inviting, but we'll take the
fabled Canadiens, whose fans' passion is unmatched.