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Canucks' Burke may skate

Savvy GM could be a valuable free agent

Brian Burke, who in a previous lifetime was an attorney/agent here in the Hub of Hockey, has cobbled together an impressive product -- on and off the ice -- in Vancouver as Canucks president and general manager. Makes you wonder what he'll be doing, and where he'll be doing it, this time next year. "For the record," Burke said late last week when reached by telephone, "I don't want to go anywhere. I'd like to stay in Vancouver."

But there remains the obvious missing link that is Burke's contract. His deal in Vancouver expires at the end of this season, and as he so bluntly put it on radio there last week, he is a "lame duck" general manager. Ownership can't figure out what to do with him, which, from one country south and far to the east, seems nothing short of ridiculous.

The Canucks were an out-of-the-playoffs, out-of-a-clue franchise when Burke took over in the summer of '98, and now they are running with the big boys. They pack General Motors Place for every home game, have a reasonable shot at finishing first in the Western Conference (even with Robert Lang now in Detroit), and in April will play, at minimum, their fifth playoff series in four seasons.

Vancouver ownership should have extended Burke's deal months ago. Now 48 years old, he stands to be what amounts to an unrestricted free agent this summer, and his track record in Vancouver virtually guarantees that he'll command something in the top tier of GM pay (league range: $650,000-$2.5 million).

Perhaps ownership is banking on handing the operation over to one of Burke's capable assistants, Dave Nonis or Steve Tambellini, both of whom have had their names bandied about for GM openings in other NHL cities in recent years. Perhaps that will work. Perhaps, too, it will play out the way it did in Montreal when ownership dumped GM Serge Savard and brought in rookie Rejean Houle. Amid the change, the Habs also sent Patrick Roy packing to Colorado, a rash decision that has left the Habs reeling ever since.

If Vancouver ownership doesn't extend Burke's deal in the next few weeks, bet on his name being mentioned for every open GM job in the league -- and some that aren't open -- over the summer. He would be a perfect fit in Boston if Harry Sinden were to retire, allowing owner Jeremy Jacobs to hire Burke as president, and then it would be up to Burke to decide whether he wanted to keep Mike O'Connell on as GM. Burke would not comment on such a scenario, or any other possible employment beyond the job he currently holds. He may be a lame duck, but he's not a dumb duck.

One thing Burke gets more than most NHL bosses is the need to be successful not only in building a winning team, but also in selling it to the public. True, he is often confrontational with the Vancouver media ("I can be abrasive"). And it could be that abrasiveness, in part, that has kept his bosses from guaranteeing that he'll remain on the watch. Overall, though, he has built an entertaining team, told his head coach (Marc Crawford) not to employ the deathly boring trap system, and made himself, in many ways, the face of the franchise by being available to virtually every media outlet, at any hour, and any civic or business group.

"We are in the entertainment business," noted Burke, known as a tireless worker as far back as his playing days at Providence under Lou Lamoriello. "The trick isn't selling the game to hockey fans. The trick is convincing people who aren't necessarily hockey fans to spend their entertainment dollars on our game, rather than all the other places they could spend it."

Burke gets it. For now, his bosses don't.

Everything must go The D.C. purge continued Friday, with the high-scoring Lang shipped off to the Red Wings for a top prospect (Czech winger Tomas Fleischmann) and a couple of picks (first- and fourth-rounders). Interesting implications going forward, given the Capitals' intention to deal Sergei Gonchar. Lang has been among the league's top scorers all season, and Gonchar leads all blue liners in points. If Lang brought only a prospect and picks, Gonchar, soon to be 30 years old, should bring about the same. Translation: Shouldn't a package that includes Sergei Samsonov and a first-rounder be more than enough? The salaries Washington has dumped so far: Jaromir Jagr ($11 million), Peter Bondra ($4.5 million), Steve Konowalchuk ($1.575 million), and Lang ($5 million). No doubt they'll deal Olaf Kolzig ($6.25 million) and Gonchar ($3.65 million) prior to the March 9 trade deadline. If so, then ex-Bruin Anson Carter ($2.8 million), obtained in the Jagr swap with the Rangers, will end up the highest-paid Capital . . . One Rangers insider figures that club president/GM Glen Sather, who mercifully stepped down as coach last week, now has the week-plus prior to the trade deadline to save the two jobs he still holds with the Blueshirts. Look for the likes of Brian Leetch, Alexei Kovalev, Petr Nedved, and Eric Lindros to be among the many Sather is willing and eager to dish away in hopes of picking up prospects and picks to rebuild. "You'd think I had assassinated the Prime Minister of Canada for all the things they are saying around here," Sather told a Vancouver radio show last week, amid the New York City media savaging . . . Ex-NHL referee Paul Stewart, whose job titles these days include Causeway Street goodwill ambassador, recently had carpal tunnel-related surgery on his left hand and eventually could need the same on his right. "I'm doing fine," said the affable Stewart, making his rounds at the Vault Thursday night. "I figure I'll get this in shape and enter that Hockey Gladiators thing in Minnesota." He was kidding, of course. But ex-Bruin Lyndon Byers plans to return to his pugilist roots for the Aug. 27-28 gladiators sur glace pay-per-view event to be held at the Target Center. Top prize: $100,000 . . . Don't be surprised to see Joel Quenneville, surprisingly fired last week by the Blues, resurface behind the Rangers bench once all the smoke clears . . . Montreal's visit here Thursday night brought Ted Donato and Saku Koivu to the same sheet again. During the '94 lockout, they opposed each other in Turku, Finland, leading to flared tempers and an uncharacteristic fight for the two downsized forwards. Kidded by a reporter that Koivu was looking for a return bout, Donato playfully barked, "Hey, tell him he's 0-1. They've been waiting 10 years for that rematch in Finland. It will be packed. We'll fight on the boat from Sweden all the way to Finland." Heck, the first bout was enough for boxing promoter Don King to consider a buzzcut . . . According to a source with a number of friends on the Blackhawks roster, head coach Brian Sutter refused to allow Alexei Zhamnov to bid farewell to his ex-Chicago teammates in the hours after the talented Russian center was dealt to the Flyers. Zhamnov swung by the dressing room about 5 p.m. the night of a game, said the source, and was told by Sutter that he wouldn't be allowed in for a farewell.

