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When Colin Campbell was on the short list of prospective coaches for the Canadian Olympic team last summer, the trio of NHL general managers interviewing the candidate joked that his chances would improve immeasurably if somehow he could "screw up" defenseman Brian Leetch and goalie Mike Richter, the New York Rangers stars who are the cornerstones of the U.S. Olympic team as well.
"Well," says Campbell, the Rangers coach who lost out on the Team Canada job to the Colorado Avalanche's Marc Crawford, "I guess I'm a lock for 2002 now."
The subpar performances of Leetch and Richter through New York's first 45 games this season have been Campbell's problem, if not his fault. But for six games next month, when the Rangers' stars will be the foundation of the Olympic team, the fortunes of the U.S. squad may hinge on them. Richter, whom many general managers rank second only to the Buffalo Sabres' Dominik Hasek among NHL goal-tenders and who played brilliantly in leading the U.S. to the 1996 World Cup, has been maddeningly inconsistent. Leetch, who won the Norris Trophy as the league's best defenseman last year and who usually offers a potent mix of creativity and daring, has been occasionally spectacular but frequently bumbling.
At week's end Richter ranked 19th in the league in goals-against average (2.58) and Leetch was scoring at about half his career point-per-game average, but in some ways they've been even worse than their numbers. While Richter's average is just a hundredth of a goal higher than his career best, leaguewide scoring is down .54 goals a game from last season and 1.19 since 1993-94, when he had his 2.57, and he is clearly not as effective. Leetch's plus-minus rating (-21 through Sunday) is sixth-worst in the league, which is slumming for a player of his pedigree. All of which has contributed to the Rangers' 14-19-12 record, a woeful mark for a team that reached the conference finals last year.
Washington Capitals coach Ron Wilson, who will coach the U.S. team in Nagano, recently had a close, if not lingering, look at Richter and Leetch. On Jan. 3 in Washington, Richter allowed two goals on four shots and lasted just 6:20 before Campbell lifted him. The coach showed great restraint in waiting three more minutes before also benching Leetch for the rest of the period, the first time since the 1994 Stanley Cup semifinals against the New Jersey Devils that anyone has told Leetch to take a seat.
Leetch obviously was a not-ready-for-pine-time player. He was the best player for the final two periods in Washington, as the Rangers rallied for a 3-2 win; he had two goals against the Carolina Hurricanes in a 4-2 victory three nights later; and he scored again and blocked a game-high five shots last Thursday in a 5-3 loss to the Caps at Madison Square Garden. As for Richter, perhaps he deserved more compassion than he got from the crowd after whiffing on the Caps' game-winner—an exquisitely placed 50-footer by Peter Bondra—but he hasn't earned that luxury this season.
"We've lost a lot of games this year, but not everything we're doing is wrong," Richter says. "As a goaltender I have to look at it the same way. I'm doing a lot of things right out there."
He is a netminder who is working without a net, having allowed 11 goals in the first five minutes of games. His early largesse has forced him to depend on an offense that ranked 15th in scoring to get him back in the game, and no one can stay on that tightrope forever. Richter, who has allowed more goals through the five-hole than usual this season, has also run into some hard luck—five of his losses have come when the Rangers were shut out and seven have been by one goal—but when he was winning the Stanley Cup in 1994, when he was robbing Canada in the World Cup in 1996, when he was stoning the Devils in the playoffs last season, he was making his own luck.
If Richter misses Glenn Healy, the veteran who offered him a sounding board and first-class backup before signing as a free agent with the Toronto Maple Leafs last summer, Leetch seems most affected by the loss of Mark Messier, the former captain whose rancorous off-season departure as a free agent to the Vancouver Canucks stung his friends on the team. When Messier arrived in New York in 1991, he roomed with Leetch. They traveled to practice together. They ate together. Most important, they were on the ice a lot together.
For six years Messier, leftwinger Adam Graves and Leetch were the keys to a formidable five-man unit. Messier was a straight-ahead, 100-mph player, and Leetch knew precisely when to slip into the jet stream and join the attack as the late man. With Messier gone, Leetch has been playing with a variety of centers. Wayne Gretzky, with his little curl move inside the blue line that has been fooling NHL defensemen for only 19 years now, is a little tougher read than Messier. Leetch has yet to mesh with the line centered by Messier's replacement, Pat LaFontaine. Messier's presence also helped Leetch's plus-minus rating—it was +98 from 1991-92 through '96-97—because their five-man unit played almost exclusively against checking lines, ham-handed grinders unlikely to embarrass a defenseman.