With each passing game, Colorado Avalanche general manager Pierre Lacroix gets closer to the March 9 trade deadline and closer to deciding whether to place his big money, high-expectation team on the untested shoulders of 25-year-old goalie David Aebischer.
Fortunately for Lacroix, Aebischer is doing what he can to make the GM's decision a little easier.
Playing in 23 of the club's first 29 games, Aebischer hasn't wilted under the pressure of being a No. 1 goalie or disappeared into the huge shadow cast by the retired Patrick Roy, whose No. 33 hangs in the Pepsi Center rafters. Rather, Aebischer has thrived on his new responsibilities, going 14-4-4 with a 2.08 goals-against average and an impressive .927 save percentage. In his past six starts, Aebischer has allowed just seven goals.
"It's a big change this year," said Aebischer, who was selected by the Avs with the 161st overall pick in the 1997 draft. "But so far, I'm having fun and I'm pretty happy with everything."
The easy-going Aebischer goes about his business much as he did last season, when he played just 22 games as Roy's caddy. There is, however, one difference in his preparation.
"I don't stay on the ice as long during practice," he said. "When you play a lot of games, you don't need to do that. I want to stay fresh and keep my mind clear. Being a starter is definitely tougher on your mind."
Showing that he's no fool, Aebischer said he kept a close eye on Roy during his three years as an understudy.
"I tried to watch the way he reacted and played on the ice and how he handled himself off the ice," Aebischer said. "I think he taught me never to take the games for granted. He was always prepared and so competitive."
Slowly, Aebischer's own competitive nature is winning over his teammates.
"Abby's answered a lot of questions for a lot of the guys," said Colorado captain Joe Sakic. "He's been great for us all year. We can see that he's stepped up to another level."
He was on that level against the Northwest-rival Canucks in Vancouver on Dec. 11. In the closest the Avalanche have come to a playoff-type game this season, Aebischer stopped 37 of 38 shots in a 1-1 tie, including 19 of 20 shots in the third and all five shots in overtime. His performance received rave reviews from his opponents as well as teammates.
"He was the difference, coming across and making some big saves in the third period," said Canucks captain Markus Naslund.
"Abby got us the point, no doubt," added Avs defenseman Rob Blake.
Interestingly, Aebischer does have a history -- albeit at a lower level -- of rising to the occasion. At the 1998 World Junior Championships, Aebischer led the underdog Swiss team to a bronze medal.
"He was great during that tournament," said former Flames GM Craig Button, who was working as an amateur scout for the Stars at the time. "Those are important games and he stepped up and performed at a very high level."
"That was a great memory," Aebischer said. "Nobody expected us to win anything. We really played over our heads."
But with high-priced players like Sakic, Blake, Peter Forsberg, Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne sprinkled throughout the roster, the expectations are extremely high with the Avalanche. And, with a possible work stoppage in the future, the window of opportunity could be closing. Thus, Lacroix's dilemma: should he trust Aebischer or should he seek out a deal for a veteran like Sean Burke, Olaf Kolzig or Curtis Joseph?
At this point, Lacroix isn't saying a word. With his club doing well despite injuries to Forsberg and Kariya, Lacroix is not going to make a rush to judgment.
"With Aebischer playing so well, he might try to get an experienced backup instead of dealing for one of the big names," said one NHL scout.
In the meantime, Aebischer is trying to make the most of his opportunity.
"I think the guys here know me and believe I can do the job," Aebischer said. "I just have to keep taking it game by game. Really, that's the best way for me to do my job."
Around the Hrink
Major kudos to Philadelphia Flyers GM Bob Clarke for acquiring talented center Mike Comrie from the Edmonton Oilers without losing a player from his NHL roster. Yes, he gives up a No. 1 pick in 2004, but the Flyers had two first-round picks in 2003 (centers Jeff Carter and Mike Richards -- both members of Team Canada's world junior team), so they could afford to part with it. And, yes, they still have to sign him, but it's unlikely Clarke would have made the trade if he didn't think a deal could be struck. But once the deal is done, it's unlikely Clarke will be done dealing. Ken Hitchcock now has to find playing time for four centers (Jeremy Roenick, Keith Primeau, Michal Handzus and Comrie), the same virtually unsolvable problem he had in his final days in Dallas. On Tuesday night, Clarke was quick to toss a wet blanket on speculation that he might be looking to deal for a goaltender. Of course, a couple of weeks ago, Clarke said he wasn't interested in trading for a small center like Comrie. If Clarke does go after another goalie, the most logical choice is Tampa Bay's Nikolai Khabibulin. Clarke could send Hackett and Handzus (or another forward) for Khabibulin, who is among the few goaltenders in the league who is available and would be a clear upgrade. If he's serious about not wanting a goalie, he could try to pry right winger Jarome Iginla from the Flames. Clarke inquired about Iginla's availability last season, and despite their recent success, the cost-conscious Flames wouldn't mind unloading Iginla's $7.5M salary for the right combination of players. "[Clarke] has positioned himself to do something else," said one NHL exec. "It's always good to have choices. Right now, he has a lot of them."
