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THE NHL : Calgary Is Suffering Through Hard Times

NEWSDAY

The Calgary Flames have the NHL’s best cumulative record over the past five seasons. But you cannot tell that by the way they are now playing.

Coming off a 1-4 road trip, the Flames are 3-8-2 in their past 13 games and 12-14-4 overall. Asked about reasons for the poor start, Doug Risebrough begins with his own status. “It’s a little unusual,” he said, “to have one guy in charge. It’s unusual to the hockey culture.”

After serving as general manager since the franchise’s inception in Atlanta in 1972, Cliff Fletcher left the Flames in the offseason to take over the Toronto Maple Leafs. Risebrough, 37, a former Flames player, assistant coach and assistant general manager and a first-year head coach last season, was given the added job of general manager before this season. Four other NHL coaches are general managers: the Chicago Blackhawks’ Mike Keenan, the Quebec Nordiques’ Pierre Page, the Vancouver Canucks’ Pat Quinn and the Detroit Red Wings’ Bryan Murray.

“I know at least eight guys on this team,” said Risebrough, who retired as a player in 1987, “because I played with them. There has been an adjustment period for the players and management.”

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Risebrough recently signed left wing Gary Roberts to a four-year, $2.3-million contract. But Risebrough was on the other side of the table at center Doug Gilmour’s salary arbitration hearing. Risebrough has not agreed on a contract with center Joel Otto, who is in his option year. He is renegotiating the contracts of right wing Theo Fleury and center Joe Nieuwendyk, but he has refused to re-do goalie Mike Vernon’s contract. So, there are some strained relations.

“The coach struggles with his ability to tell the GM the intangibles,” Risebrough said. “I know the intangibles of my players. I see the pimples. But I don’t think that (poor start) relates to that.”

What does? Club insiders point to these factors:

-- Canada Cup hangover. Team USA’s Otto and Gary Suter and Team Canada’s Fleury and Al MacInnis had tired legs coming into the season and have been inconsistent.

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-- The schedule. The Flames played 19 road games in their first 30, with two four-game trips and two five-gamers. “Hopefully,” Otto said, “it’ll be beneficial at the end of the year.”

-- Dumb penalties. The Flames lead the NHL in penalty minutes.

-- The Nieuwendyk Factor. Nieuwendyk scored 51, 51, 45 and 45 goals in the past four seasons. Coming off knee surgery that caused him to miss the first 11 games, he has four goals and eight assists. “I know that sooner or later it’s going to come back,” Nieuwendyk said.

-- Other injuries. Defenseman Ric Nattress (knee surgery), center Carey Wilson (irritated shoulder) and wings Stephane Matteau (calcified thigh muscle) and Tomas Forslund (knee) have missed several weeks. Roberts (whiplash) and MacInnis (separated shoulder) have missed a few games.

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-- Lack of depth. The well is dry in what used to be the NHL’s deepest organization.

“We’re not playing with as much fire and confidence as we need,” Otto said. Are contract squabbles responsible? “I think everybody’s professional enough that we come to play,” he said. “I don’t see that as a factor.”

Gilmour said, however, “If you don’t get along with the coach, you don’t get along with the general manager. It’s new to Riser as well. He’s very busy at GMs’ meetings, signing guys, learning about the business.”

Risebrough said, “Each one of those things is a small factor. You add them up and it’s made for some interesting challenges. We have to be better. We think we will be.”

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The emergence of New Jersey Devils left wing Claude Vilgrain, 28, has to give hope to every minor-leaguer. Vilgrain is getting an NHL chance after three years at the University of Moncton, two with the Canadian Olympic and national teams and three with Utica (N.Y.) of the American Hockey League.

“I felt I was real close,” said Vilgrain, who is in the option year of his contract. “I sacrificed a lot to play hockey. I figured I’d give it a last shot -- until the end of my contract. I didn’t want to quit without knowing if I could play here.”

Vilgrain was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and raised in a Quebec City suburb. He is one of a handful of blacks to make the NHL. He said he did not face much prejudice growing up. “I was fortunate in that sense,” he said.

The AHL was another story. “New Haven was the toughest,” he said, regarding fans who used racial taunts. “They tried to get me off my game. There was always some imbecile. But I always played my best games in New Haven.” He said he has not been subjected to racial epithets in the NHL.

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Vilgrain was coached in Utica the past three seasons by Tom McVie, who was named the Devils’ coach March 4. “Tommy knows what I can do,” said Vilgrain, who is 7-11-18 in 22 games. “The fact he’s coaching here helped me. I was given an opportunity to prove myself, which I never had before.”

Sources say big fines will be forthcoming to the Flames and the Sabres for their brawl in Sunday’s 4-2 Flames’ victory at Buffalo. It was the teams’ first meeting since their Nov. 16 game in which Calgary defenseman Jamie Macoun broke the jaw of Sabres center Pat LaFontaine with a stick swipe and went unpunished by the NHL.

At 17:34 of the first period during a line change, Calgary’s Ronnie Stern bumped into Buffalo’s Tony Tanti. Tanti slashed Stern. A brawl ensued, after which those two and four others from each team were ejected. Calgary’s Tim Hunter suffered a fractured left ankle in the fracas. “Guys were really intense coming into the game,” said Sabres wing Robert Ray, who was one of those ejected. “Tempers were high and if something did occur, you got to expect that. But it really wasn’t planned.”

The amazing thing about the 8-0-3 streak that has lifted the Winnipeg Jets into a tie for first place with the Canucks in the Smythe Division before Thursday night’s games is the Jets were outshot in each of the first 10 games in the span.

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Goalie Bob Essensa, who suffered a pulled left hamstring 15:59 into the first period of Sunday’s 4-3 home win over the Washington Capitals, has allowed only 13 goals in the streak. He was replaced against the Caps and for Tuesday’s 3-3 tie with the San Jose Sharks by Stephane Beauregard.

“I think we do a pretty good job of protecting the last 30 feet to our net,” Jets’ Coach John Paddock said. “That’s helped hmm out. But he (Essensa) has helped us out an awful lot.” Essensa, 26, who played four years at Michigan State and has a team-record nine career shutouts, is expected back shortly.


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