Is Vancouver a dead end for the aging but still driven Mark Messier?
On April 14 in Vancouver, as anticipation of Wayne Gretzky's imminent retirement gripped the league, the Canucks lost 5-4 to the Flames, bringing a quiet end to Mark Messier's 20th NHL season. When the debate over whether Gretzky should have played one more year finally ends, another discussion will arise: Does the 38-year-old Messier still have what it takes to be a vital force on a Stanley Cup-winning team?
"His leadership skills are intact and he's strong and fit," says Mike Keenan, who coached the Canucks this season before being fired in January. "I don't know if Mark will finish his career in Vancouver or whether he'll win there, but he can still play exceptionally well."
Keenan's firing came in the middle of what proved to be a trying season for Messier, the most revered team leader of his time. Messier began the year in fine form, getting 33 points in 31 games, but on Dec. 22 against the Flames he crashed into a goalpost and sustained a concussion that sidelined him for one game. Then on Feb. 11 against the Penguins, he badly sprained his right knee and missed 18 more matches. Messier finished with 48 points in 59 games, a meager total by his standards, and the Canucks wound up 23-47-12.
Messier's fierce desire to add another Stanley Cup ring to the six he already has could drive him to play several more seasons. He remains an imposing figure, one who will still use his 6'1", 210-pound body in anger, but his production has declined in recent years, and his consistency has faltered under the strain of being the player Vancouver's opponents gear up to stop.
Though he says he's pleased with the moves the Canucks have been making to build the team—such as their January trade of Pavel Bure to the Panthers for Ed Jovanovski and several prospects—and insists that winning the Cup in Vancouver is "the goal," Messier would clearly benefit from playing behind a young, powerful center who would not only lessen Messier's workload but also be the guy opponents key on. "That would be ideal for Mark," says Keenan, who believes Messier could adapt his considerable ego to a slightly diminished role.
The Canucks have publicly stated that they have no plans to trade Messier, who will earn $6 million in 1999-2000, the final year of his contract. Yet if he's willing to accept a salary reduction when he becomes a free agent next summer, Messier will have plenty of suitors. Given the dearth of good centers in the league, and considering Messier's physical condition and determination to win, no one should be surprised to see him drinking from the Cup once again.
Coach of the Year
And the Winner Is...
In a season in which most of the major awards will be won going away, any of five candidates would be a worthy coach of the year. Start with the Maple Leafs' Pat Quinn, who last June took over a boring, ineffective team that had just gone 30-43-9 and missed the playoffs for the second straight season. Quinn transformed Toronto into a winner (45-30-7) by implementing a go-to-the-net style that also made the Leafs the most entertaining team in the Eastern Conference. Penguins coach Kevin Constantine kept his players focused even when they were unsure whether their paychecks would arrive. Citing $375 million in losses, team ownership filed for bankruptcy last October, and with the exception of scoring champion Jaromir Jagr, Pittsburgh put an ordinary lineup on the ice. Thanks to Constantine (and Jagr) the Penguins still went 38-30-14 and made the playoffs.
Brothers Brian and Darryl Sutter both deserve consideration. Many picked the Flames to finish last in the Western Conference, yet Brian kept his team of no-names in playoff contention into the final week. He did that despite having to use six goalies and suffering the loss of star winger and unrestricted-free-agent-to-be Theo Fleury, who was traded to the Avalanche on Feb. 28. San Jose coach Darryl guided the Sharks through a demanding schedule that included opening the season with two games in Japan and an exhausting NHL-record 10-game road nip in February. The Sharks went 31-33-18 and easily qualified for the postseason even though their best defenseman, Gary Suter, played only one game because of a torn left triceps muscle.