Fall from grace
Struggling, brooding Peca close to being voted off Island
Michael Peca has gone from being one of the answers to one of the problems on Long Island.
Peca was praised at the time of his acquisition from Buffalo 2 1/2 years ago as the type of locker-room leader who could carry a team to a Stanley Cup. But he now has reduced himself to petty sniping with Islanders general manager Mike Milbury, the sort of argument that the front-office executive almost always wins.
And if you are keeping score at home, that would be twice in the past six months that Peca has stabbed one of the Isles' leaders in the back. Peca's complaining about Peter Laviolette reportedly played a big part in Milbury firing Laviolette after New York's second consecutive postseason appearance.
The Islanders are on a seven-game losing streak during which they have been outscored 26-7. The result of the team's nose dive after an impressive 7-3-2 start under new head coach Steve Stirling is that Milbury is threatening changes -- or as he put it Thursday, to "drop a bomb" -- with No. 27 being among the most likely to leave the Island.
"We've got all-star players on defense that are playing like chumps," Milbury told Newsday. "We've got goaltenders that are quality goaltenders who are looking behind them every time somebody shoots the puck, before they even have a chance to save it. We've got all-star forwards that have scored so few goals that it's unthinkable. I know if I don't want to come to the rink and watch them -- which is probably the reaction of a lot of our fans right now -- [the players] can't want to be here. And if they don't want to be here, then, hey, we've got to make a change and get the guys who don't want to be here outta here."
In all fairness to Peca, he hasn't been the only Islanders player singled out for his poor play. Teammates Alexei Yashin, Mark Parrish, Roman Hamrlik, Janne Niinimaa, Adrian Aucoin and Kenny Jonnson have also slumped noticably since the team's early success.
Peca has been the subject of boos at Nassau Coliseum, and the "Mike must go" chants that used to be intended for Milbury are now being directed at the team captain. It is an awkward situation for a former fan favorite. Peca's goal drought is up to 12 games, his last tally coming on Nov. 6 against Dallas. For the season he has just two goals and eight assists, putting him on pace for his lowest point total since 1995-96, his first season in Buffalo.
"There's no denying that I'd like to have more goals than I do," Peca told Newsday. "But having said that, I haven't hurt the team. I haven't been a liability. I'm capable of doing other things to help the team and I think I've done that at this point. Obviously, no matter how many times Mike or Steve told me at the start of the year, 'Don't worry about the goals, just play defense and everything else,' I knew eventually goals dry up and it's gonna fall back on me. But that's the expectations I place on myself also."
After initially excluding Peca from my preliminary roster for Team Canada's 2004 World Cup team, I later caved in to readers' appeals. I would now like to change my mind again and say that unless Peca can do some serious damage control for his off-ice reputation, Canada would be best served looking in another direction. There isn't a need for a declining player who continually throws team executives under the bus rather than holding himself accountable during tough times. Canada would be much better served opting for a team-first guy like John Madden, even if the sentimental memories of Peca being a part of the 2002 gold medal team will give him a certain allure to fans.
Peca's name has come up in trade rumors involving the Maple Leafs and Senators, and his time in an Islanders uniform is likely coming to a close. It's been a quick fall from grace for the 29-year-old Peca, who should've written a much happier ending to his Islanders tale.
That didn't take long
When the Blue Jackets traded up to select Rick Nash with the first overall pick of the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, the belief was that it may take three or four years for the Brampton, Ontario native to develop into the Brendan Shanahan-type power forward he was projected to be.
Not only has Nash already passed Shanahan, but at the tender age of 19 Nash is rapidly becoming one of the NHL's most exciting players. The 6-foot-4, 206-pound left winger has eight goals in his last nine games and has a seven-game points streak. His 17 goals rank him second behind Ilya Kovalchuk, the top choice in the 2001 draft.
Nash has done a superb job avoiding the sophomore slump, and he has worked on the portions of his game that he wasn't pleased with during his rookie season. Nash worked out feverishly during the offseason and added weight to his frame which wore down last year. The added bulk has allowed him to stand in front of the net and take more punishment.
