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Second liner a central piece

Nieuwendyk a good example for Bruins

The Maple Leafs, looking every bit the Stanley Cup contender, will be on Causeway Street Thursday night. When last they were here, Dec. 4, the Leafs slapped a humiliating 6-0 loss on the Bruins, and little did we know then that it would be just one crumbled tile in a disintegrating mosaic. Now, compare the Boston-Toronto rosters. Does it seem all that big a difference to you? Yet the Leafs are the hottest team in hockey, while the goal-starved, passionless Bruins look barely capable of hanging on to a playoff spot.

 

Sure, the Leafs have a gargantuan edge in experience, in guys like Ed Belfour, Mats Sundin, Gary Roberts, Joe Nieuwendyk, and Bryan Marchment, to name a few of the Blue and White's moldy oldies. But they, too, lack a franchise defenseman, and for all that experience, surely the ravages of age and guaranteed injuries (such as Alex Mogilny's hip surgery) should have some diminishing effect on Canada's Team. Shouldn't they?

It wasn't just one thing that sent the Leafs into the Christmas break with a mesmerizing 13-0-1-1 streak, just as it wasn't one thing that delivered the Bruins to their mind-numbing 2-7-5-1 slide. But there is no ignoring the fact that the Leafs, under the tutleage of old world coach Pat Quinn, play with a nasty edge and obvious mission, while the Bruins, under new age coach Mike Sullivan, often don't seem to know whether to skate, shoot, or hitch their sticks to the back of the Zamboni.

Like the FBI, let's identify Nieuwendyk, now 37 and a veteran of three Cup teams, as a person of interest. An unrestricted free agent after coining $5 million with the Cup champion Devils last season, the other Jumbo Joe signed on with the Leafs for $2 million just hours before the start of September training camp. It was his addition in the middle that ultimately led the Leafs to part ways with Travis Green around the waiver draft, Green ultimately landing in Boston via trade just hours before the start of the season.

Back when free agency began July 1, the Bruins nosed around on what it would take to bring Nieuwendyk to Boston. His asking price then was substantially higher than the $2 million he ultimately took from Toronto after the market turned soft with training camp approaching.

Nieuwendyk to Toronto at $2 million. Green to Boston at $1.6 million. But for $400,000 more, the Leafs got themselves a bona fide No. 2 center and team leader, opening up acres of leg room for Sundin, the kind of operating space the talented Swede has rarely had in his time with the Leafs. The Bruins, meanwhile, got a decent faceoff man in Green, who is some four years younger than Nieuwendyk, but to this day they struggle to cobble together a second line that could free Thornton from the nightly shackles of the opposition's best checkers.

There aren't a lot of Nieuwendyks to go around in today's game. The 6-foot-2-inch, 205-pound pivot, in fact, has been overshadowed his entire career by the game's flashier, more prolific scorers. But he has won Cups in Calgary, Dallas, and New Jersey, and here he is again on a club that is making loud noises that it will be a real player in April, May, and June. Funny how that keeps happening wherever he goes, isn't it?

The Bruins may or may not be one move away from revitalizing what is a pretty good lineup. But if they are, their fastest way out of the ongoing ennui could be to find that veteran workhorse of a center who could be Thornton's Nieuwendyk.

The best answer to this could be Hurricanes center Ron Francis, his production now all but nonexistent in noncontending Carolina. His ticket is high ($4.5 million, discounted now by nearly 50 percent), and his time is running out at age 40, but both of those factors could mean a deal gets done without sacrificing much off the Boston roster. If not Francis, the Bruins would have to look to a younger, less-proven No. 2, but that no doubt would mean giving up more (Sergei Samsonov or maybe a No. 1 pick).

One small move at center, one giant leap for Thornton. Fine, it's not rocket science, but it could be a whole lot easier than finding a franchise defenseman in the middle of the season. And look what the Leafs are doing without a franchise defenseman.