Pivotal player healing The Islanders should have star pivot Alexei Yashin, recovering from surgery on a lacerated forearm, back in about a week. Yashin has been working out out for about a month, and the Islanders hope he can jump in with the same speed the rest of the lineup has displayed since his departure . . . Steve Sullivan, ditched by the Hawks, lit it up to the tune of 5-5--10 in his first three games with the Predators. Imagine what he might have done if they played hockey in Chicago, too . . . Word around the Canadiens last week was that the Habs might have an interest in Lindros, who looks like one towering redwood among that munchkin bunch of Montreal forwards. Lindros is on the books for a $10 million-plus option next year, but no one -- not even the Rangers! -- will pick up his deal at that price. His history of concussions makes him a high risk, but for only the price of, say, a third-round pick, he will entice many among the 16 postseason qualifiers. Boston? It would be a reach, but the Bruins still need that second-line center behind Joe Thornton, and his price now certainly fits the budget. Lindros has played only two postseason games since the spring of '98. Too bad for Lindros, and even worse for the game . . . Corey Schwab's potentially career-ending groin injury has the Devils hunting for a backup to Martin Brodeur. For now they have '01 Boston College grad Scott Clemmensen filling that Maytag-repairman position . . . In case you missed it, the Coyotes dished Landon "Of The Lost" Wilson to Pittsburgh, the embodiment of the land of the lost, last week . . . Your faithful puck chronicler finally saw "Miracle" over the school vacation week. Rating: Three of a possible five stars. The players' roles were filled by amateur actors, which led to some painful thespian moments and some tinny Boston accents. Loved the skating scenes (tight shots that packed a punch) and the made-for-Munsters eyebrows of the guy who played CCCP coach Viktor Tikhonov . . . New Jersey defenseman Scott Stevens, out since early January with lingering concussion symptoms, has picked up the pace a little on his treadmill workouts. His fatigue and headaches have dissipated to a great degree. All in all, he's at least gaining momentum toward getting back behind the blue line in time for the playoffs . . . The two life-sized statues of Ray Bourque, being crafted in Florida and Maryland, should be ready for shipment to the Sports Museum of New England on Causeway Street in 2-3 weeks. The most difficult part of the exercise, according to project supervisor Robert Dorfman, has been capturing Bourque's "strong, intense, and determined" look in the clay sculpture that will be used to cast the vinyl plastic mold for his face. One of the statues will have Bourque smacking a Ranger into the boards, the other with No. 77 breaking into stride for a rush up ice . . . Bruins executive vice president Charles "In Charge" Jacobs will be the featured guest Saturday on WWZN's New England Hockey Journal radio show . . . Lang is due $5 million for each of the next three years in Detroit. No problem for the Winged Wheels. According to GM Ken Holland, the Detroit payroll would dip by $50 million after this season if he lets all of his unrestricted free agents go. But that figure includes the $10 million Nicklas Lidstrom is pulling down this season, and contract talks already have begun to bring the Norris Trophy winner back for at least one more year . . . Hard to believe it was the March '94 trade deadline -- 10 years ago -- when the Bruins flipped Joe Juneau for Al Iafrate. Imagine what it would look like around here this spring if The Planet were on the Boston blue line.

Kevin Paul Dupont's e-mail address is dupont@globe.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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