"I just didn't try to think about it [a sophomore slump]," Nash said in a conference call this week. "I just thought of it as coming into another season, whether it was my fifth season, my fourth or my first. I just tried to make it look like that. Lucky enough for me I got off to a quick start. I think that was the main thing, not to fall into a slump early. I'm sure I'll fall into a slump somewhere down the road. I don't think this can last the whole season."
Nash has a realistic chance to join Wayne Gretzky (51 goals in 1979-80 with Edmonton) and Jimmy Carson (55 goals in 1987-88 with Los Angeles) as the only teenagers to post 50-goal seasons. Even if Nash's scoring binge does tail off, he has a clear image of what he wants to become as his skills continue to develop.
"I'd like to play like Joe Thornton does right now," Nash said. "I try to mold my game around his. If you say four years, three years down the road, if I could be where he is, then I'd be pretty happy."
Jackets head coach and general manager Doug MacLean couldn't be more happy with his young superstar, who has been one of few high points in a disappointing season for Columbus.
Pasi looks pooped
Loyalty can be a commendable trait, but Bob Hartley's unwillingness to play Byron Dafoe more often appears to be costing the Thrashers. Hartley's continued reliance on a clearly slumping Pasi Nurminen has been puzzling, especially considering that Dafoe makes $3.5 million and was viewed as the team's likely No. 1 goalie when he signed on Nov. 20, 2002.
Dafoe was sensational Friday in a 6-2 win against the Mighty Ducks in just his fourth start of the season and his first since Nov. 15. Dafoe's 0-3 record, 3.37 goals-against average and .877 save percentage prior to the win over Anaheim were clearly disappointing, but as a former No. 1 netminder it's surely been hard for him to get warmed up during his sporadic starts considering the amount of work he is used to. And given his $3.5 million salary, you'd think Atlanta would want to get more than 11 starts out of him this season, which is what Dafoe is on pace for.
"This year has been tough," he admitted. "But the bottom line is, I'm a team player. I'll do what I can to help the team win. I'm a good soldier. If that means sitting on the bench, I will."
"It's still early in the season, and it's a long year," Dafoe told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Friday. "There's no schedule etched in stone, so I don't look ahead. I look at the next game I'm going to play and focus on it. It was a good talk [with Hartley on Thursday]. I'm in a better place than where I was a couple of weeks ago."
While coaching Colorado, it was a given that Patrick Roy was going to play 62 or 63 games for Hartley during the regular season. But Nurminen (who isn't even the Finnish version of Roy) is on pace to play an exhausting 71 games this season and he leads the NHL in minutes played by a goaltender at 1,458. After a tremendous 11-5-3 start, Nurminen has worn down in recent weeks, with his play falling off simultaneously with that of the Thrashers' defense. The Finn has flopped to a 1-4 mark in the past five games, allowing 18 goals and recording just an .888 save percentage during that stretch.
Nurminen has an excellent glove hand, but even that strong suit has failed him of late, with numerous blunders leading to easy goals. The worst of the bunch was a bouncer from center ice by Sens center Todd White on Nov. 25 that eluded Nurminen's stick and glove, evening the score at 3-3 as Ottawa came back from a 3-0 deficit to win 6-3. That prompted Nurminen to utter one of the best quotes of the year -- which also may be one of the lamest excuses in recent memory.
"I've got to give credit to the ice man who's taking care of the ice," Nurminen said. "It's unbelievably awful. It's so awful, it bounces around all the time. I never know where the puck is going."
Nurminen needs to quit blaming his concentration lapses on the Philips Arena ice crew and focus on finding his form from the first six weeks of the season. More time on the bench may be just what the doctor ordered, since the Thrashers are thinking their season will extend beyond the 82-game mark for the first time in their five-year history.