First steps back

Star Atlanta forward Dany Heatley skated for the first time Tuesday since a devastating car crash Sept. 29 led to the death of teammate Dan Snyder and left Heatley with a broken jaw and torn knee ligaments. Heatley said nothing to reporters after the 10-minute workout, but on Friday he addressed the media for the first time since he was behind the wheel for the fatal crash. According to Thrashers general manager Don Waddell, the club will be better able in 3-4 weeks to fix a return-to-action date for Heatley, but initial signs are he will make it back this season . . . Gotta love the lingering passion on Long Island, where a Christmas promo Tuesday night turned into a brief donnybrook between the first and second periods. Upwards of 1,000 customers took up the Islanders on the offer to wear Santa Claus outfits to gain free admission to the Islanders-Flyers game. To, uh, enhance the promo, the Santas were invited onto the ice during the first intermission. All well and good, until a couple of the ho-ho-hoers pulled back their red suits to reveal Ranger Blueshirts. Them's still fighting words in Uniondale. The skittering Santas, some of whom were left with no shirts on their back, slugged it out for some six minutes before security personnel could restore order. Anyone else remember the days when the fans provided only the second-best fights in the building? . . . The same night as the Santa Slugfest, the Islanders lost star center Alexei Yashin for up to 12 weeks. His play finally beginning to percolate recently, Yashin suffered severed tendon and nerve damage to his right wrist and forearm when Flyer Michal Handzus skated over it in a goal-mouth pileup. He required immediate surgery and will be in a cast for up to a month before beginning rehab . . . The Flyers, finally with Mike Comrie aboard, have been struggling of late, the No. 1 netminding job thrust upon ex-Bruin Jeff Hackett while partner Robert Esche has been out with a groin injury. After an impressive 1-1 tie with Boston Dec. 6, Hackett went a lackluster 1-5-2 in his eight decisions leading up to the Christmas break. Goaltending is a familiar woe for the Broad Streeters. The talk around the club -- denied by GM Bob Clarke -- has concerned a swap to bring Sean Burke back to Philly from Phoenix. But wouldn't a Jeremy Roenick-for-Curtis Joseph swap make great sense? Roenick and head coach Ken Hitchcock have been on and off the same page over their year and a half together, and the CuJo/JR contracts present a near even-dollar exchange.

Hardly working

So many passionless clubs in the NHL and still no work for ex-Sabres coach Ted Nolan. About all the guy had in Buffalo was Dominik Hasek -- granted, that's not a bad "about all" -- but those Sabres teams were motivated and played with enthusiasm. See many of those clubs today? . . . Showing just the slightest signs that they might not roll over and die before the calendar flips to 2004 -- and maybe even get in a race for the No. 8 playoff seed -- the Blackhawks this weekend could get star pivot Alexei Zhamnov back into the lineup. He has been gone since back surgery in October. Meanwhile, ex-Bruin blue liner Bryan Berard surrendered his No. 3 Chicago sweater following the death of former team captain Keith Magnuson, who was killed in an auto accident outside Toronto. Berard, sidelined since the middle of the month with a groin injury, will wear No. 4 upon his return. Hard for any New England kid to pull on that number, even 25 years after Bobby Orr's sweater went to the Garden rafters. Berard would have been happy to wear his more familiar No. 34, but fellow blue liner Jason Strudwick already had dibs . . . Ex-Bruin Brad Park, the Hall of Fame defenseman, has augmented his work as a part-time Ranger scout, recently named an assistant vice president with Land America working in the title and escrow division . . . Rarely does a coach/player rift go as public as the John Tortorella-Vincent Lecavalier incident that erupted when the Lightning visited here last week. Tortorella benched the star center for virtually the entire second period after Lecavalier's bad pass in the attacking zone led to Rob Zamuner's goal at the opposite end of the ice. "Awful call," was what Lecavalier labeled the benching. Tortorella erupted postgame, noting, "I don't give a [expletive] who he is, or who he thinks he is." All this is just less than two years after Rick Dudley, then the Tampa Bay GM, was convinced the right thing to do, for everyone, was trade Lecavalier -- a decision that ultimately led to Dudley's firing in February 2002. The package the Lightning would have received was never made public, just as Bill Torrey has never revealed what the Canadiens dropped on his table trying to get the No. 1 pick in '73 that brought the Islanders Denis Potvin. Imagine what Potvin would have meant to the Habs, winners of the Cup in '76, '77, '78, and '79, had Torrey made such a swap. Instead, Potvin was on the Islander back line for Cups in '80, '81, '82, and '83 . . . Ex-Bruin forward Jim Lorentz, a member of the 1970 Cup-winning squad, will sign autographs at Sportsworld in Everett Jan. 11. A longtime member of the Sabres broadcast crew, the 57-year-old Lorentz will be in town for the Jan. 12 Bruins-Sabres "Neely Night" matchup. Lorentz has rarely, if ever, been around the Hub for signings since '70, in part because he was playing for the Blues the following September . . . TSN.ca, the Internet arm of Canada's respected media outlet, in the wake of NHL executive Bill Daly's recent comments here about the failing labor contract, reported Dec. 19 that, "Thornton's contract made a mockery of the rookie salary cap. The Bruins broke the mold -- a cap put in place because of the outrageous deals written for the likes of Alexandre Daigle -- and that opened the way for other NHL GMs to gut what could have been a useful negotiating tool."

