The Blues' Chris Pronger should become the first defenseman since Bobby Orr to be the league MVP
Not since Bobby Orr blazed end-to-end trails for the Bruins in 1971-72 has a defenseman won the Hart Trophy. The Blues' Chris Pronger possesses little of Orr's otherworldly offensive magnificence, yet if the hockey writers who vote for league MVP take to heart the criterion for the Halt—"the player adjudged to be the most valuable to his team"—the 25-year-old Pronger will have to clear space on his mantel. "He's the most dominant player in the league," says Flyers right wing Rick Tocchet. "He shuts everybody down."
As the captain and defensive lifeblood of the NHL's best and stingiest team—St. Louis was 50-18-11-0 through Sunday and had allowed only 1.94 goals per game—Pronger was logging a league-high 30:13 of ice time per game. His stamina allows the rest of the Blues' defensemen to remain rested and has enabled St. Louis to weather injuries that sidelined star blueliner Al MacInnis for 21 games.
At 6'6" and 220 pounds, Pronger takes control of a game with his formidable strength and reach. The puck may enter the Blues' zone on an opponent's stick, but it most often comes out on Pronger's. He had been on the ice for a minuscule 43 even-strength goals-against this season, and he has helped hold the NHL's top five scorers—the Penguins' Jaromir Jagr, the Panthers' Pavel Bure, the Flyers' Mark Recchi, the Sharks' Owen Nolan and the Blackhawks' Tony Amonte—without an even-strength point in 14 games.
Pronger also had 58 points and a +49 rating, both second among league defensemen, and his Hart candidacy has added legs to what would otherwise be a match race between Jagr and Bure. Jagr is the NHL's most irrepressible offensive force (league-best 1.56 points per game, but he missed 14 games in the last six weeks because of injuries), and Bure is its most explosive entertainer (NHL-leading 55 goals). With the exception of Sabres goalie Dominik Hasek, who won the Hart Trophy after the 1996-97 and 1997-98 seasons, the award has gone to a high-scoring forward every year since Orr won it. "A defenseman is as important as a star forward or a goalie," says Pronger. "A lot of times that gets overlooked. Maybe we can change that."
The we includes premier blueliners such as the Kings' hard-hitting Rob Blake and the Red Wings' silky Nicklas Lidstrom and ferocious Chris Chelios. So fine is that back line batch that even as we give Pronger our vote for the Hart, he's only our runner-up for the Norris Trophy. The Norris goes to the defenseman who demonstrates "the greatest all-around ability in the position," and this season that has been Lidstrom. Less imposing than Pronger but far smoother, Lidstrom led defensemen with 20 goals and 73 points while also playing nearly perfect positional defense. This is the year to rock the vote: Lidstrom deserves the Norris; Pronger, the Hart.
Neil Smith's Firing
Who Takes Over In New York?
Neil Smith's prudent refusal to deal some of the Rangers' young talent for veterans at last month's trading deadline may have cost New York a playoff berth and smith his job as general manager. When he was dismissed, along with his handpicked coach, John Muckler, on March 28, Smith was told it was because of the Rangers' failure to make the postseason for the third year in a row, which is a long time for my club, let alone one with the NHL's highest payroll.
Smith had an excellent run during his 11 years in New York, presiding over the Rangers' winning the Stanley Cup for the first time in 54 years, in 1994; an-other appearance in the Eastern Conference finals, in '97; and Presidents' Trophy-winning performances in '92 and '94. Of late, he had brought in a handful of solid prospects—including rookie forwards Mike York and Jan Hlavac and junior sensations Pavel Brendl and Jamie Lundmark—and his refusal to surrender them at the trade deadline will benefit the new general manager.
The list of candidates for Smith's old job includes superb general managers such as the Devils' Lou Lamoriello, the Penguins' Craig Patrick and the Oilers' Glen Sather. Neither Cablevision, which owns the Rangers, nor any of the putative candidates would comment on the search for a successor, but SI has learned that the Mighty Ducks' vice president of hockey operations, Jack Ferreira, has already been contacted by New York. A highly respected talent evaluator, Ferreira was the Rangers' director of player development from 1986 through '88, general manager of the Sharks from '90 to '92, director of scouting for the Canadiens in '92-93 and the Mighty Ducks' general manager from '93 through '98.