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RANGERS MAY CHANGE PLAYERS BEFORE CHANGING COACH

The idea that New York Rangers coach Colin Campbell is in trouble is a legitimate one, but look for the New York Rangers to swing at least one deal before general manager Neil Smith gives into the pressure of Madison Square Garden higher-ups and pulls the trigger on his benchminder.

The Rangers are often perceived as a franchise that makes moves just to appease the marketplace, but Smith has been exceptionally loyal to coaches in his employ. He offered up Roger Neilson to appease Mark Messier, but Mike Keenan walked on his own and Campbell, ever the loyal assistant, is a favorite of Smith's.

Besides, for all their offensive might and star-quality players, the Rangers have real holes in their lineup. They lack toughness and don't have enough size on the wing to win the game in the corners.

Right now there's a trade freeze, but once it's lifted (Dec. 28), look for Smith to make a player move or two.

If that doesn't work and Campbell walks the corporate plank, look for former Philadelphia Flyers coach Terry Murray to resurface as the No. 1 replacement part. Murray earned a lot of respect for his work with the Flyers until he was submarined by Eric Lindros and company in the finals last spring. Murray is doing pro scouting for Philadelphia, but that's just a time filler until the right coaching job opens up.

Canucks dropping names

Trade rumors are also blowing strongly in Vancouver, where coach Mike Keenan has seen enough to know that he needs more grit and some quality help on the blue line.

Big names being shopped are former captain Trevor Linden and last season's team MVP Martin Gelinas. Insiders say Linden has been around too long to suit Keenan and Gelinas, though skilled, isn't viewed as a winner in Iron Mike's eyes.

Both have been rumored in a package deal with the Rangers, but economics also is playing a hand. The Canucks have a pair of $5 million men in Pavel Bure and Alexander Mogilny. One or the other is likely to go just for cash reasons. Both the Rangers and the Islanders have made noises about Mogilny, but sources in Vancouver claim the club would prefer to move Bure.

Bure has angered management and large segments of the fan base there with a series of contract demands and holdout stances. Mogilny also held out at the start of this season, but he was an unsigned Group 2 free agent. Bure put the gun to management's head during a run to the Stanley Cup final in 1994 and, even though general manager Pat Quinn is gone, ownership hasn't forgotten.

Shop in quality market

A virtual who's who of hockey is expected to be on the market when the holiday freeze ends.

Many quality players -- including Al MacInnis, former Sabres defenseman Uwe Krupp, Doug Gilmour, Brett Hull, Vincent Damphousse, Mike Richter, Curtis Joseph, Sean Burke and John Vanbiesbrouck -- have positioned themselves for unfettered free agency this coming offseason.

Teams that don't feel in position to keep them will likely have them on the block through to the end of the season in hopes of getting something before they are free to walk away.

While the Sabres have made it clear they don't intend to move strongly in that direction, look for San Jose, Vancouver, Chicago, Montreal, the New York Rangers and (if they don't win the Cup) the Philadelphia Flyers to be active in the signing market.

The Flyers might even move early on a goaltender, especially if they can pick up a defenseman in the deal as well.

There are a fistful of lesser-talented but extremely useful players who are also likely to be moved. They include the highly paid Marty McSorley, the gritty John MacLean, goalie Kelly Hrudey and defensemen Steve Duchesne and Larry Murphy. Chicago is willing to part with defenseman Gary Suter or former Sabre Keith Carney in the hopes of getting some kind of offensive help.

Flame-out

Calgary defenseman Zarley Zalapski has made it official: He's asked to be traded. Zalapski, at $1.6 million (U.S.), is the second highest-paid Flames player, but sources in Calgary maintain he's not a favorite of coach Brian Sutter.

Through 35 games, Zalapski has been a healthy scratch five times, including last Tuesday's 4-3 win over Chicago. The Flames are carrying nine defensemen, so it's reasonable to suspect that Zalapski has played his last game in Calgary. The only stumbling block is GM Al Coates' stubborn insistence that he get something in exchange for a player who previously wore out his welcome in Pittsburgh and Hartford. The book on Zalapski is that he has loads of skill but doesn't apply himself. The most talked about destination for him is still Montreal for either Darcy Tucker, David Wilkie or a third-round draft choice.

More trade rumors

The Philadelphia Flyers are still said to be interested in Sean Burke, but not at the Carolina asking price. The 'Canes want Rod Brind'Amour and the Flyers think that's too high a price for a player who'll be on the open market this spring.

Carolina also wants to trade a defenseman for a center and would part with Geoff Sanderson for the offensive minded player in return. . . . The Edmonton Oilers are looking at Ottawa defenseman Stan Neckar, who's been in and out of their lineup. The Senators need a forward. They've long liked Western New York native Todd Marchant but the Oilers wouldn't make that deal. Edmonton might trade Steve Kelly, a forward who could interest the Senators.

