THE FUTURE OF Buffalo Sabres play-by-play man John Gurtler, analyst Jim Lorentz and the team's television production crew is up in the air, like just about everything else inside the organization.
Sources report that the Sabres' agent for change, president Doug Moss, is dissatisfied with the television production and may be inclined to shake up the on-air and off-air television teams next season.
Moss, the former president of the Madison Square Garden Network, admitted he isn't thrilled with the telecasts carried by the Empire Sports Network and Channel 29. But he stopped short of saying he has made any personnel decisions.
"There is room for improvement," said Moss, who added he hasn't seen a whole show yet. "After the season, Ron (Empire general manager Ron Bertovich) and I will discuss that and make a decision. I've made a decision to make the broadcasts better. To say that would be by changing personnel is very premature.
"I can't say I'm totally happy with the broadcasts. I'm not totally happy with many things in the organization. They brought me in to effect change. It doesn't mean we'll change personality or personnel, sometimes it is philosophy and structure and style. We have not made any official decision on what we're going to do."
It sounds as if Moss is leaning toward making some changes. However, that could change when he finds out who is available as replacements and how much they would cost.
Gurtler said he spoke to Moss for the first time a few weeks ago and told him: "It is never too early to talk about next year. He (Moss) said, 'You are absolutely correct.' He said he appreciated me coming to him."
Now in his fourth season as the television play-by-play man, Gurtler has been the most heavily criticized by the public. He has a strong voice and has improved measurably since he began, but he still has his detractors inside the organization, as well as outside. He is surprised that the negative reaction has continued.
"I think I am doing a much better job now," Gurtler said. "I provide exactly what I feel television viewers want to hear. There's still that draw between John Gurtler and (radio voice) Rick Jeanneret, and we're two entirely different broadcasters."
Gurtler credits his work with legendary broadcaster Marty Glickman last season with some of his improvement.
"He was a marvelous help," said Gurtler.
Does he expect to be back next season?
"I would expect to be back and have a long-term contract," said Gurtler. "I've asked them to let me know by the end of the season what their direction is."
Lorentz said he hasn't sat down with Moss and discussed his future.
"I don't think anyone's sacred," Lorentz said. "I'm sure he'll look at all areas of the organization, and broadcasting obviously is one of them."
Fox kicks off its "NHL Sunday" package this weekend with six regional games. Channel 29 carries the New York Rangers against the Philadelphia Flyers. Locally, its weak broadcast competition includes a telethon, infomercials and the NCAA women's basketball title game.
"We're certainly very realistic about ratings," said Fox producer Ed Goren. Fox has gotten a healthy 95 percent clearance level nationally.
Wayne Gretzky will be the first weekly guest analyst alongside James Brown and former New York Ranger Dave Maloney in the studio show from Hollywood.
John Davidson, Fox's lead analyst, doesn't plan to explain basic things about hockey just because Fox is trying to enlarge the sport's audience.
"If you become more of a teacher and teach the obvious, I think fans kind of get insulted," Davidson said. "We'll relax and enjoy it and not make it too complicated."
Goren said Fox won't be airing the traditional sweaty interviews with players between periods. He prefers profiles, such as Sunday's on Flyers star Eric Lindros.
"We're looking to get a little more of the personalities of the players off the ice," said Goren.
Fox also needs to develop a broadcast personality and attitude, as it did on the NFL.
"We're confident by bringing Maloney to the West Coast, he'll develop that flakiness, too," Goren said.
Michael Jordan, whose return to the NBA on NBC has severely damaged CBS ratings for the NCAA basketball tournament, joins his buddy Pat O'Brien at about 8 tonight in between the national semifinal games. He'll highlight his favorite NCAA games. Jordan began doing the piece before he returned to the NBA and updated it this week when his Chicago Bulls visited the Knicks in New York.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski joins CBS as a Final Four analyst alongside O'Brien, Michele Tafoya and Quinn Buckner. Jim Nantz and Billy Packer work the games. George Raveling and Clark Kellogg are benched.