Sometimes, what goes on behind the scenes is just as interesting -- if not more -- than what actually happens. Case in point: the Carolina Hurricanes. On Dec. 2, Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos publicly offered coach Paul Maurice a vote of confidence -- a sure sign of trouble, ahead. Meanwhile, GM Jim Rutherford already had interviewed two possible replacements, including new 'Canes coach Peter Laviolette. At Monday's press conference, Rutherford admitted he'd been in close touch with Laviolette for three or four weeks leading up to Maurice's firing. Rutherford also added that he'd been soliciting advice from Laviolette, who has been on the sidelines since being unfairly dumped by the Isles in the offseason after two consecutive playoff appearances. In the end, Laviolette will have to find a way to ignite the club's lifeless offense. That means getting through to forward Jeff O'Neill, a former 40-goal scorer who has just two goals in his first 30 games. If Laviolette can't jump start the offense, he won't do much better than his predecessor. As for Maurice, it won't be too long before some anxious GM phones looking for some fresh ideas. Until then, he'll continue to collect an annual salary of $700,000 through 2007.
Unlike Maurice, former Caps coach Bruce Cassidy, who was fired on Dec. 10, will have a little tougher time getting his next NHL head-coaching job. In fact, he acknowledged he might have to go back to the AHL before getting another shot at the major-league level. Cassidy truly was the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time. With no previous NHL experience, Cassidy wasn't the best choice to take over a club of big-money veterans. It didn't help that he, by his own admission, needed half a season to learn the league. Someday, Cassidy might mature into a successful NHL coach. At this point in his career, he might best benefit from grabbing an assistant spot. He does, after all, still have a lot to learn.
The struggling Blackhawks expect to get captain Alexei Zhamnov back in the lineup against the Blue Jackets on Dec. 26 or against the Red Wings on Dec. 28. Zhamnov, who underwent back surgery on Oct. 16, has been skating with the team but still awaits medical clearance to resume contact drills. He could get the OK when he meets with doctors later this week. In the short term, Zhamnov will help boost the club's sickly offensive attack. The Hawks have scored the fewest goals (58 in 31 games) in the Western Conference. In the long run, the Hawks would be wise to move Zhamnov to the highest bidder at the trade deadline. A crafty center, Zhamnov, 33, can leave via unrestricted free agency this summer. "I would think he'd be on the market," said one NHL exec. "If he's healthy, he could be a valuable short-term pickup for the right team." Detroit, which might be looking to add some depth up the middle for the playoff push, could be the right team.
Power-play time with ...
Flyers right winger Tony Amonte:
Q: After spending a good portion of your career in Chicago, how difficult was it to leave?
A: It was definitely hard to leave, but I really didn't have a choice. There were no offers on the table. I think that [former Hawks GM] Mike Smith had made up his mind he was taking the team in a different direction. What can you do? That's just the way hockey is sometime. You just have to deal with it and move on.
Q: Why didn't things work out better for you with the Coyotes?
A: I don't know. I can't put my finger on any one thing. I wanted it to work. I went out there and tried as hard as I could. Being in Chicago for so long, being there for nine years, and getting a taste of something new, it's just different. Everything feels different. There were different guys on that team. I never played with one guy on the team before. There were a lot of new personalities. I don't know why, but obviously it didn't work out.
Q: What is it like playing for Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock?
A: Ken is a demanding coach. It's different playing for a coach that demands so much out of you. But in a sense, it's good to play for him. You've got to be on your toes every night; there are no nights off. You can't even have a shift off. You've got to be ready to go each and every shift. It's been a great experience. It's tough playing for him and he demands a lot, but it's probably something I need in my career at this point.
Q: Does Hitchcock compare to any other coach that you've played for?
A: Not really. I never played for anybody like him. Keenan was kind of like him, but Keenan doesn't have the hockey knowledge that Ken Hitchcock does. Hitch knows the game, inside and out. That's the biggest difference. Hitch is a great coach. His record speaks for itself.
Q: If you could do one thing to improve the game, what would it be?
A: I'd probably take the red line out and see how that worked for a while. I think it might be good for the game. It would open it up a little bit more. That would probably take care of the trap. In the neutral zone, you could make a pass from your own end to the far blue line. That's the only change I can see ... unless we go 4-on-4. That might be fun.
With the departure of Sergei Fedorov, Datsyuk has taken a more prominent role in Hockeytown. Blessed with dynamic skill, Datsyuk is fast becoming a regular on SportsCenter's nightly Top 10.
Whether it was his breakaway move on Stars goalie Marty Turco, his 60-foot tape-to-tape saucer pass to Brendan Shanahan (who scored on a one-timer) against the Hawks last week or his top-shelf backhander over the shoulder of Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo on Monday night, Datsyuk continues to amaze.
The 25-year-old Russian, a steal at No. 171 in the 1998 draft, is battling Canucks captain Markus Naslund and Capitals sniper Robert Lang for the league's scoring lead. The way he's playing, don't bet against him in the Art Ross race.
If you had to pick a current goalie for one big game, who would it be and why?
-- Jim Wilson, Reno, Nevada
That's an easy one. Right now, there's no one better than New Jersey's Martin Brodeur. Obviously, with three Stanley Cups and an Olympic gold medal on his résumé, he's got the credentials. But I love his competitiveness, his smarts and his even disposition. Brodeur never gets rattled under pressure. And if he allows a bad goal or has a bad game, he's quick to put it behind him. In a big spot, there's no one better than Brodeur.