Jacked up

Bruins short-timer Ric Jackman, ditched to Toronto for Kris Vernarsky, has been a valuable contributor to the Leafs as a No. 6-7 backliner. He's still not the tower of power the Stars had him pegged to be when they selected him No. 5 overall in the '96 draft, but he seems to get getting there. Vernarsky (5-3--8 in 26 games with the Baby B's), picked up only a goal in 14 games with Boston last year and hasn't threatened to crack the parent club . . . Tommy Salo likely will be the next Oiler out of Edmonton. He's making $3.9 million this year, highest on the club, and the surprise last weekend was coach Craig MacTavish's decision to go with ex-UNH star Ty Conklin in back-to-back games. "Their eyes are on Conklin," said Salo, who is now 33 and accustomed to playing 65-70 games a year. Conklin makes only $860,000. Deal Salo quickly and the Oilers can save upward of $2 million on his payout this year . . . If Toronto's acquisition of Nieuwendyk was the late-summer pickup of the season, then Calgary's swap for Sharks spare part Miikka Kiprusoff was the in-season steal of the year. With Kiprusoff in net, the Flames have battled back to playoff contention -- at a cost of a second- or third-round draft pick, depending on how many games Kiprusoff plays. "I knew San Jose was stuck; they couldn't send him to the minors or they'd have lost him [on waivers] for nothing," said Calgary GM/coach Darryl Sutter, the ex-bench boss in San Jose . . . Something I'd like to see before the season ends: Thornton controlling a power play from the right half-board, with Glen Murray banging down bodies through the slot and continuing to joust for position at the top of the crease before Jumbo Joe unloads. Not very complicated, but often effective, wouldn't you say? . . . The Ducks' woes are in lockstep with most every club that begins a new season as the prior spring's loser in the Cup finals. Ducks netminder Jean-Sebastian Giguere: "There are nights we just don't have any emotion." Like a lot of clubs too many nights . . . Cristobal Huet is Los Angeles's No. 1 goalie while Roman Cechmanek is out with a hip injury. With that name, in that city, if Huet doesn't get a deal to endorse champagne, somebody isn't trying . . . Loblaw Cos. Limited, the giant Canadian grocer that hoped to turn Maple Leaf Gardens into a supermarket, pulled out of the deal Tuesday. The cost of renovating the great old barn, said the company, was just too prohibitive. Meanwhile, Loblaw attorneys remain hopeful that some sort of cost certainty can be gained through a celery cap.

Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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