Brett Hull is one goal away from tying Marcel Dionne for third on the NHL's all-time goal-scoring list. ... The Thrashers were the NHL's most improved team in the first quarter of the 2003-04 season at 10 points better than last year. Atlanta was followed by Buffalo (+9) and Nashville (+7). ... One of the Oilers sweaters Gretzky wore in the Nov. 22 MegaStars outdoor game at Commonwealth Stadium sold for $26,600 in an online auction Thursday. A man identified only as Dale purchased the No. 99 jersey, in addition to a No. 11 Mark Messier sweater which went for $9,600. ... Messier will probably miss one week after injuring his right thigh in a collision with linesman Steve Miller in Toronto on Tuesday. ... The Predators (14-10-1-0) didn't win their 14th game last season until Jan. 18. ... After Thursday's 6-0 shutout of the Bruins, the Maple Leafs are on their longest winning streak since taking 10 in a row in 1993-94. ... The nine shots the Devils allowed in Thursday's 3-0 win over the Capitals was the second-lowest shot total in team history, with only the eight surrendered to the Canucks on Dec. 18, 1996 besting it. ... The Red Wings have outscored their opponents 26-8 in the past five games, during which time they are 4-0-1. ... The Lightning have just six goals in their past six games (0-4-2). ... The Flames haven't lost in regulation in eight games (5-0-1-2). ... After the Rangers' win on Thursday, the Islanders lead the all-time series with the Rangers 84-83-19-1, with the next meeting scheduled for Madison Square Garden on Dec. 18. ... Devils center Igor Larionov, the NHL's oldest player, turned 43 on Wednesday. ... The Sharks lead the NHL with nine ties and have a point in nine of their past 10 games. ... Flames right wing Chuck Kobasew was a healthy scratch for the first time this season Thursday, due to his 13-game goal drought. ... Ed Belfour has a 13-4-3 lifetime record against the Bruins. ... Felix Potvin is 1-4-2 in his past seven starts. ... Martin Straka's goal in his home debut with the Kings ended a 14-game goal drought. The Red Wings are 6-1-0-1 in their past eight games against the Blues. ... Dave Andreychuk played in his 1,537th game Thursday, which leaves him three short of tying John Bucyk for eighth place on the career list. ... The last game at America West Arena in Phoenix will be played Dec. 15 when the Coyotes host the Wild. The team will move into its new building in Glendale, Ariz., on Dec. 27 with the inaugural game coming against the Predators. ... Ottawa is competing against Halifax, Quebec City, London-Kitchener, Toronto, Montreal, Hamilton, Saskatoon, Calgary, Winnipeg and Vancouver for the right to host the 2006 World Junior Championships, which will run from Dec. 26, 2005 through Jan. 5, 2006. The winning city will be announced on Jan. 30, 2004.
Rangers defenseman Tom Poti played his college hockey at Boston University, and he could end up back in Beantown as the Bruins are interested in upgrading their offensive contributions from their blueline. ... Canucks head coach Marc Crawford is close to signing a three-year contract extension that will pay him around $1.3 million per season. ... The next Penguin to leave Pittsburgh may be defenseman Dick Tarnstrom, whose makes $1.1 million. ... The Ducks would be willing to part with blueliners Todd Simpson and Vitali Vishnevski, but the market has been cool for both of them.
In a season filled with several excellent hockey books, Zamboni Rodeo stands out among the best.
Texas Monthly contributing editor Jason Cohen penned the fun-filled narrative about the 1997-98 version of the Austin Ice Bats of the Western Professional Hockey League, a now-defunct circuit based mostly in Texas that merged with the Central Hockey League.
Rodeo explores the lives of hockey players in these low-level circuits, where playing for the love of the game isn't a cliche uttered during contract talks but a certifiable way of life. Beer-filled nights and seemingly endless bus rides are familiar to most minor league hockey players, but the tumbleweed-laced landscape of barren Lone Star State highways are not the expected setting for the mostly Canadian-born Austin players, who surely grew up dreaming of playing in Toronto, not Texas.
Players like Tim Findlay, Ryan Pawluk and Rob Hartnell never reached their goal of playing the NHL, but they played important roles for head coach Jim Burton on the '97-98 Ice Bats. And their quest to bring a WPHL title back to the Texas state capital makes for a highly entertaining and breezy read.
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for SI.com.