Tampa Bay is looking for a center with Brian Bradley (concussions) and John Cullen (cancer) out and Chris Gratton in Philly. The Bolts are trying to move defenseman Cory Cross but have dangled a bigger package that includes Roman Hamrlik. The Sabres have been linked to a Hamrlik deal but all sides would have to make the swap equal in salaries because, like the Sabres, the Bolts are financially challenged.

Santa Claude

Think Colorado's Claude Lemieux is nothing but a legalized thug? Think again.

Just hours before a game with his biggest rival, the Detroit Red Wings, Lemieux visited a 12-year-old car accident victim at a Denver hospital. The tough guy had read that the little girl was a big Avalanche fan and had named her cat Lemieux.

The child was involved in a head-on collision that killed her aunt Sunday night. They were driving home after attending "The Nutcracker." She went through six hours of surgery and Lemieux was at her bedside when she opened her eyes for the first time after the operation.

"She opened her eyes once and looked up at me," Lemieux said. "I think she knew I was there. I was just trying to do my part. I read about her in the paper. We all need to do something. It meant a lot more to me than a hockey game."

Merry Christmas.

Esposito on the go

They're greasing the skids for general manager Phil Esposito in Tampa.

Team President Steve Oto recently called a talk radio station to voice his displeasure with Esposito. The GM has been telling anyone who will listen that because the team is for sale, he's not allowed to increase the payroll. If he wants to pick up someone making, say, $800,000, then he has to get rid of $800,000.

But Oto said that is not true, that he wants to see the team get better and that it is Phil's job to make the team better.

Among Oto's comments:

"I am the one asking every day to Phil, 'Where are the deals?' (He says) he's working hard. That's all I hear from him. But nothing much ever pops up.

"Something needs to be done. Not a Band-Aid trade, not a Mickey Mouse trade. That isn't what is needed. We need some meaningful trades that will improve the team. That's what I want to see from Phil."

This is the way it went just before the Bolts struck down coach Terry Crisp.

"I certainly am not happy," Oto said. "I just want to encourage Phil to work harder."

Trade a boon for Bodger

Former Buffalo Sabres defenseman Doug Bodger hasn't had much success in his career. When he was with Pittsburgh, the Pens never made the playoffs. He then did stints with the Sabres and the San Jose Sharks through the lean years. Now he's with the New Jersey Devils and loving it.

Bodger, who came over in the trade for John MacLean, played well last week against the New York Rangers and got his first goal as a Devil.

"When I came here I just wanted to help out any way I can," he said. "Scoring goals is a great way. It's fun when you're winning. I don't think I've won three in a row in two years."

Barrasso takes snub well

Former Sabre Tom Barrasso (who went to Pittsburgh in the deal for Bodger) may not be happy about not being selected for Team USA and the Olympics, but he's living with it.

"I talked to (Team USA general manager) Lou Lamoriello about it, so I know why I'm not there," Barrasso said. "If you want to know from him, you can call him and ask him. I asked him if I was given consideration, and I was, and that's all I could ask for. I think, and I've said it many times, that they should go with the same lineup that won the World Cup. I think those guys deserve the chance, and that's pretty much what they've done. I think those guys are entitled to that."

Barrasso was recovering from shoulder surgery during the World Cup. So far this season he has outplayed all U.S. goalies, including the three named to the team -- Mike Richter, John Vanbiesbrouck and Guy Hebert.

Fedorov finished with Wings

Mike Barnett, the agent for unsigned center Sergei Fedorov, told the Los Angeles Daily News that his client's days in Detroit are over. The Wings refuse to give Fedorov anything near his latest contract demand -- $6.5 million a season -- a figure Barnett raised by $500,000 after Anaheim's Paul Kariya signed a two-year, $14 million deal last week.

Barnett also said five teams have serious interest in Fedorov, but Wings sources maintain the team has received several inquiries, none very serious, and no firm offers. The Los Angeles Kings are one of the teams said to be interested along with San Jose, Florida, Carolina and the New York Islanders, but all seem scared by the price. Barnett has spoken with virtually every GM in the league looking for a trade offer or contract offer. He's gotten neither.

"It's not going to happen (with Detroit)," Barnett told the Daily News. "It would change the whole internal salary structure of the Red Wings . . . He's history in Detroit. It's mutual."

The Wings dispute that but acknowledge negotiations are going nowhere.

Around the boards

The Edmonton group trying to buy the Oilers is getting nervous. A source says they have had no trouble coming up with the money, but they're scared silly about the escalating salaries and don't want to be in a position where they're losing, say, the $12 million a year Vancouver claimed it lost last year. With general manager Glen Sather at the helm, that's unlikely, but Sather can't control league-wide market forces. The game's direction is scaring potential investors on both sides of the border. . . . Detroit's Steve Yzerman collected career point 1,369 last Sunday, tying him with former Wing John Bucyk for 13th all-time. On the same night, Larry Murphy tied Marcel Dionne for 14th in games played (1,346). . . . Through Thursday, Scott Bowman had been stuck on 199 wins behind Detroit's bench for over a week. He'll become the fourth Wings coach to reach 200 wins with the team, but the club has gone 0-2-2 in recent games, their longest winless streak of the season.

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