SUN Hockey Pool

Key players make all the difference

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:13 AM ET

Hockey is a team game and when a key player leaves, or is injured, teammates can often make up for the absence.

But for the most part, that's true only in the case of strong teams.

The Colorado Avalanche, for instance, are doing well without Adam Foote and Peter Forsberg, two guys who had a plenty to do with the Avs' success in recent years.

But consider what has happened to some other teams when a key player has been missing from the lineup.

The Columbus Blue Jackets are in serious trouble without Rick Nash, who tied for the league lead in scoring in 2003-04.

The Jackets have scored only 28 goals in 15 games, and in this era, if you can't average two goals a game, you're not going to win many. And the Blue Jackets haven't.

In fact, they've won only four -- and three of those came during what general manager Doug MacLean called "the most important five-game home stand in the team's history."

That was back when MacLean still had his sense of humour. It was the only five-game home stand in the team's history.

These days, however, Mac-Lean isn't chuckling much.

Without Nash in the lineup, opponents can focus on David Vyborny who has only four goals this season. Still, that's four more than the cumulative total for Tyler Wright, Todd Marchant and Manny Malhotra.

MacLean frantically is trying to make a deal and may move one of his decent goaltenders, Marc Denis or Martin Prusek. If he does, he'll recall Pascal Leclaire from the minors.

Another example of a key player being unavailable involves the Nashville Predators.

With Scott Walker in the lineup, they won their first seven games. Then Walker went out with a strained abdomen and the Preds are 1-5 since then, including yesterday's 3-2 shootout loss to the Los Angeles Kings.

Walker is one of those under-rated players in the league who escapes the fans' attention. But when a player kills penalties and gets time on the power play, as Walker does, he hasn't escaped the coach's attention.

He also is a physical player, a rarity on the Nashville roster. As teammate Steve Sullivan pointed out, "He's the heart and soul of the team."

A third example involves the Chicago Blackhawks.

Goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin isn't injured. But considering the way he's playing, he might as well be. For all intents and purposes, the real Khabibulin is not in evidence.

His goals-against average is 4.10 and his save percentage is an abysmal .843. But those numbers look good compared to his past two games -- in which the stats are 6.49 and .789 respectively.

Khabibulin says his confidence is, "probably not at the highest level."

But coach Trent Yawney isn't ready to panic.

"I have confidence in him." he said. "He'll lose confidence in himself way before I'll lose confidence in him. He's going to play his way out of it."

TRADE CHATTER

Now that we're into the second month of the season, the trade talks are starting.

There's no sense mentioning names because in most of these cases, the talks are exploratory. This is the new NHL in which your primary concern is to trade contracts, then hope the player who is attached to the contract serves a purpose in your organization.

But don't be surprised if the Florida Panthers soon part ways with one of their capable young forwards.

The Edmonton Oilers are looking for a big centre who can add some offence. Maybe someone like Bill Guerin?

Oh, sorry, they had him.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are desperate for a defenceman, even though Ryan Whitney has done an excellent job since moving up to replace the injured Dick Tarnstrom.

The Dallas Stars are interested in unloading a high-priced forward.

Let's see. Where does Bill Guerin play these days?

CAPTAIN YASHIN

Two ways to tell when your team is in trouble: (a) Alexei Yashin is your hardest-working player, and (b) Yashin is your most consistent player.

The decision to make Yashin the captain of the New York Islanders raised a few eyebrows prior to the season, but Yashin is playing well.

It must be the C on the sweater that's doing it and not the threat to buy him out of his contract next summer if he doesn't show he is worth his $7.6 million US salary.

Still, despite Yashin's efforts, coach Steve Stirling is rapidly becoming the odds-on favourite to become the first coach fired this season.

After all, incompetence at the NHL level simply cannot be tolerated, so he'll get canned by general manager Mike Milbury, the guy who acquired Yashin in the first place in a trade for his first pick (Jason Spezza), Zdeno Chara and Bill Muckalt.

For those of you who don't usually play along at home, other players traded away by Milbury over the years include Bryan McCabe, Wade Redden, Rafi Torres, Roberto Luongo, Bryan Berard, Olli Jokkinen, Todd Bertuzzi, and a host of others.

BUREAUCRATIC LUNACY

Not long ago, the Maple Leafs weren't allowed to sell booze at a couple of games because of some transgressions against the rules imposed by the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario.

Now, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. has to stage three dry concerts at the Air Canada Centre.

Could anything more suitably illustrate the lunacy of the bureaucrats who plague our existence every day?

Here are these faceless functionaries -- no doubt political appointees -- preventing innocent concert-goers from having a beer.

At the same time, the taxpayers of Ontario miss out on the revenue that would have been provided through the onerous taxes that are always imposed on liquor and beer.

If the ACC has broken the rules, then fine the ACC.

That way, the taxpayers get double revenue -- the fine and the taxes -- and innocent paying customers aren't inconvenienced.

HERE AND THERE

Still waiting to hear from the GMs who have decided to take a 24% salary rollback in order to keep pace with the players who they followed up the salary spiral ... It's hard to understand all the fuss and anticipation among fans of the Maple Leafs about the impending trade of Brendan Witt. Didn't the guy say he wanted to go to a Stanley Cup contender? ... Boyd Devereaux and Curtis Joseph have now been teammates on three teams -- Edmonton Detroit and Phoenix.


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