Strangled offenses getting more attention


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Calls for substantial rules changes in the game, now that defenses have offenses in a stranglehold, are gaining more strident supporters by the week, both in the media and from NHL personnel.

Buffalo coach-general manager John Muckler and Edmonton coach-general manager Glen Sather are two of the latest proponents of venturing into a brave new world in which standards favor the attack and the freedom to play this game with as few restraints as possible.

Sather said he already has proposed to the NHL Board of Governors that dump-ins be outlawed. Too dull, too predictable, too much of a crutch.

"That just allows defensemen who can't play the game to hang on, skate to the red line and dump it," he insisted, believing that crowd appeal will widen for a game that flows rather than bumps along.

As for Muckler, like Sather a former Stanley Cup winner in Edmonton, he wants wider ice surfaces and a crackdown on interference.

"The interference in the game is getting ridiculous," Muckler said. "It's getting to the point where they are interfering with the second and third guy trying to get in there. And [officials] just let it go.

"I'd like to see the rinks made wider. Not as wide as the Olympics, but wider than Buffalo, that's for sure."

Even though NHL vice president Brian Burke says the dropoff in offense and a widespread dependence on defense is a front-burner issue for the league in these image-conscious days, commissioner Gary Bettman wasn't that forthcoming.

"I don't admit it's dull," he said of today's NHL. "But it's nice to have expansion teams doing well."

There is a message there. If new rules de-emphasize some defensive techniques, future expansion teams and their limited-talent rosters could be in trouble.

For safety's sake

In the wake of the attack on skater Nancy Kerrigan, athletes are re-evaluating how safe they are from the public. Wayne Gretzky noted he never goes out without being accompanied.

"I never go anywhere by myself, even when I'm around home," Gretzky said. "When I try to walk out of some place with my son and daughter, that's a big concern to me.

"It's just not safe anymore. I get very nervous. We've checked into hotels at 2:30 in the morning and [autograph seekers] are waiting for us.

"You have professional runners -- people being paid to get autographs for card shops. There's a lot of money in that and they don't want to get shut out. They'll jump in front of the car if that's what it takes."

Defense pays

Chris Chelios is the best defenseman in the Central Division. But Toronto coach Pat Burns believes one reason the Maple Leafs are first in the division and the Chicago Blackhawks fifth is that he has the best blue line from top to bottom.

"Maybe they are not the flashiest defense, but I'd say we have the best defense in the league," Burns said. "We have six, big experienced guys that a lot of other teams can't match."

The recent return of defensemen Todd Gill and Dave Ellett from injuries has helped Toronto stop its 2-9-3 slide and be successful again with five straight victories going into the weekend.

Fighting report

Fighting is not just alive and well, it's breaking out all over. The last comparison showed that fights had risen to 909 this season, at a stage when there had been 609 last season in the early weeks of January.

"It's coming back, toughness and intimidation," said Edmonton's Craig MacTavish. "There's more of it now than there was five years ago.

"With a little intimidation and toughness, not only will it help you win, but it will make whatever talented players you have be a little more comfortable."

Goalies under fire

They are writing in Boston that the Bruins can't expect to win in the long run with Jon Casey and John Blue in net. Casey is being accused of giving up far too many soft goals, even when he wins.

Now, Bruins general manager Harry Sinden is joining the chorus. Asked if he was satisfied with Casey, Sinden replied: "Are you kidding? He hasn't played the way he should since the first 15 games of the season.

"He has no reason to be tense. Our goalies only face 20 shots a night. They don't get any work. I don't know what the problem is, but it's not that they're besieged."

Restless in Quebec

Even Quebec's Joe Sakic is urging his team's coach and general manager, Pierre Page, to pull the trigger on a shake-up. "I think it's time something was done . . . but I'm not the GM," Sakic said.

The Nordiques are going so badly that Page has taken to scratching some of his top scorers as motivation. Andrei Kovalenko sat out last week in a loss in Vancouver, and Valeri Kamensky watched from the sidelines the game before that.

The Blackhawks will listen to Page if he wants to trade Sakic, not Mike Ricci, who is said to be having personal problems. Sakic is about the only way Blackhawks general manager Bob Pulford will consider giving Page what he wants -- defenseman Steve Smith.

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