In recent years, there haven't been many teams that have been too thrilled to face the Detroit Red Wings or the Dallas Stars. The two Western Conference powers have been among the league's elite, combining for six appearances in the last eight Stanley Cup finals. Last season, the Stars and Wings again played to their usual high standard, finishing 1-2 in the West during the regular season.
This fall, however, both clubs have had difficulty getting out of the gate, posting identical 7-7-1 records. Both teams have been particularly bad on the road, each going 2-5-1 in their first eight games.
Is the rest of the league finally catching up with the two star-studded teams or are they coming back to the rest of the pack? Either way, both are dealing with several problems in the early part of the season. Here are three reasons why each club is struggling.
1. Star power. Among the top two-way centers in the league, Mike Modano can't seem to get himself out of a miserable slump. His four goals and four assists in 15 games isn't horrible, but his minus-12 rating is down right abysmal, especially considering his plus-171 rating during the last seven seasons and his plus-34 last year. There are several theories circulating about Modano's slump. Some feel the soft-spoken Modano isn't suited to his new role as team captain. Others believe it's the absence of longtime linemate Jere Lehtinen, who has been sidelined for most of the season by a back problem. Modano himself said he's been bothered by some financial problems that have resulted from some bad investments. Whatever the reason -- it could be a combination of all three -- Modano isn't competing at his usual high level. Already benched Oct. 13 at Buffalo, Modano shocked one Eastern Conference exec with his lackluster performance during a recent three-game road swing. Can Modano find his way out of this slump? The Stars will be hard-pressed to go anywhere without him.
2. Goaltending. During his first season as a No. 1 NHL goalie, Marty Turco was simply brilliant, posting a 31-10-10 record and setting a modern-day record with a 1.72 goals-against average, despite suffering an ankle injury in February. During the offseason, Turco and management engaged in a nasty contract battle that spilled over into the early stages of training camp and ended with a three-year, $12 million deal. Turco has responded with some very uneven goaltending, the tell-tale sign being his .894 save percentage. Last season, Turco posted a league-leading .932 save percentage. While Turco isn't getting the same level defensive help he received last year, he isn't coming up with the big save, either. He's also allowing a few too many soft goals. As he proved last season, he can be better. Much better.
3. Identity. Who are these Dallas Stars? For years, they were a tough-as-nails defensive-minded club under former coach Ken Hitchcock. Now, under Tippett, they're playing a more up-tempo game. In doing so, they're easier to play against. Aside from Modano and Lehtinen, their Cup-winning core group included captain Derian Hatcher, one of the league's nastiest defensemen, cagey center Joe Nieuwendyk, big-game winger Jamie Langenbrunner and edgy veteran goalie Ed Belfour. Those players have been replaced by less competitive players such as Pierre Turgeon, Jason Arnott and Teppo Numminen. Hatcher's free-agent defection to Detroit during the summer was particularly stinging. Hatcher was the heart of the Stars and is among the few players in the league who strikes fear in opponents. Without Hatcher, the Stars' back line is too soft. And the decision to pair crafty Sergei Zubov with the Numminen doesn't play to either player's strength. Zubov, who has never finished a season worse than minus-4, is minus-10, already. On the road, where opponents can match their power forwards against Zubov and Numminen, he's minus-12. The Stars have been moving further and further away from the style that made them successful. Although done with the best of intentions, it's proving to be a bad idea.
Detroit Red Wings
1. Too many goalies. The Red Wings' three-goalie circus is a problem. How can it not be? Dominik Hasek, a perennial slow starter, wants to be in goal every night and wants to face a lot of shots in practice. If the thin-skinned Hasek doesn't get these things he tends to mope. Meanwhile, Curtis Joseph must play from time to time to stay sharp and impress potential suitors. Joseph has been handling the situation quite well and gets excellent advice from his agent/friend Don Meehan, but at some point you wonder how much can he take. Behind the two multimillionaires, is Manny Legace. Legace has struggled in the new environment, posting an ugly 3.30 GAA and .878 save percentage in four games. GM Ken Holland has few options on the trade front, other than waiting for another team's misfortune. He nearly had Joseph dealt to the Bruins, but the deal fell through when Joseph underwent ankle surgery. In the meantime, owner Mike Ilitch keeps signing big checks for a goalie he doesn't need.
