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THE NHL / HELENE ELLIOTT : Devils Find the Cup a Heavy Burden

Winning the Stanley Cup was difficult enough, but the New Jersey Devils are discovering that defending their championship may be even tougher.

A 1-2-1 trip, which ended Sunday at Anaheim in the ruins of a 6-1 loss to the Mighty Ducks, extended the Devils’ slump to 1-4-1. Their sloppy finale led Coach Jacques Lemaire to wonder what happened to the focus and work ethic that made his team so formidable last season.

“It’s just awful what’s happening. Just terrible,” he said. “You always feel, when you’re not winning, ‘Are they thinking they’re better than they are? Are they taking it easy and think as soon as they open it up, they’re going to get goals?’ I hope this game makes us realize that if we don’t play hard, we’re average. It’s got to be a wake-up call for us.”

The Devils’ team goals-against average was the NHL’s lowest until Sunday and is a still-strong 2.52. They’re in the lower half of the league in scoring, but they made two or three goals hold up last season by limiting opponents’ scoring chances. They’re not doing that as well this season.

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They’re also a different team. Claude Lemieux, the most valuable player in their Cup drive, lost a contract dispute and was traded in a three-way deal that brought them left wing Steve Thomas. Defenseman Bruce Driver signed with the New York Rangers as a free agent and assistant coach Larry Robinson left to coach the Kings, a loss players privately say has been the most damaging.

"[Lemieux’s absence] is not the reason why we’re not winning. He was replaced by as good a player, or even better player, than he was,” goalie Martin Brodeur said. “Every team wants to beat us, but we can’t take that as an excuse for not playing well every night. Right now, we’re going through the motions most of the nights.”

AT LEAST THEY WON’T BE WINLESS

San Jose Shark executives knew players needed time to adjust to wingers Owen Nolan and Ray Sheppard and the team’s increased emphasis on offense, but they were very nervous while the team went 0-7-4 before beating St. Louis Saturday.

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Nolan and Sheppard, who combined for 260 goals the past four seasons, were good acquisitions. But they’ll have to keep up that pace to balance the shaky goaltending of Arturs Irbe and Wade Flaherty and the Sharks’ league-worst 4.30 team goals-against average.

“They haven’t hurt us, but they haven’t helped us like they have in the past,” assistant coach Wayne Thomas said of his goalies. “They’ve shown some good signs, but they’re not there yet.”

IT’S NOT EASY BEING GREEN

An investigation by the Dallas Morning News found that Star owner Norm Green is about $60 million in debt and that his largest creditor, Alberta Trust bank, could seize the team if Green doesn’t complete his sale of part of the club to businessman John Spano. Green originally planned to keep a half-interest but now may be forced to sell his entire holding.

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Green owed Alberta Trust more than $150 million, but the bank took control of some of his real estate holdings and will sell them to recoup its losses. He also owes $10 million to Penguin owners Howard Baldwin and Morris Belzberg, whom he bought out when the three owned the Minnesota North Stars, and owes the NHL $6.4 million on a $10-million loan.

Green met with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman last week in New York after Bettman became concerned the sale might fall through. Spano told the Morning News he was “cautiously optimistic” the deal will close soon.

MONEY MAKES THE WORLD GO ROUND

SportsValue, a newsletter that reports on matters relating to teams’ finances, has found a team’s stadium or arena strongly influences its value.

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The publication, an offshoot of Financial World magazine, analyzed teams over a three-year period ending in 1994. It compared player salaries to teams’ winning percentage, winning to operating income and the franchise’s change in value to its winning percentage. From those numbers, it devised two rankings: power points (change in value plus operating income) and a power rating (power points divided by player costs).

Predictably, the Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks and Rangers topped the NHL power points chart. They’re established teams, they make the playoffs and they offset high payrolls by drawing well in large arenas. Amazingly, the Vancouver Canucks led the power ratings, based on a 94% increase in the franchise’s value (to $87 million) due to greater anticipated income at Vancouver’s new GM Place.

“I was a little surprised how much a new venue was changing some of the values and changing the pecking order in the respective leagues,” said Michael Ozanian, SportsValue’s editor. “The Canucks are a small-market team that hasn’t done well in the playoffs except for one year [they advanced to the 1994 Stanley Cup finals], but because of the enormity of revenues they’re going to have, the value of the franchise shot up.

“In the ‘70s and ‘80s, the key drivers of revenues in sports were TV revenues. The big driver of revenues now is the stadium. With things like personal seat licenses and restaurants, teams get 10 times as much in venue advertising than before.”

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JACQUES OF ALL TRADES

Jacques Demers, scouting for Montreal after being fired as coach, holds no grudge toward his bosses or players.

“I coached those guys. Why would I hate them?” he said. “I’m able to adjust to this. This is what was meant to be, and you go on. It was not a bitter departure. I’m glad the Montreal team is doing well. They needed a change and they did what they thought was best. . . .

“My pride wasn’t hurt. I’m walking around with a [1993] Stanley Cup ring. I don’t miss coaching now. But I can’t tell you I won’t miss it later.”

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GOING DOWN IN FLAMES

Doug Risebrough, fired last week as Calgary’s general manager, knew he was in trouble last June, when Al Coates, formerly the Flames’ public relations director, was promoted over him to executive vice president.

Risebrough’s failure to satisfy holdout center Joe Nieuwendyk and the team’s 1-8-3 start sealed his fate. He cited budget restraints for not re-signing Joel Otto and two-time 40-goal scorer Robert Reichel. Nieuwendyk is a valuable commodity, but Risebrough didn’t sign him or make a deal to replace him. Risebrough also botched his biggest deal, sending Doug Gilmour to Toronto for five players who are long out of Calgary.

Coates is said to be conducting a thorough search for a new general manager and may keep the job the rest of the season.

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WELL, IT’S ROUND LIKE A BASKETBALL . . .

The NHL deserves an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for taking team logos off game pucks and replacing them with an NHL crest and Bettman’s signature.

The change was made so hockey would conform with basketball and baseball, which is absurd. Why not celebrate the differences that make the game unique, instead of eliminating them?

SLAP SHOTS

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Referee Kerry Fraser underwent knee surgery last week and won’t be back before Nov. 28. . . .

Toronto’s Mats Sundin returned from a knee injury more quickly than expected, missing only four games. . . . Geoff Courtnall, who signed a three-year, $6.6-million contract with the Blues, finally scored his first goal Saturday. . . . Coach Doug MacLean is calm about Florida’s 10-4-0 start, its best ever. “Let’s not get carried away. It’s only been three years,” he said. “It’s not like it’s the 75th year of the franchise.” . . . Ed Jovanovski, the No. 1 overall pick in 1994, made his Panther debut last Thursday.

Anatoli Semenov is replacing Eric Lindros (injured left knee) on the Philadelphia Flyers’ “Legion of Doom” line. . . . The Colorado Avalanche has outscored opponents, 39-16, in winning eight in a row. . . . The Capitals have killed all 31 disadvantages in their last six games. . . . Ottawa (6-6-0) didn’t earn its sixth victory last season until its 44th game.


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