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THOSE CLOSE to the story regarding fired New York Rangers General Manager Phil Esposito maintain Espo sealed his own fate when it was learned he had made discreet inquiries regarding the same position in Hartford.

That job earlier this month went to former Pittsburgh Penguins General Manager Eddie Johnston, but not before Esposito reportedly had used a third party to inform Whalers ownership that he was interested.

Possible replacements for Esposito include well-known names such as former general managers Craig Patrick (Rangers) and Scott Bowman (Buffalo) as well as ex-coaches like Herb Brooks (Rangers and 1980 U.S. Olympic team) and Bob Johnson (Calgary) and Edmonton Oilers co-coach John Muckler. Also being mentioned are Vancouver Canucks aide Brian Burke, New York Islanders coach Al Arbour, Detroit Red Wings chief scout Neil Smith and former New York Rangers goaltender John Davidson, now a television commentator for Madison Square Garden Sports.

Despite the considerable resources of New York's parent company, Gulf & Western, the job is hardly a plum appointment.

Pressure for success is excruciating in a city that hasn't seen the Stanley Cup since 1940. More important to the successor is the fact that Esposito leaves almost nothing behind.

New York has virtually nothing on the farm in Denver and Espo's record 43 deals have left the parent club with little more than a mixed bag of talent. Some promising youth, but lots of over-age forwards and precious little in the way of scoring.

The Rangers' first pick in the draft this season is 20th, the result of having switched first-round picks with the Montreal Canadiens in order to get the oft-injured Chris Nilan.

In Esposito's tenure, the Rangers went out in the first round of the playoffs in 1987, failed to qualify in 1988 and were swept out of the first round this season after he fired coach Michel Bergeron with two games left in the regular season.

His lasting legacy will be the Bergeron debacle. Espo gave the Quebec Nordiques a first round draft choice and $100,000 for Bergeron. The following year, the team failed to make the playoffs and that pick turned out to be the fifth overall. Espo then fired Bergeron, allowing him to return to Quebec without compensation. In the end, the Nordiques got a player (winger Daniel Dore), $100,000 U.S. and their coach back. Esposito got the boot.

In another celebrated move, Esposito traded forwards Kelly Miller and Mike Ridley to Washington for Bobby Carpenter and then sent Carpenter to Los Angeles for then 37-year-old Marcel Dionne.

Miller and Ridley are both stars with Washington. Dionne is collecting some $800,000 per season for playing in Denver or watching from press boxes.

Espo's draft pick paid dividends for Sabres

Sabres fans should always carry a soft spot in the heart for Esposito. At General Manager Gerry Meehan's insistance, Esposito included a fifth-round draft choice in the deal that sent Buffalo forward Paul Cyr to New York in return for Mike Donnelly.

Meehan then used the pick to draft a kid from the Soviet Central Red Army team, somebody named Alexander Mogilny.

Defection forced Soviets to allow releases

Don't be stunned by the fact that the Soviets this week authorized the release of key players -- Viacheslav Fetisov, Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov -- to NHL teams. The behind-the-scenes word in Montreal is that the Soviets finally released some of their stars to avoid the embarrassment of having them follow Mogilny down the defector trail.

Before Mogilny left, NHL administrators couldn't care less about which players got out of the Soviet Union. Keeping their international business partners happy was the primary goal.

The Soviets couldn't have been happier either, until Mogilny defected.

For years, the Soviet plan seemed to be built around the concept of showcasing talent during international tours in order to build a following for Soviet players. Then, when the time was right, certain players would be released. That they would come over well after their best years were behind them was a double plus for the Soviets. They got their players' best efforts and then dispatched them to the NHL, likely at an inflated price. Certain NHL teams, teasing their fans for years with the prospect of international talent, then would have little choice but to pay the Soviets a big service fee and then sign the players to good sized contracts.

According to some reports, the Calgary Flames paid $350,000 (Canadian) for just the rights to Sergei Priakin, a recently released player who did not suit up for the Flames in the Stanley Cup Final. It's likely the trio released this week will net even bigger payments for the Soviet Sports Federation.

What Mogilny and the Sabres did was wreck this ruble-rich Soviet boat. Buffalo got one of the Soviet's youngest and best players for the price of a few plane tickets to Sweden. The Soviets know that and they can't afford to have it happen again.

The Soviets will show just the proper amount of indignation -- they may even fail to show up for a scheduled game in Buffalo -- but they can't afford to cut off the rich NHL arm that feeds them. The tour will go on, players will be released (no doubt with fees attached) and the business of international hockey will continue to expand, benefiting both sides, but particularly the Soviets.

As Montreal Managing Director Serge Savard said, "The bottom line with them is money. I don't think that will ever change."

With that in mind, the Mogilny affair is without doubt the gutsiest thing the Buffalo Sabres have done in franchise history.

Though Meehan executed the move, he certainly had to have some sort of go-ahead from the Knox family. The Knoxes have, at times, appeared to put NHL matters on a higher ground, sometimes even above winning. This time one, perhaps both, apparently decided to take a risk. It will undoubtably have unfavorable repercussions with their NHL partners, but who's to quibble? The Sabres are a better team for it. It's a very positive gesture.

An old nemesis leaves the crease for good

Sabres fans won't have Billy Smith to kick around anymore. The veteran New York Islanders goaltender has worked out a deal in which he will be paid a portion of the final two years of his contract while watching games off a satellite dish in Florida. He will send the Islanders scouting reports from there.

Former Sabres goaltender Bob Sauve has two years left on a contract with the New Jersey Devils, but his future is still unclear.

Sauve, who did French language commentary on the Stanley Cup Final for the CBC, is slated to meet with New Jersey General Manager Lou Lamoriello to discuss his future.

Even the champs are looking to make changes

Cup or not, the Calgary Flames are likely to make big roster changes this off season.

Among those rumored to be on the trade block are defenseman Rob Ramage, forwards Jim Peplinski and Mark Hunter and backup goaltender Rick Wamsley. Reportedly Toronto is the most interested suitor, likely putting together an offer involving center Gary Leeman.

Calgary is long in the tooth in many areas, but is rich in farm talent. The Flames covet Leeman for his speed. An exchange of minor league prospects would also be involved.

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