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The Devils, Lindros and next season

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Posted: Wednesday June 14, 2000 04:39 PM

 

Everyone recovered from the long overtimes? Any fingernails left? After a pretty hum-drum season we were treated to one of the most compelling playoffs in years. There were upsets (Sharks over Blues), teams coming from behind (Devils down 3-1 to the Flyers, the Flyers down 2-0 to the Penguins), the brilliance of Jaromir Jagr and the compelling and tragic return of Eric Lindros. Then there were the overtimes: The Flyers' marathon win in Pittsburgh to knot that second-round series at 2-2, and then the last two glorious games of the Stanley Cup finals. All in all it was a great ride this spring. Kind of makes you look forward to next year, doesn't it?

Now, on to the bag ...

With new owners who have deeper pockets taking over in New Jersey, I think the Devils are the leading candidates to land Ray Bourque. They'll have a great chance to repeat next year, and he'll only be an hour plane ride away from his family. What do you think will happen with him?
-- Rob, Philadelphia

Well, by now you may know the Avalanche re-signed Bourque, but I'll address the Devils' philosophy. Signing Bourque would have been such a radical departure from New Jersey's normal mode of doing things. The Devils just don't go out and sign old free agents to big contracts -- no matter how good that player is. They've been so successful building from within and through youth that I doubt new ownership will mess with that right off the bat. This team is coming off a Stanley Cup, after all.

Also, the new owners don't take over until July 12, which means that unless Lou Lamoirello takes a job elsewhere before then (and I don't expect that he will) he'll still be in place and still under John McMullen's stewardship when players scheduled to become free agents do so on July 1.

As most of us saw, one of the more dominant players in NHL history, Eric Lindros, may never be able to play again because of numerous hits to the head. The hit he received from Scott Stevens was legal under league rules. However, while all other sports are trying to protect their players against career-ending injury, the NHL still allows players to be hit legally in the face and head (not including fights). While I enjoy hard-hitting hockey just as much as anyone, I still think something needs to be done to protect these players. Do you think the NHL will place some type of rule that penalizes anyone who goes for the head, even if it is with a shoulder hit?
-- Ron Bertino, Philadelphia

The NHL would love to eliminate hits to the head, but it will be almost impossible to do so. The hit on Lindros, like so many of these hits, was really incidental. Yes, Stevens gave an extra shove with his shoulder (and then followed through with his elbow) but, for the most part, he hit Lindros straight-up. Lindros was skating with his head down, and he was bent over, so that his head was relatively low.

Hockey is too fast a game to do away completely with these types of hits. As long as full-body checks are allowed -- and they always will and should be -- players are going to sustain hits to the head from time to time. It's inevitable.

I was interested in your thoughts about violence in hockey, how it alienates would-be hockey fans from the game. I'd like to know why you think this is the case. I mean, there's plenty of violence in "sports" like wrestling, rugby and football. Those sports have HUGE followings around the world, while hockey's following is somewhat limited. I think when you say "violence" you mean stickwork and cheap shots, and that I agree should be curtailed. But I believe that fighting has attracted rather than repelled fans.
-- Matt Burch, St. Louis

Wrestling is more akin to cartoons or movies. A large part of its appeal is the theatrical showdowns between men of "good" and "evil." Yes it has over-the-top violence, but I don't consider pro wrestling -- which is an entertainment, not a sport -- in anyway analogous to hockey or football.

Football is even more violent than hockey. However, much of that violence is hidden. Television usually only shows big hits on ball carriers and quarterbacks. It is the fighting and the stick-swinging that makes hockey different. We rarely see fights in other sports (occasionally in baseball and basketball, but these are usually wild and quickly defused). In hockey, the guys square off and then beat each other while referees watch. Other times, people club each other with sticks.

All of this is fine if it's what the NHL wants to be about. Certainly there is a strong, niche hockey following that loves all kinds of violent exchanges. The violence doesn't alienate fans, but it does alienate the "would-be" fans. Families turn on the TV and see all the slashing and the head knocking and every so often a full-out fight between big, toothless men, and it's hard to bond over that.

One sport you didn't mention is boxing, a genuinely brutal enterprise which has never been fully accepted into the mainstream. When there's a compelling figure such as Ali or Sugar Ray Leonard boxing may briefly appeal to a wider audience. Most people, however, turn away from violence in sports. The big heavyweight fights draw pay-per-view audiences, and rich afficionados will pay $2,000 for tickets. Yet boxing remains a fringe sport, which is what hockey will remain as long as fighting is such a major part of the game.

Any ideas as to who GM Mike Milbury might be looking for to help bring the Islanders back to prominence in the NHL? Would it be impossible to deal some of their youth and draft picks in an attempt to acquire Eric Lindros, or would Flyers GM Bobby Clarke never deal to a division rival?
-- Andrew Stewart, Chatham, Ontario

The Islanders are not interested in acquiring Lindros. To answer you and mailbag reader Bill Both of West Hempstead, N.Y., the Islanders will be looking first to improve with the first overall pick that they have in this year's draft. They could trade that pick around draft day but at this point no deal is close. Assuming they keep the pick, expect New York to select either Dany Heatley or Marian Gaborik -- both of whom are forwards with first-line potential -- or Boston University goalie Rick DiPietro. The Isles are high on DiPietro, and if they do draft him it would free them to trade one of their young goalies, Roberto Luongo or Kevin Weekes. They can probably net a good return for Luongo, whom most scouts and GMs regard as a can't-miss prospect.

Overall, expect the Islanders to be active in the trade market this off-season. They'll try to bring in some young forwards to complement an improving group. Outside of forwards Tim Connolly and Brad Isbister, no one on the Isles roster is untouchable.

I was wondering what your take is on when (the "if" seems decided) Portland is going to land an NHL team. Paul Allen had an offer in for the Pens, and rumor has it he's talked of Ottawa (not going to happen now), Edmonton and Calgary. Plus, there was the whole Phoenix thing (as if that was going to happen). It seems like Allen is looking for something beyond an expansion team. What's it going to take, and who do you see heading out this way?
-- Dave Wiltz, Portland

Allen doesn't have much control over this. Bidding for teams is all he can do. The reason he's not interested in an expansion team is that after about a decade of relentless expansion, the NHL is not looking to grow again just yet. Portland should eventually get a team, but that's going to depend primarily on what happens in the existing NHL cities -- and what those cities, and the NHL, do to keep the existing teams in place.

We've seen the big push to keep hockey in Pittsburgh -- and given the sport's enormous popularity there, I don't see the Penguins moving. Ottawa's staying put for now, and I expect the Flames' ticket drive to be successful. Perhaps Edmonton is closest to moving -- although, because of a favorable arena lease and other factors, they're not in as much financial jeopardy as many people think.

So, Portland won't get a team until a current team falters badly or the NHL decides to renew its expanding ways. When that time comes, Allen will have plenty of what it will take to land a team: money.

This is Kostya Kennedy's final NHL Mailbag of the 1999-2000 season. He will return to the business of answering your questions before the 2000-2001 regular season gets underway.

 
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