2. Thin middle. While the Wings have too many goalies, they don't have enough top centers. The free-agent departure of Sergei Fedorov left a gaping hole in the middle of the lineup. Despite his fluctuating intensity, Fedorov could play in any situation. Not surprisingly, the Wings haven't been able to find anyone close to his talent level. They've been fortunate that Steve Yzerman has played so well after missing most of last year recovering from major knee surgery. Pavel Datsyuk possesses excellent offensive skills, but his game away from the puck and in his own zone needs work; his minus-7 rating is the worst among Detroit's forwards. In a recent assessment of his team, Holland said the club has been making "major mental mistakes" and hasn't been "paying attention to detail." That's where Fedorov makes a difference. His strong two-way game erased a lot of potential trouble. With Fedorov gone, the Wings just aren't as good a team.
3. Injuries. Every team suffers injuries, so it really can't be used as an excuse. That's especially true for a team like the Wings, which can afford to add a veteran like Steve Thomas. Still, it was crushing to lose Hatcher to a torn ACL. By signing him, the Wings hoped to take some pressure off three-time Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom and aging wonder Chris Chelios. Instead coach Dave Lewis has been forced to juggle his pairings. Recently, he's paired Lidstrom and Chelios, who've both struggled in the early going, and Jiri Fischer with Mathieu Schnieder in an effort to pump some life into Fischer's game (and his team-worst minus-9 rating). Up front, the loss of Henrik Zetterberg (broken leg) puts more offensive pressure on older vets like Yzerman, Brett Hull and Brendan Shanahan. The Wings also have seen Darren McCarty (back), Mathieu Dandenault (groin), Jason Williams (groin), Joseph (ankle, groin) and Hasek (groin) miss time. This year, the Wings aren't equipped to handle too many more key injuries.
Around the Hrink
Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock is looking for quality minutes, not quantity, from veteran forwards Mark Recchi, Jeremy Roenick and Tony Amonte. Hitchcock has told the trio to push harder in the offensive zone, especially below the faceoff dots. He said he's found that veteran players have a tendency to pace themselves as they get older. As a result, they're slowly pushed further and further away from the net, causing their production to decrease. He's prepared his veterans for the possibility of playing fewer minutes on a night-to-night basis and doesn't plan on using them in penalty killing roles (if he can help it) to cut down on the wear and tear. So far, they're getting the message. The line of Recchi-Roenick-Amonte has combined for 44 points (18 goals) in 14 games. Hitchcock also said he likes the way the players have surrendered to the collective goal of winning. "The other stuff that has gone on here is in the past," Hitchcock said. "This group really seems on the same page."
Sources close to the sticky management situation in Chicago say the Hawks asked Marshall Johnston to take over as the club's GM after they fired Mike Smith. Johnston, who walked away from the GM position in Ottawa and joined the Hawks as their director of player evaluation, decided not to accept the offer. When the club went in another direction, Johnston was fired along with assistant GM Nick Beverley, director of amateur scouting Bill Lesuk and amateur scout Joe Yannetti. Johnston shouldn't be out of work for long. An excellent talent evaluator, Johnston helped build the Devils and Senators into top teams and there are plenty more that would benefit from his expertise.
New York Islanders GM Mike Milbury is seeking to unload left winger Jason Wiemer, who was placed on waivers on Monday, in an effort to cut payroll. Granted the unforeseen emergence of several rookies has made Wiemer expendable, but Milbury could have saved himself a lot of trouble by not extending a $1.6 million qualifying offer to Wiemer during the summer. After all, Wiemer didn't exactly light up Long Island last season with his nine goals and 28 points. Even if Milbury didn't qualify Wiemer, he still could have signed him for less money or allowed him to walk. Now, the Isles likely will have to eat some of Wiemer's contract or take a contract in return to move him. If the budget cutting continues, teams might want to inquire about captain Mike Peca, who seems to have fallen out of Milbury's good graces. In the third year of a five-year contract, Peca has gotten off to a slow start this year. Including the current season, he's scheduled to make $13.75M in the final three years of the deal.
