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Monday, February 27, 2006
I can see into the future, and it rocks for the Rangers

By John Buccigross
Special to ESPN.com

For a long time, "SportsCenter" would punctuate its show with a "Did You Know?" segment. Soon the producers felt fans no longer really cared what Ken Dryden's goals-against average was on Thursdays against French Canadian right wingers. So now "SportsCenter" ends its shows with "What to Watch For," a look ahead to the next day in sports and why it might be significant. With our NHL back up and running, here are my Top 10 WTWFs for the coming hockey spring.

1. New York Rangers. The Rangers do not really have a rich hockey history. In fact, of the Original Six teams, they are clearly the weakest in terms of success, players and aura. That looked as if it would change in the summer of 1994 with Mark Messier's cleansing of the Rangers' dubious history. We know what's happened since. Now, with the arrival and gold-medal performance of goalie Henrik Lundqvist, the awful state of the Knicks and the coming of the playoff season, I believe the Rangers have the potential to take over the city. Some Rangers fans are probably looking at Lundqvist and saying, "Derek Jeter." The start of something good. The Yankees and the Mets will have lots of excitement early, but as April progresses, the Rangers can seize New York, especially if they win a playoff round. This will give the playoffs a nice jolt.

SHOT OF THE WEEK
The drill: We present an NHL photo, I provide a caption. Then you weigh in with your suggestions, which we present the following week. We'll have a new photo next week, when you can e-mail me your suggestions (include your name and hometown and state).

LAST WEEK:
In honor of Jack Nicholson in "The Shining" ... "Heeeeere's Johnny!"

Your submissions:
Who's my favorite little backstopper? That's right, you are, Schnookums!
-- Aaron R., St. Louis

You see, it really does get the red out.
-- Tommy Maloney, Denver

Ha ha. No, seriously. I'm stuck.
-- Declan, Pollocksville, N.C.

Finns to the left, Finns to the right.
-- Randy Kunkle, Newark, Del.

You know, Antero, at first I was a little upset, but now I really enjoy having our helmets stuck together!
-- Chris Curci, Philadelphia

2. Cinderella Teams. The toughest part of the season is now. With so many games packed in a small amount of time and the pressure of the playoffs looming, it will be fun to see how well the surprise teams hold up. The Hurricanes, Rangers and Sabres are the only three teams I would call positive surprises. They begin the stretch run first, third and fourth, respectively. The Sabres are the most likely to sag a little; however, they are still going to the playoffs. All three are high-energy teams with good goaltending and good coaching. All three will make the postseason. It will fun to see if they continue to sizzle or slow a bit.

3. Tampa Bay Lightning. The enigma that is the Lightning continued with the team's Big Three at the Olympics. Lightning fans who watched Team Canada probably said to themselves, "They look like the Lightning!" -- underachieving power play and a general malaise. Can they catch the Hurricanes? The Bolts have 68 points and 24 games left; 18-6 is probably about the best they can finish, and that's being generous with how they have looked. But possible. That gives them a best-case scenario of 104 points. But if Tampa Bay does go 18-6 to finish the season, the Hurricanes would have to go merely 11-13-1 to win the Southeast. It looks good for the 'Canes.

4. MVP Race. This is Jaromir Jagr's to lose. His Rangers are unexpectedly in first place; the talent drop-off for the Hart, after him, is huge. He has a great plus-minus, is strong on the power play and should win the scoring title if he stays healthy. Eric Staal and Daniel Alfredsson are the only ones who will threaten him for MVP. Aside: Crosby-Staal-Kariya, what an Olympic line that would have been.

5. Rookie of the Year. It will be interesting to see if Sidney Crosby is fresh and rejuvenated after two weeks off and if Alexander the Eight will falter considering the extra hockey he played in the Olympics. I'm on record here as saying I would vote for whoever has more points at the end of the season. Ovechkin begins the stretch run with a four-point lead over Crosby and has three games in hand.

