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Inside the NHL | Helene Elliott / ON THE NHL

Lang Is Red Wings' Insurance

March 02, 2004|Helene Elliott

This is how a successful team perpetuates its success:

The Detroit Red Wings were outbid by the Washington Capitals for Robert Lang when he was a free agent in 2002 but tried to trade for him last summer, after the departures of Igor Larionov and Sergei Fedorov left them thin up the middle. Thwarted again, the Red Wings tapped their farm system and bought time until the right deal cropped up.

That deal fell onto the table last week when the cost-cutting Capitals decided they couldn't afford Lang and the $15 million he's due the next three seasons. Detroit General Manager Ken Holland was perfectly positioned to trade prospect Tomas Fleischmann, a first-round pick this season and a fourth-round pick in 2006 for Lang, who was tied for the league scoring lead when the deal was made Friday.

In one move, Holland fortified a powerful but aging team to make a run before a lockout plunges NHL rinks into darkness and gave himself financial flexibility to thrive under whatever system prevails under a new labor deal.

Holland could afford to commit $15 million of owner Mike Ilitch's dough because he timed the contracts of 14 key players to end after this season. That group includes veterans Brett Hull, Steve Yzerman, Chris Chelios, Tomas Holmstrom, Nicklas Lidstrom and Dominik Hasek, who will earn $34.788 million of the team's $77.8-million payroll. Hasek might be bought out in the next few weeks, and Hull, Yzerman and Chelios might retire if there's a long lockout. When play resumes, the Red Wings' payroll will drop, but their skill level won't, thanks to Lang.

Lang, a Czech-born center, is 33 and a good fit strategically and competitively behind emerging star Pavel Datsyuk and two-way standout Kris Draper. Lang, a former King, is a good passer and sturdy enough at 6 feet 2 and 216 pounds to hold his own against Western Conference forwards. Coach Dave Lewis can now play Yzerman to the wing to save what's left of Yzerman's aching knees.

"We felt it was a move we had to take and couldn't pass up," Holland said. "And it's at a price we could live with."

Lang was delighted to go to a contender.

"I think Detroit was in the running before, and I hope that I can be just a little bit more help for everybody's big goal: winning the Cup," he said.

That trade may trigger an avalanche of responses in the week left before the trade deadline. Or, at the very least, a response by the Colorado Avalanche.

Colorado General Manager Pierre Lacroix reportedly has his sights on Washington goalie Olaf Kolzig and defenseman Sergei Gonchar and is willing to give up defenseman Derek Morris and draft picks, which would allow the Capitals to pare payroll and accumulate young players who would earn less under the next labor agreement. Kolzig could support or supplant David Aebischer, and Gonchar would be a fine quarterback for a power play that has struggled the last month.

Toronto and Boston supposedly want Gonchar too, and he'd look great in a King uniform. According to Tim Leiweke, the Kings' president, General Manager Dave Taylor has a green light to make a deal that would expand the payroll, and adding an impact player would show management's faith in a team that won on grit and perseverance when its skill players got hurt. Every day the Blues struggle is a day closer to the playoffs for the Kings, and once you're in, anything can happen, at least against anyone but the Red Wings, who appear to be ahead of the field.

Hired to be Fired

Joel Quenneville had five 40-victory seasons in St. Louis. Bobby Francis squeezed enough juice out of a bunch of lemons to keep his job after the Phoenix Coyotes were sold and almost every position was turned over to an FOG (Friend of Gretzky).

Didn't matter. Both were fired last Tuesday, and Glen Sather gave up coaching the Rangers a day later but remained as general manager and president, the better to clean up the mess he created with his overspending and poor planning.

"A couple of good coaches got fired, I know that," said Mighty Duck General Manager Bryan Murray, who has been there before. "Players just get tired of hearing the same thing over and over.... The big thing is to challenge your players every day. Maybe after seven years, you run out of ways to do that. Washington said, 'You know, Bryan, maybe it's time we moved on,' and we'd had three 100-point seasons."

Murray sympathized with Sather, who'd been jeered by fans for months.

"I heard the chanting. It was sad," Murray said. "If I was him, I don't blame him at all."

The Rangers today will play their first home game since Sather gave the reins to assistant Tom Renney, a disciplinarian. That's a role Sather couldn't or wouldn't play. After snubbing Ken Hitchcock to hire the unqualified Bryan Trottier (who followed the equally overwhelmed Ron Low), Sather went behind the bench himself and did no better. He never benched players for repeated mistakes and didn't seem to notice that his millionaires often couldn't be bothered to display any passion.

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