Where was Jerry Maguire when Marian Gaborik needed him? Yeah, Gaborik finally got his contract situation settled, signing a three-year deal with the Minnesota Wild on Oct. 31, but now he's faced with a skate through some slushy financial dealings. His original representation, Allan Walsh and David Schatia of Beverly Hills Sports Council, figure to want their cut after months of negotiation with the Wild. New agent, Ron Salcer, will expect to get his fee, as well. If Gaborik doesn't pay Beverly Hills Sports Council and they file a claim with the NHLPA, an arbitrator will be called in to decide the agents' fees. A sidebar to the strange negotiations is the presence of former Wild hockey operations assistant and Gaborik "friend" Tobin Wright. At least two agents claim that Wright contacted them offering to "deliver" Gaborik in exchange for employment within their agencies. In both cases, the agents declined the offer, saying they might be willing to pay a finders' fee under certain circumstances. That makes reports that Wright is working for Salcer less surprising.
Power-play time with ...
Thrashers GM Don Waddell
Q: Who have you leaned on to help you personally get through the Dan Snyder tragedy?
A: I've gained a lot of strength from the Snyder family, no doubt. Also, my wife and daughter have been very supportive of me and they understand what I've been going through. My family has been through so many things with me, both personally and professionally. You wonder sometimes where you get your strength from because it was a very tough time. But, as the leader of the group, I tried to continue on as best as I could and I tried to focus on what I needed to focus on and continue forward.
Q: What is the current update on Dany Heatley?
A: Physically, he's healing really well. He's a 22-year-old, very well-conditioned athlete. The timetable on these types of surgeries is four to six months. We felt he would be at the sooner than later end of that. I feel he will play games for us this year. Whether it be 10, 20 or 30 games, we know he's going to play games for us before the end of the year.
Q: What specifically has head coach Bob Hartley brought to the Thrashers since he arrived last January?
A: The level of confidence he brought into our dressing room with him immediately rubbed off on our players. He said he wouldn't take this job if he didn't think he could win at this job. He just had to get the players to believe in themselves. When your coach is that strong -- and everybody in our room knew his resumé -- I think it gave everybody a lot of confidence that we could win games.
Q: In the early part of the season, Ilya Kovalchuk has stepped up to another level. How do you view his development?
A: He went home in late in April and we didn't see him again until the first of September. So, I didn't see him for four months. But I noticed right away that he seemed more mature. When you go that long without seeing somebody, you can really tell the difference. He came to camp in great condition. You could see he wasn't a teenager, anymore. He turned 20 years old. Some people have asked if he's changed since the accident; I don't think he did. But I think because of the summer that he had, it gave him the opportunity to step up and take charge. Last year, from a maturity standpoint, I don't think he would have been ready for that at all. This year, he came to camp as a much more mature guy. Then, when the tragic accident happened, he just took it upon himself to take the ball and run with it.
Q: What has the emergence of goaltender Pasi Nurminen meant to the Thrashers?
A: The first three and a half years, goaltending was our Achilles' heel. We couldn't get healthy or we couldn't get the right guy. He proved last year he could be the No. 1 guy. He's continued on that path this year and he's played extremely well. If you get good goaltending, you can win hockey games in this league.
Bargain or bust?
BARGAIN: J.P. Vigier, F, Thrashers ($450,000)
Vigier (vee-ZHAY) has found a place in the NHL through hard work. The 27-year-old played four years at Northern Michigan before signing with the Thrashers as a free agent in March, 2000. Since then, he's been back and forth between Atlanta and its minor-league affiliates. He doesn't bring much flash, but he never stops moving his feet during his shifts. Coach Bob Hartley has taken a liking to the Manitoba native. "He's go-go-go, all the time," Hartley says. "He's doing a good job." Vigier won't score much at the NHL level, even while filling in on a line with Thrashers sniper Ilya Kovalchuk. But, for the money, he fills a valuable role in Atlanta.
What are the chances that Mike Keenan will replace Bruce Cassidy in Washington?
-- Chris Blankner, Virginia
It depends on who's doing the firing and hiring. If Caps GM George McPhee keeps his job, I doubt he would turn to Keenan. If McPhee were to be replaced, his eventual replacement might give him a call. If nothing else, Keenan has been really good at getting another chance. Of course, Keenan might just want to relax for a while. After all, he's still due $2.5M from the Panthers.