Overlooked stars might be the best in the west

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 1:12 PM ET

With their victory over the Los Angles Kings this week, the Dallas Stars all but wrapped up the Pacific Division title.

The Stars have not received a large amount of media interest this year, but nevertheless may be the best team in the Western Conference of the National Hockey League at the moment.

The Detroit Red Wings have more points and the Nashville Predators are having a good season too. But the point totals of those two teams are suspect because of the unbalanced schedule.

Both Nashville and Detroit play eight games against Chicago, St. Louis and Columbus, three of the weakest teams in the league.

The Stars have been strong all season, but lately, they have been getting even better.

The acquisition of defenceman Willie Mitchell from the Minnesota Wild may have been the best deal of deadline day.

Mitchell is an excellent defenceman and a great off-ice leader as well. Any time you can add a defenceman of his calibre, you have done a good day's work.

And now, Mike Modano is getting hot as well. This week, he reached the 25-goal mark for the 13th time in his career.

He reached that milestone with his 134th career power-play goal, which might not seem particularly notable except for one factor. By doing so, he tied the franchise record set by Brian Bellows and now owns at least a share of every major offensive record in franchise history.

In Modano's first three seasons, Bellows was a teammate.

"Brian was strictly a shooter who had great hands, was tough to move and made a living in front of that net," Modano said. "It has been fun chasing those numbers. Hopefully, I can add to them so that no one else can get them."

As if all this good news weren't enough, the Dallas power play finally has seen the light as well. Coach Dave Tippett did some juggling and so far, it has worked.

He moved Modano to the left point, thereby giving himself an opportunity to spot Niko Kapanen and Antti Miettinen up front. Those two provided an energy that had not been in evidence and now, the power play is better than it has been all year.

There's almost a month left in the season and a hot streak can end in that time. But if the playoffs were to start today, Dallas would have to be considered the favourite in the West, perhaps in the entire league.

STILL BOILING

Even though the turmoil in the NHL Players' Association has slipped below the surface, it still is very much a reality.

The latest battle has to do with the proposal by the owners to raise the salary cap from its present amount -- $39 million US per team -- to something like $46 million per team.

To the casual fan, it would seem that the players would be fully in favour. But in fact, the convoluted collective bargaining agreement that the players accepted makes it better for some of them to keep the cap low.

The CBA is full of technical issues, but in simple terms if the cap goes up, teams will feel pressure to spend more. If most of them do so, then the players' mandated 54% of revenue will be exceeded and they will have to give it back through escrow payments.

But some teams see that as the price of having accepted a poor deal. Reports from Tampa say that Lightning general manager Jay Feaster told his players that if they want to keep the team together, he will need the maximum available cap to meet their wishes.

Atlanta is another team that wants the maximum cap.

"I think the cap should be pushed to the limit every year, even though I have a contract for next year," Andy Sutton, the Thrashers' new player rep, said.

"At the upper limit, there are more total dollars being spent on players. It creates more of a healthy marketplace. It allows teams who want to spend more money to do so. I think you need those kinds of teams, the Rangers, Philly, Toronto, to push the limits."

Sutton, who will make $2 million next season, feels that higher escrows are the lesser of two evils and are necessary to help the players make more money

"I don't like the escrow," he said, "but it's part of the system. We have a responsibility as players and agents to extract as many dollars for the players as they can and it's the responsibility of the owners and the players to grow the game."

NEW FOCUS

Now that baseball has moved into the spotlight, World Anti-Doping Agency head Dick Pound has found a new target.

But apparently he learned his lesson, and this time, didn't make any preposterous and unsupportable charges as he did with hockey.

Even though baseball is known to have a steroid problem, Pound took a more conciliatory approach. "We are asking baseball to come clean and set the record straight," Pound said on the WADA website.

Come clean? There's an idea. Does that include Pound coming clean and admitting he was wrong in his assertion that a third of all NHL players use performance-enhancing drugs?

BULKING UP

The Phoenix Coyotes hope they can get Josh Gratton into the lineup tomorrow. He was acquired from the Philadelphia Flyers at the trade deadline but has yet to play because he has an infected knee.

Gratton will not be in the lineup to perform pirouettes. "We need toughness," coach Wayne Gretzky explained. "We're not tough enough. It is a simple fact."

That kind of statement won't please the folks in the New York office. We're supposed to be building a kinder, gentler game here.

NO WORD YET

The deciding date for the future of the Pittsburgh Penguins has been pushed back a few more months. It had been expected this summer, but NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the decision is now expected in December or January.

As reported here earlier, a casino-operating company called Isle of Capri has tabled a proposal for a downtown makeover which incorporates a new arena for the Penguins.

The Penguins' future, Bettman said, is dependent on Isle of Capri getting government approval. "If they don't get it," Bettman said, "and nobody's got a plan to give them (the Penguins) a building on comparable terms, then the team is going to have to move."

HERE AND THERE

Who is taking care of Ed Belfour's back problem? Is it the same chiropractor who took care of Eric Lindros' wrist? No wonder he's still out ... Calgary Flames coach Darryl Sutter, after a wild 3-2 overtime loss on Thursday that saw defenceman Roman Hamrlik trip over defenceman Chris Pronger's broken stick on the game-deciding rush: "Everyone in Alberta should be happy. They got three points" ... That's quite a streak the Maple Leafs have going. They are 2-0 in games in which the opposition is assessed seven or more consecutive penalties.


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