6. Officiating. I wrote in this space a while back that I think we will see major crackdowns on the tugging and pulling that have crept back into the game. It was interesting at the Olympics that players were allowed to two-hand chop an opponent. Penguins fans remember Adam Graves' chop on Mario Lemieux and how dangerous that play can be. The stick belongs on the ice when players are around each other. Move your feet, boys. Anyway, watch for a lot of power plays this week.

7. San Jose Sharks. The Sharks have 26 games left, the most of the Western Conference teams battling for a playoff spot. They should make the playoffs. They have cap room and will likely add a forward and blue-line depth before the deadline. They need to look in the mirror and say, "We are underachieving. We are better than teams 6-10 in the West, and we are going to prove it."

You Can Quote Me
"You're always concerned with something like that. What you have to do for a period of time that's important, you sacrifice in other areas. So it's your private time that's taken."

-- Lou Lamoriello, who has decided to coach the Devils the rest of the season, on his role as president, GM and coach

8. Trade Deadline. The deadline is March 9 at 3 p.m. ET (noon PT). This is the first NHL trade deadline with a salary cap, and the teams that left themselves flexible will have more options: San Jose, Minnesota, Buffalo and Nashville can be active.

9. Wayne's World. Wayne Gretzky has less on his plate with the Olympics albatross off his neck, which will lower his stress level. However, there is still a lot on Gretzky's mind, professionally and personally. Let's just hope he can shed this stress and enjoy his hockey life. The great ones usually do.

10. Blues and Penguins. I know they are not Original Six teams, but they take up a significant block of NHL history. They are in cities with good citizens who deserve the NHL's efforts to stabilize their franchises and nurture their growth. The NHL needs to step up and communicate with these fans better. These fans have been loyal to the NHL and its teams. It's time for the NHL to step up and show loyalty to the fans who have been so good to them. Speak up and inform.

The Mother of All Mailbags

Dear John:

There has been a significant amount of discussion on the structure of the Olympic tournament. The fact that players played so many games in so few days is of concern to the NHL. I have wondered why the NHL and IOC don't create a 16-team double-elimination tournament. Some teams may only play two games, but that is the nature of a tournament. Each game will mean much more than an opening game between Latvia and the U.S. One team will play eight games in this structure, the rest will play fewer. It is also more likely to ensure that a better team wins out. (I believe that a single-elimination tournament can add elements of luck). I would love to see this format used in the future, and I am beginning my quest to influence the hockey powers of the world with this e-mail to you. What do you think?

Regards,
Matthew Abbott
Arlington Heights, Ill.

I agree, Matt. If the NHL is to stay in the Olympics long-term, it must do so on its terms. I'd have no problem with a single-elimination tournament. I would have a World Cup every four years in September. Same format. Just get the guys together to train for a week to 10 days in September and play a single-elimination tournament based on seeds determined by the Olympics. I know it's a long way to go for two games. Tough. Sasha Cohen traveled to Italy to skate twice.


Hey John,

All I have to say about Team Canada is this: vindication. Since a lot of my favorite players are Canadian, I find myself pulling for them often in international play -- but not this year after they passed up Staal, Spezza, Crosby and even Tanguay for the likes of Bertuzzi. I'm sorry, did he score a single goal or register a point? I do seem to recall him taking a really stupid penalty -- that led to the Games-eliminating goal. You reap what you sow, and rewarding a player like Bertuzzi with a roster spot was ill-conceived -- he should still be banned from international play, anyway.

Mike D,
USA

My beef with Bertuzzi has been his lack of production. He has 37 goals in his last 128 games. Eric Staal has 36 goals this year; Bertuzzi and Shane Doan combined have 37.


Hello Bucci,

With Antero Nittymaki's recent success in the Olympics, do the Philadelphia Flyers have the best goaltender tandem in the NHL? In addition, I would like to add that the Flyers are developing another good goaltender in their farm system, and if he plays up to the high expectations, the Flyers could have the best goalies in the NHL for years to come.

