Iginla Struggles to Stay on Top

Jarome Iginla was the toast of Calgary a year ago, on his way to becoming the first black player to lead the NHL in goals and points, an Olympic gold medalist and the choice of his fellow players as the league's most valuable player. But as if to underscore the fickle nature of the rugged winger's chosen vocation, last week a Calgary Herald columnist suggested that the Flames should trade Iginla while he still had value.

It has been a bumpy ride for Iginla, whose selection last week to the Western Conference team for next month's All-Star game probably was more a reward for last season than a reflection of what's happened over the last 3 1/2 months.

"It's been disappointing," he said before Saturday's 2-1 victory over the Kings. "We're not in a playoff spot, we're quite a few points out, I haven't scored as many goals, my plus-minus isn't as good as I'd like, I haven't got as many points.

"But at the same time, there are still [34] games left to make it not a disappointing season, to salvage it. That's what I'm concentrating on now."

Before Monday night's game against the Edmonton Oilers, even with a recent surge of eight goals and 13 points in 13 games, Iginla had 14 goals and 31 points in 42 games, modest numbers that left him out of the top 75 in the scoring race.

His plus-minus rating of minus-16 was the Flames' worst.

At this point last season, he had 30 goals en route to 52, during a season in which no other player scored more than 41. Though the Flames collapsed after a 13-2-2-2 start and missed the playoffs for the sixth consecutive year, nobody blamed Iginla, who in August signed a two-year, $13-million contract as a restricted free agent.

But nagging injuries and, perhaps, heightened expectations have weighed on the 6-foot-1, 207-pound forward, who is only 25.

It has been a season of upheaval for the Flames, who are near the bottom of the Western Conference and last month fired Greg Gilbert as coach, replacing him with Darryl Sutter. They'll probably miss the playoffs again.

And with the financially troubled club struggling to stay afloat -- the Flames would like to build a casino inside the Pengrowth Saddledome, among other proposals -- Bruce Dowbiggin of the Calgary Herald last week floated the idea of trading Iginla, who is due $7.5 million next season.

Was he a one-season wonder?

"He's not unlike a lot of young guys who've had success and then they tend to only look at the numbers part of it, not what got them to the numbers," Sutter said. "Iggy's a guy who [questions] whether he is or isn't a power forward, and when he drifts away from playing on that edge, he's not effective.

"He's got to be a guy that's going to the traffic and going to the tough areas to score. He's a big, strong guy who needs to use that in his best interest. He's got all the assets of a power guy, but I think when he fights with himself, those things go away from him. Then he becomes a perimeter guy and he just looks for loose pucks or shots, instead of going and creating them with his ability."

Smiling, the coach added, "I'm not worried about him."

Bothered since training camp by ankle, wrist, finger and groin injuries, most of which he kept quiet about until his bothersome groin kept him out of five games last month, Iginla said he only recently has begun feeling right physically.

He is determined to reclaim his standing as an NHL force.

"My main goal is to become a better player and to be consistent at a high level," he said. "There are a lot of players around the league that have pretty good seasons year in and year out. They're very consistent. People try to shut them down, people key on them, but they find ways to get things done.

"I can't use the excuse that more people are noticing me than they used to. Maybe that's the case, maybe it isn't. But if I want to be an elite player, a star player, I've got to find ways to get it done, and I believe that it's going to turn around."

Sat Down in Motown

Former King Luc Robitaille, he of the 624 NHL goals, was a healthy scratch Thursday for the first time in his 17-year career. Robitaille, who has scored more goals than any other left wing in NHL history, sat out the Detroit Red Wings' 4-2 victory over the Colorado Avalanche not because of injury or illness but because first-year Coach Dave Lewis benched him.

In 46 games, he has four goals and 18 points, after scoring 30 and 50 in 81 games last season while helping the Red Wings win the Stanley Cup.

"I'm upset, a little bitter still," Robitaille told reporters before returning to the lineup Sunday. "I'm a player, I love to still play, so naturally, I want to play. I'm not happy about this. I work hard every day. I want to play....

"I respect Dave as a coach, I do. I just don't think I needed to sit down. What good is it going to do for me to sit down? I need to play. I've been getting scoring chances; it's just not going in right now."

Said Lewis, who replaced Scotty Bowman last summer, "Each player has a passion or fire; I just wanted to throw gas on Luc's fire. It was a harsh thing to do. It's the most difficult thing I've had to do since becoming coach."

Robitaille, who turns 37 on Feb. 17, led the Red Wings with five shots on goal in Sunday's 4-1 loss to the Vancouver Canucks, but he has only an assist in his last 15 games and only two goals in his last 38. Dating to last season, including the playoffs, he has nine goals in 85 games.

Barring a turnaround, the Red Wings probably will not pick up the $4-million option on his contract for next season, and instead will buy him out at $1 million.

Slap Shots

You wonder how they're going to hammer out a new collective bargaining agreement if they couldn't even agree on this: Last August, Commissioner Gary Bettman ruled that the NHL would no longer keep track of hits, blocked shots, giveaways and takeaways. His reason: Too many discrepancies from rink to rink.

The NHL had included the numbers in its official statistics for five seasons, and players who make their living knocking people down rather than scoring or setting up goals used them in salary arbitration. So the players' association filed a grievance, arguing that the only people worried about discrepancies were general managers weary of hearing about the statistics during contract talks.

Last Friday, independent arbitrator Joan Parker found in the union's favor, ruling that compiling the statistics was a binding past practice that the league could not change unilaterally. The league and the union still have to figure out what to do about the first 3 1/2 months of the season.

Among the more than 1,000 creditors listed by the Buffalo Sabres in their $238-million bankruptcy filing is John Muckler, who already had enough problems as general manager of the Ottawa Senators, who also have filed for bankruptcy protection. Court documents show that Muckler, a former coach, general manager and director of hockey operations for the Sabres, is owed $25,000 by the club. But Muckler told the Ottawa Citizen that the actual figure is substantially higher and includes deferred salary as well as a pension plan.

"It doesn't matter how much it is, it's money," he said. "And whatever is coming to me, I think I deserve it. No, I know I deserve it."

Coach Dave Tippett, who has guided the Dallas Stars to the top of the Western Conference standings, said he allows himself three mulligans a season -- chances to openly scream, curse and berate his players.

For the Stars, who toiled for years under taskmaster Ken Hitchcock, this came as a welcome change. "It used to be 82 mulligans a year," forward Brenden Morrow told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Brett Hull, on the Red Wings' compiling a good enough record that Lewis will be a Western Conference assistant at the All-Star game: "It's fantastic for him to get there in his first year. Either that or we just ruined his weekend."

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