Jamey Baskow
Philadelphia

I think Nittymaki's play has convinced the Flyers they have no need to upgrade their goaltending. Nittymaki won a Calder Cup last spring and almost won an Olympic gold. The Flyers need to get healthy and play a little better defensively. They have the roster to win the Stanley Cup. The Flyers have five games in eight days to start their post-Olympic break, so getting through that will be an early test.


John,

Is it true or a myth that European hockey players are better and faster skaters than North Americans? I feel as if the European players' speed gave them an advantage at the Olympics on that big sheet of ice. Do they do anything differently in their development as players to give them this edge?

Thank you,
Rob Popolizio
West Hartford, Conn.

It is myth. Mike Modano in his prime was one of the best skaters of all time. The Europeans have an advantage because they understand the bigger ice: The angles, the dead spots and the philosophy.


Bucci,

The same day I read your reprint of the Cammi Granato article was the same day Mike Modano skipped out on his final team meeting. He wants "new blood" in USA Hockey. I've always enjoyed watching Modano, have always respected him. Therefore, when he sounded off, it caught my attention.

Being a Canadian, I was relieved that Cammi was not playing. Being a hockey fan, I was disappointed. Are you telling me there were 18 women who could have contributed more than her on and off the ice?

So, here's my question. Who are your top three candidates for USA Hockey? And do you think Gretzky should come back as executive director of Team Canada?

Ed,
Brazil

I don't know the inner workings of USA Hockey well enough to know if there is incompetence or mediocrity. As far as Gretzky goes, he appears to have too much going on. Ownership, coaching, Team Canada, corporate shill, father of five, husband of Janet the Greek. The fact he also went through so much personally around the holidays has brought him to emotional overload. He needs to simplify. I would name Steve Yzerman the executive director of Team Canada for 2010. Yzerman has GM aspirations and is the kind of athlete who sits around with friends, having a couple of beers, debating and naming All-Star, Olympic and fantasy teams. Also, he's relevant because he is still playing.


John,

After seeing Scott Hamilton at the Olympics, I noticed a remarkable resemblance to the "great" Darren Pang. Is it possible they are the same person? Ever seen the two together at the same time? I would dismiss it as coincidence, but I've always thought if you got a male figure skater to be a goalie, they would probably end up with numbers like these:

81 GP, 27-35-7, 0 SO, .859 save %, 4.05 GAA

Just a little suspicious.

Shout out to Dr. Thosopotamus Cassanostra!

Jesse Belcher-Timme
Northampton, Mass.

Hey, those are PANG Chung's career stats! Don't forget Vera PANG was a rookie of the year finalist! An ACL injury forced One Night in PANGkok to retire early. PANG the drum slowly is doing color commentary for the Phoenix Coyotes. Hey, PANG, it's a parking lot!


Hi John,

I totally agree with you about outdoor pond hockey and how much every skater missed it this year. But the good news is I got to play a little this Sunday for a couple hours in the back yard. It was the best feeling I had all year. Well, maybe next year we can get out there more. Thanks John.

Art
Buffalo, N.Y.

The winter that wasn't was saved by my rookie season as a USA Hockey member. Coaching the South Windsor Mite Bs gets me on the ice twice a week. Without that, I would be shoving gardening implements into my eyes right now.


Mr. Buccigross,

Should Garry Unger be in the Hall of Fame? He scored 413 goals, most of them on a terrible St. Louis Blues team in a low-scoring era in the 1970s. He set the iron-man record (since broken by Doug Jarvis, who has 964) by playing in 914 consecutive games. The previous record was 630 games, so he added 284 games -- or 45 percent -- to the standard. He also played in seven consecutive All-Star games.

Bernie Ourth
Casper, Wyoming

Garry Unger's stats were heavily influenced by playing in the expansion-era NHL. Numbers exploded in the late '60s before the talent gap was slowly filled. There were some bad teams during that era, and it was probably one of the more unathletic times in NHL history. The league had a decent number of older players in the league as expansion lengthened their careers. Unger was a very good player, but I think he falls short of the Hall of Fame if you look at some of the reasons behind his numbers.


John Buccigross' e-mail address -- for questions, comments or cross-checks -- is john.buccigross@espn.com.